Sunday, October 24, 2004

The D.C. Council will hold its first public airing of the proposed Major League Baseball financing package this week. In fact, the public hearing on Thursday is the only scheduled hearing on the plan, which calls for spending $440 million to build a new stadium and to restore RFK Stadium for use until the new ballpark comes online. We are excited that America’s pastime is returning to the nation’s capital. But just as we vigorously opposed public financing for the private enterprise, we now lend our voice to those in City Hall that will be questioning the financing package.

The Ballpark Omnibus Financing and Revenue Act of 2004 is set for a joint hearing by the Committee on Finance and Revenue and the Committee on Economic Development. The legislation calls for $65 million to be spent on acquiring land near the U.S. Navy Yard in Southeast Washington, $300 million on the new 41,000-seat stadium itself, $13 million to refurbish RFK and about $17 million for parking. Financing the project is expected to cost $40 million. The sum total is $440 million. The proposal, drawn up by Mayor Tony Williams, calls for increasing taxes, charging the team rent on RFK and the new stadium, and collecting taxes on tickets, sales and parking to pay for the 30-year bonds that will cover the debt service.

We question each cost and urge the 13 members of the council to thoroughly scrub the purported numbers. No project the magnitude of the proposed stadium meets initial cost projections in the District (the most recent example is the cavernous Washington Convention Center). Indeed, Council member Adrian Fenty, the junior member of the Economic Development Committee, told the Associated Press recently that the baseball financing package “will cost at least $600 million by inflation and cost overruns that normally are associated with big projects like this.” Key to meeting projected costs are the “E” and “O” words — efficiency and oversight — both of which elude City Hall.

The vote on the financing package is not expected until December, so getting inside baseball and asking the right questions this week are critical. There are scores of questions that must be put forth for answers by each of the council’s nine major committees. Chief among those questions are: What concessions are being considered for D.C. United, whose home soccer turf is RFK, and how much will they cost? Is the Committee on Public Works combing projected infrastructure costs? How will the new baseball stadium affect the District’s transit subsidies? Does the Department of Employment Services have the capacity to aid job seekers? Since those jobs are seasonal jobs, what is the projected compensation for unemployment? Has the Judiciary Committee tallied the added costs for public safety — including police, fire and ambulance services — on game days? Is the human services panel looking at whether local hospitals have the capacity to handle health-care emergencies arising from a game day incident?

Next month’s elections are set to substantially change the political dynamics of the council. It is imperative that lawmakers deliberately ask not only the obvious questions about financing mechanisms for the new ballpark, but the not-so-obvious questions about the overall and long-term impact a baseball team will have on D.C. taxpayers.

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