We’re not exactly sure what the State Assembly is looking for in seeking to stiffen the penalties against the Buffalo Bills should they leave Western New York before their proposed new lease allows, but the effort seems unnecessary.
The Assembly wants the Cuomo administration to write financial penalties against the Bills into law, allowing the state to recoup the entire cost of renovating Ralph Wilson Stadium, as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo agreed to do in the deal he made with the team in December. “We want to make sure the Buffalo Bills remain a permanent fixture in Western New York,” said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, by way of explanation.
But the agreement hammered out by the state, Erie County and the Bills already seems to do an adequate job of protecting the public’s interests in this deal. According to the terms of the memorandum of understanding, the Bills will be liable for a $400 million penalty if they leave Buffalo before the end of the seventh year of the 10-year lease. After that, their liability drops to $29 million.
It’s a stiff penalty, at least for seven years. It might not make moving impossible, since the team could be worth much more in a different city, but it’s not chicken feed, either. Together with the pledge by Chief Executive Officer Russ Brandon that the team will remain in Buffalo for years to come, the state has reason to believe that its money will be well and safely spent.
The Assembly believes that the memorandum of understanding is insufficient. Silver wants its requirements written into law along with a toughened penalty that adds to the $400 million any money the state has spent if the team leaves before the seventh year of the lease. That could total $53.9 million in capital spending for the stadium and another $6 million each year of the lease deal.
Philosophically, it’s hard to argue with the point that the Bills should repay all the state has put into this agreement if the team breaks the lease. As a practical matter, though, it doesn’t seem helpful. If $400 million isn’t enough to keep the team here, then $453.9 million, plus a few more million, won’t make the difference either.
What is more, there is always a risk in reopening a complex agreement, especially one that was as difficult to reach as this one was. The important points were to keep the team in Buffalo and to ensure that the public’s investment is well-protected. Both those goals were met in the agreement announced in December.
It’s possible that the push for more-stringent requirements is nothing more than political theater – a way for downstate legislators to show that they are keeping an eye on what Western New York is getting from Albany. That would be business as usual in Albany.
Still, any members who may truly be thinking about jamming a stick in the spokes of this deal should pay attention to the comments of Assembly Ways and Means Committee Chairman Herman Farrell, a Manhattan Democrat.
Responding to a downstate Republican who questioned the wisdom of spending public dollars to keep a sports team, Farrell said, “The New York Giants said that one day, and now they are the New Jersey Giants.” The Yankees stayed, he said, partly because of public financial support for a new stadium.
“I don’t want to get beat up because they left Buffalo,” Farrell said. “Buffalo has got a lot of hard times. I don’t think it would be a smart thing to let that team leave because it would really do damage to that city and the mentality of that city.”
Well put, Mr. Chairman.