It’s time for Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters to use his considerable influence and put the squeeze on Mike Brown.
No, the Bengals owner hasn’t broken any law — not unless engendering public outrage and being a prick have recently been added as punishable offenses in the Ohio Revised Code.
We’ll explain Deters’ pivotal role in a moment. First, some background on Brown.
Brown told an Enquirer sports reporter during the Bengals’ annual media lunch July 26 that he wouldn’t make any concessions on the team’s cushy lease for the county-owned Paul Brown Stadium.
Hamilton County officials are desperately seeking to renegotiate the lease because the county’s stadium account is facing a $13.8 million deficit this year. The deficit will jump to $25 million in a few years and could cumulatively total more than $700 million by 2032, when the Bengals’ lease expires.
Unless the Bengals agree to some concessions, county commissioners will have to cut some services to residents, lay off some county workers or probably both to cover the shortfall.
Brown, though, is unmoved.
“We made a deal with the county,” Brown is quoted in The Enquirer. “We’ve lived up to it, and we expect them to live up to their end of it. They are going to have to figure out some other way.”
Back in 1996, county voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase that was supposed to pay for the cost of building new stadiums for the Bengals and the Reds. Brown and then-Reds owner Marge Schott threatened to have the teams leave town unless each received a new facility.
The tax hike was supposed to cover all construction costs. Because tax revenues didn’t meet the unrealistic growth estimates given by supporters, however, they’re actually nowhere near enough to cover the massive construction debt still owed.
Also, the stadiums came in over budget. Originally, supporters said both facilities could be built for $544 million. In reality, the Bengals stadium cost $458 million, while the Reds ballpark cost $337 million. Hundreds of millions of dollars more are due in interest charges.
Local attorney Tim Mara led the campaign opposing the sales tax. Later, he unsuccessfully sued to invalidate the team’s lease. Mara believes Brown owes taxpayers.
“Taxpayers have allowed the Bengals and the Brown family to make money by heavily subsidizing their business,” Mara said.
“He has no legal obligation to (make concessions), but he should do it in light of how the economy has been and the burden placed on the county.”
Among those stumping the hardest for the stadium plan back in the ‘90s were the business community, the Hamilton County Republican Party, conservative activist Chris Finney (who liked a property tax rollback included in the deal) and The Cincinnati Enquirer’s editorial page, then headed by Peter Bronson.
Getting the two stadiums built was so important to the local GOP, in fact, it would single-handedly determine who the party would appoint to the Hamilton County Commission.
Steve Grote, a former Green Township trustee, told CityBeat that he was approached by then-County Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus and Bengals’ attorney Stuart Dornette in 1996 about filling a vacancy on the commission and becoming the second vote needed to approve the sales tax issue and later the stadium lease.
While discussing the close ties between county officials and the Bengals at the time, Grote wrote, “The only reason that I can surmise the cozy relationship between the Bengals through Dornette and their County Commission contact existed was because I too was approached by Dornette to become ‘part of the future of Hamilton County’ when he suggested to me at a luncheon at Arnold’s downtown that they were looking for a second vote on the County Commission for the stadium sales tax proposal, which at that time was still lacking.”
Grote continued, “Having previously been approached by then-Commissioner Bedinghaus with the proposal to ‘revitalize the riverfront’ through the use of a countywide sales tax, my answer to both him and Dornette was identical: ‘No, thank you’ … the obvious quid pro quo was that Dornette and his minions could arrange for a compliant commissioner candidate to receive the requisite support to be elected.”
Shortly afterward, Republicans appointed Tom Neyer Jr. to the commission. He provided the second vote for the plan.
After the stadium debacle, voters ousted Bedinghaus from office in 2000. He now works for the Bengals as “director of stadium development,” whatever that is. Neyer chose not to seek reelection in 2002.
So, if the local Republican Party played such a crucial role in getting the approvals needed for the stadium, it should help clean up the mess. Mike Allen was the GOP chairman at the time, having just succeeded Deters in that post.
Allen is no longer a force in politics, having left public life due to a sex scandal a few years ago. But his mentor, Deters, is once again prosecutor and wields the most clout within the party, regardless of his title.
It’s not like Brown can’t afford to make a few concessions.
A 2009 analysis of NFL teams by Forbes magazine placed the Bengals’ value at $953 million. Of that amount, $110 million — or 12 percent — was directly attributable to its stadium, it reported.
Another $141 million — or 15 percent — was attributable to the team’s location in Cincinnati and its market size.
The vast majority of the team’s value ($645 million, or 68 percent) was attributable to current and future revenue sharing by larger NFL teams under a plan approved by owners in March 2006.
Forbes wryly notes just how cheap Brown is in another article describing the revenue sharing plan.
“Bengals owner Mike Brown was one of only two NFL owners to vote against the plan (Jaguars owner Mike Weaver was the other) because he felt he would not get enough money from teams like the New England Patriots,” Forbes writes. “The irony is that the Bengals only contributed $50 million to their stadium and have one of the best deals in all of sports (the team receives virtually all stadium-related revenues and is not responsible for any of the stadium’s operating costs), the Patriots financed their stadium without taxpayer financing.”
Best deal, indeed. The Bengals stopped paying rent to play in the stadium last year. In the lease’s later years, Hamilton County will pay the team to play there.
Further, the Bengals get most of the money generated by holding special events at the stadium, and are entitled to whatever expensive upgrades are made at other NFL stadiums.
Referring to the bleak forecast for the stadium account, Mara said, “It’s a very bad deal and it’s only gotten worse over time. I derive no satisfaction from being right or saying I told you so.”
To provide a sense of how much Brown has profited, it’s worth mentioning that his father, Paul Brown, bought the franchise rights to the team in 1967 for $8 million. Even with inflation, that’s still a nice return on his investment.
We think he can afford to give up some revenues, and we think the fiscal-minded Deters is just the man to persuade him to do it. Get to work, Joe.