New York City stands second to none when it comes to fleecing its taxpayers. Along with the Tweed Courthouse, one of the great local historic monuments to this practice is the soon-to-be-demolished mammoth electronic screen and scoreboard in centerfield at Yankee Stadium.
Back in 1976, politicians insisted on giving this then state-of-the-art $3 million plaything to baseball’s strongest franchise, even though at the time they couldn’t afford to pay for cops or firefighters. In fact, police union members were so outraged by this and other municipal giveaways to the team that 500 of them showed up to picket Opening Day that year when the Yankees returned to a ballpark that had been rebuilt with some $100 million in city funds.
The Yankees and their City Hall allies didn’t help their cause when the giant “Telescreen” sizzled, crackled, and refused to work. Later, when it did operate, the images were so blurry that fans couldn’t tell if they were looking at pictures of Thurman Munson or Herman Munster.
In the Bloomberg Era, however, all these old records of government largesse are swept aside. This week, the mayor’s people will vote to approve $370 million in additional tax-exempt bonds for the new Yankee Stadium that has now risen next door to the old one, atop a major neighborhood park that the team had coveted for decades. This is the Yankees’ second trip to the well: In 2006, Bloomberg allocated $942 million in tax-free financing for the stadium. The team will pay off both sets of bonds with money that might otherwise have gone to pay property taxes, the way most profitable businesses are expected to do, had City Hall so demanded. The mayor, elected to office twice already and now shooting for a third term based on his financial wizardry, made no such demand.
For months, city officials refused to even discuss the specifics of this new subsidy deal. Now that the details are out, we understand their reluctance: It is the same scoreboard swindle all over again, at 2009 prices. Among the reasons the Yankees want the extra dough is to pay for $14.3 million worth of “new scoreboard, scoreboard structures, and video replay modifications.” Another $10.7 million is needed for a “video board and ribbon board” to carry the latest sports news around and around the new $1.3 billion ballpark. Another $14.6 million is required to enhance broadcast and television displays.
The team has also decided that it needs another $10.5 million to enhance the 56 luxury suites that were a big reason for the new stadium in the first place. These suites will hold up to 12 fans apiece, and sell for $600,000 to $850,000 per season. The added bond revenue, Yankees officials explain in their application to the city’s Industrial Development Agency, which must approve the bonds, will go for “suite level upgrades, a suite level corridor, air conditioning, carpet, and concourse ceilings.” Said ceilings, the officials state, “were added to conceal bulk exposed piping.” Naturally.
Ever mindful of media needs, another $1.6 million will go for “enclosure of the press suite,” with an extra $1.4 million for added space for “offense & defense training & employee dining room revisions.”
Bloomberg’s original plan called for these bond issues (the Mets are also seeking an extra $83 million for their own new stadium) to be considered while the entire city was watching President Obama being sworn into office. There were objections to this, and the date was moved up to January 16, the day after the first and only public hearing on the matter. A pair of state assembly members, Richard Brodsky of Westchester and Jim Brennan of Brooklyn, are trying to get more information about this huge and murky endeavor by calling for their own hearing on Wednesday, January 14. They invited top city and Yankees officials to show up. If so, they will face questions from two of the state’s smartest and most dogged politicians. Brodsky has been on the city’s case about the Yankees’ deal for years. Brennan, who chairs the Assembly Committee on Cities, says he wants to understand why a financially thriving private enterprise is being excused from paying real estate taxes.
“It seems ludicrous to be exempting the new stadium from property taxes,” says Brennan. “The company is wealthy, and it is not relocating outside the city. They can surely finance extra amenities like a giant TV screen from their own internal funds without a subsidy of any kind.”
In another echo of 1976, this is all being done as the mayor and the governor explain that the economic crisis has left them otherwise broke. Both officials have called for budgets that savage school aid, hospitals, and other programs that go to help ordinary New Yorkers. As in the great fiscal crisis of the mid-’70s, the mayor recently canceled an entire class of police cadets. Then, as now, the Yankees somehow escaped unscathed. “The changed economic circumstances of the region appear not to have affected the [bond] issue,” Brennan and Brodsky dryly noted in letters to the officials inviting their appearance at the hearing.
Actually, back in 1976, the Yankees didn’t get everything they wanted. The plan at the time was to build parking garages on Macombs Dam Park on the north side of 161st Street, where the new stadium now stands. The city and the state’s financial control board had signed off on the deal and were ready to give up this 28-acre tree-shaded oasis, which contained the only full-size running track in the area. They backed off after some 5,000 students, neighborhood residents, and local parish priests won national coverage by protesting alongside the aggrieved police officers on Opening Day.
It was April 15—income tax day—and organizers decided to capitalize on the coincidence. “We marched across 161st past the stadium and into the park, where we mounted a stage,” recalls Cary Goodman, then leader of a group called Sports for the People. “We had everyone doing calisthenics, exercising by touching their toes. We were shouting in time to the exercises, ‘Tax the Yanks! Tax the banks! Keep our parks open!’ Then everyone did a victory lap around the running track.”
The rally caught the eye of Walter Cronkite, who was there to cover the Opening Day festivities. To the city’s and the Yankees’ dismay, Cronkite brought his CBS camera crew across the street to film the protest.
“There we are on national TV, telling how the city and the Yankees wanted to take away this park, the only one in the neighborhood,” says Goodman. Standing beside him were his fellow organizers, Father John Flynn from Crotona, and Reverend John Luce, pastor of St. Ann’s in Mott Haven. Also leading the protest were Gil Gerena-Valentin, who was soon elected city councilman, and a community and labor activist named José Rivera, also destined to become a Bronx political force.
It took another 30 years, but in 2006, Macombs Dam was finally plowed under after Rivera, then the leader of the Bronx Democratic party, reached an agreement with Bloomberg and the Yankees on the new stadium. In exchange, the team generously agreed to pay $800,000 annually to Bronx civic causes. This comes to about $175,000 less than the weekly paycheck of the Yankees’ new star first baseman, Mark Teixeira. Such are the fiscal lessons of the Age of Bloomberg.