My Position on an MLS Stadium

On Friday, on the radio and online, many people accused myself and Antonio French of preventing a vote on one portion of a tax increase to fund construction of an MLS stadium. Principal among those was Alderman Steve Conway, who chairs the Ways & Means Committee. Some people asked me, “Why did you block a vote, why did you leave the meeting.” Steve Conway is completely manipulating the narrative. Some people might call that lying.

Here’s what really happened on Thursday, as well as additional facts the public should know about this proposal:

There are 9 members of the Ways & Means Committee. To pass a bill requires a majority vote of a quorum. A quorum is 5 members. There were 8 members there for most of a hearing that was in excess of six hours. (Conway actually left numerous times) Near the end of the meeting, Steve Conway called for a vote. Conway said, “I move that we pass Board Bill 226,”. There was a second to the motion. A few minutes of conversation followed, then, just before the vote began, Conway said, “I withdraw my motion.” He realized, almost too late, that he had counted incorrectly and did not have the votes to pass the bill out of committee. The vote would have been 4 to 4, which is not a passing vote. I was there, in the room, ready to vote.

So who prevented a vote from happening? Steve Conway did. What did he do then? He wanted to continue to extend the meeting, knowing that more than one member of the committee had other obligations. The reality is most meetings are not 6+ hours long, and it would not be unusual at all to have a committee meeting at 9am and have another obligation at 3 or 4pm. Like, for instance, picking up a child from school. Conway, knowing that myself, Chris Carter, and Antonio French all have small children, wanted to delay until one of us was forced to leave the room, and he could pass the bill 4 to 3.

So, why is there even a rush? People have been working on an idea to bring an MLS team to St. Louis for years. And they waited until literally the last possible day to have a hearing on the bill. Even with a good bill, that’s a terrible strategy.

What do you need to know about this bill? First of all, this bill is only ONE PART of a series of bills that would need to pass in order for the City to enter into an agreement to pay for, build, and own an MLS stadium. Other bills contain essential information, like an outline of the lease terms, other financial incentives, and a commitment in writing of what the owners need to do. These bills were not even introduced until the day after the Thursday hearing, and no one on the committee had seen them.

Members of the committee were being asked to vote on an incomplete, inadequate and irresponsible proposal, which the mayor’s office intentionally withheld essential information about. Taking a vote on Thursday would have been utterly reckless.

At both the Thusday meeting, and in a Friday interview, Steve Conway made the following claim, “This project costs us nothing.” Hold on Steve. The project requires the City to:

Pass a tax increase on businesses to fund a still unidentified portion of the stadium, but in excess of $60 million.

Other bills require the City to:

Rebate sales taxes to the team.

Eliminate the 5% tax on tickets.

Pay Paul McKee 50% of the tax revenue the stadium generates. (Yes, as incredible, and insane as this sounds, its true)

And likely, as is our experience with every other stadium, pay substantial amounts to upgrade the stadium 20 or 25 years down the road.

Even the most basic level of analysis shows this is not “nothing” - its likely to grow to well over $100 million, and a degree of scrutiny is required from elected officials. Why should Paul McKee receive tax money from a stadium he did nothing to facilitate, while the City pays to build it?

What is not required:

Any payments or ticket taxes from the 85% of ticket buyers who aren’t from the City of St. Louis.

Any payment from St. Louis County, or any other County in the region.

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I’m not going to delve too deep into the other things that an increase in the Use Tax could be spent on, but the increase equates to an annual $2,800 raise for every police officer the City employs - something that people keep saying is essential to retaining our police force.

Now, even with all the information above, there’s still a bill I would vote for. But it has to do this:

Charge ticket buyers the 5% tax the law would normally require. Use that money to help pay the “City’s portion” of the stadium cost.

Sell seat licenses in advance. (Much like NFL teams do)

Cut Paul McKee out completely. Use that tax revenue to also fund the City’s portion of the stadium.

Charge higher sales taxes on products at the stadium, use that money to fund the stadium.

The team headquarters need to be located in the City, so we can collect the earnings tax on a greater portion of the team’s payroll.

The principle is that the the cost needs to be borne, to the extent possible, by the people that use the stadium. This is a basic idea, not radical in any way. Limit the City’s exposure and cost. Why should businesses in St. Louis pay a higher tax to support the entertainment of residents of St. Charles?

I was not elected to rubber stamp bad proposals for a City that is already on the financial brink. I was not elected to rubber stamp proposals with important details intentionally withheld. While Twitter may want my head, when I walk into a neighborhood meeting, my constituents are on my side. They are sick of bad deals, and they do not trust City Hall to prioritize their interests.

The MLS ownership group can still get this done. And they can even do it without a public vote - they’re just going to have to trim costs from the stadium and make soccer fans contribute to paying for construction. We’re a small City. We have major financial problems. We can’t afford more bad deals crammed though without any scrutiny.