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click to enlarge Armond Budish, speaking at City Club debate, (10/30/18). -
Armond Budish, speaking at City Club debate, (10/30/18).

The public must never forget or let local elected leaders forget: The Q Deal was one of the ugliest and most dispiriting episodes in recent Cleveland history. With shocking clarity over multiple months, it demonstrated the lengths to which elected leaders would go to crush the will of the electorate at the behest of their private masters. For the privilege of mortgaging their constituents' future, leaders ultimately sabotaged the most energizing grassroots coalition Cleveland had seen in decades.

The public was of course under zero obligation to pay a cent for upgrades at the Q, which owner Dan Gilbert had decided were urgently required to improve upon the arena's global ranking in events per year and to land yet more significant events, (aka, a future NBA all-star game). This was mere months after the NBA Championship and the RNC in 2016. County Executive Armond Budish, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and City Council President Kevin Kelley bent over so far backwards to ratify the outrageous handout, despite overwhelming public opposition, that the Browns and the Indians couldn't help but get the message: a precedent was being set. The floodgates were opening wider still.

Not only does the public do these teams the biggest favor of all by "owning" the facilities in which they play — a farce sold to the public as a benefit, but which actually just allows the teams to avoid paying property taxes on the buildings they inhabit, control, and vastly profit off of — the public is also responsible for all large capital expenditures and major repairs ($500,000+) at the facilities, per their lease agreements. These repairs and upgrades are paid for with Sin Tax dollars, though that well is virtually dry. In fact, the County borrowed $60 million in bonds as an advance on future Sin Tax revenue to pay for projects from 2015-2017. About $7 million per year now goes toward paying down principal and interest on those bonds alone.

The public is also still paying off cost overruns on the construction of the basketball arena from back in the early 90s (and will be until 2023). Long before that debt was paid off, leaders saw fit to encumber the public with a whole lot more debt. Various public revenue streams will be paying down Q Deal bonds from 2023 until 2034, downgrading the county's bond rating in the process in light of the vertiginous load. The repayment projections also included admissions tax revenue from Cavs' playoff games from 2017-2023, a shall we say dicey revenue stream

There's no question that Armond Budish will go down in history as one of the worst politicians in the region's resplendent history of cowards, crooks and sycophants. And as he's dealt with calamities at the County Jail and non-stop personnel scandals, he has continued to celebrate the Q Deal as one of the few bright spots of his ghastly tenure. editor Chris Quinn does as well. Budish's pride in the Q Deal is, by now, a very sad joke indeed.

But in 2018, as he was running for the term which would promptly reveal the terrifying scale of his ineptitude, Budish praised the Q Deal yet again, misrepresenting the financial arrangement to portray it as sound investment for the region. He even suggested that it was the kind of deal that the county [would] look to make with the Indians.

Well, the moment has come. With the Q Deal in the rearview, the county, alongside Gateway Development Corp., is now hunting for public subsidies to help pay for future renovations at Progressive Field, which the Indians can be counted upon to demand as part of negotiations when their lease expires in 2023. The Cavs got $70 million (what will amount to $160 million or more with interest payments) for a measly seven-year lease extension, the Indians might remember. We should get the same deal!

WKYC's Mark Naymik reported that Gateway's Board Chairman Ken Silliman approached JobsOhio for help — and was turned down — and had not ruled out the possibility of requesting an allocation from the state of Ohio's two-year capital budget.

It's still early. Who knows what elaborate levers our distinguished electeds and their advisers will attempt to pull in order to pay the Dolans their ransom. Equally unclear is what sorts of renovations will even be considered. The Indians have already used Sin Tax dollars for discretionary renovations — Scoreboard! Suites! — and have requested millions more to redo the stadium's seating and buy new food service equipment. 

Additional money is already being set aside in a special reserve that was created as part of the Q Deal, but — as we can see from Silliman's recent efforts — leaders must know that the available supply won't be enough to sate the appetite of the Indians, who just saw the Cavs get bushels of free money and no doubt want a roughly equivalent slice of the pie. 

This is the same sort of corporate welfare that Cleveland residents have witnessed, with increasing dismay and disgust, for decades. As the majority of Cleveland's adults are functionally illiterate and the majority of the Cleveland's children live in poverty, watching millions of dollars being handed to sports owners for facilities used predominantly by suburban and exurban fans, with literally no questions asked, is disgraceful.

Most troubling of all, sports teams — which are corporations — are taking cues from their brethren, the likes of Amazon and Sherwin-Williams. They recognize that by dangling the possibility of a departure, they can squeeze public entities dry much more regularly (at least every time a lease is up for renewal!) and then get celebrated for staying put: what they almost always would have done anyway. This hostage dynamic is especially acute in Cleveland, where leaders have a ready supply of catchphrases and scare words about the Browns' departure in '95 that have successfully reduced the public to obedience and fear. 

As an additional note of irony in the current situation, Indians co-owner and CEO Paul Dolan happens to be the board chairman of the United Way of Greater Cleveland, an organization making bold pronouncements about its laser-focused commitment to poverty. In an interview on WCPN Thursday, United Way's President and CEO Augie Napoli suggested, correctly, that advocating for policy solutions was more effective than writing a check when it came to making a dent in poverty.

One of the most straightforward policies for which he might consider lobbying against is the one where we use vast quantities of public money — which might otherwise have gone to infrastructure, public safety, health and human services or anything else that might elevate the quality of life for Cleveland's poor and vulnerable — to fund stadiums for billionaire owners.

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About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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