UG of Wyandotte County gives $174K to save T-Bones ballpark

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - While considering a decision to purchase the home of the Kansas City T-Bones baseball team, the Unified Government of Wyandotte County provided subsidies to the team totaling nearly $175,000 so the franchise could pay its mortgage.

The payments were made to the team without telling UG's elected officials or taxpayers, according to details of the agreement uncovered by a 41 Action News investigation.

The UG's county administrator, Dennis Hays, decided in January to provide the $174,000 to the franchise as it struggled to pay its mortgage on Community America Ballpark.

However, the UG's elected commissioners didn't find out about the payments until this summer during a closed executive session, 41 Action News learned.

One option payment totaling about $87,000 was made in January with a second, identical payment in April.

The payments were confirmed by UG spokesman Mike Taylor on Monday. Taylor said a third payment was scheduled, but never made in July because negotiations had moved far enough along with the plan to purchase the ballpark.

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When asked about the secret nature of the payments, Taylor compared it to a number of other economic development agreements the UG has landed in recent years, including Google Fiber and the Cerner expansion.

The county administrator asked for analysis from the UG's legal counsel to make sure the payments were allowed under county policy, Taylor said.

Taylor said public disclosure early this year could have hindered negotiations and affected the team's ticket sales, especially if news surfaced of any financial difficulties.

According to Taylor, the team's ownership said foreclosure on the ballpark was imminent and the threat of a canceled 2013 season was very real.

"The T-Bones' owners approached us and basically said they were not going to be able to continue paying this heavy bank note on the stadium," Taylor said. "Even though the team does well with attendance, they told us, 'We may have to pull the team out of Kansas City and let the stadium go into foreclosure.'"

But during an interview with 41 Action News a couple hours later on Monday, team president and co-owner Adam Ehlert disputed those details.

"That's a bit of a surprise," Ehlert said. "That's not part of the conversation at all. I'm not sure where you're getting that."

Ehlert said the T-Bones drew an average of 5,400 fans per game last season, which ranks them among the top of similar ball clubs. However, he said the privately-financed ballpark was a rarity in the current sports stadium climate.

"Privately-funded stadiums simply do not sustain themselves," Ehlert said. "This transaction really puts us on a level playing field with all the other properties across the metro area and across the country."

The team president said discussion about the local government's purchase of the ballpark have been materializing ever since rules for STAR bond use changed, allowing for construction of acquisition of stadiums.

Bill Black, a UMKC law professor who specializes in public finance, wondered why the UG believes it can run the ballpark more successfully than the private sector. He also said other struggling businesses might want the same treatment from the local government.

"Everyone's attitude is going to be, 'Where do I sign up to get my secret subsidy?'" Black said.

It's unclear how many people besides Hays knew about the taxpayer expenditures at the beginning of the year. The decision occurred toward the end of Mayor Joe Reardon's tenure, which ended after the April election.

Taylor said he assumed Reardon knew, but wasn't certain. Reardon has not responded to several calls and emails from 41 Action News since last week.

Former commissioner Tom Cooley, who represented the district where the ballpark is located, said he never heard anything about the payments prior to losing his elected seat in the recent election.

"But it doesn't give me heartburn that I didn't know," Cooley told 41 Action News. "We give the county administrator authority to make business decisions like that."

The UG's Board of Commissioners will hold a public meeting about the purchase next month.

Ryan Kath can be reached at ryan.kath@kshb.com. You can also follow him on Twitter or join the conversation on his Facebook page.

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