Should Broward County give Florida Panthers $80 million bailout?

Several elected officials stand with team as opposition lines up

SUNRISE, Fla. – The biggest and costliest question facing Broward County this year is if the county should give the Florida Panthers hockey team an $80 million bailout.

With opposition lining up, several elected officials are standing with the team.

Related: Who benefits most from proposed $80 million Panthers bailout?

"We have to do something. It kinds of puts us in a difficult position to not do something," said Broward County Mayor Barbara Sharief.

Sharief is all in favor of using taxpayers' dollars to give the Florida Panthers hockey team's new owners an $80 million bailout for free rent at the BB&T Center, a major move that many in the business community and numerous municipalities oppose.

This is in part because those bed tax dollars the Panthers want are already budgeted for all-important beach renourishment and promoting tourism.

At times, it seems the only enthusiastic supporters of the bailout are those with the power of the vote. County politicians like Sharief, who was with Panthers' CEO Michael Yormark at a workshop meeting on the team's request last week.

"Time is of the essence," said Yormark.

"Our backs are against the wall," said Sharief.

"Why are your backs against the wall? What's the timing issue?" asked Local 10's Bob Norman.

"It's not so much a timing issue," said Sharief.

Even the team's new owners said they're not going anywhere, so why the urgency among some politicians? One answer might come in the form of cold hard campaign cash.

The team has become one of Sharief's biggest campaign contributors. Along with its lobbyists and related interests, it has poured at least $8,000 into her current commission race.

Bailout supporter Marty Kiar has received at least $8,000 from Panthers' interests and lobbyists over the years, and has been benefited from fundraisers thrown by team lobbyist Billy Rubin. Commissioner Stacy Ritter won't be voting because the Panthers hired her husband, Russ Klenet, as a lobbyist.

But the reigning queen of Panthers campaign cash is Commissioner Kristin Jacobs.

"I vote for what is in the best interest of this county, not what is in my campaign," said Jacobs.

The Panthers, its lobbyists and interests related to the team have contributed at least $35,000 in the past couple of years to her failed campaign for Congress and her current State House race, making the team her single biggest money backer.

"When someone gives to the campaign of Kristin Jacobs do they get a favor in return? The answer is no," said Jacobs.

Perhaps, but Jacobs is now supporting a bailout for the Panthers and also voted to use taxpayers' money to buy the team a new $5 million scoreboard last year. Shortly after that vote, mega-wealthy new owner Vinnie Viola paid $250 million for the team and since then the team has poured more than $140,000 into state political coffers alone, including a $100,000 check to the state Republican Party.

"They just spent $250 million for this team. They are very rich. Why should taxpayers subsidize them?" Norman asked Sharief.

"Remember this is not the taxpayers subsidizing them, this is tourist development tax dollars," said Sharief.

Wrong, as it's still taxpayers' money, and all but about $300,000 of the nearly $127.5 million in profits from the arena have gone not to the public but to the team.

Norman: They've collected something like $120 million in profits. The public has gotten next to nothing.
Sharief: We've gotten very little profit on this arena. If we give them this money on the debt service, they can in turn utilize their funding to increase their salaries on their team, buy some better and then possibly be more profitable.
Norman: Hasn't that been what they've always done is promised profits and not delivered?
Sharief: We've had promises. It takes time but yes, we have had promises.
Norman: Eighteen years so far.
Sharief: Eighteen years, yes.
Norman: But you want to give them this money?
Sharief: I'm not sure [laughs].

Sounded like a little bit of a turnaround there for the mayor. The county has set a timetable for the final decision on the bailout of 60 to 90 days.