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Feisty, Punchy Debate Erupts Over Sin Tax Extension

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Next month, Cuyahoga County voters will either extend – or let die -- a so-called “sin tax” which covers upgrades and maintenance of Cleveland’s three major sports facilities. An estimated $270 million over 20 years is at stake. But not everyone backs the extension, and supporters and opponents debated the issue today at the City Club of Cleveland. ideastream’s Brian Bull was there and has this report:

Tuesday, April 1, 2014 at 6:17 pm

Organizers maintained the event was NOT a debate, though it did have its moments. At one point, panelists talked over each other while the moderator urged turns, citing research that backed - or countered - the other side's claims.

The indisputable facts are that the sin tax collects a penny per glass of wine, a penny and a half for a bottle of beer, and nearly a nickel per pack of smokes. Those bits of change collectively fund repairs and upgrades to the city’s three major sports venues.

The Indians and Cavaliers have a list that comes to $135 million, while the Browns’ tab comes to nearly $24 million.

For backers like City Council President Kevin Kelley, it’s meeting obligations to sports franchises that draw in commerce and tourism.

“Capital needs will always be with us," said Kelley. "We’re not going to get to a point where we make a certain amount of investment, and then suddenly there’s no more capital needs. We will always have to maintain these facilities because we own them, and they are always going to be subject to the northeast Ohio winters. It’s just the way that we have to go about maintaining this.”

But Neil deMause – who edits the blog, Field of Schemes -- says there are options for county residents.

“Certainly I’m not saying, ‘Oh, y’know, we should just tell the teams go ahead and lump it if you don’t like it,’ but it’s a negotiation here," deMause told the crowd. "And the question is, if we decide we don’t want to go ahead and approve the sin tax as a way of continuing to fund more money for the teams’ expenses, then what are the teams’ options, what are the city’s options, and what can we sit down and negotiate?”

Options was a tangent Peter Pattakos was happy to pursue. He’s an attorney who’s with the Coalition Against the Sin Tax.

“In Denver, they’ve already paid for their four sports facilities," Pattakos began. "They passed a multi-county sales tax of I believe, of half a penny. 7 or 8 surrounding counties, they paid it off in 10 years, everything. We’ve put over a billion dollars into our stadiums already.”

Pattakos also suggested taxing the advertising posted in stadiums and arenas as a way to generate money to boost revenues. He says the sin tax does nothing but hurt the young, uneducated, and the poor.

Councilman Kelley countered that it’s not likely the GOP dominated legislature that generally opposes taxes would change state law to create a NEW sales tax.

Cavs CEO Len Komoraski challenged critics’ suggestion that Cleveland could fare fine should the pro teams up and leave, saying they account for a large part of the city’s tourist destination traffic.

“They also work synergistically with our convention center, with the casino, Playhouse Square, and we have an amazing array of destination assets working together."

deMause suggested sports facilities weren’t necessarily a major benefit to cities. He said often their boost to commerce was pinpointed and fleeting, or even counterproductive.

“You have people stream past for about an hour before the game, and then stream past for an hour after the game. It’s very hard to capture that," said deMause.

"And I’ve had restaurateurs tell me that they close on game days in certain instances because it’s just such a flood of people they can’t…they can’t deal with. Uhm…and in any case…(LAUGHTER)…Hey! I’ve had….I’m telling you what they said, specifically for football, because it’s very, very difficult.”

It’s hard to gauge who’ll get the last laugh on the sin tax extension debate. But at this stage, supporters aren’t discussing options in detail should it fail at the polls.

And should it pass, the debate may continue to simmer all the way until the next call for an extension comes up… in 2034.

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