Tonight’s forum with the mayor concerning public financing of the proposed Viking stadium went off as scheduled at the Nokomis Rec Center, 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. This is my report.
Immediately striking was the disproportionate number of men compared to women. I counted 35 women to 94 men. (My method was to identify gender as people entered the gym, without subtracting when people left. I cut off the count at exactly 7:32. A few more people may have entered after that, and there may have been a few double-counts, but I feel certain that the actual number was close and that the proportion was approximately 3 men for each woman.
There were also 2 children present, both girls but not counted on the woman side of things.) In addition to the mayor, 4 city council members attended: Sandra Colvin Roy (in whose ward the meeting was held), John Quincy, Cam Gordon and Gary Schiff. (Council Members Colvin Roy and Quincy are now on record as supporting Minneapolis financing of the Wilf stadium, while CM Schiff and CM Gordon are on record as opposing.) My concern was that the mayor would spend all the time talking and give no chance at all for citizens to express their concerns; this was not the case. After 9 minutes of introductory remarks by the major, written questions were read and answered. These were naturally extremely brief and the mayor’s answers quite lengthy.
I again became concerned that the mayor would completely control the entire evening; again, I was mistaken. After perhaps 10 minutes of answering written questions, the mayor opened up the discussion to the floor. From the very first written question to the end of the forum at 8:32, I kept carefully track of how much citizen input time occurred, whether in asking a question or having a question read or voicing an opinion. The total number of seconds from citizens was 1,084, or about 18 minutes. So the proportion was 18 minutes to all citizen questions and opinions as compared to 43 minutes for the mayor (including about 4 minutes for the city’s chief financial officer, Kevin Carpenter).
Arguments in favor of public financing of the stadium included the following: jobs in construction, encouragement of the Minneapolis hospitality industry and gaining city control of “hospitality” taxes in such a way that would result in lower property taxes (even though they would extend hospitality taxes from 2020 to 2045, increasing the total amount of hospitality taxes by about $600 million, once interest is compounded).
Many objections were raised, including the specific objection of allocating city funds in direct violation of the city charter, as amended. People also clearly addressed that there was a $600 million dollar and 25 year extension of the city sales tax, which the mayor did not dispute.
Among the speakers were those both supporting and those opposed to city financing of the new stadium. Stickers were roughly even, with pro-financing stickers warn primarily by people in the construction trades and those having key positions in the DFL (Dan McConnell would be a person who fit both of these criteria). Many of those opposed were those who had previously campaigned against the Pohlad stadium, as quite a few non-activists who asked questions about numbers and statements that simply don’t make sense.
Not one public statement was made by any of the city council members present, not even by Sandra Colvin Roy, in whose ward the forum was held. Questions were asked specifically of council members, which the mayor fielded and which no council member ever answered. CM Colvin Roy, in fact, left almost immediately as soon as the forum officially ended, again leaving her aide Loren Olson to answer any questions from ward 12 constituents.
I sincerely doubt that many if even one opinion was changed. Feeling were very strong on both sides of the issue.
It was truly discouraging for me to hear the twisted rationale being used to justify the massive expense of this proposed stadium. Several specific points were particularly disappointing.
First, the mayor repeatedly claimed that public funding of the stadium would result in great public economic benefit, but not one study or even a single case was ever mentioned. When one audience member specifically cited the studies indicating no public benefit for such a public expense, the mayor again responded with his own unsubstantiated opinion. I would characterize this and other crucial moments as dancing around the question, rather than anything at all resembling an answer.
Second, the mayor was specifically asked why he would not take the question to a city referendum, as required by the city charter. He then spoke against “government by referendum” and “taking a courageous position” and again asserted that the referendum requirement did not apply, again mentioning the “informal opinion” of the city attorney, while point-blank admitting that no written opinion was been given and that the communication itself was only advisory to the mayor.
Third, there is a truly innovative way of understanding what it means to incur $600 million dollars of public debt. At one point, the chief financial officer said that cities incur expenses and that there was no guarantee that this one would result any financial benefit to the city. I was shocked to hear such frankness, but it turns out that I was looking at things a bit too broadly. What Kevin Carpenter told me after the meeting was that the proposed agreement would certainly result in lower property taxes, since the Target Center and Convention Center debt would now be paid by the “hospitality taxes” and that there simply was no exact way of determining any city benefit after those debts were paid.
The only moment that I would describe as mean was one that came from Mayor Rybak. Carol Becker (who was elected to the Board of Estimate and Taxation and who has become one of my heroes for her consistency in defending our public financing) spoke for several minutes with specific and direct contradiction of several statements made by the mayor. She specifically mentioned that the “hospitality tax” was actually merely a sales tax and that buying a roll of toilet paper at Target would directly go to pay for those sports facilities. She was also specific in saying that that “hospitality” tax was indeed a local tax and that it had specifically been voted on by the city council and was even named as a “local” tax. When the mayor responded, he blasted her pretty directly, holding Carol Becker responsible for the “mess” created by the ill-advised Target Center deal. Carol immediately described her exact position at the time, showing that she did not hold any decision-making position at the time. The mayor, to his credit, did not continue falsely accusing her.
This was a discouraging meeting. Others have described the mayor as more skillful than anything on Dancing with the Stars. That only starts to describe the show, in my opinion.
$600 million dollars in city obligations is being described as tax relief. Legal accountability for violating the city charter is being avoided by simply asking the question in a different way, for example approving an agreement with the state rather than actually appropriating funds for a massive construction project. Slippery doesn’t begin to describe the twisted logic being used. What I believe the mayor and some city council members don’t understand is how difficult people’s lives are already. I can guarantee that there were many people in tonight’s audience who haven’t had work in over a year. I can guarantee that some there have already had their homes go into foreclosure and that many others are close to foreclosure. I can guarantee that there are already quite a few of tonight’s audience who are having trouble paying for special assessments for sidewalks or streets or alleys. There were clearly a large number there living on retirement or disability or other fixed incomes, who have a very real fear how they will manage if the city commits us to such an enormous expense. I can absolutely guarantee you that everyone paying property taxes in that audience is paying twice as much as they were when the mayor took office, in constant dollars.
I don’t understand these fancy dance moves. I don’t understand how $600 million in additional public obligations will not result in increased taxes somewhere. We may not pay for it as property taxes. We might call it sales taxes or hospitality taxes or something else, but make no mistake that we will eventually pay for it. I do not understand how anyone with a law degree can say that the city council could approve such an agreement and that it would not violate the city charter, and thus be legally actionable.
If this bad deal goes through, I am quite certain that it will result in great pain for the city. I clearly see our taxes going up; how could they not? I clearly see our city services in decline: how could they not? These people are making a huge gamble with out money and, if they succeed with their plan, I believe that things will end really badly.
There are two more opportunities for citizens to voice their concerns. Tomorrow (Wednesday) night, April 11, 6:30 p.m. at the Logan Rec Center, 690 – 13th Avenue NE, there will be a second forum with the mayor. This is in ward 1, represented by Kevin Reich. (Along with CM Colvin Roy, he was also heavily lobbied by the governor to change his position on supporting a stadium without the required referendum; he was previously opposed to such a vote, but now has written a letter in support of the mayor’s plan.) The last remaining opportunity, to my knowledge, will be a meeting of the Intergovernmental Sub-committee of the city council, meeting 4 to 6:30 p.m. on April 24 in room 317 of City Hall.
I have tried to be quite specific in being factual about what I observed. Certainly, I have given my own opinions about the validity of arguments made, but I have tried to be very clear about what was objective observation and what was my own conclusion or concern. If there were any other forum members present who would like to correct me in any details, I welcome their response here.
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