Will Cuts to Cincinnati Healthcare be the Bengals’ Lasting Legacy?

by Jason Dean

Football season draws upon us with the cooling air, but a decade old struggle is coming to a head this fall with University Hospital, other health providers and thousands of uninsured Cincinnatians set to lose. As Hamilton County wrestles with a $30 million deficit, residents of Greater Cincinnati have a genuine reason to be disgusted with the Bengals football franchise and its stadium that is the true burden to taxpayers.

In the nineties the country saw economic booms and prosperity, the new millennium brought terrorism, misguided expensive wars and Wall Street implosions and now this decade continues to struggle with stabilizing the economy.  These “tough economic times” are being used by the political right for a feeding frenzy of funding cuts to social and environmental programs as governments at all levels wrestle with how to dig themselves out of the financial holes that have placed us in such debt. Hamilton County is facing a $30 million deficit for 2012 and the Board of Commissioners is poised to reduce spending by taking it away from the poor while protecting the rich.

Greg Hartmann, President of the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners, brought forward the plan to cut the county’s Health and Hospitalization Levy to bring in $38 million a year, $8 million less than the average amount in the current five-year cycle. This means a $6.5 million reduction in funding toward University Hospital, bringing levy coffers down 45.5 percent in the last decade. The hospital is the primary caregiver to thousands of uninsured Cincinnatians, but Hartmann and fellow republican Commissioner Chris Monzel are giving priority to the standard GOP practice of promising lower taxes. In 2010, Hartman voted to remove part of a property tax rollback of which a large part was introduced to help with the expenses of Paul Brown Stadium.

Commissioner Todd Portune opposes Hartmann’s plan and has called for the funding levels in levies to remain the same, observing that with the drastic increase in uninsured Cincinnatians the demand for University Hospital and the Indigent Health program has continued to climb. Portune is not seeking any property tax increases, but is merely proposing that they remain the same.

Despite seeing its funding is cut from $26 million a year to $19.6 million, University Hospital must honor federal and moral law that mandates that no patient can be denied emergency treatment. The cuts, however, do impact the level of service the hospital can provide which could lead to more deaths.

In the turbulence of Hamilton County’s panic to avoid going bankrupt it is increasingly coming to the public’s awareness that a major financial burden that is sinking the county in a quagmire of debt was the decision to build two stadiums. Up until the mid-nineties both the Reds baseball team and the Bengal football team shared the one stadium, but then Bengals management demanded to have a new stadium of their own. According an article published by the Wall Street Journal earlier this summer, the combined cost of the two stadiums is estimated at $540 million. The positive arguments made for the stadium split claimed that the move would create jobs and bring more cash into the city; the ugly argument was that the Bengals threatened to leave, claiming that the team had a more lucrative offer from Baltimore. By its completion in 2000, the new home of the Bengals had managed to exceed its $280 million budget and Hamilton County was left picking up the tab.

The Cincinnati Bengals did not go on to become the super team that the new stadium was supposed to inspire, nor did the county see any significant increase in cash revenues from the public coming downtown to see more games, but the Bengals do find themselves number one in the NFL for having the most luxurious stadium deal of all the nation’s football teams. The Wall Street Journal’s analysis of new NFL stadiums built between 1992 and 2010 revealed that only one other involved a single county government willing to shoulder the debt. In addition to paying for it to be built, Hamilton County taxpayers have also pick up the bill for the business expenses of the stadium. In 2008, the Bengals’ stadium cost to taxpayers was $29.9 million, an amount equivalent to 11% of the county’s general fund. In contrast to Paul Brown Stadium, the Reds’ Great American Ballpark, completed in 2003, remained within its construction budget and is almost entirely self-supporting.

It has also been recently revealed that the Bengals’ threat of moving to Baltimore was an exaggerated bluff to which Hamilton County taxpayers fell victim. A 1995 letter sent by an attorney for The Maryland Stadium Authority has shed some light on the actual truth behind the Bengals’ bluff. The letter stated that any Baltimore deal would be capped at $200 million, 16% less than the Cincinnati deal, and Maryland also refused to cover operational costs. The entire time that Paul Brown Stadium has been in operation the county has been paying roughly $8 million per year in stadium costs for operations and maintenance. The Bengals’ performance has remained the same level as before the new stadium and ticket sales actually show a decline in game attendance.

For 11 years Paul Brown Stadium has been and still does soak up 11 percent of Hamilton County’s budget and according to County Commissioner Bill Portune only generates about the same revenue for the county as an average size department store. Amongst the many mistakes made with this deal is the fact that Hamilton County went it alone with this project and receives no help from its neighboring counties; an irony considering that all the ticket holders driving in from outside of 275 bare none of the real financial burden for having a football team many of them love to complain about. And now the residents of Hamilton County will have to face even further reduced healthcare thanks to lies, greed and putting sports higher on the priority list than it disserves. Go “Bungles!”