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Front Page » Opinion » Play hardball for fair stadium payback from Marlins sale

Play hardball for fair stadium payback from Marlins sale

Written by on February 9, 2021
Play hardball for fair stadium payback from Marlins sale

Sally Heyman had suffered before through a Marlins Stadium vote without the facts she needed. A factual gap before a vital vote last week wasn’t any better than when commissioners OK’d a $3 billion construction deal in 2009 without seeing or hearing the word “billion.” 

Commissioner Heyman now is being asked to OK a settlement to bring the county a slice of profit from the team’s sale – profit spelled out in a one-sided contract to which she had objected 12 years earlier. Now, that small slice is all the public can hope to recoup, and she wants it.

Last week, she couldn’t get all the facts on Jeffrey Loria’s profit from his 2017 team sale, a share of which can help the county as it pays 25 years more for ballpark construction plus interest.

Finally, Ms. Heyman won a two-week reprieve from another giveaway to Mr. Loria, who in 2009 got the $3 billion county OK for a stadium that he parlayed into a $1.2 billion team sale less than six years after the ballpark opened.

The 2009 contract gives the county and City of Miami 5% of profits if the Marlins were sold within six years of opening. Since the team was then valued at $250 million, the profit to split seems to be almost $1 billion. But Mr. Loria says no.

Miami Today in 2009 warned in this column that if the team were to sell for $600 million “the city and county would split $7.5 million. Commissioners, that’s so unfair that it alone should be a deal-breaker, not something to brag about. Building the stadium simply guarantees the owner a massive profit.”

Well, Mr. Loria sold for twice that much, $1.2 billion, and claimed he lost money on the deal so he has no profit to share. Government then sued. A vote last week was to OK a $3.64 million county settlement after the stadium had added almost $1 billion to the team’s sale price. The city’s part would be $562,800.

Ms. Heyman and Joe Martinez, the only commissioners left from the 2009 giveaway and two of four “no” votes back then, pointed to that giveaway as they paused a settlement for far less than the public is owed.

Ms. Heyman is on point. Courts have ruled that the county, the city and the company should face binding arbitration. Unless county attorneys aren’t revealing key information, binding arbitration should bring governments million more in sale profits. Settling beforehand for far less seems to be just another gift to Mr. Loria. 

County attorneys should have verifiable profit data rather than the verbal claims used to bamboozle government in 2009. Those concrete facts and figures are what Ms. Heyman seeks.

She and three fellow commissioners who questioned the 2009 deal sure lacked facts. For six hours dragging past 1 a.m. they asked county manager George Burgess how much stadium financing would cost. He kept telling them they already knew and never cited figures.

“I keep hearing ‘the payments are the same,’ Ms. Heyman told him that night. “One of my colleagues already asked ‘What are our payments?’ … Do we know what our payments are at this date that we’re voting on? Do we know what the payments are going to be?”

Later on, still without facts, she fumed, “I can’t wait to see what it’s going to cost the taxpayers of Miami-Dade County!”

Mr. Burgess never answered before final approval based on assurances that never mentioned “billion” as commissioners debated a $515 million stadium. Two days later, he sent a memo listing costs of more than $2.4 billion to repay two of the three stadium bond issues and no figures on the third bond issue.

Those figures reveal that just one $80 million bond issue will cost taxpayers $1.2 billion, with annual repayments higher than the original $80 million for nine consecutive years, maxing out at $118 million yearly for six years. No wonder Mr. Burgess wouldn’t cite figures.

The county also borrowed $35 million and gave it to the Marlins in advance so they could later use it to pay $2.3 million a year rent – and then count the $35 million as a construction contribution.

The team gets all the revenue from ticket sales, naming rights, sponsorships, concessions, advertising, luxury suites, television contracts and more. It also keeps stadium revenues from non-baseball events for 50 years. The Marlins even control any soccer use of nearby government land. 

For that gift in the billions, Mr. Loria is trying to avoid paying required profit on the team sale. 

Commissioners never saw team financial statements before the original deal and never could learn the cost to taxpayers. Miami Today questioned then whether the team could or would honor its commitments at the time of a sale.

That time now has come: commissioners next week must demand all data on what the county is owed so they can vote wisely whether to settle for about 10% of what’s due or go to arbitration with a strong case to get what the contract provides. Taxpayers must get the break here, not Mr. Loria.

The stadium deal has never met a single promise. It did not revitalize Little Havana. It did not bring in four-star restaurants. It did not keep the team from moving away as was threatened, because no move was ever on the table. It did not bring in a promised Major League Baseball youth academy. 

Most visibly, the stadium did not build up weak ticket sales so the Marlins could pay players more and win championships. In the county-owned 36,742-seat stadium’s first eight years, attendance averaged 18,984, just 275 persons a game higher than in the eight years prior. That’s near lowest in baseball. 

The county must pay off more than $2 billion still owed for stadium construction and interest. Commissioners ought to protect the public by getting every penny they can to lessen that burden, not make another gift.

“My biggest concern when I kept being challenged [on] whether I was going to vote for it [in 2009 was that] I wanted more information, and as it progressed some information came out, more information not,” Ms. Heyman recalled during last week’s meeting. “What I’d like to see [now is], show us the numbers.”

“You can’t play on a public field without playing by public rules,” she added, “so I’m saying we need to carry on this issue to negotiate and get answers to our questions that [aren’t from only] one source. I’m saying it’s time we got the information.”

In fact, it’s 12 years past time commissioners got key stadium numbers. 

Mr. Martinez and Ms. Heyman, at least, understand that flying blind through a fog is no way to protect the public. At the very least, shed light on the numbers and then play hardball to get a real payback for past stadium largesse.