Today residents of Cuyahoga County will be voting on Issue 7, an extension a “sin tax” passed in the ’90s on cigarettes and alcohol to fund improvements on the three publicly owned sports venues in Cleveland, FirstEnergy Stadium, Progressive Field and Quicken Loans Arena. (Boy it’s hard to type “publicly owned” and then rattle off three corporate names without feeling at a small bit of queasiness in the gut.) If passed, the tax would be renewed to pay for stadia and arena maintenance for the next twenty years, which funny enough, is longer than than any agreements the Browns, Indians and Cavaliers have in place for staying in Cleveland.
Due to how the teams’ agreement works with the county, tax payers are obligated to fund capital improvements. If the tax does not pass, there is the threat that money could be pulled from the general fund to pay for upgrades to the venues, or worse, teams could threaten leave town if they find the facilities are not desirable enough to keep the fans happy. As Peter Pattakos at Cleveland Frowns points out, using the doomsday scenario of a team leaving is a terrible thing to do to a city still hurting from Art Modell’s legacy of betrayal and it muddles the discussion of who really benefits from the improvements and how they should be funded.
The Cavaliers and Indians have requested $135 million in upgrades, including replacing what the Indians consider an “obsolete scoreboard” while the Browns have requested $23.7 million in repairs to FirstEnergy Field over the next ten years. (Interestingly enough, the sin tax has only generated $13-$14 million a year since 2006.)
Proponents of the tax, including Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, say the money is needed to continue Cleveland’s renaissance (what?) to attract visitors, new development and job creation with the anchors of attractive, modern sports venues and protects the city’s investment into the franchises.
The opposition criticizes the regressive tax as it unfairly taxes the poor, extends the tax past all the current lease agreements, is currently not transparent enough to see how the funds are spent and that 50% of the visitors to the sports venues are from outside Cuyahoga County thus unfairly burdening the cost if improvements to people who are not patronizing the events. Their proposal is to use the Denver model of regional taxes that spread the cost of improvements over several counties and to add gate fees to ticket costs so people actually looking at nicer scoreboards are the people paying for nicer scoreboards.
There’s also the argument over why don’t billionaire sports owners pay for their own improvements, and all of the teams do pay for regular upgrades to their facilities, although the Cavs spending dwarfs what the Indians have spent on capital improvements. New-ish Cleveland Browns Owner Jimmy Haslam announced in November his vision two-stage project that includes scoreboard improvements, better seating, a complete overhaul of the concessions among the massive cosmetic changes. Money for the $120+ million project is expected to come from the Browns, the sin tax fund and NFL.
So is a tax of four and half cents on a pack of cigarettes, a penny and a half on a beer, six cents on a bottle of wine, three bucks on a gallon of hard liquor plus taxes on mixed beverages and cider worth it to make FirstEnergy a better place to watch football? Maybe, but so far a pretty scoreboard hasn’t won the Cowboys a Super Bowl.