Grassroots coalition announces campaign to defeat Cuyahoga County sin tax renewal (Issue 7) this May

by Cleveland Frowns on March 12, 2014

As was predictable enough when the Greater Cleveland Partnership (the local chamber of commerce) first announced its support for the issue last August, a proposed 20-year renewal of the Cuyahoga County Sin Tax – intended to collect between $260-$320 million from taxpayers to be used to finance the costs of constructing, renovating, improving, or repairing Cleveland’s three pro-sports facilities – is on the ballot this May as Issue 7.

Cuyahoga County Council unanimously approved this measure for the ballot only two weeks after it was formally introduced, allocating approximately six minutes for public comment on the issue over the course of two meetings. Cleveland’s only daily newspaper, the Plain Dealer, announced its support for the renewal of the Sin Tax three days before Council approved the issue for the ballot.

All of this happened without any meaningful accounting of just what the public’s obligations are to fund the hugely profitable private businesses of Cleveland’s pro sports owners, and without any meaningful examination of whether the proposed Sin Tax is the best way to meet any such obligations.

This lack of transparency is especially troubling given the existence of apparently preferable alternatives to the proposed Sin Tax, and given the fact that the current deals with the teams were made decades ago in an entirely different economic climate. Since the 1990′s, when the current leases for the three sports facilities were negotiated, the national and local economies have suffered the worst recession since the 1930s, unemployment and inequality have skyrocketed, and the County’s population, property values, and key services have plummeted. It stands to reason that now is exactly the right time to demand increased transparency regarding the public’s obligations to Cleveland’s pro-sports owners, and exactly the wrong time to approve a rushed ballot measure that represents “business as usual” as much as Issue 7 does, with the following questions, among others, remaining unanswered:

  1. Why have proponents of the Sin Tax been consistently unable to explain exactly what the public’s “obligations” are to finance the pro sports facilities, or how Sin Tax revenues would serve to satisfy those “obligations”? How do Sin Tax revenues serve as anything but a bottomless pit of public funding for the pro sports owners?
  2. Why are the citizens of Cuyahoga County being shouldered with the burden of paying this tax, when over 50% of the visitors to the facilities are from outside of the County?
  3. Why is the proposal for a 20-year tax when none of the three sports teams have more than 15 years left on their lease?
  4. Why do proponents of the Sin Tax refer as much as they do to a “pennies on the dollar tax” when in reality the Tax will amount to hundreds of millions of dollars of public money that could be spent on anything else?
  5. Why are we pursuing stadium funding through a Sin Tax, which has been proven to be a regressive tax that disproportionately impacts the poor, young, and addicted?

The “Keep Cleveland Strong” campaign, backed by the Greater Cleveland Partnership and the three sports teams, will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in an attempt to get the Sin Tax passed without any of these questions being answered. Their campaign essentially amounts to a veiled threat that one or more of the three teams will leave if the ballot measure fails, and absurdly assumes by its very name that transparency and a fair deal for taxpayers would somehow weaken the City and County.

But rejecting the Sin Tax this May will not cause the Browns, Indians or Cavs to leave Cleveland. Only so many cities have the infrastructure and fanbase to support pro sports franchises, and, consistent with the current economic climate, voters in these cities are rejecting this brand of corporate welfare with unprecedented consistency and solidarity. Rejecting the Sin Tax will only lead to increased transparency and a better deal for Cuyahoga County taxpayers, certainly not a worse one. Voters should make a decision as important as this one based on facts, not baseless threats.


This is why I’ve come together with a group of similarly concerned citizens to form an official opposition to the “Keep Cleveland Strong” campaign called “Coalition Against the Sin Tax” (CAST), to fight against Issue 7 and to fight for a fair deal for County taxpayers. Our first press release was issued yesterday (also posted below) and our official website was launched at Please join our coalition by signing up for the email list using the “Join the Coalition” form at the website. Also please follow us on Twitter at @noCLEsintax, and join the discussion at the campaign’s official Facebook page, as well as in the comments section at this website, where frequent campaign updates will be posted. There will be an introductory press conference and organizational meet-up at Market Garden Brewery’s Ohio City Room beginning at 6:00 pm on March 19th (1947 W 25th St, Cleveland, OH 44113) where you can learn how to become more involved as well as participate in a lively discussion about the issue.

With the opposition poised to outspend us by hundreds of thousands of dollars (to essentially zero), your engagement is especially important here so please get as involved as you can and please spread the word. With the pro sports teams as involved as they are here, this issue presents a unique opportunity for engagement of the public with respect to how its money is spent, and increased accountability and transparency with respect to the future use of public funds across the board.

Finally, here’s a story about our opposition campaign, and here’s another link to a Deadspin piece about what happened in Miami after voters rejected a ballot measure for $400 million in stadium improvements for the Dolphins, in case you missed it above:

Just nine months after trying—and failing—to get nearly $400 million in taxpayer dollars to pay for renovations to Sun Life Stadium, word comes out of Miami that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is willing to pay for the majority of the upgrades himself. This should be remembered every time a team tries to hold its city or county hostage for a new stadium: If you stand firm, the team will blink first. . . . 

It was not surprising that plans for publicly funded stadium upgrades died in South Florida, which got burned by the Marlins in the scam to end all scams. But other locales continue to fall for the same bit, even in places like Detroit—where the Red Wings would never, ever leave. It’s inexplicable why local politicians keep giving weight to phantom economic benefit studies, and gift franchises everything they’re looking for without at least negotiating. And yes, saying “no” is negotiating, and will tend to lead to a deal that’s at least a little more palatable.

  • Cleveland Frowns

    So, posted a response to our press release by Nancy Lessic, who works for the Pro Sin Tax people. It’s mostly pretty typical misdirection, but what’s really strange is the way that she addresses our allegation that the Pro-Sinners have been consistently unable to explain exactly what the public’s
    “obligations” are to finance the pro sports facilities, or how Sin Tax
    revenues would serve to satisfy those “obligations.”

    In response to this she simply says “1.5 cents for a bottle of beer, a penny for a glass of wine, and 4.5 cents per pack of cigarettes.”

    It’s hard to describe how completely unresponsive this is, and it’s telling that they want to keep talking about “pennies” when what we’re talking about is hundreds of millions of dollars that could be spent on anything else.

    • bupalos

      That response is actually pretty hilarious. It’s like someone handing you a bogus invoice for rubber ducks you never ordered or received, and when you question why you would owe that they show you your own tax return that shows you make more than enough to pay. So that’s why.

      • Cleveland Frowns

        That’s exactly what it’s like. Thanks, bup, for joining the Coalition.

      • actovegin1armstrong

        You are on a roll Bupa!

  • Dan

    I like her comment of massive capital repairs that are looming. I didn’t know removing seats and paying for new jumbotrons and a sound system were capital repairs. And my other comment to her about this is show us. Have an independent auditor (paid by both sides) review these looming repairs and the money that will be needed to fix them.

    • Cleveland Frowns

      Before we even got to that, one would think it would be easy enough for them to come up with a simple three-column list of exactly what the “obligations” are, exactly what agreement requires them (incl. by what clause), and exactly what revenues will go to satisfy them and when.

      Would like to see a similar list of what “obligations” have been retired by the last 25 years of Sin Tax revenues.

  • bupalos

    For anyone who is tempted to listen to the sin-tax snake-charms about teams leaving, giving in to the hostage economy these guys want to perpetuate is no recipe for keeping teams. Quite the contrary. The more viable this hostage taking is, the less secure your team no matter what you are offering to pay in extortion in this round. Because there are an infinite number of rounds and a lot of other bidders. It needs to end. Great good on you Frowns for your work in helping to shoulder this uphill battle.

  • GRRustlers

    But what if we vote it down because we WANT Gilbert and the Cavaliers to move?

    • Petefranklin

      There’s a sound bite on sports radio out here where Steve Cofield says to Cleveland fans the only way to get rid of Gilbert is to stop going to the games, then they go on about how funny it would be if a coalition borrowed money from Quickens to buy the team. It seems to be on air a few times daily.

      • actovegin1armstrong

        I like the idea PF, if we get a million home equity loans and then we all go “Occupy Quicken Loans Arena”, we appoint Pete and p_4 as our spokespeople, Bupa can be our speechwriter and I volunteer to be Sgt at Arms.
        We can do this!

        • Petefranklin

          And in our first year owning the team we can all make our money back by putting the crappiest team ever on the floor and betting against them. Vegas wouldn’t know what hit them. For that to work, all we have to do is keep Mike Brown. Then once we’ve made our money back and stop paying Gilbert…FREE BEER at the games, we’ll make our money on 20$ bags of pretzels and 10$ urinal passes!

          • jpftribe

            fuggin brilliant!

  • Mad_Elf

    Man, I freaking Love You, Frowns. Yeah, it’s creepy, just go with it!

  • George


    You are spot on with your logic. The questions you are raising seem obvious. Common sense is not common. Good luck with your campaign.

  • 6thCity

    I read and read both the post and the press releases and I still don’t see the “Vote Pattakos For Mayor” button anywhere

  • Joe Bialek

    This letter is in response to the articles covering the Sin Tax vote
    occurring Tuesday, May 6, 2014.

    This issue is the absurdity of absurdities. Let me get this straight: the purpose of the Sin Tax is to gouge those who purchase alcohol and cigarettes not because anyone is trying to discourage consumption but rather so the County can use that money to pay for sports stadiums that do not produce a…nything but a fleeting moment witnessing the passing of a football, the dribbling of a basketball and the throwing of a baseball so that such a minute
    tidbit of diversion can be enjoyed by all. The stupidity of this proposition is enough to make your head spin even though the spin doctors advocating passage of this nonsense are already doing a pretty good job of hypnotizing the voters to actually consider supporting it. At least the Robber Barons of the previous centuries provided something tangible such as oil, steel,
    railroads etcetera. These team owners do not even provide one tangible thing that could ever be considered with the term “value added.” Almost everyone discusses this “enterprise” as though it is the same thing as industry {which it is not}. The price of admission is essentially a voluntary tax paid by those who can afford it to pay those who don’t need it. If this isn’t a transfer of wealth I don’t know what is.

    The real outrage here is the fact that taxes on alcohol and cigarettes will not be used to aid in the reduction of addiction {hence the reference to “sin”} but rather to stuff the pockets of all three teams who could easily afford to pay for the repairs themselves. The vote was rammed through the last time
    {under somewhat suspicious circumstances} and hear we go again. But this time…not so fast!!! We the voters of Cuyahoga County are going to fight the proponents on this one and we don’t care if the teams up and go somewhere else {please see my views on entertainment below} because quite frankly there are simply more important things than sports and the unearned money that
    comes with it. Those in public office who are too stupid and lazy to find other ways to grow a major American city need to resign and leave their self-seeking political ambitions on the scrapheap of history. Don’t ever let it be said that this was time when the tide ran out on Cuyahoga County but rather was the time when the voters rose up to welcome the rising tide of change and rebuked
    this pathetic paradigm our previous elected leaders embraced.
    Let the battle be joined.

    And now to the real underlying issue at hand:

    One of the most disturbing facts about our capitalist nation is the
    misappropriation of funds directed to the salaries of entertainers.
    Everyone should agree that the value an athlete, movie star, talk-show host, team-owner, etcetera brings to the average citizen is very small. Granted, they do offer a minuscule of diversion from our daily trials and tribulations as did the jesters in the king’s court during the middle ages. But to allow these entertainers to horde such great amounts of wealth at the expense of more benevolent societal programs is unacceptable. They do not provide a product or a service so why are they rewarded as such?

    Our society is also subjected to the “profound wisdom” of these people because it equates wealth with influence. Perhaps a solution to this problem and a alternative to defeated school levies, crumbling infrastructures, as well as all the programs established to help feed, clothe and shelter those who cannot help themselves would be to tax this undeserved wealth. Entertainers could keep 1% of the gross earnings reaped from their endeavor and 99% could be deposited into the public coffers.

    The old ideas of the redistribution of wealth have failed, and it is time to adapt to modern-day preferences. People put their money into entertainment above everything else; isn’t it time to tap that wealth? Does anyone think this will reduce the quality of entertainment? It seems to me that when entertainers received less income, the quality was much higher.

    Joe Bialek
    Cleveland, OH

    “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.” Bertrand Russell

  • packy666

    I find it very disgusting that they have these laborers stating how the sin tax produce jobs.What a load of crap. The sin tax was only enacted to build the Browns Stadium. It was not meant to be the basis for every other program that comes down the pike.Why should everyone only in Cuyahoga County be taxed. The people who helped build the Stadium are the ones they don’t want in the stadium. The owners of these teams are getting the profits so let them pay for the upgrades and maintenance. They got the building for free. I’m sick of all the lying to the people of Cuyahoga county by these corrupt Politicians and organizations.

  • Ed Crotty

    Good for You, Cleveland. I just think the proposed “facility fee” should be 10x higher for tickets in suites. Let the fat cats pay for the teams, not the public at large and certainly not the poor.

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