Sunday, October 5, 1997
Scuttle Butt suspicious
of county deal


BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

As I was walking across town yesterday, I ran into my close, personal friend Scuttle Butt.

''Have you heard,'' he said, ''about the latest stupid way the county is squandering our money?''

You mean letting Mike Brown name the stadium after his father instead of insisting that we let Cinergy or somebody pay us for naming rights?

''Naw,'' he said, ''that's old news.''

Well, what about accidentally underestimating the cost of the football stadium by $200 million?

''That was no accident.''

Well, it was stupid, wasn't it?

''Oh, I don't know,'' he said, ''some people think maybe voters might not have voted for the sales tax if they'd really gotten a whiff of the cost.''

I give up. What have they done now?

Financially challenged

''Look,'' Scuttle Butt said, ''you're going to have to pay attention here because this is pretty complicated.''

You're just saying that because I'm a girl, aren't you?

''No, I'm not kidding, this is about municipal bonds...''

Municipal bonds? Couldn't we talk about something more interesting like Marv Albert's silk underwear? Besides, bonds are not exactly news. Greeks probably sold them to pay for the Parthenon. Governments specialize in spending money before they have it. Then they borrow from rich people, who get richer.

''You think you're funny, but you'll be sorry when your grandchildren and their children are still paying for this stadium.''

All right. So tell me about bonds.

''The county commissioners picked Merrill Lynch to handle raising $322.7 million to pay for the stadium.''

What's wrong with that?

''Well, they weren't the lowest bidder for the job.''

Commissioner John Dowlin told me this was the only company that had local partners, including one of Cincinnati's oldest firms, Seasongood & Mayer.

Swimming with sharks

''Yeah, that's another thing. Seasongood & Mayer already has most of the local bond business.''

You could be right about that. Mr. Dowlin says, for instance, that they just sold a $300,000 bond issue for the county that the big boys wouldn't have on a plate. He says he's not ashamed to try to give business to the people who live here.

''But I heard that these Seasongood guys are really sharks.''

They're bond traders, aren't they? I think that's their job.

''These bonds are going to sell themselves, so why didn't we just pick the cheapest bid?''

In the end, I think they almost did. John Dowlin showed me a scoring matrix for the selection that was nearly Proctoid. They narrowed the field to six for a final presentation. Then Lehman Brothers, one of the high bids, agreed to lower their price and the rest matched it. Then the county just picked the outfit they liked.

''I hate this whole thing. I wish they'd just throw a big tarp over Cinergy Field and put baseball and football and conventions in it. And I wouldn't trust the county to negotiate for the tarp.''

But they didn't exactly squander our money on this deal. It doesn't even sound stupid.

''Yeah, yeah, yeah. But how do we know that the county will get the best interest rate? And don't forget as soon as they sell the bonds and we get the money, we have to invest it until we need it. They could still screw it up.''

Don't you forget that the SEC and IRS will be watching. Not to mention the highly paid financial consultant out of Philadelphia. And Dusty Rhodes. Do you think the county's Democratic auditor would miss a chance to scream if these Republicans stub their toes?

Why don't you just admit it? There's a possibility here that they might have done something right.

''It's about time.''

Boy, you just won't cut these guys a break, will you?

''I can't afford to.''

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.

PULFER ARCHIVE