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CINCINNATI   POST

Auditor: I can't sign off on ballpark

By Mike Rutledge, Post staff reporter

State law will not allow him to certify a bond sale for a new Reds stadium on Cincinnati' s downtown riverfront, Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes said Wednesday.

By Rhodes' count, the county already has obligated $52 million in costs per year to stadium sales tax revenue, while state law this year will allow him to certify only about $58 million in total bonds - leaving only $6 million per year for the Reds' ballpark, now estimated to cost at least $334 million.

In other words, without a bond sale to fund construction, there's no money to build a stadium.

''This is an action that is a legal action that we're not going to do with blue smoke and mirrors,'' Rhodes said of the certification process. ''We think our number's going to be $58 million, and we've already got $52 million against it.'' Rhodes said the county cannot issue the bonds without his certification.

''They can't issue the bonds,'' he said. ''I mean, that's a statutory duty of this office. Unless the money's there, I can't make it up.''

County officials said today they are examining the issue raised by Rhodes and whether it might become an obstacle to financing the new Reds ballpark. Although Hamilton County Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus characterized Rhodes' concerns as being a ''Chicken Little.''

''Our financial advisers assure us that our financial model is solid,'' said Bedinghaus.

Rhodes' worries over bonding come as county officials announced that costs associated with the Reds stadium have grown by more than $100 million, from $235 million to over $334 million. The new figures, coupled with the $407 million price tag attached to the Bengals' Paul Brown Stadium, soar well above initial cost estimates. Parking to serve all the riverfront will cost an estimated $135 million, for a total of $876 million. That does not include the interest that will have to be paid during the term of the bonds, driving taxpayers' total cost well above $1 billion.

Attorney Tim Mara, who headed the unsuccessful 1996 campaign to defeat a 1/2-cent sales tax increase to finance stadium construction, angrily predicted Wednesday that the figures will continue to climb.

''They were either extremely inept or extremely clever,'' said Mara, who recalled that county commissioners used a figure of $540 million for both arenas in 1996 while pushing the sales tax. Had voters known in 1996 what the actual costs would be, they would have rejected the tax, Mara contends. County officials Wednesday said $45 million of the increased cost for the Reds' stadium project, scheduled for completion in 2003, was due to inflation in construction costs. Another $46 million is for roadway, utility and sewer alterations made necessary by the stadium. And another $8 million is the estimated cost of tearing down Cinergy Field. The $334 million amount does not include parking for the Reds' stadium, officials said. The county needs to sell bonds to finance construction costs of the two stadiums and will repay the bonds with sales tax revenues. But, as county auditor, Rhodes said he must certify the bond sale. Under state law, Rhodes said, he must take the highest year's amount of debt retirement and compare it to the average of the prior two years' stadium tax revenues. Here's how Rhodes reached his $52 million figure: The average annual repayment for the Paul Brown Stadium is expected to be $23 mi llion, Rhodes said. He noted that the highest yearly payment is $27 million. Another $18 million per year is committed to the property-tax rollback that taxpaye rs were promised during the stadium-tax campaign. Another $5 million per year is pledged to Cincinnati Public Schools. Another $4 million must go to Paul Brown stadium operating costs. Still $1 million more will go into capital reserve funds yearly for the Bengals and Reds, for a total of $2 million per year, Rhodes said. ''You've taken $52 million right now that is committed annually,'' he said. ''That only leaves $8 million. Only they (county administrators) know the other costs.'' ''It could be that there's good answers to all of this, and I'm just an old stick in the mud,'' he said. Rhodes' office has been excluded from participating in the planning process, he said. ''I'd be happy to be proven wrong and I only regret that we haven't played a role in this.''

Publication date: 01-13-00

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