Columbia, SC — The first red flag about Columbia’s plans to spend nearly $100 million on a baseball stadium and infrastructure for the Bull Street development is the fact that the city doesn’t plan to put the debt on its books. That’s because bonded debt already is at its $41 million maximum.
Instead, city officials want to create a new entity to borrow $60 million using a creative type of bond that bypasses the city’s debt limit. Payment will be guaranteed by the city’s pledge to issue more bonded debt as existing debt is retired. This is like buying a house and using your credit card to make the monthly payments.
Another $30 million would come from issuing bonds pledging restaurant-tax revenue for repayment. The city already has debt tied to restaurant money, so we would pay interest only on the new debt until the old debt is gone. The problem is that Columbia restaurants would have to sell $71 million more in taxable meals annually to accommodate just the interest on that debt.
Is a baseball stadium a bad idea? Not necessarily. But we need to ask whether Columbia can afford it, given other financial obligations, and answer critical questions:
• Without a credible business plan backed by a revenue study, how can we be certain the city will have the money to pay its massive debt?
• What about looming financial concerns for our city: $750 million in EPA-mandated sewer repairs, $45 million for capital projects and more?
• We’re told the city has money in the bank, but how much is obligated for other debt or bills?
• Is it right for today’s City Council to spend so much money that future councils have reduced budget flexibility? Is it right to leave the financial burden for future generations?
Those supporting the stadium are asking us to accept on faith that Bull Street will bring in so much money that we’ll have no trouble paying the debt and have plenty left over. But where is the due diligence to support that argument?
We need answers even if they aren’t what some city leaders want to hear.
Those of us who oppose the ballpark aren’t obstructionists lacking vision. We are deeply concerned that Columbia has its priorities in the wrong place. We believe financial stability and basic services shouldn’t take a back seat to large, flashy development projects. We’re concerned that strapping our city with huge long-term debt means Columbia will be unable to respond to future needs.