Foul Bills

The state wants more baseball teams during spring training--but Pima County taxpayers can't afford it

Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano has called out Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, assembling a baseball team that is trying to steal two Grapefruit League clubs for spring training in Arizona's Cactus League.

Napolitano signed a political hitter, former state Sen. Slade Mead, to head the new baseball commission, and she recruited Jennie Finch, the stunningly fast, former UA softball pitcher, for the commission.

The targets: the Cleveland Indians, who grew tired of waiting for undelivered upgrades at Hi Corbett Field and left Tucson for Florida after 1992 spring training, and the Houston Astros, once the parent of the Tucson Toros, including during that championship season in 1991.

Jeb Bush, a Republican, had to be surprised. After attending a recent meeting in Tempe, his baseball people told reporters that they thought there would be no inter-league raids that would change the current lineup of 12 Cactus League and 18 Grapefruit League teams.

Cactus League promoters assert that nothing but good comes from spring training in Arizona, beginning with a $250 million annual economic impact.

It is not clear whether Pima County will enter the competition. The county--or taxpayers, more specifically--are just beginning to climb out of the $50 million in debt under which they were buried by successive Boards of Supervisors. That includes $35 million for the spring training complex and Tucson Electric Park, financing costs, and a more-troubling $6 million operating deficit.

Add to that findings from a study that showed fans who follow the Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago White Sox, the teams that train at the Pima County complex, generate more in sales taxes for Maricopa County than Pima County.

The county has consistently lost money when the Diamondbacks and Sox depart for the regular season, and Tucson Electric Park is turned over to the Tucson Sidewinders, the Diamondbacks triple-A affiliate. For example, one concert there brought in more than the $12,697 paid to the county for the entire 2002 season. With payments to the county tied to their anemic attendance, the Sidewinders have been able to get away with gross annual bills of $25,000, further chopped by offsets provided in the agreement.

The county has been, for lack of a better word, snakebit.

"In baseball, everyone is a winner except the county," said County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. "If we could find out how to make the county even potentially a winner, I might reconsider my tepid response."

That is a speedy return to base for Huckelberry, who told some reporters last week that the county would step up and take a role in Napolitano's play for more teams.

"We've had all the fun we can have, given the funding distribution," Huckelberry told the Weekly.

Supervisors, with cheerleading permission from the Legislature in 1991, adopted a series of taxes in the 1990s to fund spring training expansion. They included the $3.50 surcharge on car rentals (up from the original $1.50), a 50-cent, nightly charge on RV rental spaces, and a 1 percent hotel bed tax.

Those taxes, rent and other revenue of around $900,000 from the Diamondbacks and White Sox--in agreements that heavily favored the teams in tickets, concessions and parking--have been far short of what the county needs to operate the baseball complex and to cover annual principal and interest payments, records consistently show.

Pima County property owners have covered that deficit, which reached $6.03 million last June. The county's property taxes, which are the highest of all 15 Arizona counties, have been used to chop that deficit to $3.2 million.

Supervisors have held operating taxes steady since county lawyers insisted that they jack them up to record levels over three years ending in 1999. But a succession of big increases in home and property values, plus new construction, has given Pima County bigger annual budgets and surpluses. Those added property-tax revenues have swelled the projected year-end surplus by $6.29 million, to $24.05 million. More than half of the extra money will be used to retire the operating deficit at the baseball complex.

Not all of that surplus can be devoted to baseball, said Tom House, the county's budget boss.

"Each year provides a new, whole host of problems, including higher insurance costs, higher retirement costs and operations of new facilities," House said.

The county still owes $40 million in principal and interest on the baseball complex. The total payment climbs this year by nearly $300,000 to $3.04 million, and hits $3.4 million in seven years.

Pima County's entry into the baseball business was precipitated by the Indians' departure 13 years ago. The first batch of taxes went to improve the city's Hi Corbett Field for the then-expansion Colorado Rockies. The county and city spent, in two phases, about $9 million for Hi Corbett improvements to satisfy the Rockies. But that agreement, which initially called for such things as a Phoenix-area practice field for the Rockies and country-club privileges for Rockies brass, also demanded that two more teams be signed for spring training in Pima County.

If the county enters the new round of competition for teams, it will need help from Napolitano and the Legislature to boost the hotel bed tax to give another 1 percent for baseball expenses.

"Spring training is one of the premier events for tourism, no doubt," Huckelberry said. "But because the county has no direct sales tax, we don't benefit. The bed tax increase will help us pay off our existing debt so local taxpayers no longer subsidize baseball."

There is some encouraging news: Advance ticket sales are up this year for the Diamondbacks and White Sox. Total Cactus League attendance last year was a record 1.23 million, with the Mesa-based Chicago Cubs drawing a Major League record 189,692. The Diamondbacks attracted 115,491, fourth-best in the Cactus League, while the White Sox drew 73,871 for ninth in league attendance. The Rockies drew 67,676, better only than the Milwaukee Brewers, who train in Maryvale, west of Phoenix.

The Diamondbacks and the county hope the team will get attendance close to the 147,449 mark of 2002, following the World Series win. The team's highest spring attendance was reached in its first year, in 1998.