Editorial: New Sacramento arena deal must still put taxpayers first

Published: Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 10A
Last Modified: Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013 - 8:34 am

When Mayor Kevin Johnson makes his last-ditch plea to NBA owners in April to keep the Kings in Sacramento, it would certainly help to have a united City Council behind him.

The mayor doesn't quite have that yet, as evidenced by the two dissenting votes Tuesday night on a largely symbolic resolution urging the league to approve a sale of the team to owners committed to Sacramento and renewing the city's support for a "public-private partnership" to build a new downtown arena.

Councilman Kevin McCarty, who voted "no" with Darrell Fong, says he is leery of a "massive public subsidy" that would mortgage the city's future, put taxpayers at risk and not produce enough return on the public investment.

Many of the 27 questions he poses in a letter to City Manager John Shirey are legitimate. While some may question if McCarty is making hay mainly to improve his prospects for higher office, it's appropriate to raise concerns about what kind of arena deal would be acceptable.

The landscape is different than when the council agreed last year to put $255 million in public money into a $391 million arena, so a deal now has to reflect the current circumstances.

The Maloofs pulled out of last year's NBA-endorsed deal at the last minute, and have now agreed to sell their majority stake in the team to a group planning to take it to Seattle. McCarty points out that the arena agreement in Seattle calls for a public contribution of about 40 percent, compared to 65 percent in Sacramento's offer last year. The councilman also notes that a proposed new $500 million arena in San Francisco for the Golden State Warriors would be entirely privately financed, save for public land and infrastructure.

In Sacramento, another major new wrinkle is that instead of building an arena on city land in the railyard, a new deal could put it at Downtown Plaza. That could breathe new life into the struggling retail center, but it would also change the financing equation by reducing the number of city-controlled parking spaces, the major source of the public subsidy.

How much less would the city be able to wring out of parking than the preliminary estimates last year of between $120 million and $190 million?

To this point, there also hasn't been enough discussion on whether at least part of that money should be shared with other civic projects.

While last year's deal was for a city-owned facility, it's possible the arena would be privately owned. Shouldn't that change the balance between risk and reward for the public?

Shirey told The Bee's editorial board Wednesday that all the questions will be answered before the council votes on an arena deal.

Steve Hansen, the new council member who represents downtown, had it right when he told colleagues that they should seek safe middle ground between those who oppose any public investment at all and those who would try to keep the Kings at any cost.

Arena boosters have repeatedly said that any deal has to put taxpayers first.

That promise must be kept.

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