- The Washington Times - Friday, May 6, 2005

The political tension between Mayor Anthony A. Williams and the D.C. Council over the proper methods to finance the Washington Nationals’ planned stadium in Southeast, which last fall nearly killed the team’s move to the District, appears primed for a return engagement.

Legislation submitted to the council early this week by Williams to incorporate newly ratified private ballpark financing has found several key opponents, including finance committee chairman Jack Evans. At issue is the bill itself, which some council members say does not meet the council’s aims of finding private financing for at least 50 percent of the hard stadium construction costs, and in turn lowering the gross-receipts tax on large District businesses. That tax is a key funding source for the stadium.

“I am concerned the legislation submitted doesn’t do enough to reduce the ballpark fee on D.C. businesses,” Evans wrote in his weekly newsletter, released yesterday. “The legislation submitted to the D.C. Council by the mayor merely provides the framework for adopting a private financing plan and the full D.C. council will almost certainly amend it in my committee before it gets a vote in June.”

Last month, Natwar Gandhi, District chief financial officer, recommended using a blend of the city’s existing ballpark financing plan and $246 million in debt financing from Deutsche Bank to fund the stadium project. The Deutsche Bank bid, in which the German financial giant would assume significant amounts of risk in the venture, enjoyed strong support from council members and appeared on an accelerated course to ratified inclusion into the ballpark funding.

But on Monday, council members were surprised to learn Williams and his staff were working on an “alternative financing proposal” that again relied heavily on public revenue sources. Steve Green, director of development for the mayor’s office of planning and economic development and a key architect of the new proposal, argued to council members the move would save more than $200 million in gross receipts taxes.

The new plan is likely to be formally proposed in a memo to be sent from Williams to the council early next week. That memo originally was to be sent by yesterday.

Green did not return several calls seeking comment. Vince Morris, spokesman for Williams, said yesterday the stadium financing “is really a moving target. Things are still going back and forth.”

Council chairman Linda Cropp has not taken a formal position on the Williams bill, in large part because of ongoing city budget talks. But her support is critical for the passage of any new stadium funding mechanism, and she played the lead role last fall in implementing the search for private funds. Though debate has been heavy on what exactly constitutes private financing, Cropp has firmly insisted it be in the ballpark project in order to lower the tax burden needed to fund it.

Earlier this week, Gandhi’s office abandoned plans to conduct a formal review of the new Williams plan, city sources said, but was prepared to reaffirm its previous recommendation to accept the Deutsche Bank debt financing.

Evans has scheduled two hearings on the bill, one on Friday and the second May 16. The first session will include Williams and Gandhi, with the second focusing on testimony from public witnesses. The split was done to avoid a repeat of last fall’s 16-hour marathon session for the original ballpark financing bill.

“Once we get past the budget stuff on Tuesday, we’re going to have the hearings on this and hopefully get some private financing that the chairman and everyone can rally around,” Evans said.

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