Lots of loose ends as Renegades join Yankees
A report released last month alleges that Dutchess County has cost taxpayers $850,000 over the last five years while failing to properly plan for nearly $8 million of improvements needed at Dutchess Stadium, the home of the Hudson Valley Renegades.
The 30-page audit, issued Nov. 13 by Robin Lois, the county comptroller, also charges that the Renegades, a minor league baseball team that has played at the stadium since its opening in 1994, breached its contract with the county by not paying rent in 2020. “The Dutch” is located on Route 9D just north of Beacon.
The Renegades have not played since the end of the 2019 season due to the COVID-19 shutdown, although the club did host summer camps this year after Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s emergency orders restricting public gatherings were lifted.
Released a few weeks before the county Legislature is expected to adopt the 2021 budget, the audit highlights the complexities of managing the stadium, which is considered a public park, and the divergent philosophies within the county for doing so.
The report found that “capital projects for the stadium have not been properly planned for and fully disclosed” in Dutchess County’s ongoing capital plans, Lois wrote in a letter to county officials and taxpayers that accompanies the audit.
The study comes two years after the Legislature approved spending $2.4 million that, coupled with a $600,000 state grant, was used to complete a first phase of improvements at the park, including new seating, repair of the concrete seating bowl and partial paving of the parking lot.
Although county officials had been aware of the need for repairs since at least 2016, the request in November 2018 to the Legislature was “hurried and omitted from the budget,” while a repair schedule was never documented, the report said.
Members of the Legislature asked Lois, a Democrat who was elected in 2017, to prepare the audit at the time of the funding approval, she wrote.
At the same time, County Executive Marc Molinaro asked the Legislature to consider the funding request quickly so the repairs would be finished before the 2019 season began.
He said on Tuesday (Dec. 1) that the audit’s findings are “absolutely understandable, as a purely fiscal review.” The county “can be much more orderly” with its own capital projects, like roads and parks maintenance, but Molinaro, who is a Republican and three-term county executive, argued that Dutchess Stadium represents an abnormal landlord-tenant arrangement.
(The county owns the stadium but leases the 21-acre parcel on which it sits from the Beacon City School District. The Renegades in turn pay rent to Dutchess County for use of the stadium.)
“We had a negotiating moment,” with the Renegades in late 2018, Molinaro said. “We took the opportunity to gain a five-year commitment from the team, and they got the investment from the county.”
Nevertheless, all improvements at the stadium should be included within the capital plan that’s presented to the Legislature as part of the annual budget process, Lois wrote.
While the Renegades are committed to staying through 2023, both Molinaro and team owner Jeff Goldklang said in 2018 that — once the first phase of improvements was funded — they expected to continue negotiating a second phase of stadium renovations and a long-term, likely 20-year, agreement to stay in Dutchess County.
Meanwhile, the Beacon school board has agreed to a series of one-year extensions of its lease to the county for the land, the most recent of which expires at the end of 2021. The school board has discussed selling the land to the county, but no formal proposal has been made.
It gets even more complicated. The New York Yankees in November announced its new minor league affiliation structure, which will elevate the Renegades in 2021 from the short-season level to become a Single-A team that will play from April to September. The Renegades had been affiliated with the Tampa Bay Rays.
Dutchess Legislator Frits Zernike, whose district includes Ward 4 in Beacon, said this week that he fears, without a long-term lease on the land or with its tenant, another request for rushed funding could be coming. “It’s a pattern of coming to us late in the day, and it gets a little ridiculous,” he said.
Molinaro said there is no money for further renovations in the 2021 budget because he expects cost-sharing to be part of the negotiations with the Renegades. The county’s share would be reflected in the 2022 budget, he said.
Planning is one of the major issues raised in the audit. The other is the stadium’s financial impact as a county park.
In her report, Lois wrote that “the current lease terms [$258,000 per year] are unfavorable to the county and do not fully compensate for the costs incurred.” Although the stadium is considered a county park, “it does not provide public access for resident enjoyment and is operated by a for-profit entity.”
Over the audit period of 2015 to 2020, it has cost the county an average of $170,000 more each year to operate the stadium than its lease brings in. “A fair and equitable lease would include remittance for operating expenses and allowance for anticipated increase in annual capital bond and interest costs incurred by the county,” the audit said.
Molinaro, on Tuesday, disagreed, saying that the comptroller’s audit suggests the stadium should be run like a business.
“We don’t take that approach, because it’s a county park,” he said, and it’s the only park “that generates even close to its expenses in revenue.” If the Renegades were to leave, the state Legislature would have to overturn the stadium’s park designation for the county to use it for anything else, he said.
Lois suggests that the county secure its asset and minimize the risk to taxpayers by purchasing the land from the school district. If that cannot happen, lease negotiations with the district should be expedited upon securing a long-term tenant.
Rent should be paid in accordance with contract provisions, she wrote, because any deviation becomes an unfair burden on taxpayers — in addition to a breach of contract. She estimates the rental revenue lost in 2020 is at least $500,000. Team officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The report also recommends that all leases and activities at Dutchess Stadium should, at minimum, break even for the county.
The comptroller and county executive agreed on at least one point. In her report, Lois wrote that negotiations for a long-term lease with the Renegades should “continue swiftly now that the team’s affiliation with the Yankees in 2021 has been announced and a long season will more than double the number of games at the stadium.”
That development heightens the need to move toward a long-term agreement, which will include additional renovations at the stadium, Molinaro said.
“We’re doing business now with the most successful baseball franchise in history,” he said, “and that is good news for us — exceptionally good news.”