- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 2, 2006

Mayor Anthony A. Williams yesterday defended a proposal to use up to $20 million in excess baseball revenue to pay for potential cost overruns for construction of the Washington Nationals’ new ballpark but met stiff opposition from members of the D.C. Council.

Council members said Williams’ action is nothing more than an end-run around their efforts to provide a ceiling on the amount of city money devoted to the project and threatened to block the deal.

On Feb.8, the council voted 9-4 in favor of a stadium lease agreement, contingent on Major League Baseball’s acceptance of a cap on the city’s costs for the project at $611 million. The council’s deadline for league approval is Monday.

“It’s in the legislation, and people voted for the legislation,” Williams said in defense of the use of the excess money. “The council doesn’t want money spent above the cap. We want to do everything we’re doing in accordance with the statute passed by the council.”

The estimated $20million, to be collected over the next two years, would be surplus revenue collected from a special sales tax on business, a utility tax and taxes on concessions and tickets at RFK Stadium. Those taxes were created last year to pay back $535million in construction bonds, and the surplus is required to get an investment-grade rating on the bonds.

Williams argued that the use of the surplus is permitted by the legislation’s wording. But council members said they only agreed to the language because it was needed to ensure the investment-grade rating and have said the excess money should be used instead to rebate businesses or to add to a community benefits fund.

“The council voted for a spending cap of [$611 million],” said council chairman Linda Cropp, who voted for the legislation and is running for mayor. She said Williams’ use of the $20 million excess revenue “was not the intent of the legislation at all.”

Cropp said she planned to meet with Williams to discuss the issue.

Adrian Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat who voted against the lease and spending cap and also is running for mayor, said the council should not be surprised the mayor is using language in the legislation to his advantage.

“I think all the council members already know this,” he said. “They may not admit it but … myself and a few other people said that the day we voted that there was no cap and people still voted for it. You’ve got to assume that either one, [the council members] didn’t mind or, two, that they chose to ignore it.”

All sides are awaiting review of the legislation by District attorney general Robert Spagnoletti.

It is unclear whether the council can do anything to prevent the deal from moving forward. The body will vote Tuesday on a temporary version of the cap legislation, which would extend its life for 225 days and give time for the council to pass it on a permanent basis.

But if MLB signs off on the deal, it will have done so Monday, before the council can act.

“Once a lease is signed, a lease is a lease,” Williams said. “It’s a contract. You can’t authorize people to enter into a contract and then change the law to de-authorize it.”

Some sources, however, said council could disrupt matters by rejecting the city’s contract with the ballpark construction team, which also is up for approval Tuesday.

If MLB does not approve the lease and cap legislation by Monday, it is likely the league and city will enter into binding arbitration. To gain MLB’s approval, the city must convince the league that the new team owner will not bear the brunt of cost overruns. The city, in addition to seeking additional money for the stadium project, is also arguing that overruns will be nonexistent or minimal.

The city is expected to enter into a contract with the stadium construction team to build the ballpark structure for no more than $320million. It also plans to defray extra land costs using money from the sale of development rights on the ballpark site.

But stadiums often cost more than expected. Safeco Field in Seattle cost more than $100 million above estimates, and Miller Park in Milwaukee was completed between $70 million and $100 million over budget.

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