An old debate has returned anew, and Roldo arose, as he did in the ’90s, to rail against the alcohol and cigarette tax that funds Cleveland’s stadiums.
“I think this is beyond reason, and I think any serious person would feel so,” he told the council in his high-pitched rasp. “Why would you want to place on the ballot another heavy tax burden, for who knows what real reasons these three team owners would use the money for?”
The council did not take his advice. This week it voted 11-0 to place a renewal of the “sin tax” on the May 6 ballot. A couple of hours later, I called Roldo and told him about the unanimous vote. He laughed. “Really unbelievable,” he said.
In my 14 years in town, I’ve never seen Roldo speak in public on an issue before. But his journalism has long had an activist bent. He recalls arguing with Mike White and Tim Hagan at press conferences and with Art Modell on the field of old Municipal Stadium. For 24 years, with more doggedness than the Browns chase quarterbacks, Roldo’s nipped at the ankles of Cleveland sports team owners, growling that the public shouldn’t build or own major-league stadiums.
The sin tax is "an unfair tax, a regressive tax, welfare for wealthy people,” he says. “All three owners are either billionaires, or members of families that are billionaires.”
I tried some pro-sin-tax arguments on him. The city and county own FirstEnergy Stadium, Progressive Field and Quicken Loans Arena. So shouldn’t the public pay for their upkeep?
“The point is, they should get themselves out of the business,” Roldo replied.
We’re the landlord. The teams are our tenants. If we break the leases, will the teams leave?
“The teams can leave, then,” Roldo answered. But he added, “I don’t think they’re going to go up and leave. They would take a lot of flak themselves for leaving a city. They’ve already done that with the football team. Would they do it again?
“No, I think Cleveland has an opportunity to start something that will go national: the teams start supporting themselves. They stop becoming welfare clients of a city that can’t even afford to educate their children.”
I read Roldo often, and I think he can spend too much energy fighting battles lost in the ’80s and ’90s. Public stadium funding and tax abatements for new business, the two biggest evils in his worldview, are common across the country now. Cities face tough compromises if they want to compete.
Yet a recent poll shows the stadium sin tax losing by almost 10 points. Greater Clevelanders are weary of the cost of public stadium ownership. Sports teams have gotten richer since the 1990s, Cleveland and Cuyahoga County have grown poorer, and everyone knows it.
So Roldo is relevant again. For him, the May 6 vote is a rematch, a sequel 24 years in the making. In his career-defining battle against the stadium and arena project in May 1990, Roldo printed “LET JACOBS PAY” buttons and bumper stickers to tweak then-Indians owner Dick Jacobs.
The Gateway project squeaked through with 52 percent of the countywide vote, but it has haunted local debates about public-private projects ever since. Last week, Roldo gave the county council copies of an infamous 1990 pro-Gateway ad, filled with grandiose, broken promises.
“I want to get the teams off welfare,” Roldo says. “A free stadium and not even pay property taxes? Does the museum come and say, give us $100 million over a long period, it’s hard to keep up?”