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Council members balk at current Minneapolis stadium plan, but most are staying flexible

They let Mayor R.T. Rybak know exactly what they like and don’t like about his Vikings Stadium proposal, but most Minneapolis City Council members didn’t tip their hands Thursday to show how they might ultimately vote on a final plan.

Even those who came close to announcing that they would be a “no” vote gave themselves some wiggle room.

“It’s not going to be a slam-dunk,” said Rybak after meeting for two hours with Council Members. “We need to get the support of seven members, and I think we will get that.”

Several council members said they oppose public financing of sports facilities, while several others expressed concern about trying to sidestep a City Charter requirement that a referendum be held for any stadium proposal costing taxpayers more than $10 million. Others, meanwhile, think the state should be picking up more of the tab.

“The toughest vote is anything involving a stadium,” Rybak told the council during his presentation.

The current Minneapolis plan would use existing hospitality tax revenue to fund the city’s contribution stadium. That tax revenue also would be used to renovate Target Center, which then would no longer receive property tax support. The hospitality tax currently supports the Minneapolis Convention Center.

Angry calls

“The calls coming in to me are 10–to-1 against,” said Council Member Lisa Goodman, adding, “People are indignant about [efforts] trying to get around the charter.”

Goodman said she is glad the focus has moved to the Metrodome site but isn’t happy about the tactics. “It’s hard to see leadership I admire trying to get around the charter,” said Goodman.  “The vote of the public, to me, is the single most important thing.”

City Council President Barb Johnson pointed out that the spending limit on sports facilities isn’t the only such limit in the City Charter. There’s also a provision capping spending on any public facility at $15 million. Johnson said that provision has been bypassed before by the Legislature.

“I don’t intend to try and be cute to get around the charter,” said Johnson, “but my point all along — and I have said this at the Legislature — that the state is going to have to exempt us from the charter.”

Council members voiced plenty of objections to the plan, but most were careful to stop short of saying they would vote “no.”  One rule of politics is to not say “no” too early to avoid losing your bargaining power to address your concerns.

The search for seven votes

This first public session to discuss the stadium was an opportunity for Rybak and Johnson to identify the potential seven votes they need. They likely will focus on everyone who appears to be undecided and not paying much attention to those who take themselves out of the conversation.

Only one member said he would not be voting for the stadium if certain conditions were not met.

“The referendum must be preserved,” said Council Member Cam Gordon. “If we don’t have that, I won’t be part of it.”

“It [the referendum] won’t pass,” said Johnson, who is opposed to putting the stadium on the ballot.  “I’m a realist. I want to see this $1 billion investment, and I want to see it in the City of Minneapolis.”

“We are not going to do a referendum in the city,” said Rybak. “The referendum is when I stand for re-election.”

Several council members said they oppose public funding of sports facilities, and several more said they think the stadium is a state facility that should be paid for with state revenue.

“Even if I supported public funding for a sports facility, which I do not, I do not support this plan,” said Council Member Betsy Hodges, who also sounds like a “no” vote but left herself some room should the plan change.

Council Member Robert Lilligran, who also opposes public funding of sports facilities, noted, though, that “I appreciate the effort to remove Target Center from the tax burden.”

Rybak told council members that the package includes $100 million in property tax relief that would begin with $5 million in 2013.  Most of that would come from transferring Target Center from property tax support to support by the hospitality tax, but hanging on to that idea at the State Capitol is going to be tough.

Further, several legislators already have balked at including Target Center in any stadium deal.

“I’ve been here 15 years.  I know how interested they are in helping us,” said Johnson, “They’re not interested.”

Target Center part of city deal

“Target Center is a huge generator of revenue for the state of Minnesota and the City of Minneapolis,” said Johnson.  “We will support a package that includes Target Center. We will not support a package that does not include Target Center.”

“They’re not interested in helping us with Target Center,” said Hodges, pointing out that the state is very willing to take tax revenue generated by the Minneapolis Convention Center.

Three Council Members think the burden of the stadium should be more of a state obligation than a city one.

Council Member Sandy Colvin Roy said she “cannot countenance going around the referendum” requirement and believes keeping the Vikings should be more of a statewide concern than a city responsibility.

“There are fans in every county,” she said, “but our taxpayers are being asked to carry part of the burden for an activity that is enjoyed around the state.”

“I don’t like public financing for this,” said Council Member Meg Tuthill, but that doesn’t mean she is a “no” vote.  She knows the value of attracting visitors for sports events and recalled the days when she owned a small business that made enough money during a 10-day sports tournament to give her the option of shutting down for three months. She also prefers to see the stadium financing spread statewide.

“A small entity like the City of Minneapolis should not pay for a large share of a statewide facility,” added Council Member Elizabeth Glidden.  “The cost is too great for the people of Minneapolis, and the risks are too great.”

Despite two hours of tough questions,Rybak said he was pleased that most council members seemed somewhat flexible. “Our job is to work with council members and not walk them out on a limb.”

“Sometimes being in public office means taking a tough vote,” said Johnson. Both she and Rybak agree that they now must make a strong case to council members and Minneapolis voters.

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