Tag Archives: Minnesota

Column: Making Winters Work

My column in today’s The StarPhoenix

A well-travelled friend once told me that Saskatoon and northern Saskatchewan were the greatest places on Earth to be in the summer and the world’s worst places to live in the winter.

How much I agree with him depends on the wind chill.

Winters here are long and dreary, and they last from October until May some years. Not only does the snow linger, for many of us, the winter mindset dominates our thinking on all sorts of policies and decisions even during the heat of summer.

We argue about new ideas for the city all of the time. “We can’t have bike lanes because it snows half the year.” “The winter is too long to waste money on a pedestrian bridge.” “Money on parks is wasted because they never get used in the winter.”

There is much we don’t do because of this white stuff – even when we are complaining about the heat in the summer.

Other cities aren’t held captive to winter in the same way.

Many Nordic cities with far worse winters than ours have excellent bike infrastructure and keep the trails cleared year-round.

Edmonton struck a committee last year to help manage winters better.

I am not sure if I agree with the approach that Winnipeg and Calgary have taken with elevated walkways, but I was able to walk all over Winnipeg in -40 C temperatures with only a light jacket.

A report prepared for the Minneapolis-St. Paul region mentioned that nine of the 10 happiest American states are ones that feature cold winters, and listed examples of cities that do winter really well.

In Germany, Austria, and France, people look forward to outdoor holiday markets where they can find a festive atmosphere along with holiday decorations, seasonal gifts, and warm food and drink.

New York City has imported the idea and has set up massive outdoor markets across Manhattan. Before you scoff at the idea, look at the large crowds that come out in any weather to Wintershines. People will come if you give them reason to do so.

December is easy, but we have to make February tolerable. Winnipeg is doing an excellent job. The city pays a lot more for winter snow and not only can you drive around, the sidewalks are cleared. Imagine being able to drive and get around on foot. It can happen.

Winnipeg has also installed heated bus shelters at a growing number of stops. Even in -40 C with a brutal wind, I was able to take off my tuque, gloves, and unzip my jacket while waiting for a bus.

The city has slowly added winter warming shacks as attractions along its rivers. It started as a local idea, and now gets international attention from architects and designers. Those shacks get you out of the wind and give you an excuse to brave the elements.

No matter the weather, thousands of people are having fun all winter long.

Adding a few warming huts each year would make a cold and windy Saskatoon riverfront a lot more tolerable. It would also help connect the different business districts which are spread out because of our river.

Holiday seasonal markets would also be perfect in the Saskatoon Farmers Market. Who knows? It could even one day expand into something other than a weekend destination.

The first step is not warming huts or outdoor markets, however – it is to convince council to get serious about residential snow removal. And our business improvement districts must get serious about keeping sidewalks clear.

Then it relies on everyone figuring out ways to make winters more enjoyable.

Maybe it’s a restaurant opening its deck on milder days, or community associations holding outdoor parties in the winter, like they do in the summer.

It requires the city looking at ways of making our parks winter-friendly, perhaps with more fire pits, or ensuring bike lanes are cleared all season long.

It’s bus shelters that actually do keep us warm. Once we figure out how to shed the shackles of a cold winter and enjoy it, we will find out that even our summer months can get better.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

How the profitable sports league in the world fleeces taxpayers

Here is how the NFL takes advantages of taxpayers across the United States and doesn’t pay any taxes.

Last year was a busy one for public giveaways to the National Football League. In Virginia, Republican Governor Bob McDonnell, who styles himself as a budget-slashing conservative crusader, took $4 million from taxpayers’ pockets and handed the money to the Washington Redskins, for the team to upgrade a workout facility. Hoping to avoid scrutiny, McDonnell approved the gift while the state legislature was out of session. The Redskins’ owner, Dan Snyder, has a net worth estimated by Forbes at $1 billion. But even billionaires like to receive expensive gifts.

Taxpayers in Hamilton County, Ohio, which includes Cincinnati, were hit with a bill for $26 million in debt service for the stadiums where the NFL’s Bengals and Major League Baseball’s Reds play, plus another $7 million to cover the direct operating costs for the Bengals’ field. Pro-sports subsidies exceeded the $23.6 million that the county cut from health-and-human-services spending in the current two-year budget (and represent a sizable chunk of the $119 million cut from Hamilton County schools). Press materials distributed by the Bengals declare that the team gives back about $1 million annually to Ohio community groups. Sound generous? That’s about 4 percent of the public subsidy the Bengals receive annually from Ohio taxpayers.

In Minnesota, the Vikings wanted a new stadium, and were vaguely threatening to decamp to another state if they didn’t get it. The Minnesota legislature, facing a $1.1 billion budget deficit, extracted $506 million from taxpayers as a gift to the team, covering roughly half the cost of the new facility. Some legislators argued that the Vikings should reveal their finances: privately held, the team is not required to disclose operating data, despite the public subsidies it receives. In the end, the Minnesota legislature folded, giving away public money without the Vikings’ disclosing information in return. The team’s principal owner, Zygmunt Wilf, had a 2011 net worth estimated at $322 million; with the new stadium deal, the Vikings’ value rose about $200 million, by Forbes’s estimate, further enriching Wilf and his family. They will make a token annual payment of $13 million to use the stadium, keeping the lion’s share of all NFL ticket, concession, parking, and, most important, television revenues.

After approving the $506 million handout, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton said, “I’m not one to defend the economics of professional sports … Any deal you make in that world doesn’t make sense from the way the rest of us look at it.” Even by the standards of political pandering, Dayton’s irresponsibility was breathtaking.

In California, the City of Santa Clara broke ground on a $1.3 billion stadium for the 49ers. Officially, the deal includes $116 million in public funding, with private capital making up the rest. At least, that’s the way the deal was announced. A new government entity, the Santa Clara Stadium Authority, is borrowing $950 million, largely from a consortium led by Goldman Sachs, to provide the majority of the “private” financing. Who are the board members of the Santa Clara Stadium Authority? The members of the Santa Clara City Council. In effect, the city of Santa Clara is providing most of the “private” funding. Should something go wrong, taxpayers will likely take the hit.

The 49ers will pay Santa Clara $24.5 million annually in rent for four decades, which makes the deal, from the team’s standpoint, a 40-year loan amortized at less than 1 percent interest. At the time of the agreement, 30-year Treasury bonds were selling for 3 percent, meaning the Santa Clara contract values the NFL as a better risk than the United States government.

Although most of the capital for the new stadium is being underwritten by the public, most football revenue generated within the facility will be pocketed by Denise DeBartolo York, whose net worth is estimated at $1.1 billion, and members of her family. York took control of the team in 2000 from her brother, Edward DeBartolo Jr., after he pleaded guilty to concealing an extortion plot by a former governor of Louisiana. Brother and sister inherited their money from their father, Edward DeBartolo Sr., a shopping-mall developer who became one of the nation’s richest men before his death in 1994. A generation ago, the DeBartolos made their money the old-fashioned way, by hard work in the free market. Today, the family’s wealth rests on political influence and California tax subsidies. Nearly all NFL franchises are family-owned, converting public subsidies and tax favors into high living for a modern-day feudal elite.

Pro-football coaches talk about accountability and self-reliance, yet pro-football owners routinely binge on giveaways and handouts. A year after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the Saints resumed hosting NFL games: justifiably, a national feel-good story. The finances were another matter. Taxpayers have, in stages, provided about $1 billion to build and later renovate what is now known as the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. (All monetary figures in this article have been converted to 2013 dollars.) The Saints’ owner, Tom Benson, whose net worth Forbes estimates at $1.2 billion, keeps nearly all revenue from ticket sales, concessions, parking, and broadcast rights. Taxpayers even footed the bill for the addition of leather stadium seats with cup holders to cradle the drinks they are charged for at concession stands. And corporate welfare for the Saints doesn’t stop at stadium construction and renovation costs. Though Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal claims to be an anti-spending conservative, each year the state of Louisiana forcibly extracts up to $6 million from its residents’ pockets and gives the cash to Benson as an “inducement payment”—the actual term used—to keep Benson from developing a wandering eye.

In NFL city after NFL city, this pattern is repeated. CenturyLink Field, where the Seattle Seahawks play, opened in 2002, with Washington State taxpayers providing $390 million of the $560 million construction cost. The Seahawks, owned by Paul Allen, one of the richest people in the world, pay the state about $1 million annually in rent in return for most of the revenue from ticket sales, concessions, parking, and broadcasting (all told, perhaps $200 million a year). Average people are taxed to fund Allen’s private-jet lifestyle.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, winners of six Super Bowls, the most of any franchise, play at Heinz Field, a glorious stadium that opens to a view of the serenely flowing Ohio and Allegheny Rivers. Pennsylvania taxpayers contributed about $260 million to help build Heinz Field—and to retire debt from the Steelers’ previous stadium. Most game-day revenues (including television fees) go to the Rooney family, the majority owner of the team. The team’s owners also kept the $75 million that Heinz paid to name the facility.

Judith Grant Long, a Harvard University professor of urban planning, calculates that league-wide, 70 percent of the capital cost of NFL stadiums has been provided by taxpayers, not NFL owners. Many cities, counties, and states also pay the stadiums’ ongoing costs, by providing power, sewer services, other infrastructure, and stadium improvements. When ongoing costs are added, Long’s research finds, the Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints, San Diego Chargers, St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Tennessee Titans have turned a profit on stadium subsidies alone—receiving more money from the public than they needed to build their facilities. Long’s estimates show that just three NFL franchises—the New England Patriots, New York Giants, and New York Jets—have paid three-quarters or more of their stadium capital costs.

Many NFL teams have also cut sweetheart deals to avoid taxes. The futuristic new field where the Dallas Cowboys play, with its 80,000 seats, go-go dancers on upper decks, and built-in nightclubs, has been appraised at nearly $1 billion. At the basic property-tax rate of Arlington, Texas, where the stadium is located, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones would owe at least $6 million a year in property taxes. Instead he receives no property-tax bill, so Tarrant County taxes the property of average people more than it otherwise would.

In his office at 345 Park Avenue in Manhattan, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell must smile when Texas exempts the Cowboys’ stadium from taxes, or the governor of Minnesota bows low to kiss the feet of the NFL. The National Football League is about two things: producing high-quality sports entertainment, which it does very well, and exploiting taxpayers, which it also does very well. Goodell should know—his pay, about $30 million in 2011, flows from an organization that does not pay corporate taxes.

That’s right—extremely profitable and one of the most subsidized organizations in American history, the NFL also enjoys tax-exempt status. On paper, it is the Nonprofit Football League.

This situation came into being in the 1960s, when Congress granted antitrust waivers to what were then the National Football League and the American Football League, allowing them to merge, conduct a common draft, and jointly auction television rights. The merger was good for the sport, stabilizing pro football while ensuring quality of competition. But Congress gave away the store to the NFL while getting almost nothing for the public in return.

The 1961 Sports Broadcasting Act was the first piece of gift-wrapped legislation, granting the leagues legal permission to conduct television-broadcast negotiations in a way that otherwise would have been price collusion. Then, in 1966, Congress enacted Public Law 89‑800, which broadened the limited antitrust exemptions of the 1961 law. Essentially, the 1966 statute said that if the two pro-football leagues of that era merged—they would complete such a merger four years later, forming the current NFL—the new entity could act as a monopoly regarding television rights. Apple or ExxonMobil can only dream of legal permission to function as a monopoly: the 1966 law was effectively a license for NFL owners to print money. Yet this sweetheart deal was offered to the NFL in exchange only for its promise not to schedule games on Friday nights or Saturdays in autumn, when many high schools and colleges play football.

Public Law 89-800 had no name—unlike, say, the catchy USA Patriot Act or the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Congress presumably wanted the bill to be low-profile, given that its effect was to increase NFL owners’ wealth at the expense of average people.

While Public Law 89-800 was being negotiated with congressional leaders, NFL lobbyists tossed in the sort of obscure provision that is the essence of the lobbyist’s art. The phrase or professional football leagues was added to Section 501(c)6 of 26 U.S.C., the Internal Revenue Code. Previously, a sentence in Section 501(c)6 had granted not-for-profit status to “business leagues, chambers of commerce, real-estate boards, or boards of trade.” Since 1966, the code has read: “business leagues, chambers of commerce, real-estate boards, boards of trade, or professional football leagues.”

The insertion of professional football leagues into the definition of not-for-profit organizations was a transparent sellout of public interest. This decision has saved the NFL uncounted millions in tax obligations, which means that ordinary people must pay higher taxes, public spending must decline, or the national debt must increase to make up for the shortfall. Nonprofit status applies to the NFL’s headquarters, which administers the league and its all-important television contracts. Individual teams are for-profit and presumably pay income taxes—though because all except the Green Bay Packers are privately held and do not disclose their finances, it’s impossible to be sure.

Depression haunts homeless children

From Minnesota Public Radio

A new report by the Wilder Foundation estimates 4,500 children in Minnesota spend time in shelters on any given night — the highest number since the surveys began 20 years ago.

Those children are often haunted by depression, the study shows. Whether homeless children and teens get help and support has a big impact on whether they end up homeless as adults.

The Wilder research shows about half of all homeless children in Minnesota are younger than the age of 6. The organization found that children who grow up under this kind of stress have lasting physical and emotional problems that are hard to overcome.

The Wilder report found that one-third of homeless parents were homeless themselves as children, and 35 percent of homeless parents report struggling with depression.

Nothing in the report surprised me but from what we see in Saskatchewan, it’s a much higher percentage of children under six and from the amount of anti-depressants I see, it’s a higher percentage of people struggling with mental health issues although I wonder if that is because of Medicare and the supplemental health insurance that families on social assistance receive.

The Lost Canadians

A border dispute with the United States means that there is a community of Manitobans that are now Minnesotans.  The good news is that they now have a home province state NHL franchise.

Dietzler, sixty-seven, is one of about a hundred year-round residents of the Northwest Angle and Islands, a 302-square-kilometre US exclave unwittingly created by the comically unwieldy Article II of the 1818 treaty. Some years later, when a survey team led by English Canadian explorer David Thompson eventually located Franklin’s northwesternmost point of the lake and surveyed the fix specified in the new document, it was found to intersect other bays of the lake, cutting off a Malta-sized chunk of US territory. The anomaly is easily found on a map: simply follow the forty-ninth parallel from west to east, and you’ll see a small upward jut, “the chimney of Minnesota,” just before the border begins to wobble off its 2,300-kilometre perpendicular course.

With Ontario to the north, Manitoba to the west, and open water to the south and east, the Angle enjoys the distinction of being the northernmost point of the contiguous forty-eight states, the only part of the continental US north of the forty-ninth parallel, and one of only four non-island locations in the lower forty-eight not directly connected by land within the country. But the Angle’s superb walleye fishing, rather than its curious location, is what sustains the local economy. It was an enduring threat to this livelihood from Ontario that spurred Dietzler and a small handful of others to explore the idea of seceding from the Union and joining Canada. The notion quickly grew beyond fanciful bar talk, and within a few months it was introduced as a bill in the US House of Representatives, supposedly prompting a miffed Bill Clinton to place an urgent call to Jean Chrétien.