- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2003

Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ $338.7million ballpark financing bill received a tough and often hostile reception yesterday during a six-hour D.C. Council hearing.

The council’s skepticism — although widely expected entering the first formal legislative review of Williams’ ballpark bill — likely means that the District will not pass any stadium legislation before July15, the day of Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game. That date also remains as a potential target for MLB executives to name a new permanent home for the Montreal Expos and the day the council begins its official recess for the summer.

“This council is not terribly receptive to the core idea of raising taxes [for baseball],” said Democrat Jack Evans, chairman of the council’s finance committee. “There is great support locally for baseball and not great support for public financing for baseball. Therein lies the dilemma the council wrestles with.”

The District’s aversion to anything resembling a tax increase comes just days after a wrenching budget process in which a $5.6billion budget for fiscal year 2004 was balanced without new taxes but at the expense of some significant cuts in programs and services.

Of the five-member council finance committee, which must first ratify the Ballpark Revenue Amendment Act of 2003, only Democrat Harold Brazil is solidly in favor of the bill as currently written. And of the entire 13-member council, only Democrat Vincent Orange joins Brazil as an unabashed supporter.

The rest of the council remains highly concerned over both of the primary funding mechanisms now on the table for the District’s share of a proposed $436million stadium project. Williams and his staff propose to raise about $20million annually to fund stadium bonds from the collection of ballpark-related sales and admissions tax and the return of a gross receipts tax on large District businesses.

The measures share similarities to mechanisms used in several other recent stadium projects, as well as seeking to satisfy MLB’s demand for significant public funding in a new ballpark housing the Expos.

A third leg of Williams’ ballpark bill — an income tax levied specifically on pro baseball players competing in the District — is already all but dead at the hands of Congress, MLB executives and the players union.

“This bill is the product of an embattled executive who needs a win and a legacy and seeks to do at the expense of the taxpayers,” said Republican David Catania. “He will not be here when the [stadium] bill comes due. Baseball would be great, but I do not want us to give away the store.”

Council chairwoman Linda Cropp, conversely, encouraged the gross receipts tax and the business community support behind it. But she is unwilling to exempt businesses from any future taxes in exchange for their acceptance of this one.

Evans, like many others on the council, has a keen desire to see baseball back in the District. And that passion was reflected in hour after hour of testimony from local businessmen, residents and activists. Nearly all were in support of Washington baseball, and many cited the success of MCI Center and adjacent downtown neighborhoods.

“Washington baseball, particularly if it’s at the New York Avenue site, will simply be another important marker in the continuation of the growth of this city,” said Chance Patterson, vice president of XM Radio, headquartered across the street from the proposed site in Northeast.

But Evans continues to insist on guarantees the city and its bond ratings will not be placed a risk in the baseball effort. As a result, Evans said he will demand automatic escalators in the level of the gross receipts tax, if enacted, to raise more money should attendance and tax revenue fail to meet projections. One hurdle, for example, would be the Internet, where many tickets are sold but sales tax is not collected.

“What we need to figure out is a way that this [debt] doesn’t wash back onto the city in the event of an serious downfall,” Evans said. “I am simply not willing to put the city at risk like that.”

Eric Price, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said he is more than willing to negotiate each of the bill’s measures with the council and testified as such yesterday. Both he and Evans also said the city can generate some kind of tangible sign of the city’s commitment for baseball before the All-Star break if need be.

What that sign would be, however, remains unclear. The finance committee will now mark up the Williams bill and has requested numerous pieces of additional data from Price’s office. But no further action on the proposed legislation is currently scheduled.

“You have to start someplace,” Price said. “We’ve put something on the table we think is very conservative and very doable. Now it’s time to take the next step. If the council has other potential funding ideas, I certainly welcome that.”

Evans and Catania both offered just that, outlining several alternatives:

• Refinancing current debt on the new Washington Convention Center to a lower interest rate and funneling the savings to another bond on a ballpark. The idea, projected to yield perhaps $3million in annual savings, is seen as a long shot.

• Using stadium naming rights to help fund public revenue bonds. This idea has circulated around Price’s office already. Naming rights, however, have traditionally stayed with team owners and are difficult to use the basis for revenue bonds.

• Putting more private capital into the stadium project. While this is not what MLB ideally wants to see, Evans yesterday made a surprising, off-the-cuff challenge to Mitchell Schear, Jamie Williams and Bill Alsup — three of the District’s most prominent commercial real estate executives — to get their respective companies involved in the stadium construction. The trio said they would study Evans’ proposal.

“If this is going to be such an economic boom, why isn’t the private sector proposing to do more?,” Evans said. “You guys build buildings. That’s what you do. Why wouldn’t you be involved?”

The council also had several harsh words for baseball and its current relocation process. MLB executives are insisting on a solid public financing package before making any decision on the Expos, as well as beginning measures to sell the club. Furthermore, there are no assurances a ratified stadium bill will definitively land the Expos.

“The way this [relocation] process is unfolding, having to essentially bid against ourselves, this puts us politicians in a terrible position,” said Evans, who would prefer the Expos be sold to local ownership first so a stadium deal could be negotiated solely with that party. “That’s not [the business communitys] fault. That’s Major League Baseball’s fault. Part of me wants to just say forget it and go see the [Class AA] Bowie Baysox.”

At another point in the hearing, Evans added, “At some point, I am prepared to walk on this.”

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