Watchdog probes needed on Kings arena

“Our news reporters will continue to be watchdogs on arena plans, particularly as decisions are made about public money.”

I was relieved to read those words from Bee executive editor Joyce Terhaar in Sunday’s Forum section. I thought perhaps the newspaper had decided the arena express was too far down the track to stop it now. The Sacramento City Council, after all, has allocated $550,000 to explore public funding options and ignore the taxpayers’ will.

But let’s be optimistic. It’s not too late. The council hasn’t donated more than $200 million to help build a downtown arena for Kings. There is time to enlighten council members about the financial dangers awaiting the city if they commit to the project. There is time to make the public aware of the messes other cities have gotten into by indulging in corporate welfare.

So here are some suggestions I have for Bee watchdog investigations:

■ Send a reporter to Kansas City to poke around. The Think Big Sacramento team likes to point to that city and its new, publicly funded Sprint Center as a model for Sacramento to follow. The team even invited former K.C. Mayor Kay Barnes to express her views on the project, and her rosy account was dutifully printed in the Bee.

I was curious about her account and invested a few bucks to explore the archives of the Kansas City Star. I found a few articles that are probably just the tip of the iceberg. One story noted that the Sprint Center had not revitalized the downtown entertainment district as predicted. In fact, the city is facing an annual $10 million to $15 million bill until 2033 related to the downtown project.

Another story revealed the Sprint Center’s negative effect on the city’s old Kemper Arena. The new sports center drew business away from Kemper and turned it into a money-loser. Unfortunately, the city signed a 50-year lease in 1995 and is on the hook for $70 million under the agreement. Ironically, Kemper was the home of the Kansas City Kings until the team moved to Sacramento in 1985.

■ Send a reporter to Chicago to look at what happened after the Windy City privatized its meter-parking business. Sacramento arena proponents want the city to lease out its parking concession for 50 years as a way to jump-start the project. Chicago leased out its parking business in 2009 for an incredible 75 years, and already it’s being called a “parking-meter disaster” by the state’s governor.

Parking rates have skyrocketed. Metered parking in the Loop, the city’s premier business and entertainment district, has jumped 66 percent since 2009. By 2013, it will have jumped 115 percent, when it will cost $6.50 an hour to use a metered space. 

 In addition, the city has been hit with unexpected financial surprises. The leaseholder recently demanded $13.5 million in compensation for heavy use of disability-parking spaces. That demand came out the fine print in the 521-page contract that was hastily read by city officials.

■ Have a reporter do in-depth interviews with academic experts and sports economists, most of whom say cities derive little, if any, economic benefits from building stadiums. The mayor and his team have made astounding claims. A Bee editorial last month calling for regional funding of a downtown arena claimed  there was “no doubt a new arena would provide a boost beyond the city limits.” How can there be no doubt about future financial returns? Anyone remember the housing bust?

■ Get a team of reporters to follow the money and see who would benefit from a rushed sale of city land parcels near the railyard site. How do prices compare today with what they were five years ago and what they might be when the real estate market gets out of the hole?

■ How much money is the Maloof family going to contribute to a new arena and can it come up with the $77 million owed the city on a 1997 loan? How much real private money will be forthcoming?

■ Will the curb on redevelopment funds discourage private investors from investing in the arena  and what would that mean for city taxpayers?

■ Examine the back-room shenanigans that put public funding for an arena on the table without a vote by the public that overwhelmingly  rejected corporate welfare in 2006.

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