NEW BRITAIN — Stung by the Rock Cats' hardball business practices, the city on Friday answered with a brushback pitch: An eviction warning.
Mayor Erin Stewart publicly announced that she's ready to terminate the lease on New Britain Stadium at the end of this month if the team doesn't pay its overdue property taxes.
In a blistering statement, she warned that she's not going to let city taxpayers get stuck with the nearly $165,000 bill.
"I am deeply disturbed by the pattern of utter disrespect that this ownership group has shown to their home city over the past few months," Stewart wrote.
"In June, they went public with their dalliance with Hartford, which hasn't turned out to be quite the 'done deal' that some made it out to be," she continued. "Since then, they have continued their radio silence with New Britain. Now, they are stiffing the taxpayers of Berlin and New Britain on their tax bill."
Calls and email to team owner Josh Solomon late Friday went unanswered.
Stewart's administration was stung badly at the start of June when the Rock Cats ownership and the city of Hartford announced a secretly negotiated deal for the team to relocate to downtown Hartford for the 2016 season. Just a day beforehand, Stewart was publicly assuring residents that the team wasn't going anywhere. She later complained that team executives had steadily misled her.
Since then, relations between New Britain and the team ownership have been strained, at best. According to Stewart, the team for the past two weeks has simply ignored phone calls and emails warning about the tax bill and possible consequences.
The Rock Cats, New Britain and the neighboring town of Berlin have a complex arrangement over the property that makes up New Britain Stadium, which straddles both communities. New Britain leases the stadium to the team, and had a contract with Berlin for more than a decade that kept that town from charging property taxes. Instead, New Britain each year made a $30,000 payment in lieu of taxes to Berlin — on the team's behalf.
That tax deal expired last year, though, and Berlin moved to impose a $300,000-a-year tax bill. New Britain claimed that was excessive and sued, and the two communities reach a deal setting taxes at $164,569.
New Britain paid the bill this week, and is now giving the Rock Cats until the end of this month to repay the money or lose its lease.
"The lease agreement between New Britain and the Rock Cats is clear that they are responsible for these taxes," Stewart said. "If it wasn't for the city's help, they would owe Berlin double that amount. But if the Solomons continue their refusal to pay their taxes, Berlin can hold New Britain responsible for this payment since we are the property owners. I am not about to let them rack up late fees on the backs of our taxpayers."
Stewart has not said whether the city would let the Rock Cats play their final scheduled home game, Sept. 1, against the New Hampshire Fisher Cats if the lease is ended at the end of August.
If the dispute goes unresolved, it is likely force a change in the Rock Cats' plans for the 2015 season. In a cheerily worded notice this week, the team announced that its 2015 schedule would be played in New Britain.
"When the 2015 season begins next April, the New Britain franchise will extend its run as the Nutmeg State's oldest continuously operating professional sports franchise," the team said. "The Rock Cats will once again play a 142-game Eastern League schedule, with 71 of those contests being played at easily accessible New Britain Stadium starting with the home opener."
Stewart made clear that the team won't be getting any free ride in its final year.
"Despite the events of the last few months, we have continued to be professional and helpful hosts, and have honored our obligations under the lease," she said. "The residents of New Britain can rest assured that, one way or the other, the Rock Cats will pay their fair share"
Regardless of party affiliation, city leaders have been angered by the Rock Cats' decision to move in 2016 — and the deal that was reached.
Democratic Alderman David DeFronzo said Friday that he hopes the city and the team can resolve the tax dispute, but added, "Obviously the Rock Cats should be paying their taxes like everybody else in the city has to, and they should be paying them on time."Copyright © 2015, CT Now