NEW BRITAIN — The Rock Cats won't be getting the boot after all.
Owner Josh Solomon showed up at city hall Wednesday afternoon with a check for $164,569, paying off the tax bill on New Britain Stadium and keeping the team's lease valid, city officials said.
The city was planning to evict the Rock Cats on Sept. 1, but the team can now stay to play the 2015 season in the city. The club still appears intent on relocating to Hartford for 2016 and beyond, however.
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Mayor Erin Stewart, who has been in the middle of the Rock Cats controversy since early June, said she was satisfied with the payment. It compensates the city for a tax payment it made to the Town of Berlin, where most of the land occupied by New Britain Stadium is located, at the start of the month.
"I wanted to make sure I was protecting our taxpayers and our relationship with our neighboring town," she said.
"It was never our intention to have New Britain pay the bill," Solomon said by phone Wednesday afternoon.
Berlin's tax assessment on the ballpark is unfairly high, Solomon said, and the team will continue a court challenge aimed at sharply reducing it.
The Rock Cats stunned New Britain in early June by announcing they'd been negotiating in secret with Hartford and had reached a deal to move to a new downtown ballpark there in the 2016 season. At the time, Stewart complained that Solomon had never talked with her, and that his management staff had assured her all along that rumors the team was looking elsewhere were false.
Relations deteriorated from there. The city said it sent multiple notices to the Rock Cats in July to advise that property taxes on the ballpark had to be paid to the town of Berlin by Aug. 1, but got no response. Rather than sustain a roughly $5,000 late fee, the city put up its own money to cover the tax bill but announced it would declare the team in default of the lease if it didn't pay up by Sept. 1.
Attorneys for the Rock Cats were scheduled to seek an injunction Thursday in Superior Court to block the eviction, but that case is now resolved, Stewart said.
The Rock Cats' lease with New Britain requires the team to keep its tax bill with Berlin current. For all of the Rock Cats' previous years at the ballpark, the payment was frozen at $30,000 under an agreement between Berlin and New Britain and, Solomon said, the city paid half.
But when that deal expired, Berlin used a new assessment to set the taxes at more than $300,000 a year. At the same time, a new lease provision required the team to pay the full tax bill.
New Britain went to court earlier this year to reduce that figure, and settled with Berlin on a figure of $165,000. The Rock Cats have complained they were never given a voice in those negotiations, although New Britain has said it repeatedly invited them to participate. The team also complained that New Britain reached the deal almost immediately after learning that the Rock Cats would leave in 2016.
The new tax bill represents "an approximate 1,000 percent increase over what the team had previously paid each year" and is "an especially undue burden on the taxpayers of New Britain," Solomon said in a written statement.
"We will continue to pursue the appropriate steps necessary to appeal and reverse this unfair decision," he said.
The Rock Cats are pursuing a motion in Superior Court aimed at voiding the settlement and reopening discussions about the assessment — with the team permitted to offer evidence.
The Sept. 1 eviction notice would have had little or no effect on this season's schedule, since the Rock Cats' final game is on that date. It's doubtful that the city would have been able to lock out the team for that game. But voiding the lease would have had an enormous impact on the 2015 season. The Rock Cats would have had to hunt for a one-year home, with the possibility of sharply reduced season ticket sales and corporate sponsorships.
Solomon said Wednesday that the Rock Cats plan to play 2015 in New Britain.
In early June, news of the Rock Cats' departure plans for 2016 stunned city residents. Many became angry at the team, but others began a social medial campaign to persuade Solomon to change his mind. After a strong start, that effort has largely faltered.
Stewart had been a early promoter of the "Keep The Cats" petition and social media campaign, giving the message a large section of the mayor's office's page on the city website. But in recent weeks, the feature is absent. And interest in the online petition at change.org appears to have peaked long ago. The website announced the 750-signature mark on June 13, but only 116 names have been added in the two months since then.
The Rock Cats are a AA-level affiliate of the Minnesota Twins, and Major League Baseball rules would prohibit another AA-level team from coming to New Britain if the Rock Cats are in Hartford, city officials said. But Stewart's administration is looking for teams from independent leagues. If the Hartford deal falls through, it's unknown whether the Rock Cats would return to New Britain; seek a deal to play in Springfield, Mass.; or pursue an entirely different location.
Stewart's administration is still looking to recruit other teams to play at New Britain Stadium after 2015, she said.
"New Britain is a baseball town," she said.
"We didn't talk about 2016," Stewart said of her meeting with Solomon. "I just happy we got our money back."