Who Should Pay for a Lakers Championship Parade?

The Los Angeles Times reports this morning on a mild political controversy over the costs of a Laker championship parade, should events on the court merit one. Under the headline "L.A. city officials could rain on Lakers parade," we learn that certain members of the L.A. City Council have misgivings about putting parade expenses, which could exceed $1 million, on the public's tab. In a fiscal environment that threatens significant layoffs of municipal employees, Councilwoman Jan Perry flatly declares:

We can't afford to cover the costs. How could we make a decision about people's jobs and then sponsor the parade?

Councilman Bernard Parks, who chairs the council's Budget and Finance Committee, issued a statement that leaves me perplexed in a number of respects:

I don't think we have a choice. This is one of those things that happen once a decade. There's going to be a major celebration in the city, and the likelihood is the city is going to absorb the bulk of those costs. The city isn't going to have time over the next few hours to negotiate a contract with the Lakers or anyone else.

Let's put aside the gross historical inaccuracy of his "once a decade" remark and deal with the rest of this.

Councilman Parks, of course you have a choice. It's the raison d'etre of your committee to make choices about how to allocate funds in the city's coffers. Perhaps what you're saying in shorthand is that you don't view yourselves as having a choice because the city would be irate if there were no parade. If so, that's unresponsive to the issue at hand, which isn't whether there will be a parade, but rather who should pay for it.

Second, the frequency of the event shouldn't matter. If it's wrong for the city to bankroll a Laker parade, doing so only rarely doesn't make it right.

Third, who said a contract needs to be negotiated "over the next few hours"? At the very earliest, assuming a Laker victory in Game Five, a parade would occur on Tuesday. That means, if Mr. Parks spoke to the Times on Saturday (and it might have been Friday, the day of the above quote from Councilwoman Perry), he had at least two full days to get everything papered. Admittedly, I'm not an expert on the negotiation of municipal contracts, but having spent more of my life than I care to remember negotiating business agreements, I can assure Councilman Parks that two days is more than enough time for properly motivated lawyers to get the deal done.

(Also, why are you thinking about this issue only now? The Lakers have been a favorite to win the championship for the past six months.)

What interests me most here isn't how the machinery of local government responds to a question it should have anticipated but didn't - predictable answer: clumsily - but instead the underlying issue of public policy. Who should pay for a parade: the Lakers or city taxpayers?

Any argument to underwrite costs out of city tax revenues would have to rest on the notion that a Laker parade provides broad civic benefits, and isn't merely for the benefit of the franchise and its fans. Personally, I'm deeply skeptical. Maybe there are some modest economic benefits arising from people spending money downtown who wouldn't otherwise be there, but those are partially or wholly offset by people who would otherwise visit downtown but avoid it on parade day because of the congestion. There are psychic benefits from a parade, but does anyone in the city care about it who's not already a Laker fan? If so, they probably care only in the form of annoyance at having downtown streets blocked off.

A Laker championship parade would be a celebration for fans and advertising for the franchise. As such, its costs should be borne by the organization. If the Lakers don't believe that the benefits to the team outweigh the $1 million price tag, they should explain so publicly. Tell the fans that the money will instead be spent on player salaries, or scouting, or maintaining Staples Center infrastructure. We're sophisticated enough to understand how businesses work.

More important, a willingness to forego public funds would be a gesture of responsible citizenship by the Lakers. Make the right decision here, and it will redound to the organization's benefit in public goodwill.

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