- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 29, 2005

A key member of the D.C. Council said yesterday the city should drop its request for a $20 million contribution from Major League Baseball toward a new ballpark for the Washington Nationals, placing him at odds with officials and some council members who want a greater financial commitment from baseball.

“The city does not need it and at this stage should drop it,” said Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Finance and Revenue. “Baseball is not going to write us a check for $20 million. Once you put that on the table, you lose council votes.”

Meanwhile, D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission chairman Mark Tuohey backed off a statement to council members Monday in which he indicated MLB had agreed to make the payment, and a MLB spokesman said yesterday it has made no financial promises.

But Tuohey and other officials negotiating for the city said the $20 million request — made by the city with the intention of having baseball pay for VIP parking at the ballpark — remains on the table.

They believe MLB still could agree to it, and the money is needed to secure investment grade ratings on bonds used to pay for the stadium. Evans, however, said the issue is holding up completion of a stadium lease agreement and that details about parking can be worked out later.

The city also is asking for a guaranteed $6 million annual lease payment and $24 million deposit to create a reserve of rent.

At least five members of the council said they would vote against the lease unless MLB agreed to pay more money toward the cost of the $535 million ballpark near the Anacostia Waterfront in Southeast because costs of construction and land have increased.

“If [MLB] wins in the lease negotiations, it’s likely they will lose in the lease approval process,” Jim Graham, Ward 2 Democrat, said during a council hearing on baseball Monday. “Unless Major League Baseball is willing to make some concessions, the notion of a stadium in [Southeast] is dead.”

Tuohey said the $20 million request was still on the table but said his comments to the council Monday indicating MLB had agreed to the payment were misinterpreted.

“I said we had asked for a contribution and had discussions on the financial terms,” said Tuohey, one the lead negotiators on the lease. “People took that to mean we had a deal. It’s just not true.”

Evans and other city officials said Tuohey misspoke.

“He unfortunately overstated the position,” Evans said.

Said Kwame Brown, at-large Democrat: “He probably jumped the gun. He said the $20 million is guaranteed and then sort of cleaned it up at the end. It came across like it was locked down.”

The lease could be finalized this week. Tuohey and other city officials spoke by phone yesterday with MLB officials, who will be in the city the rest of this week.

MLB spokesman Rich Levin declined to comment on specifics of the lease talks but said, “We’re hopeful that it gets done. We have a deal, and we continue to talk.”

Meanwhile, MLB president Bob DuPuy sent a letter to D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams and D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, stressing the importance of getting the deal done before Dec. 31.

“The timeline we jointly agreed upon in the baseball stadium agreement was reasonable and was designed to ensure a new stadium could open in 2008,” DuPuy wrote. “We need to meet the established benchmarks along the way. Failure to meet the very first key requirement does not bode well for our long-term success.”

The council could begin reviewing the lease agreement as soon as next week, setting up a vote in December. The lease must be approved by the council so that the city can begin selling the bonds used to pay for the ballpark by the end of the year.

It’s unclear whether the issue of the $20 million payment will sway the entire council one way or another. Some members said they would support the lease even without the payment. Those who plan to vote no said they would oppose the lease for other reasons, such as the lack of a ceiling on costs.

“I think [the vote] is going to be close if there’s no cap on cost overruns,” said Adrian Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat, adding he likely would vote against the lease.

Council sources said five members are expected to vote in favor of the lease, with five opposed. Three members are believed to be undecided, including Brown, at-large Republican Carol Schwartz and at-large Democrat Phil Mendelson. Schwartz and Brown have indicated they would not want to be the members blamed for delaying the lease deal.

“I don’t think people want to put the city in a jeopardized situation,” Brown said.

If the council votes against the lease, the agreement could go before an arbitrator.

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