The Insider

A Bite on the Backside
Now that Astros owner Drayton McLane has gotten Harris County to agree to pay him $19.5 million for his leasehold on the Astrodome, taxpayers might wonder why the lease is valued on the real property rolls of the Harris County Appraisal District at a little less than $6 million, resulting in a tax bill of only about $150,000 annually for McLane. It's a thought that has also occurred to HCAD chief appraiser Jim Robinson.

Commissioners Court agreed last week that $19.5 million was a fair price to buy out McLane's control of the Astrodome as part of the complicated pact to build a downtown stadium for the Astros. In addition to the $15.5 million lease, the price includes three years of rent on the facility plus $1.5 million to cover improvements to the Dome that McLane financed.

"If McLane thinks it's worth $15.5 million, that's the number we're going to put on it for 1997," declares Robinson, who explains that the near tripling of the appraised value of the lease has already been keyed into the HCAD system on a provisional basis.

"They signed a contract saying what it's worth," adds Robinson. "[McLane] set the market value."

Although voters last November gave the county the go-ahead to build McLane a new stadium, the issue has now shifted to the Legislature, where a measure creating a mechanism to fund the project must be hammered out. Whatever happens, McLane will retain the Astrodome lease until his team moves out, making him liable for an increase in property tax payments for at least the next few years.

Robinson says McLane hasn't gotten the news that his tax bill is going up because notices containing 1997 valuations won't go out until early May.

"I don't care if he reads it in the Press or not," says Robinson, "because that's fully what I intend to do."

In the final year of John McMullen's ownership of the Astros in 1992, the Dome lease was valued at $2.4 million. By 1995, it was up to $6.35 million, based largely, says Robinson, on financial data supplied by McLane on how much he had paid McMullen for the lease. Along came the baseball strike in 1995, and McLane's lawyers successfully appealed the valuation. "They came into a hearing and presented some evidence on whether their income stream had been impacted by the strike," says Robinson.

As a result of the protest, McLane got a reduction in the appraised value of the lease to $5.59 million. Since real property is evaluated every two years, that 1995 figure is the current appraisal.

Robinson is not willing to concede that the Dome lease has been undervalued by his agency in the past.

"I think the economics have improved under McLane's management," he allows. "Probably the evaluation in the past was not inappropriate based on the data that we had."

Robinson's interpretation of the agreement as setting a higher market price for the lease is not endorsed by County Attorney Michael Fleming, who helped negotiate the terms of the county purchase. Just because county commissioners are willing to pay that figure to regain control of the Dome doesn't mean anyone else would consider spending that kind of money, Fleming contends.

"What the fair market value is I couldn't say," shrugs Fleming, who concedes that the $15.5 million figure is at least the fair market value to Commissioners Court.

Commissioner Steve Radack, who opposed the proposal to build the downtown stadium, says he has "no problem" with HCAD's raising the value of the lease to $15.5 million. Radack justifies his vote for the $19.5 million figure as necessary to reclaim the county's rights to the facility lease -- control that Radack says "should have never been given away."

East of West U
Spotted hobnobbing recently with Constable Victor Trevino at the east-side office of Justice of the Peace Armando Rodriguez was mayoral aspirant Rob Mosbacher, freshly relocated from West University Place into a Houston apartment and telling folks that Port Commission chairman Ned Holmes will anchor his campaign finance committee.

Port Commissioner Vidal Martinez, quoted in this space last week raining all over Gracie Saenz's mayoral parade, also has committed his support to fellow Republican Mosbacher. Saenz fought tooth and nail to get Martinez appointed to the Port Commission; now he's rewriting the book on political gratitude.

Mosbacher also had one of those one-upsmanship coffees at the Katy Freeway Ramada Inn with fellow prospective candidate Helen Huey several weeks ago. According to Huey, Mosbacher informed her that he anticipated no problem raising campaign cash, since he had taken in between $2 million and $3 million from the Houston area in his 1990 race for lieutenant governor. Mosbacher spokesman Mark Sanders says his boss remembers giving Huey a figure of $1.8 million. In either case, the message to Hammerin' Helen was: "More than you can raise, kid."

Huey, meanwhile, is all aglow over a recent poll conducted by UH political scientist Kent Tedin that reportedly shows her with positive name ID and benefiting from the extended exposure she received roughing up the city's sexually oriented businesses.

"I like it," declared Huey of Tedin's findings. "I like it."

Too, Too Much
The year is young, yet Houston already has recorded its first publishing casualty of 1997: Restaurateur Tony Vallone's glossy la Vita magazine, which was distributed to select upper-income zip codes as an "advertising supplement" in the Chronicle, is a goner after only two issues of food, froufrou and such self-promoting fluff as "Who's in the Kitchen with Tony?"

We know The Insider won't be the only compulsive reader who'll miss such quality copy as "Obsessively Yours," in which leading Houstonians divulged what they sneak and seek for late night snacks. In case you missed it, Meredith Long craves his own crunchy tofu, Chron gossipist Maxine Mesinger hungers for caviar 24 hours a day and Jay Rosenstein longs for -- what else -- "desserts from Tony's!"

Vallone claims la Vita was such a rousing success that it was taking too much effort to produce, certainly a novel reason for the death of a magazine. Editor-in-chief Melissa Stevens, whose PR firm handles special projects for Vallone, denies rumors that she and Vallone had a falling out and attributes la Vita's demise to the difficulty of putting out such a meaty rag with just a three-member staff.

"We decided after working till three in the morning for two weeks before the last issue that it was just too much," Stevens explains.

Not Seeking New Life Experiences
Word's out in local Democratic circles that President Clinton's most proficient Houston fundraiser, lawyer Arthur Schechter, is under consideration for a plum ambassadorship, perhaps to the Netherlands.

Schechter, a civic activist who helped raise nearly $12 million for Clinton for last year's campaign, acknowledged he's discussed the possibility of a diplomatic appointment with the White House but as of early this week had heard nothing definitive.

Unlike former Texas Senator Bob Krueger, Schechter doesn't have to worry about being posted in war-wracked Burundi or some other out-of-the way locale.

"If there were a vacancy," says Schechter, "I would not want to go someplace that would provide me with an entirely new kind of life experience."

As to whether he's being rewarded for his fundraising prowess, a somewhat touchy subject with Clintonites these days, Schechter says, "I would hope if I am being considered by the president for anything, that will only be a factor."

A small one, we're sure.

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