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Bengals likely to stay put Baltimore out of hunt

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CINCINNATI -- Baltimore's hopes of luring the NFL's Bengals suffered a stinging and probably fatal blow yesterday when officials here proposed a $100 million tax increase to build a pair of stadiums.

Leaders of Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, said that they would increase the county sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent to build stadiums for the Bengals and the baseball Reds, who share 25-year-old Riverfront Stadium and are threatening to move if new facilities aren't built.

Two of the county's three commissioners endorsed the $540 million stadium proposal, assuring it of passage. In addition to the sales tax, the county proposes to raise $109 million from the state and $130 million from "private sources," probably season-ticket fees and auctioning off the right to name the stadiums to corporate sponsors.

State leaders have publicly agreed to pay for their share, equal to about 15 percent of the project.

Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls vowed to fight the plan as written, but acknowledged that the toughest part of saving the Bengals, getting someone to raise taxes, appeared accomplished.

The plan also drew criticism from anti-tax forces, which promised to lead a petition drive to put it to referendum, and the state's teachers union, which wants school funding included in the package.

Nevertheless, Maryland Stadium Authority chairman John Moag said it appeared the hunt for the Bengals was over.

"We are actively engaged in discussions with other NFL owners and are also pursuing the potential for non-football related uses for the Camden Yards property," Moag said.

A Bengals attorney notified Moag yesterday that the team thought it had a deal, despite the uncertainty of the funding. Moag said he wished them luck.

"I'm a believer that when push comes to shove communities will step up to the plate. I think this is risky for [Bengals owner] Mike Brown, but if he wants to take that risk to stay in Cincinnati, he will," Moag said.

Said Brown, "I think we are going down the right path. . . Make no mistake about it, we're not there yet. The next few days are going to be critical."

Asked if he was concerned about a possible tax repeal next year, Brown said, "It's a risk that's involved in this and one we will address in some way."

Brown declined to say how he could protect the team from that contingency, but Mayor Qualls said Brown has indicated he wants a year-to-year lease until the funding issues are settled.

Asked about the Bengals' fans in Baltimore, Brown said, "Those people deserve an NFL franchise and in my book, they will get one; it might not be mine, but they will get one."

Maryland has funding in place for a $200 million stadium to be built adjacent to Camden Yards. The Bengals were the latest of several teams to explore the offer, considered a powerful inducement for a league increasingly driven by stadium revenues.

Moag had issued a deadline of the end of the month for the Bengals, after which he said the state would no longer talk to the team. He said yesterday that he would not extend the deadline and anticipated no further talks with the club.

Designed to pressure the team to make a decision, the deadline also had the effect of spurring action among Cincinnati's political and business leaders.

"I think that drove most of this. But if it wasn't Baltimore it would have been someplace else. These franchises aren't tied to a community anymore," said Hamilton County commissioner Bob Bedinghaus, the author of the plan.

The Bengals released a statement saying that their reaction "is one of great expectation. This is a huge step forward."

"There remain critical details to be worked out with the city. We expect these can be resolved and concluded quickly," the team said.

The statement, and news conference by county leaders yesterday, appeared designed to pressure City Hall into going along with a package the county called "non-negotiable."

Among its provisions were several that would cost the city money: transfer control and revenues from the existing Riverfront Stadium as well as the two new ones, including city taxes on admissions, player incomes, incomes of construction workers building the stadiums, and stadium property.

Bedinghaus, who took several jabs at a "leadership vacuum" in the city, said the revenue provisions of the plan were necessary and fair because the county would pay for the stadiums.

Although he predicted additional talks with the teams and business leaders before the plan would be finalized, Bedinghaus pointedly rejected negotiations on the city's contributions.

Qualls said the city council would not support the plan unless there was something for the city, such as aid for the city's troubled school system or mass transit. Out of the $100 million the sales tax increase would raise each year, the county has proposed to spend $35 million paying off bonds to build the stadiums, $25 million on county jails and public safety, and $40 million to defray a property tax cut worth about $45 to the owner of a $100,000 house.

"If the commissioners are willing to raise the sales tax, then transferring the assets and liabilities of the stadiums is all right. I'm concerned about the other things they are glomming on," Qualls said.

"I think right now what has been proposed needs to change in some significant areas before anyone can think about supporting this," Qualls said.

"I think they need to relearn the art of talking," she said.

In fact, she said she would help lead a petition drive to rescind the tax if approved as written. Under Ohio law, the tax has to be put to a referendum if 26,000 citizens sign a petition within 30 days of the increase, scheduled to be ratified in late July. The earliest the matter could appear on a ballot would be November 1996. Opinion polls indicate it would lose.

An opponent of the tax, county commissioner John Dowlin, said the commission is gambling that the necessary signatures can't be collected in time.

"It will fail if subjected to a vote of the people," said Dowlin, who preferred a privately funded, domed stadium proposal that the Bengals rejected.

Timothy Mara, a local attorney who led a successful fight against a jail funding tax several years ago, said he is prepared to do it again with the stadiums.

BENGALS CHRONOLOGY

* Oct. 26, 1993: The NFL awards an expansion franchise to Charlotte, N.C., and delays naming a second expansion winner until Nov. 30.

* Nov. 6, 1993: Mike Brown says that if Cincinnati officials don't get a new stadium approved in the next few months, his team could be playing at Memorial Stadium next season if Baltimore doesn't get an expansion team. "We recognize that there is a window of opportunity [in Baltimore], and it's not going to be open long," Brown said.

* Nov. 18, 1993: Cincinnati city manager John Shirey says he intends to explore "every option" to prevent the Bengals from moving. Proposals could include a $20 million renovation plan for the 23-year-old Riverfront Stadium or a new $200 million, 70,000-seat stadium. It could mean taxpayers will foot the bill through higher income taxes, sales taxes or multi-county taxes.

* Nov. 30, 1993: NFL awards its second expansion franchise to Jacksonville, Fla.

* March 12, 1995: Brown says at annual NFL owners meetings in Phoenix that the city of Cincinnati has breached the Bengals' lease with a late payment and he is free to move at the end of the 1995 season. Cincinnati, according to Brown, failed to meet a Feb. 28 deadline that called for a $1.2 million payment in lieu of renovations to Riverfront Stadium and almost $900,000 in concession money.

* April 10, 1995: Brown says that he no longer believes a football stadium will be built in Cincinnati.

* May 8, 1995: Brown says he would be interested in rebuilding Riverfront Stadium from the ground up in order to keep his team in Cincinnati.

* June 1, 1995: Brown says he's "worried more now than ever" about being able to keep the Bengals in Cincinnati and probably will visit Baltimore to see what's available.

* June 8, 1995: Brown visits Camden Yards and watches the Orioles-Mariners game from the Maryland Stadium Authority sky box.

* June 9, 1995: Cincinnati city councilman Nick Vehr says: "We're at a critical point. Mike Brown's trip [to Baltimore] makes that very clear. "How critical? Within a matter of weeks or maybe even days, it looks like we'll learn whether the Bengals will be called the Cincinnati Bengals or the Baltimore Bengals."

* June 20, 1995: Brown said a proposed domed stadium, which would be built with private financing, does not fit the team's needs.

* June 22, 1995: Cincinnati officials propose a $100 million tax increase to build stadiums for the Bengals and Reds, apparently ending any chance that the NFL team will move to Baltimore.

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