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Since then, the sin tax has steadily sent about $13 million annually to city coffers. Under the lease, the first $87 million collected was funneled into the debt service payments on the original construction of Browns Stadium. After that, the money changes course, heading directly into a $29 million capital repair fund. According to the city, that milestone was hit this year.
The new stash of money takes a significant burden off the general fund. Under the original contract, the city has been required to make yearly payments of $850,000 for repairs. Until the $29 million repair fund kicked in, those payments had come out of the city's general fund. But once the sin tax runs out, the city will still be obligated to make the annual repair payments — and those are expected to increase dramatically over the lifetime of the lease, jumping to $5.9 million in 2021 and hitting $7.5 million by 2025. Without the sin tax, that burden falls squarely on the general fund.
"If we don't have the sin tax as a cushion, it comes right out of the general operating fund for the city of Cleveland — police, fire, EMS, and all city services," notes Polensek.
But the extension could be a tough sell politically. After the state's food and beverage lobbies exerted a squeeze, the state legislature stuffed a provision into the 2008 budget that took away the power of local governments to raise such taxes. That means any extension of the sin tax would have to be green-lit by the Republican-controlled legislature. For their part, the Browns are interested in campaigning for an extension, and in the past have talked about mounting a joint effort with other local teams.
What Browns officials are thinking now is hard to say, as the team did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Another concern: As a facility ages, teams tend to seek funding not just for basic maintenance and repairs, but "to keep up with the Joneses," as deMause says.
"All these stadiums are state-of-the-art when they're built, but now there are new buildings out there, and the state of the art has changed," he says. "I think that's a growing trend with the NFL, because you have all these stadiums that were built in the '90s. So it's a little too soon to come back and demand a new one."
When the Browns asked for the $5.8 million advance in January, the team presented City Council with a rare look inside its books, to confirm its claim that the team has shouldered more than $50 million in capital repairs and improvements in the 14 years it's occupied the stadium.
After Browns' new owner Jimmy Haslam took over the franchise, the team announced it would look at whatever improvements might be necessary to better the facility. Where that money would come from has yet to be addressed.
In the vacuum, various schemes are once again being floated, including a dome. Most experts question the ability of the existing structure to support a dome, as well as the feasibility of covering the entire site with one. But the longshot pipe dream points to something else: the need to squeeze more use from the facility. The additional revenue could be critical to replacing the lost revenues from the sin tax.
While it's too early to predict the outcome, Polensek feels sure about one thing: The new ownership will not be satisfied with a simple handout from taxpayers.
"Everybody is optimistic with Haslam. He has to figure out how he can recoup some of his investment," Polensek says. "If it can be done, this is the guy who can do it."