Saturday, January 25, 2014

Do ballpark "partnerships" shelter developers from meeting their public obligations?

Mayor Karl Dean loves him some public-private partnerships. He touts them consistently when he is speaking from the stump. No less about the new Sulphur Dell ballpark "partnership":

I think the great thing about this is, because this is a public-private partnership — and it truly is a public-private partnership — you have two public entities, the state and the city government, along with two private entities involved. And because of the revenue generated and because of the contributions made by the Sounds and because of some different payments that we're already making that will go away, that will largely cover the cost of issuing the bonds.

Given his perennial commitment to them, I just always assumed he believed that all of those emerging on his watch were "truly public-private partnerships."

But for all of the positive spin of public-private partnerships, they have a dark side, which is rarely expressed in the media until after damage is done. Partnerships usually are not representative of or accountable to constituents since they rely on executive fiat behind closed doors to happen. By the time they get to legislative branches where constituents have more influence they are full-steam juggernauts. Sympathetic and loyal legislators run interference for the execs and kill most chances for public vetting.

Sports venue projects, even minor league baseball parks, are allowed to operate under the security of public-private partnerships, especially when they are run as non-profits, especially when they are overseen by tax-exempt governmental agencies. In Reno, Nevada the triple-A baseball team has a new ballpark, but the county government has been unsuccessful collecting unpaid taxes from the ballpark developer because of the partnership:

The “available legal remedies” for collecting the debt, however, are limited because of the public-private partnership involved in the ballpark’s construction, according to Assistant District Attorney Paul Lipparelli.

Typically, if a property owner stops paying taxes, the county can file a lien, auction off the building and use the proceeds to collect on the back taxes. But in this case, the Reno Redevelopment Agency — a tax exempt governmental entity — owns the ballpark. The agency leases the ballpark back to the developers for $1 a year.

Because the developers are using the tax exempt property for a profit-making enterprise, they owe property taxes....But the county can’t just file a lien, it would need to file a lawsuit to collect the back taxes.

At the heart of the tax dispute are the terms of the original deal the developers has with the Reno Redevelopment Agency to build the ballpark. Under that agreement, the developers expected up to $50 million in property tax revenue generated by growing tax collections within the redevelopment district to repay the construction loan. But property values tanked in the recession, leaving the agency in severe financial distress and with no way to make the payments to the developers.

In lieu of not receiving that money, Nevada Land LLC simply stopped paying property taxes on the ballpark.

So, the speculated wealth, guaranteed by ballpark boosters to come back to the local community when they were drumming up support, failed to come back. The maze the returns on investments have to run is more convoluted than ballpark supporters divulge. The money has to negotiate quagmires caused by turns in the economy, make its way through minefields of legal stipulations and contract disputes and avoid obstacles put up by partnerships that do more to protect the partners than the constituents who may or may not enjoy benefits that trickle out.

Because of the speed and secrecy of the Sulphur Dell deal, because of the work of Karl Dean's loyalists on the council, we still are learning about the details of the arrangement. I do not know whether a foundation will oversee the for-profit activities of the Nashville Sounds or the developers. I do not know what sort of oversight Mayor's Office of Economic and Community Development will have over the development. For better or worse, we will eventually catch wind of the details, wherein the devils lie.

But the unpleasantness in Reno makes me wonder if Nashville is set up to lose a few shirts in the Sulphur Dell deal as well.

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