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Play ball whether you taxpayers want it or not

Warwick Beacon ·

For a couple of years now, I have been writing about different proposals regarding a new Paw Sox stadium. Few Rhode Islanders support any kind of taxpayer insured development whatsoever. The latest idea is to build a grandiose sports park complex in the Slater Mill/Apex area of Pawtucket.

The Rhode Island Senate has commenced a series of so-called hearings staged to demonstrate appeasement of the public’s antipathy toward this public-private partnership in the making.

If the first meeting was any indication of the five remaining planned hearings, an onslaught of positive accolades was and will be again displayed by special interests. After these propagandized presentations, the concerned taxpayers had a limited chance to express their concerns at the end of the marathon meeting. By that time, most listeners and media reporters had either nodded off or left already.

This scurrilous yet time honored device of “Inverted Pyramid Presentation” is used to bombard attendees with theoretical positives about a proposal with an overwhelming intensity in the beginning of a public forum. They only allow limited negative complaints toward the end of the forum to dilute their impact.

Such was the case with the first hearing, which took place at the Rhode Island State House in Room 313 (Colloquially known as the hot box).

Despite the oppressive environment, one could easily deduce from early on in the proceedings, that elected officials were speaking in a matter that assumed the inevitability of the project coming to fruition.

No matter how glorified and beneficial this proposal is portrayed by vested interests, beguiled elected officials, and ancillary beneficiaries, if the sports venue fails to produce its hopeful goals of volume and profitability, we Rhode Islanders will be on the hook!

Furthermore, this project provokes a myriad of other questions. The enabling Paw Sox legislation would strongly extend the use of “Eminent Domain” in our state. Also, the state’s budget woes are worse than originally projected. Should we be considering such a project when Smith Hill is unable to balance budgets and efficiently operate government? Additionally, a startling new report paints a sorrowful picture of the condition of the state’s schools. This problem will take billions to resolve. Should we be financially backing a sports venue project when we need to rebuild our children’s places of learning?

Moreover in the wake of the 38 Studios debacle, should Rhode Island ever be involved in public-private partnerships again?

Rhode Island’s radio stations have been inundated with commercials meant to draw a dreamy mental image for the listener of the Paw Sox’s cultural importance in our state. Supposedly akin to coffee milk, Del’s lemonade, doughboys, quahogs, and Salty Brine’s Beach, the ad seeks to portray retaining the team as paramount to our very quality of life. This marketing campaign is obviously a stretch to win hearts and minds in pursuit of public support for this proposal. Most Rhode Islanders are not buying it.

In addition to this public relations effort, proponents for the plan in the RI Senate are staging a total of six show hearings to appear responsive to the electorate’s reluctance to insure another risky bet by the legislature.

The proposal in question must be enabled by specific legislation that is the focus of these hearings. The perspective law would allow the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency to issue bonds to raise $71 million. $33 million is for the team’s share of the venue’s construction costs. $23 million is to pay for the state’s share of the build. $15 million is for the city’s share of the construction of the ballpark. It is possible long term, if volume and profitability reach expected levels, along with peripheral income from naming and promotional rights, the team could conceivably pay a considerable percentage of the principal and interest owed on the issued bonds. Additionally, the Paw Sox Organization has committed to pay $12 million upfront. Although the Paw Sox have verbally assured that they will take care of any construction cost overruns, it is apparently not specified in the bill. It should be before any vote on the General Assembly floor.

Still if all the projections of success turn out to be wrong, the taxpayers of the state and Pawtucket will be liable to make good on the debt.

So, it was no wonder that the first hearing in this matter exceeded seven hours in length. Further, it was no surprise that the principal pushers of this deal used the inverted pyramid presentation scheme to prevent those in opposition from speaking until close to 10 p.m. Lt. Governor Dan McKee, along with the mayors of Johnston, Woonsocket, Providence, Cumberland, Central Falls, and North Providence all came out in support of the ballpark legislation. While a collection of concerned citizens, greatly limited in their speaking time, stood in opposition.

Of course, construction unions were out in full support of this building jobs opportunity. Their support had nothing to do with the merits of the project or the taxpayer’s possible future liabilities. If the deal was to build a 20-story skyscraper/House of Ill Repute, the construction trades would support it.

Even if we taxpayers’ responsibility is minor when all is said and done, considering the dire state of Rhode Island’s finances why are we remotely considering participating financially in this sports stadium?

The recent revelation of the state budget number screams for streamlining and fiscal austerity. Budget officials currently predict a $237 million deficit for the upcoming fiscal year. The $25 million in reduction of expense that the executive branch was supposed to find for the belatedly passed budget this last summer has not been located yet.

Add to those absurd facts, a new independent study commissioned by our state revealed some horrifying statistics about the condition of our schools.

Unfortunately, to simply repair the schools to a reasonably usable state will cost the taxpayer $627 million. To make them all first rate and state of the art, the cost would be $2.2 billion.

So, why are we even remotely contemplating any elective project of any kind that potentially shoulders even more burden on the taxpayer?

Equally disheartening, legal scholars have also observed that there is language in the bill that would broadly increase the government’s power in eminent domain cases. If passed, a precedent would be established that would further encompass considerations beyond properties deemed “blighted and substandard’. Government entities would be granted Carte Blanche ability to subsume smaller owners in favor of large developers.

As was the case with 38 Studios and with the Truck Toll Law, it seems evident that once again our elected officials are pushing through a project that the overwhelming majority of citizens do not want. The hearings are conspicuously a Dog and Pony show and the outcome is predetermined. The will of the people is once again being ignored. If the powers that be truly respect the citizens’ viewpoint, then present the issue as a referendum next election cycle.

Despite the dire shape of the state’s finances, despite the dire state of our schools, which need repair funding sorely, and despite the adverse effect on basic freedoms the expansion of eminent domain will have on our future, this subsidized ballpark project will undoubtedly go forward.

This game is stacked in favor of the special interests. Rhode Islanders are suited up and ready to play in this game of discourse regarding the Paw Sox Stadium. But they will never get a chance to bat!

Perhaps someday our elected representatives will stop dreaming with our money and actually try operating a cost efficient government in both the legislative and executive branches.

Sadly, that is probably a dream of mine that will never be realized!