- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 7, 2005

The D.C. Council yesterday narrowly rejected an effort to cap costs for a new ballpark for the Washington Nationals at $535million and force the city to include all infrastructure and financing costs in that total.

The council voted 8-5 in favor of two emergency measures designed to outlaw any and all expenditures for the project outside the $535million to be borrowed for the stadium on South Capitol Street. However, nine votes were required for passage.

If approved, the acts could have delayed the city’s efforts to obtain financing for the ballpark by the Dec.31 deadline set by Major League Baseball. They also could have given the council time to pass the changes on a permanent basis.

“If you vote in favor of this, you would stop the stadium project in its tracks,” said Jack Evans, a Ward 2 Democrat and baseball supporter who voted against the measures.

The resolutions introduced by David Catania, at-large independent and ardent ballpark opponent, came at a time when the council was increasingly worried about the overall cost of the stadium project.

Some estimates put the cost of the project at more than $700million. Rising costs have forced the city to cut parts of the stadium design and seek help in paying for infrastructure costs to stay under the $535million budget.

Several council members voted in favor of the resolutions on the grounds they were unaware they had voted last month to allow the city to remove borrowing costs, infrastructure, Metro upgrades and other non-ballpark costs from the $535million to be borrowed. The changes were made in technical amendments to the financing plan, which was passed by the council 10 votes to 2.

“People feel misled,” said Kwame Brown, an at-large Democrat who voted in favor of the technical amendments last month but was for yesterday’s resolutions. “And because they were misled, they want an opportunity to reverse their vote.”

In a letter sent yesterday to Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat and a ballpark opponent, D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi stressed that the legislation passed by the council authorizes the city to borrow no more than $535million. However, the legislation did not limit other expenditures for the project paid for by other sources, such as the federal government or private developers.

“The Council did not expressly limit the funding sources of the project costs to bond proceeds,” Gandhi wrote. “Bond proceeds would not be sufficient to cover expenditures such as capital improvements.”

In addition, Gandhi said issuance costs should not be included in the cost of borrowing because it can be paid for using ballpark-related money that the city already has collected, including revenue from the ballpark fee on businesses and taxes from games at RFK Stadium. This was all clarified, Gandhi said, in the technical amendments.

“I was hoodwinked on the technical amendments,” Graham said. “I feel they got away with something.”

Catania, who voted against the technical amendments, said the council never should have approved them last month, arguing that the changes were substantive. By categorizing the changes as “technical,” council chairwoman Linda Cropp was able to block the council’s ability to make major changes to the financing plan.

“It’s a game of three-card monte, revising history and taking advantage of people,” Catania said. “We have a mayor who has total disregard for the law.”

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams defended the city’s right to seek other ways to pay for infrastructure upgrades and other ballpark-related costs that weren’t specific to the actual stadium.

“There’s the cost for the infrastructure. There is a cost for the Metro. … There are other costs we never believed should be borne completely by the baseball stadium,” Williams said. “They hadn’t been borne by stadiums and arenas in any other cities. Why should they be borne exclusively by the stadium here?”

Williams again downplayed reports the ballpark project will cost as much as $714million. He said that figure stems from a document from the office of Gandhi, who is crafting a new cost estimate for both the ballpark on South Capitol Street and an alternative site near RFK Stadium.

A spokesman for Gandhi said the estimate is not yet finished, though it could be presented to council members as soon as today. The figure represents the potential cost of the total project, including infrastructure, Metro upgrades, underground parking and other ancillary costs the city says will not be paid for with taxpayer dollars.

“Under no circumstances will this stadium cost the $700million that is out there in the public domain,” Williams said. “This is an inaccurate, exaggerated price estimate that’s been seized upon by the same vocal minority that’s opposed baseball from day one.”

City officials also said the estimate for the RFK site likely will show virtually no savings over the cost of the South Capitol Street site because of heavy environmental problems that would trigger delays of up to three years. The city says it would like to break ground on a stadium by March and already has begun acquiring land at the site on South Capitol Street.

Meanwhile, D.C. officials yesterday were finishing the final details of a lease agreement for the ballpark between the city and MLB and said they will present the lease to the council by Friday in the hope the body will vote to approve it Dec.20. In addition, they said architectural renderings of the project, designed by Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum of Kansas City, will be presented to the public next week.

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