Thursday, August 14, 1997
Send in the clowns

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Need money? Just send in the clowns

Don't you feel like kind of a boob? Don't you feel like a chump? Don't you feel as if your pocket has been picked - thoroughly and remorselessly? Don't you feel as though there's a powerful in-crowd and you're not in it? Boy, I do.

Without a trace of embarrassment, Hamilton County officials now have released an upwardly mobile price tag of $301.5 million for the riverfront football stadium complex. During the campaign for a sales tax increase, they told us it would cost $180 million. And I don't remember discussions about, for instance, $10.5 million practice fields.

How do they do this with a straight face? Could we pass an emergency ordinance that allows public floggings again? Or the stocks? How about a dunking booth?

Just for a couple of years. Just until the finishing touches are put on our sports complex. Every time they tell us about a new and bloated figure, we could make them do it wearing a big red rubber nose and sitting on a little seat with a hair-trigger, suspended over a vat of cold water. This would not get our money back, but it would provide a welcome spasm of mirth.

The money pit

A Tuesday Enquirer story announced the new construction estimate. This figure does not, of course, include financing costs or the cost of land for the project. If officials negotiate as skillfully with landowners and bankers as they have with Mike Brown and his son-in-law, Troy Blackburn, we'll be lucky if we taxpayers are left with our back teeth.

The same day, the Enquirer reported that Cincinnati Public Schools managed to scrounge $2.2 million to replace 10-year-old textbooks.

Of course, this will not happen overnight. Under the latest schedule, by the year 2001, social studies texts will be in the hands of children in kindergarten through the 12th grade. In August of 2000, there will be new math texts for seventh through 12th grades and science books for kindergarten through 12.

That's when the football stadium is due to open. But just in case it's not ready for the 2000 season, Hamilton County commissioners have thoughtfully arranged for the club to be paid $4 million by the construction manager for each game not played in the new stadium. If the new math books don't arrive on time, I don't think there is a similar arrangement with the children.

We don't mind if a child still thinks Margaret Thatcher is prime minister of England and that photos of Mars are just a pipe dream. So what if they think the last Russian revolution was in 1917? But God forbid that the Bengals should lose game revenue or that a millionaire running back should play on artificial turf.

Apples and oranges

Yeah, I know, I know. I'm comparing apples and oranges and yada yada yada.

Some of the same people who argue that education won't be improved by "throwing money" at it apparently believe that throwing money at a sports franchise will improve it. And since most of it is our money, it may wind up in different places, but it started out in our pockets.

The debate about whether the presence of two professional sports teams is important to the community was asked and answered when voters approved the half-cent sales tax to keep them. But we were given a shamefully low cost estimate. And we were told that it would include money for schools.

Politicians still are squabbling over where that money will come from. But surely they will not renege on this. Surely not. Probably not. Maybe not.

Like a clown, I smiled and voted for the sales tax, so I suppose I'm the one who should be wearing the rubber nose. Now, this juggernaut, this Bob Bedinghaus Sports Palace and Taxatorium, cannot be stopped. Eventually it will squat on the riverfront, costing whatever it costs, enabling the privileged to sit in splendor eight or 10 times a year. While children learn from 10-year-old schoolbooks in dilapidated, unsafe buildings.

We have put our trust in the hands of politicians and businessmen. All we have left is the right to complain. And the grace to be embarrassed.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.