Whoever uttered the words “Baseball has been berry, berry good to me” did not have to pay for a state-of-the-art stadium with municipal money.
“I’m blinded by my love of the sport, but I’m not dumb, deaf and blind,” said D.C. Council member David A. Catania, at-large Republican, during our conversation on the eve of the council’s oversight hearing on the foolhearted funding proposal for a new major-league baseball stadium.
D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams — searching for higher ground for a legacy beyond ethical errors for his suspect administration — would trade a public hospital, a public university, a public treatment facility, parcels of choice city-owned land and anything else he could get his greedy gloves on to bring baseball back to the District.
Believe it or not, I’m a big baseball fan, too. I’d like to be shouting in the sky suites when Teflon Tony throws out the first ball on Opening Day for the revived Washington Senators. But not one batter had better walk up to the plate until after “One-Tune Tony,” as Mr. Catania dubbed him, finds the forfeited funds to reconstruct a public hospital or reopen better-equipped public libraries or refurbish those crumbling public schools or repay suffering seniors for skyrocketing prescription costs.
Priorities. Economy. Timing. These are no longer the boom times that justify a baseball stadium as a priority. Strike one. “Youth 1st” read one sign as the protesters lined up outside the John A. Wilson Building yesterday, shouting for the restoration of all manner of municipal services that were cut during the past budget cycle. The mayor cried that the city could no longer afford them.
If Mr. Williams fought as hard for everyday items for everyday people, he wouldn’t face a full count in the bottom of the ninth as he attempts to hit John Q.’s hard-earned tax dollars out of the park for the benefit of his well-heeled buddies.
Mr. Catania grew up in the Midwest where “baseball was it.” As a D.C. wallet-watcher, he may be “conflicted by his weak spot for baseball,” but he is “not willing to give away the store or put a new tax on business for baseball.” Take note: According to those I’ve asked, the business community is divided on paying for this project. Mr. Catania rightly contends that creating new taxes on businesses for the dedicated purpose of constructing a stadium is a bad precedent and “sends the wrong message.” Roads maybe? More street patrols? But a stadium? Strike two.
True, the new convention center and the MCI Center were public-private deals predicated on a dedicated business tax. But those all-weather facilities are available throughout the year. They generate tax revenue not exclusive of sporting events at the same time they attract ancillary dollars for surrounding businesses and hotels to fuel the city’s lifeblood.
Mr. Catania is not set in stone against the stadium, but he just doesn’t “see serious money on the table.” One of the highest hurdles will be getting Congress — which has final sway — to agree to allow the District to tax the players who are not residents.
Congress does not allow the District to tax commuters. (Foul ball.) The diligent council member suggests that the mayor could tap other sources to fund the deal and make it more palatable. For one, the city could refinance the debt on the convention center. That move would not only save money, but also generate another revenue stream. (Batter on first.)
He also questions other tricky terms of the gilded package. Where does the administration factor in the naming rights on a stadium? Should D.C. taxpayers build a stadium and then the baseball owners pocket the millions from a bidding war for the naming rights? No, he said emphatically. Strike three, you’re out.
Mr. Catania is definitely on base to say that other funding options should be investigated first. “Don’t go straight to the piggy bank,” he said. If baseball is so important, wouldn’t it be more feasible to refurbish or reconstruct RFK Stadium right where it is? After all, the team, the homeless Montreal Expos, would have to play there — at a cost of $15 million — until a new $436 million stadium could be constructed at another location. Is this just throwing good money after bad?
This week the latest on a shelf lined with feasibility studies comes from the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, which demonstrated that Mr. Williams’ stadium-size folly would not produce the number of real jobs or revenue he promises. Granted, this think tank leans to the left, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that is a shaky field-of-dreams deal.
Mr. Catania said he has had conversations with fellow council member Kevin Chavous, Ward 7 Democrat, to present legislation to earmark some of the federal dollars coming out of the congressional tax package — the District is to receive $219 million — to pay for construction of a centralized city hospital. Lots of luck. Mr. Catania raises another compelling argument. MLB owners may be stringing the District with the prospect of relocating the Expos here to see just how sweet a deal they can get.
It is highly unlikely that Portland, Ore., will be chosen over the Washington region, which has one of the top media markets in the country. As for Virginia, which would build a new stadium as close to the 14th Street Bridge as it could, Mr. Catania said, “they’re broke.”
“We’re essentially it, so why negotiate against ourselves?” he asked. The District has so many fundamental problems that “it is like a ship adrift,” Mr. Catania continued. “We have so much serious work to do” that he’s not prepared “to invest a lot of time and energy on this shiny bauble.”