Sunday, December 19, 2004

She’s either the hero of D.C. taxpayers or the Grinch who wants to steal baseball.

It depends on whom you ask about the deal-breaking move by D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp to force more private funding, and less taxpayer liability, for bringing baseball back to Washington.

Mrs. Cropp should be applauded for “standing up to Major League Baseball’s bullying of the District of Columbia,” national consumer advocate Ralph Nader wrote her in a fan letter.

“To the people who hate baseball and don’t want it to happen, I guess [Mrs. Cropp] will be great,” council member Harold Brazil said. “But I think there is some underestimation about the depth of the emotion on the pro-baseball side, and that is not going to be a positive thing.”

Mrs. Cropp is expected to meet tomorrow with Mayor Anthony A. Williams to come up with a financial package by Dec. 31 that includes significant private investment and is acceptable to Major League Baseball.

“Everybody in this building is bending over backward to make that happen,” Williams spokesman Chris Bender said.

Mrs. Cropp, 57, acknowledges the potential political fallout from being the person who sent baseball packing. But the council president insists she is doing the right thing.

“I can stand tall under pressure so long as I know I am doing this for the citizens of the District of Columbia,” Mrs. Cropp told reporters last week.

Mrs. Cropp and Mr. Williams, both Democrats, have not met in person since last Monday, the day before the council president introduced her bombshell amendment. Tomorrow’s meeting was requested by Mrs. Cropp, spokesman Mark Johnson says.

The council president also asked for a meeting with league officials and can call a special council session, most likely this week, if a viable proposal is ready.

Mrs. Cropp drew national attention Tuesday night when she successfully proposed amending the final legislation authorizing construction of a baseball stadium in Southeast to require that private investors pay half of the roughly $280 million cost.

The next day, Major League Baseball President Bob DuPuy said the change to baseball’s deal, cut with Mr. Williams, was “wholly unacceptable.” He promised to move the recently named Washington Nationals team elsewhere if the measure was not corrected.

Among the fans of Mrs. Cropp’s tough stance, though, is Mr. Nader, the two-time independent presidential candidate.

“Throughout this whole process, [the league] has dictated the terms for a stadium as if the District had no elected city legislature to look out for its residents,” Mr. Nader wrote in his letter to the council president.

Mrs. Cropp could not be reached for comment for this article.

Several private financiers have pitched funding schemes to pay for as much as the full cost of building the stadium, city officials say. Mrs. Cropp says she is talking to a coalition of banks that would like to work with the city, but has offered no details.

A bold stroke

Mrs. Cropp’s decision to push private financing is considered uncharacteristically bold and uncompromising, especially for somebody who in eight years as council president became known as a consensus builder and deal-maker.

Some political observers argue that the baseball move shows Mrs. Cropp’s growth as a leader, compared with past run-ins with the mayor, such as one in 2000 over the school board. Mr. Williams would have folded on his insistence on an all-appointed board, they say, had Mrs. Cropp, a former school board member, stood her ground for an all-elected board.

Still, this is not the first time the council president has opposed a sweetheart deal to bring baseball back to the District.

Last month, she tried unsuccessfully to delay the first scheduled vote on the ballpark financing to explore whether renovating RFK Stadium was a better idea. She then abstained from the vote to press Mr. Williams to negotiate a better deal.

The entire stadium project is expected to cost $435.2 million, with the city paying such secondary costs as roads, parking facilities and land acquisition.

The Cropp amendment also states the city would not be required to build the ballpark if private financing cannot be secured.

Mr. Brazil, at-large Democrat, sent Mrs. Cropp a letter Thursday proposing to lower the city’s cost by collecting some of the naming and concession revenue for the three years the Nationals were scheduled to play at RFK Stadium during construction of the new stadium.

Mrs. Cropp not only forced the issue of private financing Tuesday, she also ensured she was the swing vote to keep the legislation alive. This put her in a position to make the mayor and baseball address her concerns.

Her first step was to eliminate $75 million in neighborhood investment funds included in the bill, arguing that she wanted to lessen the burden on businesses paying taxes to fund the stadium.

Mr. Williams had included $45 million for libraries and $30 million for computers for students, among other items, to appease community leaders. When Mrs. Cropp stripped out the $75 million, the mayor lost the vote of council member Jim Graham, who had championed the library funds.

With Mr. Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, opposing the stadium legislation, Mrs. Cropp became the deciding vote for either side in the divided council.

‘The right thing’

Mrs. Cropp then introduced an amendment requiring that private financing pay for half of the stadium cost, and announced that without the provision, she would not vote for the bill.

That move convinced Ward 7 Democrat Kevin Chavous, Ward 8 Democrat Sandy Allen and Ward 6 Democrat Sharon Ambrose — all stadium supporters — to vote for the private-financing amendment or risk losing Mrs. Cropp’s vote for the overall bill.

Six opponents of the stadium — Mr. Graham, Ward 3 Democrat Kathy Patterson, Ward 4 Democrat Adrian Fenty, at-large Democrat Phil Mendelson, at-large Republican Carol Schwartz and at-large independent David A. Catania — voted for the Cropp amendment, but not the legislation itself.

Had these six voted against the amendment, and had Mrs. Cropp followed through on her threat not to vote for the stadium legislation without it, the measure would have failed.

Even one of the council’s staunchest supporters of the mayor’s stadium plan concedes that Mrs. Cropp scored a political win.

“There will be a large segment of the city that says she stood up to baseball, and she did the right thing,” said Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat and the mayor’s point man on the bill. “In some areas of the electorate, she will be applauded.”

If baseball moves the team elsewhere, fans probably will blame Mr. Williams for bringing a bad deal to the council, and Mrs. Cropp will continue to look like a “hero,” Mr. Evans said.

Baseball officials Wednesday suspended the Washington Nationals’ business and marketing operations and canceled a planned showing of new uniforms. They began offering refunds for buyers of season tickets and closed the temporary retail outlet for Nationals merchandise in the parking lot of RFK Stadium.

Proponents repeatedly stressed that the deal would not have cost the typical taxpayer “a dime,” in the mayor’s phrase. For others, the ballpark deal came to symbolize what they see as the city government’s willingness to coddle businesses at the expense of ordinary residents.

At the last hearing, Mr. Brazil, Mr. Evans and Mr. Orange sought to lessen the burden on business — a concern shared by Mrs. Cropp. They succeeded in amending the legislation to reduce the gross-receipts tax on large businesses and make up the difference by extending a utility tax set to expire Dec. 31.

The legislation kept in place an 11-percent tax on utility bills for nonresidential customers, with 1 percent earmarked to pay off the stadium bonds. The utility tax for homeowners would decrease to 10 percent as scheduled.


Paying the piper

Under the new formula, annual debt payment on the $500 million in bonds would not come out of the District’s coffers. It would tap revenue from at least $37 million in new taxes on stadium patrons, large businesses and nonresidential utility customers, plus $5 million in rent from the team’s new owners.

Still, detractors insist D.C. taxpayers would end up paying the bill, either through businesses passing costs on to consumers or by cost overruns forcing a raid on the city treasury.

“Somebody is going to have to pay the piper,” Mr. Graham said. “Because the costs known and unknown are so substantial or so potentially great, it is just too expensive.”

A. Scott Bolden, former chairman of the D.C. Democratic Party, said many small businesses would be hit by the gross-receipts tax and not be able to afford it. He said some of them would pay anywhere from $5,500 to $16,500.

“The Small Business Administration classifies a small or medium-sized business as those making up to $5 million to about $16 million, and those businesses employ more people than any major corporation,” Mr. Bolden said.

The city’s business owners and leader are divided on the stadium deal. Mrs. Cropp managed to straddle the line, championing businesses even though many business leaders supported the deal.

The Greater Washington Board of Trade, the regional trade group representing 1,200 companies, urged members to lobby Mrs. Cropp and fellow council members to revisit and change the amendment.

“Linda always has been a very solid and reasonable and fair-minded council member and chairman, which makes this change of mind all the more surprising to people,” Board of Trade President Robert Peck said.

Mr. Peck said he is worried the council’s actions will discourage companies from investing in the Washington area.

“Montgomery County and Fairfax County can be great, but if word got out that Washington is a tough place to do business, it would turn companies off from the entire region,” he said.

Fair and balanced?

But the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, the trade group for 2,000 businesses in the District, welcomes the reduction in the gross-receipts tax brought by the Cropp amendment.

“What Mrs. Cropp tried to do was exercise the council’s financial responsibility to the community. It was not so long ago that this city was in financial chaos,” said Barbara Lang, chamber president and chief executive officer.

Physicians remain worried that a baseball deal would drive doctors beyond city limits, said K. Edward Shanbacker, executive vice president for the Medical Society of the District of Columbia, whose members include 2,000 physicians practicing in the city.

“Mrs. Cropp’s amendment is a step in the right direction, but the deal still prioritizes professional sports ahead of health care,” he said.

Mr. Shanbacker said a tax on companies with $5 million to $8 million in gross receipts probably would force doctors to move their offices to Maryland or Virginia.

“There are a lot of fragile practices in the District” because the costs of doing business are higher, he said. “This tax will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for a lot of them.”

Other business representatives said they had no opinion about Mrs. Cropp’s amendment, even though they support bringing baseball back to Washington.

“We support [the mayor’s] efforts to get baseball in the District, but we also support Linda Cropp for working to make the deal fair and balanced,” said Anthony Lewis, president for Verizon Washington, the D.C. subsidiary of Verizon Communications Inc.

Mrs. Cropp talks like that is her motivation.

“We need to sit down with Major League Baseball and figure out an approach to get accomplished what we want accomplished,” Mrs. Cropp told reporters Friday. “I could have stopped this deal if I wanted to vote with the other six who voted against this.”

• Brian DeBose and Marguerite Higgins contributed to this report.

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