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Government and Politics

The push begins to renew Cuyahoga's sin tax
Supporters say the pro sports facility funding should be extended, but team owners need to bend

Kevin Niedermier
First Energy Stadium, home of the Cleveland Browns, is one the city's three pro sports facilities that receive funding from Cuyahoga County's sin tax, which will be up for renewal.
Courtesy of Cleveland Browns
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Cuyahoga County voters will likely be asked this spring to renew the sin tax that has helped maintain Cleveland’s professional sports facilities for nearly a quarter century. The tax on cigarettes and alcohol expires next year, and Cuyahoga County Council must decide soon if a renewal should go on the May ballot.

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Cuyahoga County Council introduced legislation Tuesday that would ask voters to decide if the sin tax should be extended for 20 more years.It was first approved in 1990 when the Cleveland Indians were threatening to move to Florida, and the Cavaliers were playing at the Richfield Coliseum in Summit County. The tax helped spur construction of a new baseball stadium and basketball arena downtown. Voters approved a 10 year extension in 2005 to help fund a new football stadium after the Cleveland Browns left for Baltimore. Cleveland City Councilman Zack Reed supports renewing the sin tax. He believes it’s the best way to fulfill the obligation the city and county made to the team owners a quarter century ago. He uses a concert by country musician Kenny Chesney as an example.

The sin tax spreads the burden beyond Cuyahoga County
“People come from all around, Nashville, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, to see Kenny Chesney.  When they come here and buy alcohol or buy a pack of cigarettes, they help pay for the stadium they’re going to see Kenny Chesney in. So, I think it’s a fair way. But the unfair way would be if we don’t do anything and we leave it to the taxpayers of Cuyahoga County and Cleveland to pay for it themselves, then that’s unfair because people from all over the country come to those three facilities.”

If the sin tax expires, the county would have to pay its obligations to the team owners for decades through the general fund or another source. Reed says a problem is that the leases negotiated years ago favor the team owners and not the taxpayers, and he wants the agreements renegotiated. But for now, Reed says the stadiums and arena are just like any other public buildings.

Public funding and public responsibility
“So, we wouldn’t let them crumble and fall apart, we would find the resources and the money to pay for the upkeep of those facilities. These are no different. The only difference is that we see the billionaires inside utilizing these facilities and we think they should pay more. And I think they should sit around the table. I think we have great opportunities with the new ownerships of Dolan, Haslam and Gilbert to at least get back around the table and say can we negotiate a fairer and better lease deal for everybody.”

So far, the issue of renewing the sin tax hasn’t generated much opposition, but Reed expects that to change if it goes to the ballot. Republican County Councilman Michael Gallagher says he’ll listen to the arguments for renewal, but for now, he’s leaning against it. He agrees that the leases should be renegotiated, but he doesn’t expect that to happen. Gallagher says Northeast Ohio is overtaxed. And if there’s no extension, he says the county could probably adjust its spending and find the dollars to maintain the sports facilities. Another concern he has is that the resolution presented to council goes beyond using sin tax money just for maintenance.

Not much opposition to sin tax renewal yet
“In the body of the language it specifically states that it will be for the building of new facilities, and the expansion of amenities like new scoreboards and things like that. I think, minimumly, we have to change that language, and it has to be specifically for the upkeep alone.”  

Team officials have not discussed specifics of how the additional tax money would be used. But, that is expected to be addressed at council’s next public hearing scheduled for Tuesday. At least one more hearing will be held after that as Cuyahoga County Council works to meet the February fifth filing deadline for May’s ballot.


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