Marlins nickel-and-dime taxpayers in stadium cost claims
By Michael Lewis
Disputation of $1.68 million is only the first inning in a game to make the Miami Marlins play by the feeble rules of a sweetheart deal that hands the team a stadium costing taxpayers $3 billion.
Miami-Dade auditors' questioning reveals Marlins owners nickel-and-diming on a $38 million list of stadium spending claims that will grow even though the ballpark is now open.
The auditors say 439 separate Marlins claims aren't for capital at all and they dispute every one of them.
Good for the auditors. Why should we count cleaning the team sales office for $26,870 toward building a stadium elsewhere? Or cable TV for that office? Or nearly $10,000 in office supplies? Or thousands for sales brochures?
This is a routine audit. It covers only a bit more than 1% of taxpayers' ballpark cost, the sliver Marlins owners seek to count toward their share of the stadium contract. It doesn't cover the biggest taxpayer costs: hard construction and billions in interest.
The audit also doesn't touch a US Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of stadium bonding. Nor does it cover criminality. Far more in the stadium deal warrants probing.
This audit simply follows the Marlins as they try to stick everything under the sun into their ballpark costs, right down to buying a pack of chewing gum during travel. Auditors noted dryly that the county was being charged an "incorrect amount for retail item (gum) purchased."
We can't imagine gum as a stadium expense anywhere other than at Wrigley Field.
The gum was bought by "The Owners Perspective," the team owners' group. Whether principal Jeffrey Loria or President David Samson or some underling chewed and then mischarged taxpayers the auditors don't say in listing 692 items the county either questions or outright disputes.
We also aren't told how much they charged us for the gum. The county disputes $408.28 of the $2,500 travel invoice, a dispute including also the purchase of phone accessories and flight upgrades at public cost.
Owners Perspective flight upgrades come into play seven times, each time auditors noting "flight upgrades not reimbursable." Taxpayers shouldn't pay for team owners' flight upgrades. But we're asked to.
Why, in fact, do we give them monthly a $5,000 auto and accommodations allowance or $78,083.67 for their office payroll? Does that build a stadium? Or does spending almost $11,000 on alcohol?
These wouldn't be issues if the Marlins paid the bills themselves. People who pay ballplayers multiple millions are not paragons of thrift.
But this isn't team money. It belongs to taxpayers under the stadium contract.
That contract requires the Marlins to pay $160.2 million. Every cent they list as out-of-pocket soft costs of building the stadium is subtracted from the amount the team must hand to taxpayers.
Hence, the bid to toss the kitchen sink into expenses through February. Expect more millions in claims during coming months.
If the Marlins push the total past $45.2 million, they'll reduce their rent, which starts at $2.3 million this year and hits $4,509,554 in 2046. The 35-year sum is a hair under $115 million.
The Marlins' payment total is to be rent plus soft costs — expenses like architects' and lawyers' fees, not the actual stadium construction. Every soft cost the county allows over $45.2 million reduces rent. For each dollar the county successfully disputes, the Marlins must pay a dollar more.
Everything the Marlins spent that we don't deny comes from taxpayers. The county borrowed $35 million and gave it to the Marlins interest free for their soft costs.
Do you feel good being mischarged for chewing gum?
Or paying above county government's room rate ceiling for 25 of the hotel charges they call part of the cost of building the stadium?
Or paying above the county's limit for 12 of the meals charged as a cost of building a stadium?
Or being billed by the Marlins seven times, totaling $127,330.80, for expenses Major League Baseball should have paid instead?
Or being charged for legal expenses to battle anti-stadium activist Norman Braman, who was spearheading a mayoral recall drive?
Or being charged $47 for Bank of America deposit slips?
Many of the auditors' queries aren't yet disputes. The $1.68 million total, a small fraction on the scrutiny list, could rise.
In some cases, auditors merely asked the Marlins to "submit legible copy of invoice." In others, they cite such sloppiness as missing documents and receipts or lack of explanations.
Some questioned items might meet contract terms, though no businessperson would ever sign that contract. The auditors, in a businesslike way, merely seek facts.
The Marlins have thrown everything against the wall, hoping to profit from whatever they make stick.
After the auditors finish, county negotiators must make their concerns stick.
Chewing gum is one expense that shouldn't stick — nor should hundreds of others on the list.
The county must take a hard line to recoup every possible dime from a contract fiasco that gives the Marlins every penny of ballpark revenue.
All we get is $160.2 million, which includes repaying our interest-free $35 million loan. And that payment comes over 35 years.
At 2% annual rent hike, we'll lose ground to inflation.
In no way can taxpayers come home winners from this stadium. But with care by auditors and pressure by negotiators, we might save millions from our $3 billion outlay.
Every penny can help — if we don't gum it up.
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