Oakland, do not give in to the A’s ask for tax payer money for a new stadium

As the 2022 baseball season is underway, so is the quest by owners to get public money to fund a new stadium. From Oakland, California:

Photo by Griffin Wooldridge on Pexels.com

By 2020, the A’s were the only team left. But they made it clear they were prepared to leave, too. Last May, majority owner John Fisher and team president Dave Kaval—resident cartoon villains of what remains of the Oakland sports scene—began threatening to follow in the Raiders’ footsteps and relocate Oakland’s last pro team to Las Vegas … unless the Oakland City Council voted to help them build a $12 billion stadium “district”—replete with condos, hotels, and apartment buildings—on a wedge of waterfront property operated by the Port of Oakland just west of Jack London Square. If approved, the project would constitute one of the largest and most transformative development deals in California state history. It would likewise require hundreds of millions of dollars in public funding to complete. Fisher, who is heir to the Gap Inc. fortune and has a net worth north of $2 billion, has committed to privately finance the construction of the stadium itself, but the project isn’t viable without a suite of infrastructure improvements to the surrounding area. These improvements are what the A’s asked the city to find ways to pay for.

It was a familiar ploy. As journalists Neil deMause and Joanna Cagan write in Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit, since roughly 1984, when the Colts left Baltimore for Indianapolis, team owners across the country have worked systematically to “supplement profits by extorting money from their hometowns,” usually “under threat of moving.” Starting around last summer, Fisher and Kaval began to expand upon their means of municipal extortion. In the run-up to a series of contentious City Council meetings, Kaval took to posting videos of himself on Twitter jubilantly attending Las Vegas Knights games, as if to spur the city into supporting his proposal out of jealous insecurity. Fisher, meanwhile, enlisted MLB commissioner Rob Manfred to act as muscle. “Thinking about this as a bluff is a mistake,” Manfred told the BWAA in July 2021. “This is the decision point for Oakland as to whether they want Major League Baseball going forward.”

Oakland has been struggling to make that decision ever since. Some, like Marcus Thompson, an East Oakland native, 2021 California Sportswriter of the Year, and author of Golden: The Miraculous Rise of Steph Curry,resent Fisher and Kaval’s tactics, and say that Oakland’s political leaders “should not be caving to an owner” worth over $2 billion who has “shown zero desire to be a meaningful member of our community unless it is profitable.” Certain Oakland political leaders, such as Councilmember Carroll Fife, who represents the district in West Oakland where the A’s stadium would be built, agree. “There are so many dire issues in Oakland right now,” Fife told me in February—citing, among other things, Oakland’s crises of gentrification, affordability, and homelessness, which the United Nations has singled out as “cruel.” Fife said she doesn’t believe “a sports team is going to address” any of them. “We should use public resources toward addressing residents’ immediate needs.”

Others believe the economic benefits of a new stadium are worth pursuing in and of themselves. “Building the new A’s ballpark would be a blessing,” Mitchell Schwarzer, historian, professor, and author of Hella Town: Oakland’s History of Development and Disruption, told me in an email. It would “bring crowds to adjacent Jack London Square,” and fill “its vacant spaces with places to eat, drink and shop.” Oakland’s mayor, Libby Schaaf, agrees, calling the A’s stadium project “a world-class waterfront ballpark district” with the potential to “benefit Bay Area residents for generations to come.”

No major city or leader wants to lose a major sports team. And the Oakland case is unique with multiple teams leaving in recent years.

However, the price that is often paid to keep a team is not worth it. The costs are too big, taxpayers lose other opportunities, the money would be spent elsewhere in the city if not at sporting events, and the owners are the ones who truly win with the increasing value of their team.

The Oakland case is also different because of the way the Athletics are run. The team has a Billy Beane approach that suggests an excellent team can be created with a limited payroll and an ability to exploit market inefficiencies. The A’s have done this a few times in the last two decades…and then they sell off all of their good players and start again. They just did this going into the 2022 season and have a minimal payroll of just under $50 million, second-lowest in baseball and roughly one-fifth of the biggest spenders in the sport. In addition to the economic case for taxpayers, is this a team worth supporting?

Bears stadium at Arlington Park? Just keep the taxpayers out of it

With the announcement that Arlington Park will be for sale, ideas are swirling about how the land could be used. I have heard a few times already the possibility of the Chicago Bears constructing a new stadium there. Here is one example:

The Loop from the North End of Soldier Field

Now it is urgently incumbent upon regional politicians and civic planners to begin a campaign to get a global-class Chicago Bears stadium built as a profitable symbol of the rebirth of the 326-acre site.

Fulfillment of such a bold and visioned plan would bring about a marriage of an NFL team and a suburb that was first discussed between “Papa Bear” George Halas and then-AP empress Marje Everett in 1968…

The question of “How?” can only be answered if there is an enormously creative and concerted joint effort put forth by such potential game changers as Bears chairman George McCaskey, Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes and Gov. J.B. Pritzker…

Said Mayor Butts: “From my experience — and I’m talking about my suburb, which is 52 percent Hispanic, 47 percent Black and 1 percent ‘other’ — if you have an inspired plan, proper financing that does not put the host municipality at risk and a resolute ‘will-get-done’ attitude, toss in hard work and you can make a great thing happen.”

On one hand, this is a unique opportunity. It is rare for parcels of land this large to open up in suburbs developed decades ago. Filling a large parcel can be difficult; what can add to the existing community without threatening the current character? This particular location provides easy access to highways, easing travel for thousands of fans. The surrounding area is already used to sporting events on the sites. A suburb could become home to a major sports stadium.

On the other hand, the “creative and concerted joint effort” required to pull this off could become an albatross to taxpayers who often fund large stadiums for wealthy team owners. This is a tax break of massive proportions for a feature economists argue does not necessarily bring added economic benefits to a community. The stadium may provide status to a suburb but this does not always translate into financial gains. And Illinois has a history of this already: just see the state deal where taxes are still funding the White Sox stadium.

How to balance these competing perspectives? Many suburbs would jump at the opportunity as growth is good, having a pro sports teams is an important status symbol, and hearing the Bears are playing in Arlington Heights could be part of a branding strategy. But, I would recommend leaving the taxpayers out of this: they will likely not benefit economically from a new stadium.

Suburbs don’t mind money spent on highways, services that help them

Alana Semuels looks at who supports the widening of highways even as research suggests building more lanes just adds to traffic:

The support for highways could be because people in the region are moving further from the city center, to suburbs served by the highways. Between 2010 and 2015, suburbs such as Austin grew 25 percent between 2010 and 2015, while Bryant grew 19.6 percent, according to the region’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, called Metroplan. Little Rock grew up 3.1 percent in population, and Pulaski County, where Little Rock is located, grew just 3.3 percent, while Saline County grew 8.7 percent.

Suburbs often grow when highways are particularly robust; if people can quickly get out of the city center to far-flung neighborhoods, there’s little incentive for them to stay in the city. But the causal arrow runs both ways: Once there are robust suburbs, the residents there tend to support projects that will benefit them, and those projects include roads that will supposedly make their commutes faster.

Regional politics often favor spending on resources to suburbs, especially when their populations grow so quickly, according to Joseph DiMento, a professor at UC Irvine who has studied the construction of urban freeways.

“Once people move to the suburbs, they want to be serviced, and historically, the suburbs were wealthier and more politically important, so their votes would go for replacing the freeway and improving it, rather than displacing it,” he said.

But, try to raise tax monies on a regional scale for mass transit and suburbanites are often not pleased as they don’t perceive this as a benefit for them.

Come to think of it, I haven’t seen a study that shows the statistical relationship between suburban population growth and highway building. What is the strength of the relationship? This is the general argument: after World War II, the government spent money in certain ways and one path that spurred suburban growth was the construction of a federal highway system. Of course, suburbs were already growing at this point but highways certainly helped.

Census 2020 to go digital and online

The Census Bureau is developing plans to go digital in 2020:

The bureau’s goal is that 55% of the U.S. population will respond online using computers, mobile phones or other devices. It will mark the first time (apart from a small share of households in 2000) that any Americans will file their own census responses online. This shift toward online response is one of a number of technological innovations planned for the 2020 census, according to the agency’s recently released operational plan. The plan reflects the results of testing so far, but it could be changed based on future research, congressional reaction or other developments…

The Census Bureau innovations are driven by the same forces afflicting all organizations that do survey research. People are increasingly reluctant to answer surveys, and the cost of collecting their data is rising. From 1970 to 2010, the bureau’s cost to count each household quintupled, to $98 per household in 2010 dollars, according to the GAO. The Census Bureau estimates that its innovations would save $5.2 billion compared with repeating the 2010 census design, so the 2020 census would cost a total of $12.5 billion, close to 2010’s $12.3 billion price tag (both in projected 2020 dollars)…

The only households receiving paper forms under the bureau’s plan would be those in neighborhoods with low internet usage and large older-adult populations, as well as those that do not respond online.

To maximize online participation, the Census Bureau is promoting the idea that answering the census is quick and easy. The 2010 census was advertised as “10 questions, 10 minutes.” In 2020, bureau officials will encourage Americans to respond anytime and anywhere – for example, on a mobile device while watching TV or waiting for a bus. Respondents wouldn’t even need their unique security codes at hand, just their addresses and personal data. The bureau would then match most addresses to valid security codes while the respondent is online and match the rest later, though it has left the door open to restrict use of this option or require follow-up contact with a census taker if concerns of fraud arise.

Perhaps the marketing slogan could be: “Do the Census online to save your own taxpayer dollars!”

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. I’m sure there will be plenty of tests to (1) make sure the people responding are matched correctly to their address (and that fraud can’t be committed); (2) the data collected is as accurate as going door to door and mailing out forms; and (3) the technological infrastructure is there to handle all the traffic. Even after going digital, the costs will be high and I’m guessing more people will ask why all the expense is necessary. Internet response rates to surveys are notoriously low so it may take a lot of marketing and reminders to get a significant percentage of online respondents.

But, if the Census Bureau can pull this off, it could represent a significant change for the Census as well as other survey organizations.

(The full 192 page PDF file of the plan is here.)

Illinois bans creating new government bodies for four years

Among new laws in Illinois is one that limits the formation of new government units:

HB 0228: Prohibits creating new levels of government for four years.

The Chicago Tribune interprets this law:

No new units of government can be formed in Illinois for four years.

According to Illinois Policy, Illinois has the most local governments with 6,963, giving Illinois nearly a 2,000 unit lead over Texas. A four year ban presumably slows the growth of these government bodies but I still have questions about the efficacy of this law:

  1. Does this translate into savings for taxpayers? Perhaps it simply slows future costs.
  2. Does this mean that lawmakers were unable to consolidate local governments and this was the best they could do? On one hand, people decry the spread of local governments and taxing bodies but they tend to like local control when it suits their interests.
  3. Are any others states ever going to approach the number of local government units that Illinois has?

Illinois tax breaks often fail to add jobs or keep companies

The Chicago Tribune finds that tax breaks from the state of Illinois often do not work as intended:

In the first comprehensive analysis of 783 EDGE agreements, the Chicago Tribune found that two of every three businesses that completed the incentive program failed to maintain the number of employees they agreed to retain or hire.

State officials can’t say how many jobs have been created through the job program; nor can they say how many jobs EDGE companies have eliminated. The Tribune, however, found that 79 current or former EDGE recipients have reported eliminating 23,369 jobs through layoffs and closures since entering the program.

Officials have long pitched tax breaks as a competitive tool that bolsters the state’s fragile economy, and the program has seen explosive growth as Illinois battles with other states to attract and retain businesses. Leaders of the EDGE program say it has been a lifeline for dozens of companies, helping to create new jobs and improve workplaces.

But the Tribune’s analysis suggests that tax credits often do little to help companies expand or create sustainable jobs. A pattern of deals emerges in which businesses lobbied for maximum rewards and minimum requirements — and the state said yes.

Tax breaks may help politicians claim they are bringing in new jobs and money but they don’t often benefit taxpayers as much as the political and business leaders suggest. See earlier posts here and here. And perhaps the biggest issue is that once come communities or state start offering tax breaks, everyone feels like they have to play the game as well just to get a hearing from major corporations. It can then become a race to the bottom: as governments offer more and more breaks, companies benefit more and more yet the local area gets less and less.

If the Tribune‘s analysis is correct, perhaps a better route for the state would be to improve business conditions overall rather than resorting to tax breaks to simply survive.

Taxpayers pay 70% of NFL stadium costs, owners pocket 95% of the revenue

Gregg Easterbrook summarizes the research on who pays for and benefits from the construction of new NFL stadiums:

Judith Grant Long, an urban planning professor at Harvard, has shown that about 70 percent of the cost of building and operating NFL stadia has been paid by taxpayers — many not even sports fans. About 95 percent of the revenue the stadia generate is kept by team owners. It’s a deeply disturbing arrangement. Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College, has shown that NFL investments never generate the promised job totals or local economic activity. If there’s public money to spend in Buffalo, investments in infrastructure — schools, transportation, a replacement for the dilapidated Peace Bridge, improving Delaware Park — would have more of an economic multiplier effect than an NFL field.

This said, if there is one city where public investment in an NFL stadium might be justified, it’s Buffalo. Should Atlanta or Miami lose its NFL team, that would be a shame, but these cities would still have strong economies. Should Buffalo lose the Bills, this could be perceived as the “last one turns out the lights” moment, reducing the odds of a Buffalo urban recovery.

Public investment in an NFL stadium might be justified only if the facility is located downtown. The Buffalo News reports that 15 sites are under consideration for a new stadium. Two are in Toronto. Several are suburban, including an abandoned shopping mall property an hour’s drive from the city. One is near Niagara Falls, where the tourist activity is on the Canadian side, not the American side. One is on the Buffalo Outer Harbor, which is cut off from downtown by a freeway and doesn’t contribute to the pulse of urban life. Only downtown locations should be considered if public funds are spent.

Nobody would have believed 20 years ago that Pittsburgh and Cleveland could bounce back and have trendy downtowns. And nobody believes that about Buffalo now. But already underway on the north side of the city is a complex of a teaching hospital and medical research center that will be among the world’s largest and best equipped. Thousands of professionals will move to the city to staff the center. Add the NFL to downtown, and Buffalo might acquire the cachet it needs to rebound.

In other words, the research from recent years is consistent: building a publicly-funded stadium is not really a good deal for taxpayers. Major league teams will appreciate it and the owners certainly benefit but the money does not flow back to taxpayers. Yet, since the political calculus is such that no major leader wants to be the one that let the favorite team get away plus there are still sites that existing teams can threaten to move to (in the NFL, Los Angeles is perhaps more important as a potential city rather than an actual home for a team), taxpayers are likely to continue to help foot the bills for new stadiums.

Why Chicago suburbs are facing more FOIA requests

The Daily Herald reports that a number of Chicago suburbs have seen an uptick in Freedom of Information Act requests in recent years:

A Daily Herald survey of 55 municipalities showed that the number of Freedom of Information Act requests received has increased in nearly all towns over the past few years that officials have been tracking the numbers. Between 2011 and 2013, 17 suburbs saw an increase of more than 25 percent. Towns including Aurora, Hampshire, Des Plaines and Prospect Heights saw the number of requests increase by more than 50 percent.

Municipal clerks and lawyers said that responding to these requests takes staff time and money away from other responsibilities to the point of being a burden, but First Amendment experts say it is worth the cost to increase transparency of government.

The requests aren’t all coming from investigative journalists looking to expose corruption, but mostly from regular citizens looking for police reports and information about their homes or their neighbors.

There are several reasons thrown out for the increase in requests: a change in the law in 2010, people seeking more information, businesses looking for background information for their proposals and developments, occasionally a personal vendetta.

I wonder if there aren’t three broader trends that are also contributing:

1. The Internet makes all sorts of information available. And yet, government doings are either hard to track down or obscured. When the rest of the world is opening up its data, is the government keeping up? (At the same time, I’ve heard local government officials suggest the public has more ways than ever to find out things including watching meetings and reading minutes online.)

2. Trust in institutions, such as local government, has been on the decline for several decades. People want to know what local government is doing because they don’t necessarily trust them to act in their interests.

3. With an economic downturn, people are more interested in knowing where their taxes are going. This is particularly true at the local level when many suburbanites want the paradox of higher property values (meaning their investment in housing pays off) but with lower property taxes and better local services. This also leads to a mentality that local government works for the people and should have no problem processing FOIA requests.

Given the time it can take to track down these requests, I’m sure this is something local governments are keeping their eyes on.

 

High-powered lawyer to help sell the Milwaukee Bucks wants public money even as he lives in a McMansion

Here is an example of how looking at the personal McMansion of a wealthy individual can be pulled into commentary regarding that person’s public actions:

Marotta will certainly not be on the sidelines as a new arena is sought and fought over. He will be faced with the task of assembling a suitable building parcel as well as financing its purchase and the construction of a new facility. The $200 million promised by the seller and the new owners will not be enough to foot the bill.

Mayor Barrett and others have called for a regional tax to help pay for the stadium. If Marotta has to help this pass, he will get a taste of the struggle ahead by reading the Resolution Opposing a Tax to Fund a New Sports Arena in Downtown Milwaukee that was passed by the Executive Committee of the Ozaukee County Board of Supervisors in September 2013. Ozaukee County contributes to the 0.1 per cent Miller Park tax, and wants no part of another…

The first task is probably to find them in this cavernous dwelling, built in 2010. It has 17 rooms, of which 7 are bedrooms. There are 6 full baths and 3 half-baths in the home, along with “5 add’l fixtures”

Oh, we’ll find them later — off to the 5,605 square foot basement, of which 4,926 square feet is a finished rec room. That is a lot of recreating. Above is a first floor with 4,623 square feet of living space, surmounted by a more modestly sized 3,821 square foot second floor. Maybe it’s time to search around the 982 square foot attached garage with lake views and see if the kids are there, transfixed by the waves below…

By contrast, the visitor is encouraged to look at the orange structure to the south of the Marotta home. It could easily be overlooked, but upon closer inspection you can see a modern full-sized home dwarfed by the giant shadow cast by its neighboring McMansion.

This argument appears similar to the critique of McMansions offered by Thomas Frank several weeks ago: how can someone who has done well in life even think of asking for public money for a sports stadium? On top of this, studies suggest public tax dollars used for stadiums tend to benefit owners, not taxpayers. The McMansion discussed here (and it could be a mansion at over 10,000 square feet with the basement) is held up as an emblem of excess: it is very large, it is a teardown, it is an expensive house (in a nice location), and it is architecturally compromised. But, this analysis goes beyond speaking in generalities and links the negative qualities of the home to a particular person.

How to define “high-speed” rail in the United States

High-speed rail may be expanding in the United States – but it is not be “high-speed” according to European definitions.

Does that make the new trains high speed? It depends on who you ask. According to the European Union’s definition, high speed trains must be able to travel above 124 mph on conventional tracks, and at speeds over 155 mph on tracks specifically upgraded for high-speed rail.

Although the Charger locomotives feature the latest technology, with emission controls and on-board diagnostics, they’re relatively conventional. The “new” trains are based on a popular European design, and top out at 125 mph. That’s as fast as the Metroliner that ran between New York and Washington D.C. in 1969. By that definition, the new Siemens trains don’t qualify as “high speed.”…

“It is also necessary to take into account those railways which are making laudable efforts to provide high speed despite a basis of old infrastructure and technology which is far removed from that employed by the railways of western Europe.”

In other words, because the American passenger rail system is so far behind the rest of the world, any improvement whatsoever could be considered high speed. It’s an important step forward, despite the appearance that the U.S. is rejecting HSR.

Maybe we should add a modifier: these are American high-speed trains, not high-speed trains by global standards. So much for American exceptionalism…

The article goes on to note how high-speed rail isn’t proving too popular to taxpayers in several states where it has been proposed. Proponents say this may not be too much of a problem: once Americans see the capabilities of truly high-speed rail, they would avidly use it. But, this is a difficult chicken and egg problem: people don’t want to devote millions/billions to a new project that may or may not succeed but they can’t truly know the possibilities until one is built. Perhaps everyone would benefit from seeing one really popular, speedy, and consistent spoke of a system (outside of the dense Washington-to-Boston megapolis served by the Acela Express – which can go over 150 mph but averages more like 80 mph) before trying to build numerous links?