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Unnecessary secrecy cloaks Panthers deal

City help on stadium is sensible, but tax hike is larger than needed

Why is it that $119 million for a streetcar gets years of public debate but $144 million for the Carolina Panthers gets none?

Charlotte’s City Council went into closed session last month and out popped an agreement to give the NFL team $125 million to renovate Bank of America stadium. On Friday, the City Council again met privately and ginned up $19 million more for the team.

Total amount of time any of this has been debated in public? Zero. That is unfortunate since every man, woman and child who eats out in Charlotte for the next 30 years will be chipping in to the kitty through a higher tax on prepared foods and beverages.

The speed with which the council has worked out this deal is a stark contrast to the streetcar. That project has been talked about for seven years or so. Divisions over it sank the city’s entire capital plan last year, and council members spent a chunk of their two-day retreat this week publicly discussing the streetcar and other big-ticket projects.

Not so with the Panthers. Team owner Jerry Richardson has said almost nothing publicly about the deal. Mayor Anthony Foxx and the City Council released a summary of it around 4 p.m. Friday. They birthed a tax likely to bring in well more than $600 million without a single minute of public discussion. Word has it that the vote was 9-1, but the public, naturally, can’t know.

The city’s approach produces a number of unanswered questions. One of the most urgent: Why raise taxes more than triple the amount needed to fulfill the Panthers’ request?

The city would put $125 million into the renovations over 15 years. Financed at 3.05 percent, that debt would cost the city around $10.5 million a year. The city also plans to pay $1.25 million a year for stadium maintenance and game-day traffic control. The city’s total tab: $11.75 million a year.

The 1 percentage point increase in the prepared foods tax would bring in close to $20 million per year. So the city would raise taxes by about $8.25 million a year more than necessary to pay for the Panthers’ upgrades.

Beyond that, the city’s payments end after 15 years. The tax, though, doesn’t sunset for 30 years. So the city stands to bring in $300 million more from the tax after the Panthers are out of the picture. And that’s assuming the city doesn’t grow at all between now and 2043.

What would all that money pay for? Well, there’s been no public discussion. Could the city raise the tax by a smaller amount for a shorter period of time and still give the Panthers all they’re asking for? Yes, but the council hasn’t debated that publicly either.

It’s distressing the city has been so secretive and plans to raise taxes more than required. The Panthers are a treasure for Charlotte. They create jobs and ignite economic activity while creating an undeniable cachet. The $125 million they sought from the city may feel like blackmail but is much smaller than what other cities are paying to keep their NFL teams happy. And it buys Charlotte 15 more years.

A city partnership with the Panthers makes sense and is part of being an NFL city. Foxx, Richardson and the council shouldn’t be so scared of the public who would benefit, and who would foot the bill.

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