- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 17, 2005

While Mayor Anthony A. Williams continues to lobby D.C. Council members to support a lease agreement for a new ballpark for the Washington Nationals on South Capitol Street, opponents to the project are increasing their efforts to sway council members to shoot down the deal.

With as many as 10 votes on the council still in play, stadium critics distributed hundreds of fliers near the Wilson Building yesterday, and some groups have sent scores of e-mails to council members. A large anti-ballpark rally is also scheduled for Monday in Freedom Plaza to counter one being organized by the city. Seven votes likely are needed to approve or reject the lease.

“I’m pretty optimistic,” said Chris Weiss, an advocate with the nonprofit Friends of the Earth, which opposes public financing for the stadium. “There continues to be a majority of District residents who are frustrated at how this project has played out. Politicians have to look at this and say, ‘That’s worrisome.’ ”

Meanwhile yesterday, Major League Baseball officials met with council members, and several council sources said the league has been willing to offer more concessions in the lease to garner support.

The council is scheduled to vote on the lease Tuesday. It must approve it by year’s end or MLB could seek damages or arbitration. A rejection of the lease is likely to jeopardize the city’s ability to begin construction on the ballpark by March, as planned. MLB, which owns the Nationals, also said it will not name a new owner until the lease is approved.

Currently, the only solid “yes” votes are Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat; Sharon Ambrose, Ward 6 Democrat; and Vincent B. Orange Sr., Ward 5 Democrat, who is running for mayor. Ballpark supporters also expect a positive vote from council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, at-large Democrat also running for mayor, which would then trigger support from Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, and Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat, council sources said yesterday. However, no deals have been struck yet.

Mr. Mendelson said he is “keeping his own counsel until Tuesday,” and Mrs. Patterson, who is running for council chairman, said she is awaiting responses to about 20 questions on funding and the economic development potential of the Southeast site before she can make up her mind.

“I would not be able to vote until I have some basic information that we need,” she said.

David A. Catania, at-large independent, who has questioned the cost of the stadium, said he would vote against the lease, and Adrian M. Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat who is running for mayor, said he would vote against the lease because “the deal has gotten worse.”

“I have been against public financing, and I certainly continue to be against public financing,” Mr. Fenty said.

Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, said he also would reject the lease.

Kwame R. Brown, at-large Democrat, has said he would not support the lease unless private developers promise to pick up the tab for stadium cost overruns. But several council sources said his voting stance is not final.

Ballpark supporters also said they could garner support from Vincent C. Gray, Ward 7 Democrat, and Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat, even though both have argued against public financing for the stadium.

Council member Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican who this week forwarded a list of 26 wide-ranging questions about the stadium to the mayor, appears to be undecided.

She has not returned repeated calls and e-mails for comment, and staffers yesterday said she is not revealing her position.

Much of the opposition to the stadium stems from frustration over its cost, which has risen to $667 million, or nearly $100 million more than what the city can borrow for the project. Opponents also have argued the city should not pay the entire bill for the stadium.

The city has insisted it will use no money from the general fund to pay for the ballpark. It is authorized to borrow $535 million for the project but can support up to $631 million in costs because it will collect $37 million in baseball-related revenue from 2005, $9 million in premium from the bonds and $20 million from Major League Baseball.

The city also will earn $30 million in interest, $10 million of which stems from $125 million borrowed from a “rainy day” contingency reserve tied to the city’s general fund.

The $125 million was borrowed to pay for renovations to RFK Stadium and for land acquisition, with the expectation it would be paid back using proceeds from the bond sale.

However, the city now says it will replenish the contingency fund only after the stadium is built, allowing the city to collect interest on the $125 million. Ballpark opponents said that was an improper use of the general fund because it depletes nearly 75 percent of the contingency for a two-year period.

“I think most people would say, ‘Well, you are relying on the general fund,’ ” said Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. “This is a very creative use. … This is not some sort of short-term cash flow thing. They’re taking the money, and they’re going to hold on to it for two years.”

Stadium opponents conceded they have less power to sway votes than the mayor, who is in a position to offer endorsements and support for pet projects. But they said council members seeking higher office, such as Mrs. Cropp, Mrs. Patterson and Mr. Orange, would be served best by voting against the lease.

“People who support this will get killed politically and will not get the seats they want,” predicted Debby Hanrahan, a member of the D.C. Statehood Green Party, which opposes public financing for a ballpark.

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