David Tepper’s $485 Million Punt

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Courtesy of Forbes

Charlotte, North Carolina, my home and where the Carolina Panthers reside (for now), is currently undergoing massive upheaval as a result of a tax revaluation by the Mecklenburg County Tax Assessor’s Office. This is the first revaluation since 2011, and Charlotte has only continued to increase in its population to the tune of roughly 54 people a day. This population growth coupled with a lack of supply in housing stock (both affordable and otherwise) has led to the kind of real estate speculation that spells disaster for working class neighborhoods. 

The Tax Assessor’s Office reported that commercial property jumped by an average of 77% while residential jumped by an average of 43%. As a result, people are making tough, kitchen table decisions like appealing their revaluation or moving before a property tax rate is set in July. The revaluation has turned an affordable housing crisis into a nightmare with horror stories of affected neighborhoods devastated and residents despondent with the choices ahead of them. 

There was a story released this past Thursday that one major fixture of the region is also feeling the squeeze: David Tepper’s Carolina Panthers. 

Last week, the Charlotte Observer reported a public records filing that showed the team is appealing their revaluation by over $485 million. Yes, the Carolina Panthers, purchased in cash for $2.2 billion by hedge fund billionaire David Tepper, is appealing a revaluation of Bank of America Stadium in order to lower the value by $485 million dollars. 

The original tax value given by the Mecklenburg County Tax Assessor’s Office was $572.3 million for the stadium property this year. The Panthers front office argues that depreciation of the stadium factors into their appeal. But, the valuation of $87.2 million that the Panthers are aiming for is lower than the 2011 valuation of the stadium at $135 million. Despite any depreciation of the structure, the structural values all across Mecklenburg County have dramatically increased due to the aforementioned population growth and the real estate speculation tactics of the city’s business class.

Many single-family structures in gentrifying neighborhoods, despite whatever depreciation on the structure, have seen these valuations increase as a result of comparable structures going up. This should be no different for an NFL stadium that made stadium renovations and additions in the years between 2011 and 2019 that were paid for by the public in the amount of $87 million. If anything, the tax valuation should be higher than in 2011, even if they aren’t exactly at the original 2019 valuation of $572.3 million. 

The Panthers’ attempt at evasion of community investment, despite not even knowing what the potential tax liability may be, comes amidst a push to move the team headquarters across the state line to nearby York and Lancaster counties in South Carolina. In the same week, Tepper met with Matlock extra South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster to discuss legislation that would be favorable to the move. While the Panthers maintain that they want the stadium to stay in Charlotte, it reeks of absolute bullshit. 

As a Panthers fan, I’ve seen this kind of negotiating tactic before from the previous irascible grump of an NFL owner, Jerry Richardson. This is a strategy to apply pressure to the County, the City and the state of North Carolina to keep the Panthers playing in Charlotte and even toss in some subsidies for a new headquarters in the city. 

It’s worth noting that Tepper, like any good capitalist, has a tendency to dodge taxes. In 2016, he moved both his hedge fund and his person from the high income tax state of New Jersey to the no income tax state of Florida. The loss of tax revenue to New Jersey was so significant due to Tepper’s concentration of wealth that the state’s finance officer warned of a budgetary risk.

While North Carolina recently passed a constitutional amendment to cap state income tax at 7% with a current rate of 5.499% for individuals, property tax rates are set by counties on the basis of funding budgetary priorities. Mecklenburg County, after the revaluation, has signaled that new social service priorities like free pre-Kindergarten education and affordable housing may lead to higher taxes. There’s no doubt, then, that Tepper, along with some other team stakeholders, heard this and are trying to game their way to a lower cost burden as well as raiding public coffers by openly courting the state of South Carolina. 

In previous years, I would expect this sort of maneuvering from an NFL billionaire to be met with shouts to shut up and do what the boss says. After all, do we want to be St. Louis? But, Tepper, an actual, factual billionaire, decided to game theory this thing in the midst of a political climate where the moral question of a billionaire’s existence has gained significant traction. I saw someone simply suggest “Guillotine” in the comments of the staid, local NPR affiliate’s Facebook post about the story. 

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Tepper, from the outset of his ownership, was greeted by an enthusiastic local press despite his questionable behavior at his hedge fund. He was known for bellowing at employees and wielding brass testicles in his office. Locals, on the other hand, thought that perhaps the NFL had found a younger, more outspoken Jerry Richardson, who abruptly sold the team after sexual and racial harassment allegations surfaced.

However, Tepper quickly did damage control in his introductory press conference to state his intentions with the team. He yammered away at making the team a more active part of the community. Later, during his first season as team owner, he managed to win more fans in the press and beyond by going on a listening tour that tackled issues of bail and criminal justice reform in the city. This tour was in the backdrop of the Panthers signing safety Eric Reid, a lightning rod of controversy in the league due to his show of solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. 

Yet Tepper, like all seemingly liberal billionaires in the midst of a global neoliberal project, does not want to invest his money in public goods like well-funded schools, infrastructure and affordable housing. Instead, he would prefer to make paltry contributions to non-profits that work outside of democratically controlled funding mechanisms. Or, to cynically donate money a day after the tax appeal story to buy charter buses and hotel rooms for the predominantly black West Charlotte High School basketball team on their way to the state championship rather than pay his fair share in taxes that would more adequately fund underserved schools like West Charlotte. The result of this projection of philanthropy and soft power is an attempt to grab a smaller tax liability for the Panthers where the remaining fair share ultimately gets shifted on more working class homeowners and renters. 

While I do think it’s important to argue this point to the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners in the next few weeks, it would be irresponsible of me to not be realistic about this. The worst tendency of Charlotte area public officials has been to acquiesce to the whims of the captains of industry in the region. They have done this for Hugh McColl, overlord of the mega bank merger between NationsBank and Bank of America, which subsequently led to a lack of oversight during the housing credit spree. And they were willing to do this for Jeff Bezos with over $200 million in tax incentives and subsidies ready when Amazon asked for HQ2 bids. 

It stands to reason that an NFL franchise like the Carolina Panthers will hold incredible sway with local politicians who have already let them lease 34 acres of public land virtually rent-free, credited them $350,000 in property tax liability, and, as mentioned earlier, given $87 million in public funds for stadium renovations in 2013. So, the fight to hold Tepper and the Panthers to account for their fair share will be an uphill battle, with the Observer already publishing a rationalizing editorial and rabid sports fans likely to choose owners over civic life soon to enter the fray. 

The lesson from this appeal is that it adds fuel and anger to the argument in our current political moment that there is already a socialism for the rich. Tepper, for all of his posturing about community involvement, is in great company among a cadre of robber barons that have destroyed lives through the extraction of wealth while gesturing vaguely at tepid philanthropy as justification for the hollowing out of the public sector. The tragedy in this lesson is that he’ll skate by consequence-free, while the rest of us, especially the working class and working poor, will have to pay this larger price of admission for the Panthers. 

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