Thursday, December 9, 2004

Opponents of the District’s financing plan for a ballpark near the Anacostia River waterfront are down to their last fight.

Facing long odds leading up to the D.C. Council’s second vote on the stadium plan Tuesday, the No D.C. Taxes for Baseball group acknowledges any realistic hope of improving the District’s relocation pact with Major League Baseball will vanish after the vote.

“We have not given up. People are still squeamish about this deal, and they should be,” said Ed Lazere, director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute and a prominent member of the opposition group. “But our effort is really focused right now on the 14th, because after that it becomes much harder to change the deal.”

Ever since the council passed the ballpark bill Nov.30 by a 6-4 vote with three abstentions, Mayor Anthony A. Williams and other advocates have confidently predicted the measure would gain additional support for the second vote. Fueling the talk is council chairman Linda W. Cropp, who has said repeatedly she does not want to see the stadium financing fail, while at the same time pressing Major League Baseball for modifications to the contract.

Lazere and other opponents, however, believe Cropp and the other two abstentions, Democrats Phil Mendelson and Kathy Patterson, are still potential no votes. Before the first vote, Lazere inaccurately predicted Mendelson and Patterson would vote against the bill.

“I do not agree this is all a foregone conclusion,” Lazere said. “Politics are unpredictable. It was a surprise when Linda Cropp delayed the first vote [Nov. 9]. Even leading up to the 30th, I don’t think anybody would have predicted a 6-4-3 vote. Three people abstained waiting for a better deal, and we’re still waiting.”

To that end, the No D.C. Taxes for Baseball group is actively pushing for Cropp, Mendelson and Patterson to vote no Tuesday. More than 20,000 fliers have been distributed urging citizens to contact the trio and demand a rejection of the ballpark financing. A automated phone bank enlisted by the group is performing the same function, a move that staffers for Patterson said besieged her office with calls yesterday.

The message on the automated call connects the investment in the stadium, pegged by chief financial officer Natwar Gandhi at $531million, with the city’s troubled public school system. Proponents for the stadium have called the linkage a false choice because money from the general fund is not going to pay off the stadium debt.

Lazere yesterday also released the results of a stadium comparison conducted by three university professors and showing the District as a rarity in that the city’s 100 percent front-end public financing is coupled with the responsibility to cover all cost overruns.

“It is quite something to see both of those measures in place,” said Richard Eckstein, a sociology professor at Villanova University. “This is certainly the most unequal agreement in the most recent wave of new stadium construction that began in 1997.”

Stadium proponents counter that gaining concessions from the Washington Nationals, such as a front-end contribution toward the new stadium, would require giving up other negotiated terms. Under the current deal, the city will receive annual lease payments from the ballclub and leave the cost of maintaining the stadium for baseball to the team.

Many other cities with baseball have no-cost stadium leases with their teams, or have the facility upkeep costs borne by the public sector.

“That’s the other half of this argument they never want to talk about,” said council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat. “There are tradeoffs. If you somehow make the team pay for part of the stadium, they’re going to want part of the revenue that now goes to us so they can pay that cost.”

The opposition effort is being funded by anonymous donations, Lazere said.

“We’re a rag-tag operation that’s not heavily funded, but we’re going to keep pushing until the end,” he said.

The push will continue today with a rally led by council Democrats Adrian Fenty and Jim Graham, independent David Catania and incoming council member Marion Barry. All oppose the current stadium financing plan.

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