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Few of life's investments are risk-free, and publicly funding the 1998 Winter Olympics isn't one of them. But Utahns who open their wallets for the Games will see their tax dollars returned, Olympics organizers assure.

"Under any scenario, the taxpayers' money will be repaid," said state Economic Analysis Director Brad Barber.Some Olympic skeptics, however, say the gamble is too great and urge Utahns to guard their money clips and vote cautiously on the Olympics during a referendum vote scheduled for fall municipal elections.

"There are some real risks," said B. Gale Dick, dean of University of Utah graduate schools and a member of the Salt Lake Winter Games Organizing Committee.

"What I'm hoping is that at the time of the referendum vote next fall, when people are asked to vote, that these risks are clearly laid out," he said.

Utah, which will host the Games if Salt Lake City wins bids from the U.S. and International Olympic committees, now has a funding mechanism dedicating $4 million annually in local- and state-collected sales tax to the Games.

The tax money, if approved by voters, would buy at least $40 million in 20-year bonds to build Olympics facilities, particularly a bobsled-luge run, ski jump and speed-skating rink, Barber said.

Barber explained several repayment scenarios.

The money would be repaid annually to municipalities and the state, which yearly would give up one-sixty-fourth of a percent of their sales tax revenue to the Olympics.

Eventually, the bonds, purchased by a Winter Games Authority Board, and taxpayers' money would be repaid with an estimated $280 million to $349 million in television rights paid by network TV.

The authority board, if the city wins the IOC bid, must wait until 1994, when TV networks sign broadcasting contracts. That money could then immediately go toward repayment of public funds, Barber said.

However, once the authority board collects TV revenue, it could decide not to distribute it immediately to taxpayers, choosing instead to keep the money until after the 1998 Olympics to pay for facilities and operations.

"The point is we are committed to repaying the tax money, that's got to be stressed," he said.

Nevertheless, Barber acknowledged, the public money plan doesn't come without risks. The city could lose the Games and its TV revenue and it's also possible that even if the Games are secured, they could be a financial disaster.

In either case, "there will be no way to repay the taxpayer," Barber said.

"But there will be no need for additional tax revenue," he added, explaining the tax money would be required only for the 20-year life of the bond.

Furthermore, facilities never used for Olympic events could - like those located in former Olympics host, Calgary, Canada : become "self-sufficient" and generate revenue, Barber said.

Olympic critics throw water on the prospects of the facilities making money. "I've never thought of a bobsled and luge run as a great revenue producer. I think they would be terrible white elephants," Dick said.

Olympics opponents seize on these gambles as indications the public's money won't be seen again. "Pie in the sky and when you die you'll get your money back," said Olympics critic and radio talk-show host Mills Crenshaw.

But Barber said the risks are small and the state "should have confidence in its managerial and entrepreneurial skill" at making the Olympics work in the black.