Miami Taxpayers Harpooned On Stadium

The new Miami Marlins stadium is rising to completion in Little Havana, and rising with it is the blood pressure of taxpayers who are learning how much the new ballpark will really cost.

On paper, the city and county committed about $487 million in public funds toward the $642 million stadium project. The outlandish arrangement was never presented to voters because they would have pulverized it.

Their mistrust was well placed. In the two years since the financing was approved, the numbers are looking even more dismal than was feared.

Last week’s foul surprise came when Miami-Dade officials informed the city of Miami that the four parking garages being constructed for the stadium might not be exempt from county property taxes, as the city had assumed.

Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado says residents could be on the hook for an additional $1.5 million to $2 million annually. It may not sound like much, given the breathtaking totality of the Marlins boondoggle, but the city can’t afford it.

Dysfunction and incompetence being the twin hallmarks of Miami government, both are on grand display in this latest fiasco. Officials charged into the bond market to borrow $101 million to build the stadium parking garages, which they say they believed would be exempt from property taxes, the same as most municipal facilities.

One little problem: Municipal structures aren’t supposed to get off tax-free unless they are used exclusively for public purposes.

The Marlins are a private corporation; you can’t walk into the ballpark without buying a ticket. The contract provides that the city will lease the 5,700 parking spots to the team for $10 each per event. In turn, the team can charge the fans as much as it wants for parking.

This lucrative allowance isn’t just for ball games, but also for rock concerts, rodeos or anything staged at the new stadium.

There’s nothing public about those garages. They might be owned by the city, but they’ll be controlled by the Marlins, purely for profit. The county is absolutely right to treat them as commercial property.

Normally, the taxes would be the responsibility of the tenant — in this case, the baseball team. Strangely, though, the garage contract between the city and the Marlins stipulates that the city will pay any and all taxes.

That’s quite a deal. The mystery is: Why did Miami officials ever agree to it?

One possibility is that they were bombed out of their minds when they read the contract. Another possibility is that they didn’t read the contract at all.

A third possibility, and not an unlikely one, is that they got outfoxed by the Marlins. The weird clause absolving the team of all taxes might have been printed in teeny, tiny words, but presumably there’s somebody at City Hall with a law degree that wasn’t purchased online from Nigeria for $69.

Mayor Regalado fought the stadium project when he was a city commissioner. He was surprised — and rightfully ticked off — when county officials told him that the garages belong on the tax rolls.

“That’s going to be huge. That really complicates things for us,” he said.

The city is nearly broke, as always, and doesn’t have an extra $2 million lying around. The anticipated lease income from the parking spaces is already earmarked to help pay the bond debt, which will eventually accumulate to $223 million.

Just to keep up with the bond payments on the new garages, Miami needs to bring in about $7 million annually through 2026 and fluctuating amounts for 10 years after that.

About $3 million of that $7 million would come from county tourist taxes. The additional $4 million-plus is supposed to be covered by income from the $10-a-space lease agreement with the Marlins.

In other words, each of the 5,700 parking spots needs to generate at least $702 annually for the city. On the bright side, Miami did manage to get the Marlins to agree to cough up the $10 whether or not the parking space has an actual car in it.

That’s important, because loyal attendance is no certainty. The super-modern new ballpark should be packed when it first opens, but the notorious fickleness of South Florida sports fans will hover over the festivities — and the finances.

If the Marlins start losing, there will be a drearily familiar abundance of empty seats — and parking spots.

The county says that no final decision has been made about taxing the stadium garages, which wouldn’t be added to the property rolls until January. One way or another, the public will get harpooned.

That’s what always happens when government subsidizes private sports franchises. There’s only one big winner, and it’s the millionaire who owns the team.

You’ve heard of “Money Ball”? This is Sucker Ball.

(Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.)

(c) 2011, The Miami Herald Distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.

Start your day with National Memo Newsletter

Know first.

The opinions that matter. Delivered to your inbox every morning

{{ }}