Chargers special counsel Mark Fabiani wrote a lengthy response last night to my story that questions the $340.5 million the team says taxpayers will spend in the last 11 years of the Chargers’ lease at city-owned Qualcomm Stadium.
Fabiani’s response deserves one from me. Before I break it down point-by-point, it’s important to note the context of the Chargers’ original statement.
In December, Fabiani wrote an op-ed after I and others wrote about the team’s need for a publicly subsidized new downtown stadium after seven years of arguing it didn’t require taxpayer dollars. The op-ed contends the discussion over a new stadium shouldn’t be about whether taxpayers should subsidize the Chargers — they already do. Taxpayers will continue to lose money, it argues: more than $300 million through 2020. The implication is that taxpayers would make better use of their money to pay for the team’s new home than to subsidize an aging facility.
• Fabiani starts his piece by saying that for “some inexplicable reason” I focused on the team’s $300 million contention rather than the larger revenues the city could gain by redeveloping Qualcomm Stadium. My reason is not inexplicable: It’s the number Fabiani used. In his op-ed, he argued that the status quo means that taxpayers lose more than $300 million. That’s much more immediate than how much money the city might make redeveloping the stadium site.
Further, Fabiani suggests the $300 million figure is not important to spend much time checking. Since December, I’ve heard Fabiani repeat the number twice — once in person and once on the radio. If the team is going to use the $300 million as part of its argument for a new stadium, it’s worth investigating.
• Fabiani contends that our analysis relied entirely on a city audit from May. That’s not true. We spent weeks going beyond the audit’s calculation of how much Qualcomm costs taxpayers. We included losses from a legal settlement and annual costs incurred by the city’s police and fire departments. The audit didn’t include that, which our article makes clear. So did the spreadsheet that I sent Fabiani prior to the article’s publication. He didn’t respond to requests for comment about it.
And Fabiani contends that we didn’t check the stadium revenue figures used in the audit. We did — and we accounted for it in our analysis. The net costs to the city are included in our estimate.
• Fabiani said a figure he used from The San Diego Union-Tribune in his op-ed “deserved a lot more respect than they received from VOSD’s fact checker.” I have no issues with the Union-Tribune. The source isn’t what’s important. The issue is that Fabiani used the number as a central part of his argument, but conceded he knew nothing about the number, which appeared solely in one sentence of a nearly five-year-old story. For example, Fabiani doesn’t know if the U-T’s number includes any revenue the city made at the stadium or just the city’s expenses. Yet Fabiani counted it as an “independent audit.” By using the number, it helped inflate the $300 million estimate in the Chargers’ favor.
• Fabiani also argues that I ignore two key conclusions from the city auditor about the stadium’s liabilities. Not true. He contends I don’t recognize that tourist taxes subsidize the stadium. I do. They’re counted as losses in our estimate. He says that we don’t account for the city’s losses growing over time. I do. I factored in the same 3 percent rate of inflation the Chargers used to account for increases in the city’s operating losses.
• Our story, Fabiani says, doesn’t give enough credit to the stadium’s needed improvements. He says $113 million of them will be done in the next 11 years. But for Fabiani’s estimate to be true one of three things must happen: there must be a drastic change in how the city funds Qualcomm, the Chargers must file and win a lawsuit to force the city to pay for improvements or something expensive has to break and be repaired immediately. There’s no indication of any of these happening. And while Fabiani touts his estimates as solid and “extremely conservative,” he doesn’t have list of improvements needed at the stadium or their costs.
• Fabiani also asks why we didn’t account for the stadium’s future after 2020. That’s because he didn’t. Fabiani doesn’t mention it in his op-ed. Again, his point is about the costs in the next 11 years, assuming the status quo.
I’ll end with the best proof of my story’s accuracy. Here’s a line (emphasis added) near the end of Fabiani’s response to my story:
The people who say they are in favor of the status quo — those who say that the Chargers should simply stay in Qualcomm Stadium and play out their lease through the year 2020 — are in fact advocating the spending of huge amounts of taxpayer money between now and then just to keep the aging stadium operating.
Here’s a paragraph (emphasis added) from Fabiani’s original December op-ed:
The people who say they are in favor of the status quo — those who say that the Chargers should simply stay in Qualcomm Stadium and play out their lease through the year 2020 — are in fact advocating the spending of more than $300 million in taxpayer money between now and then just to keep the aging stadium operating.
You’ll notice that the only thing that has changed in these two statements is that Fabiani has now removed his contention city taxpayers will lose “more than $300 million” in the next 11 years operating Qualcomm.
No one is denying that taxpayers lose millions each year operating the stadium. Under the scenario I lay out, nearly $200 million in taxpayer dollars will be lost in the next 11 years. Our goal is to keep the stadium debate honest and have all sides use numbers they can support. That’s something the Chargers now appear to be doing.
— LIAM DILLON