You may not have to pay more for tickets to sports and cultural events at some of Buffalo's most popular venues after all – at least for now.
The Brown administration proposed more than a year ago adding fees – ranging from 50 cents to $3.50 – to the price of tickets to five major venues: Canalside, Kleinhans Music Hall, KeyBank Center, Sahlen Field and Shea's Performing Arts Center. The money was to help cover the city's cost of providing maintenance and security during events at the venues, which are owned by the city or located on city-owned land.
But after the operators pushed back and obtained lawyers to oppose what they call an illegal "tax," the administration identified alternatives: charitable donations from the entities and the new event parking plan that was implemented last January.
Mayor Byron W. Brown announced the charitable donations program – TRUST Buffalo – during his State of the City address last February and mentioned it again last May when he released his 2019-20 operating budget, which the Common Council approved later that month. TRUST Buffalo is expected to bring in $3.1 million that has already been committed over a two-and-a-half-year period, and the administration expects the number to grow as the program continues.
Pegula Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Buffalo Sabres hockey team that calls KeyBank Center home, committed $250,000 this year. The Rich Family Foundation – the philanthropic arm of Rich Products, which owns the Buffalo Bisons baseball team that plays at Sahlen Field – committed $200,000 this year and another $200,000 next year, said administration officials.
The city had included the $2 million in revenue from the ticket surcharge in its $508.6 million operating budget for 2018-19. But the current 2019-20 budget – passed before some of these latest developments had been worked out– includes only $750,000.
Conversations will continue with the Pegulas and the Rich Foundation about additional charitable donations, and there have been on-going discussions with Shea's, Kleinhans and Canalside about structuring multi-year contributions, as well, officials said.
TRUST Buffalo also has secured contributions from other organizations, including the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, $1.5 million; Kaleida Health, $267,500; M&T Bank, $264,000; and Blue Wireless, $450,000.
The city's new event parking plan is another revenue-generating alternative to help offset expenses associated with city services provided at the venues during events downtown, said Donna J. Estrich, the city's commissioner of administration and finance. The parking plan, which was implemented last January, opened up additional parking spaces and expanded the hours for pay parking during the events.
And because the event parking is an additional source of revenue from people who attend the events downtown no matter where they live, the costs of public safety and maintenance of the facilities does not fall solely on the backs of city taxpayers, Estrich said.
"The fact that we haven't had to revisit (the ticket fee) is a testament to the cooperation of the entities that made the financial commitments as well as the success of event parking that was implemented earlier this year," she said.
Adam S. Walters, a Phillips Lytle attorney who represented the five venues as of last year did not respond to three requests for comment. When the surcharge was introduced, Walters argued it was a new tax – not a fee – that would pay for "general government function expenses" and would first have to be authorized by New York State. Otherwise, it would be an illegal tax, he said. And not only would the ticket "tax" be unlawful, it would also violate some of the city's lease and/or operating agreements with the venues, Walters contended, adding that the plan unfairly targeted certain venues and events while exempting others.
Michael G. Murphy, president of Shea's Performing Arts Center, did not return a voicemail seeking comment last week, but when Murphy spoke to The News last year when the surcharge was first introduced, he said keeping prices as low as possible was a “continuing concern” for Shea’s.
When called for comment last week, Dan Hart, executive director of Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra that calls Kleinhans home, said "we haven't met for months." Hart said he would call back to elaborate but did not. He also spoke to The News when the administration initially rolled out its proposal for the surcharge and said that the BPO and Kleinhans were "a little bit worried about it."
Under the entertainment ticket surcharge proposal, the feed were:
- 50 cents for tickets with a face value of $10.01 to $25.
- $1.50 for tickets priced $25.01 to $50.
- $2.50 for tickets priced $50.01 to $75.
- $3.50 for tickets priced $75.01 and above.
Buffalo residents would be eligible for a rebate as long as they provided proof of residency and payment of the charge, but the details had not been worked out.
Meanwhile, the legislation to implement the entertainment ticket surcharge has been tabled in the Common Council since September 2018. If the administration wants to revive the ticket surcharge plan, it would have to submit a new bill to the newly-elected Common Council that was seated in January. But the administration has no plans to reintroduce the legislation at this time, officials said.
"We believe there will be a resolution with all of the entities where the special events take place," Estrich said.
If not, there's still a possibility that the entertainment ticket surcharge could be put back on the table.
"It's something we would go back and revisit, but before we did that we would work with our partners," Estrich said. "Everybody understands the need. We also recognize what a benefit (each event) is to downtown and the city. There's no doubt the value that those entities bring to the city, to its downtown."