Thursday, March 20, 2008

Time to bench Zell's costly sales tax plan


It must be hard to be Sam Zell. Mumble an obscenity at an employee and it's all over YouTube. Take over Tribune Co. on the backs of employees and suffer their magpie chattering about the fate of journalism.

And those politicians, you never know what they'll do. Zell probably figured he had covered himself for his scheme to sell Wrigley Field to the taxpayers. His family trust lavished $100,000 in 2006 on the Richard M. Daley Campaign Committee. For the 2002 election, Zell and his wife supported Gov. Blagojevich with $82,500. Four years later, Zell switched to Judy Baar Topinka, but no harm was done.

Zell had every right to think the politicians would meekly accept his taxpayer-subsidized plan to wring profit out of Wrigley. But Mayor Daley hasn't. He has refused to support Zell's suggestion that pesky landmark rules be relaxed to make the ballpark is even more valuable. Daley also spurned the Zell proposition to have taxpayers pay for Wrigley through sales tax receipts. Daley this week argued sensibly that government has more pressing needs before it can consider a donation to Tribune Co. and a new Cubs owner.

The Zell plan is for the state to buy Wrigley Field from Tribune with proceeds from increased sales taxes generated at the ballpark. The state would create a special sales tax district that includes the park and perhaps the surrounding bars and other businesses.

Zell's sales tax plan is a new spin on tax-increment financing districts, or TIFs, that tap property taxes. The Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, the state agency that would buy Wrigley, has called the funding mechanism a STIF, without any intended humor.

Throughout Chicago, wherever people gather for entertainment or revelry, the sales taxes they pay go to the common good. That's true for the crowds at the United Center, the clubs along Rush Street and the audiences at Steppenwolf. The sales tax charged on every beer and ticket pays for essential city and state services, such as roads and schools.

But if Zell gets his way, this would not be wholly true for Wrigley. There, the growth in sales taxes for everything from Cracker Jack to skyboxes would be siphoned to pay Tribune for the ballpark.

And what is the payoff for this public investment? Ownership of a pristine ballpark, says ISFA chairman and former Gov. James Thompson. Never mind that this is a ballpark the Cubs are not leaving and that every potential buyer of the team knows is integral to the franchise's appeal.

And who profits? Tribune and the Cubs' new owners if the sales tax cash goes toward Wrigley renovations.

The timing is bad on two counts. For one, the state and local governments are struggling to pay their bills. This is no time to help Zell. And two, TIFs as a means to finance just about anything right now are drawing growing criticism.

TIFs can be a smart way to encourage investment amid blight. They are designed to skim the growth from a district's tax revenues to subsidize private developments that wouldn't happen otherwise. But they have been twisted beyond recognition. Covering more than 30 percent of Chicago's land area, TIFs are the monster that ate the city's tax base.

This page has strongly argued against any sale of Wrigley Field to the state, and we're pleased to see the growing opposition in Springfield and City Hall. But the ballgame's not over. Still pushing for the sale are the state's acquisitive sports facilities authority, hoping to show off for those who would grant Chicago the 2016 Olympics, and a magnate not used to hearing the word "no".

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