Tuesday, December 14, 2004

The D.C. Council today will grant final approval to financing for a proposed ballpark near the Anacostia River waterfront in Southeast, with an extensive series of changes to the legislation arriving after frenetic internal negotiations and givebacks from Major League Baseball.

Council chairwoman Linda Cropp, a notable abstention during the council’s first approval of the stadium Nov.30, said yesterday she is leaning strongly toward supporting the bill after gaining key alterations to the ballpark financing structure and the District’s community benefits package from the Washington Nationals.

“I think we have made a tremendous amount of progress and now are working under much better conditions,” Cropp said yesterday after extensive private meetings with the full council and then Mayor Anthony A. Williams. Cropp is tying her yes vote to the successful passage of several amendments she will introduce today.

“All the work we’ve done with Major League Baseball over the past two weeks has redefined how baseball will come to Washington,” she said.

The council approved the hotly debated bill on its first reading by a 6-4 vote with three abstentions, but today’s vote is set to generate eight-to-10 yes votes.

“I am cautiously optimistic that we will produce a strong result [today] and baseball will be coming,” said Jack Evans, Ward2 Democrat.

Among the new provisions to the ballpark package the council will vote on today:

• A massive reduction in the gross-receipts tax funding the bulk of the stadium costs. Businesses would pay a maximum of about $26,000 a year, down from $48,000. The revenue shortfall from that decrease would be recovered by capturing a portion of utility taxes paid by businesses and government entities in the District for fuel, electricity and telecommunications.

The 11 percent utility tax was raised from 10 percent two years ago to cover a potential general fund shortfall. The 1 percent increment was due to end Dec.31, but instead the money is now being eyed to help pay for the stadium, provided residents will be exempted.

The utility tax idea had been considered privately for weeks by District officials as a possible funding vehicle for baseball, but only yesterday did chief financial officer Natwar Gandhi certify the new plan as a reliable funding source.

• A lowering of the threshold mandating the search of a new and cheaper ballpark site from $631million to $551million. Gandhi previously estimated the Southeast stadium would cost $531million, and if he beats that figure by $20million or more in a second projection due in May, the city and the Nationals will need to agree on a new stadium site.

Williams and his staff estimated the stadium at $435.2million and are hoping for the lower trigger figure not to be a relevant issue.

• An increase in the days a year the District can access the stadium from the current 12, as well as more clearly enumerated community benefits given to the city by the Nationals.

• A measure to cap the District’s financial risk should the stadium fall behind schedule through no fault of the city. In the existing agreement, MLB is entitled to seek substantial monetary damages. Cropp also said talks were ongoing last night over the potential sharing of cost overruns for the stadium. The District is currently on the hook for all such costs.

• An amendment requiring the Nationals to reimburse the city for providing police protection. The current agreement calls for the team to gain that service for free.

• An amendment requiring Williams to recommend one offer of private ballpark financing to the council. During the council’s first vote on the stadium, Cropp ushered through an amendment creating a formal search for private financing as a potential means to lower the city’s investment in the stadium.

The new measures are largely the result of Cropp, who since the first council vote steadily pushed Williams to renegotiate with MLB executives and improve the city’s deal to relocate the Montreal Expos to Washington.

While Williams and his staff succeeded where few other entities have in obtaining givebacks from MLB, the core of the relocation deal stays intact. The District still must produce the new stadium at the Southeast site by March1, 2008, or the future of the Washington Nationals is in jeopardy.

“Our talks have been active and wide-ranging, and we’ve tried hard to listen to the concerns that have been forwarded to us,” said John McHale Jr., MLB vice president of administration. “We want to make this work, and we’ve tried to stretch and work through issues.”

McHale, however, added that lowering the trigger figure to mandate the new site search “was not entirely consistent” with the relocation pact. He said he was not aware of the proposed measure until told of it yesterday by The Washington Times.

District officials yesterday also wrestled with an anonymous threat letter in which the author threatened to kill council members supporting the ballpark legislation, as well as their families. Part of the letter reads, “I am itching to have the streets run red in the council members’ children’s blood.”

The letter was turned over the city’s police department.

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