Wednesday, March 01, 2000

$710,000 stadium change OK'd in secret

Taxpayers not aware of revision for soccer

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Hamilton County commissioners approved spending an extra $710,000 last year to make Paul Brown Stadium a world-class soccer facility without telling taxpayers a word about it.

        Commissioners defend the decision but critics say its merits are clouded by making it in private and without public comment.

        The decision to spend the money was made after sponsors trying to bring the Olym pics to Cincinnati in 2012 lobbied for more sideline room to accommodate international soccer matches.

        The commissioners agreed and ordered construction crews to place removable concrete slabs in each corner of the stadium so more than 1,000 seats can be taken out for future soccer games.

        The removable slabs replace permanent concrete seating slabs that were part of the original design.

        Extra room is needed in the corners if the stadium is ever to host international soccer matches, the kind played during World Cup or the Olympics.

        Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus said the decision is in line with the initial purpose of the stadium, and will make it a more useful public facility.

        But critics say the decision isn't the point.

        “How they go about making these decisions is the point,” said Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes. “This ought to be a concern to every taxpayer. This is the kind of thing that got us in this mess.”

        The “mess” Mr. Rhodes is referring to is the revelation two weeks ago that the stadium is between $35 million and $45 million over its $287 million budget.

        A construction auditor, hired by the county, blamed most of the overruns on “change orders” that were pushed through the system with little oversight. A change order is triggered when work outlined in a contract is modified in scope and cost.

        Commissioners and county administrators have said those change orders never hit their desks and that county staff

        members were in charge of approving them.

        Mr. Bedinghaus, the commissioner who led the campaign to raise the sales tax to pay for two stadiums, said county administrator Dave Krings talked with each commissioner and suggested handling the soccer modification with a change order.

        “I felt comfortable when Dave Krings suggested this way to approach it,” Mr. Bedinghaus said. “This is just the way we wanted to do business. When I say that, I mean maintaining the flexibility to present World Cup soccer in the facility.”

        Others say that secrecy in decision making is the way the county has done business on the stadium project from the beginning.

        Cincinnati lawyer Tim Mara has filed a lawsuit against the county over a $2 million decision to contribute to the Fort Washington Way road project.

        Mr. Mara believes that decision was made in a closed-door executive session. If proven true, that would be a violation of Ohio's open meetings law. The commissioners have denied any violation of law.

        Mr. Mara said the soccer field decision being made in private is par for the course.

        “That's their standard operating procedure,” said Mr. Mara, who led the campaign against the sales tax increase in 1996. “They have no concept of doing the public's business in front of the public.”

        Saying he didn't recall how the decision to modify the field was made, Mr. Krings said it was the right decision, regardless.

        But why wasn't the public let in on the idea and the additional cost?

        “Perhaps it should have been a public debate,” he said.

        Mr. Mara said he wonders why the county or its architects didn't check field dimension requirements before construction started.

        The county at first believed the field would be able to host soccer games. It was after construction had started that Nick Vehr and Michael Milidonis, two principals in the effort to lure the Olympics to Cincinnati, told them it was not wide enough for top-caliber soccer, according to commissioner John Dowlin.

        “Nick said, "We're trying to bring the Olympics here, so we really need to have a field that is wide enough to do that,'” Mr. Dowlin said. “We ended up agreeing to cut the ends out so it would be wide enough.”

        Mr. Vehr, president of Cincinnati 2012, talked to commissioners about the need for a wider field to host international soccer games in early 1999. Then Mr. Milidonis, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Sports Complex, wrote to commissioners about the benefits of the addition in April.

        “In short, the demountable system now under consideration for Paul Brown Stadium will establish Hamilton County as the home to one of the premiere soccer facilities in the U.S.,” Mr. Milidonis wrote.

        The decision was finalized five months later. W. Shelby Reaves, project executive for the stadium's construction manager, Turner Barton Malow D.A.G., said the change was finalized before the construction materials were shipped.

        That saved thousands of dollars, he said. And Mr. Vehr believes the commissioners should be commended for recognizing the opportunity to bring big-time soccer to Cincinnati.

        “To me, I view it as a great catch that was made while still in the design process,” Mr. Vehr said.

        Others aren't so sure.

        “This could turn out to be a wonderful thing, but they keep making these decisions in private,” auditor Mr. Rhodes said. “Every time they do it, it gets a little worse.”

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