Tuesday, December 20, 2005

D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp yesterday postponed a vote on a lease agreement for a new ballpark for the Washington Nationals on South Capitol Street.

Major League Baseball (MLB), in response, threatened to take the city into arbitration and to withdraw its contributions toward ballpark construction and financing if the lease is not approved by the Dec. 31 deadline.

The council had been scheduled to vote on the lease today, but some members were unhappy with certain provisions in the lease and requested technical changes. Council sources also said the vote was postponed because Mrs. Cropp has not garnered the seven votes needed for approval.

Officials said the vote could be rescheduled for Thursday, but that it might not take place until after Jan. 1.

The baseball stadium agreement signed by the city and MLB last year requires the lease to be approved by Dec. 31. Any delay beyond this year likely would allow MLB to seek arbitration. It also could push back construction of the stadium, thus subjecting the city to millions of dollars in penalties.

“Despite today’s announcement that you will postpone the vote, we urge the council to approve the lease prior to this deadline,” MLB President Bob DuPuy wrote in a letter sent to Mrs. Cropp last night. “If the lease is not approved by then, the city will be in default on its contractual commitments, and we will then have no choice but to prepare for arbitration.”

In arbitration, the concessions made by MLB during its negotiations for the lease would be reconsidered, Mr. DuPuy said. Those concessions include a $20 million contribution toward construction of the ballpark and a letter of credit designed to help the city obtain investment-grade ratings on the bonds used to finance the stadium. Baseball also agreed to allow the city to develop parts of the stadium site controlled by MLB, which it said would allow the city to generate funds to pay for cost overruns in stadium construction.

One requested change to the lease involved increasing the number of free tickets distributed to disadvantaged youth in the city. Members also want to ensure that the $20 million contribution from MLB could be used for any purpose related to stadium construction. The original lease indicated that the money should be used for the finishing touches on the stadium.

“The council and I will work with [the mayor] to make sure that the vote on the lease agreement gets agendized as quickly as possible,” Mrs. Cropp said.

The delay of the vote likely will make it impossible for the city to sell $535 million in bonds to pay for the project by the end of the year, one benchmark set by MLB.

Despite the delay, the spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams said the mayor is confident that the lease will be approved.

“No one knows, but we feel pretty good about it,” Vince Morris said.

Some council sources said the delay was required because the council only yesterday received the final version of an agreement governing construction of the stadium. The two documents are complementary, and some council members were wary of approving the lease until they had reviewed the construction agreement.

Mr. Williams, along with other ballpark supporters, spent yesterday lobbying five council members who are considered swing votes — Kwame R. Brown, at-large Democrat; Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican; Vincent C. Gray, Ward 7 Democrat; Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat; and Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat.

Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat; Sharon Ambrose, Ward 6 Democrat; and Vincent B. Orange Sr., Ward 5 Democrat, are solid ballpark supporters. Mrs. Cropp and Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat, also are expected to vote in favor of the lease agreement.

Adrian M. Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat; David A. Catania, at-large independent; and Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, adamantly oppose the stadium.

“If the Council fails to approve the lease, we would be at a crossroads,” Mr. DuPuy wrote.

Mr. Mendelson is leaning against voting for the lease, according to council sources. However, he took part in a heated meeting yesterday with union leaders, who criticized him last year for voting against the ballpark stadium agreement.

Mr. Brown said he had not made up his mind as of late yesterday, after meeting with union and religious leaders, plus executives from the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission.

“I’m still fact-gathering,” Mr. Brown said. “The people of the District of Columbia expect me to make an informed decision.”

Mr. Gray said he would not approve the lease until he had confirmation of how the city would pay for any cost overruns. Currently, the city is authorized to borrow $535 million, which would support construction of a $631 million stadium.

However, the city’s latest cost estimate for the project was $667 million. City officials said the federal government and private developers have been asked to pay the remaining costs. No guarantees have been made, however.

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