- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 30, 2004

The D.C. Council will approve a ballpark financing package worth as much as $550million today, ending more than a month of internal political battles, delays and changes to the stadium legislation.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams almost certainly will not get the nine or 10 “yes” votes he originally hoped for from the 13-member council, but he still claims a solid group of seven votes.

“It’s going to be nip and tuck and require constant monitoring, but we’re very confident this is going to pass,” Williams said.

Today’s approval, to be followed by a mandatory second council vote Dec.14, caps a wild series of events that at several points appeared to place the relocation of the Montreal Expos to Washington in significant doubt.

Highlighting that roller-coaster ride was a Nov.9 maneuver by council chairman Linda W. Cropp, who at the last minute removed the stadium bill from its scheduled first reading by the council.

She coupled that move with an announcement that she would seek to move the ballpark location from near the Anacostia River waterfront in Southeast to the RFK Stadium property.

The forced switch would have violated the city’s deal with Major League Baseball and angered Williams and several council members.

But after several days of negotiations within the John A. Wilson Building, Cropp emerged with a planned amendment to create a formal, six-month search for private financing as a means to lower the city’s cost toward the stadium.

The search, timed to when the first payments on the stadium bonds are due, will not stand in the way of the District’s Dec.31 deadline with MLB to approve the stadium financing. And if no suitable private funds are found, the city’s plan to pay off the bonds with ballpark-related sales taxes, team lease payments and a gross-receipts tax on large District business continues as is.

But Cropp said yesterday she believes the pursuit will be successful. More than two dozen offers for private financing already have reached city offices, with many more to come in the next few months. One idea, using revenues from a curbside parking program, could gain formal certification soon from city chief financial officer Natwar Gandhi.

“The delay, I think, was important. It’s really worth it to not just accept anything out of hand,” Cropp said. “What I’ve done has already put in a high potential for cost savings for the city.”

Slated to vote “yes” on the stadium bill are Democrats Jack Evans, Harold Brazil, Kevin Chavous, Sandy Allen, Sharon Ambrose, Vincent Orange and Jim Graham. Known opponents are Democrats Adrian Fenty, Phil Mendelson and Kathy Patterson, Republican Carol Schwartz and independent David Catania.

Some abstentions, however, are possible depending on the numerous amendments likely to surface during today’s legislative debate.

Cropp said yesterday she has not yet taken a formal position on the bill. But she has said for weeks she has no intention of killing the prospects of baseball in Washington, even with her stated concerns about the stadium’s ultimate cost to the city.

The expected vote breakdown, resulting in no clear mandate for either side, is essentially the same as it was three weeks ago. In an effort to change the breakdown, both stadium supporters and opponents held public rallies yesterday.

There was some late drama, however, on the status of Graham’s yes vote. The Ward1 Councilman said he still needs more specific legislative language to create a $45million fund to improve District libraries. The money would be part of a much broader community investment program proposed by Williams.

“Right now, I’m still unconvinced,” Graham said. “We’re making progress, but we’re not quite there. What I’m after is an ironclad deal.”

Negotiations between staffers for Graham and the mayor continued into last night. Williams, however, said he believes the framework of a deal between the two is in place — Graham’s yes vote in exchange for the library package — and needs to be honored.

“There were commitments made, and I think we all need to stick by those,” Williams said.

Cropp also might introduce a second amendment to the stadium bill today that would force the city to seek out a new ballpark site, likely the RFK property again, if a second cost estimate from Gandhi exceeds the current projected figure of $530million by more than $100million.

The mayor’s office two months ago projected the stadium cost at $435.2million. Gandhi has since pegged the cost at $530million after including extra contingency funds, which led to increasing the bonding capacity for the stadium in the bill by $50million to $550million.

Language already exists in the city’s relocation deal that calls for a joint MLB-District selection of a new ballpark site if the parcel near South Capitol Street SE is deemed unavailable. Cropp wants to put some additional parameters on that language.

“We’ll have to see what happens on that [amendment]. I’m going to at least talk about it, the need to make sure we’re not buying into massive cost overruns, and see where the debate goes,” Cropp said.

Williams and his staff have not objected to this idea, at least in concept, because they also have no intention of going so far above cost on the ballpark.

“No one supports the cost of this going too high, but I believe huge overruns on this are very highly unlikely,” Williams said. “We took a very long look at the other stadiums built recently, planned accordingly and put in significant contingency funding.”

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