Public funding for Bills is a tough pill to swallow

It’s hard to imagine a future without the Buffalo Bills in Western New York. Bills’ games are regional happenings even when the team is bad, and a good team playing in Orchard Park can be a morale boost for the entire region, as those who remember the Bills’ Super Bowl years can attest. There are economic benefits to having a professional team that surely are important to the residents and businesses that surround a team’s facility.

Are good feelings and some economic spin-off enough to warrant public financing of a new Bills’ stadium? It is an interesting question worth keeping an eye on as the team looks for a new owner.

Taxpayers have already paid $90 million toward a $130 million renovation of Ralph Wilson Stadium. And state taxpayers found themselves on the hook for 32 percent of Yankee Stadium’s $1.6 billion cost, or roughly $512 million. Even Yankees fans would say that money could have been better spent on education, economic development or a simple tax cut – particularly when the Yankees and the Steinbrenner family had plenty of avenues with which to pay for a new stadium. Financing stadiums to help save billionaires some money seems a bit ludicrous for a state that can’t figure out how to equitably finance public education.

That’s why it was good to hear Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently back away from a blanket promise of state funding for a new stadium. The state and Erie County will do their part, Cuomo said, though the governor isn’t sure a new stadium is necessary. The last two NFL stadiums to be completed came with price tags of more than $1.5 billion. That’s a lot of money to spend without a firm commitment the team is staying in Buffalo. The state’s share, based on the Yankee Stadium example, would also be costly.

State and local tax abatements for the new owner are a fine enticement to build a new stadium, as are low-interest loans and other goodies. But spending any taxpayer money on a new stadium for the Bills’ must be well justified. We would hope a thorough study of the Bills’ stadium issues is made public before any public money is spent. After all, state taxpayers – many of whom will likely never attend a Bills game – shouldn’t be writing checks based on a wink and a smile from Cuomo, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and whoever becomes the Bills’ new owner.

Keeping the Bills in Buffalo is important, but not at any cost.