Tuesday, October 26, 2004

The planning and politicking is in full force for a key public hearing Thursday on the District’s ballpark financing package.

More than 100 individuals and groups are scheduled to testify before a joint hearing of the D.C. Council’s economic development and finance and revenue committees, and both advocates and opponents of Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ proposal to build a $435.2 million stadium in Southeast are lining up to try to influence the bill’s final outcome.

Both sides admit a majority of the 13-member council likely already supports the stadium plan. But that plan as currently written — funding the ballpark through a combination of stadium-related sales taxes, owner rent payments and a gross-receipts tax on large District businesses — is all but certain to undergo some modifications.

The most likely change is some type of broadening or tweaking to the projected setup for the gross-receipts tax, the largest piece of the ballpark financing pie. In the current proposal, businesses grossing $3 million and up would be taxed up to $28,200 a year. The mechanism, however, does not differentiate among businesses of varying profit margins or, more broadly, any business grossing more than $16 million.

The hearing is expected to last at least 10 hours.

“I still think there’s a lot of support for this, but we need to hear from a lot of different people and see what the impacts are really going to be,” said Harold Brazil, outgoing at-large Democrat on the council. “It’s a big project. There’s a lot of attention on this, a lot of viewpoints. We’ll need to see what the inequities are and do what we can to modify them.”

Time is also an issue. To keep the relocation of the Montreal Expos to Washington on track, the city must make good on its promise to approve the financing package by Dec. 31. After Thursday’s hearing, a markup on the stadium bill is slated for Nov. 3, with a first vote from the council to come Nov. 9.

Mark Tuohey, chairman of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission, met yesterday with officials from the Greater Washington Board of Trade to review plans and strategy for Thursday’s hearing. The Department of Health and Human Services also will hold a pro-D.C. baseball rally in Rockville today with Expos infielder Brendan Harris.

Meanwhile, a loose collection of groups united under the moniker of No D.C. Taxes for Baseball will meet tonight to plan its further steps. Already set are a rally on the steps of the John A. Wilson Building before Thursday’s hearing, as well as a vigorous presence in the hearing itself. Tomorrow the group will release the results of a telephone survey on baseball it commissioned last week on the stadium issue.

“There’s still a lot of time,” said Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. “The hearing hasn’t been held yet. There hasn’t been a markup. No votes have been taken. We don’t think the council is simply going to rubber-stamp this deal. We think they’ll use their authority and improve the terms of this deal.”

Stadium opponents yesterday also sent fortune cookies to the mayor and council members, some with the fortune, “Approving baseball at RFK can ensure longevity of elected officials.” Many stadium opponents wanted the Expos to stay at RFK Stadium permanently, but such a move would violate terms of the city’s relocation agreement with Major League Baseball.

Perhaps the most surprising proposal yet is coming from Brian Saulsberry, a Tennessee investment banker, Howard University alumnus and prospective team owner for the soon-to-be-renamed Expos. Saulsberry and his partners are proposing to fund the stadium and parking infrastructure costs themselves in exchange for the removal of property taxes on the stadium and parking lots.

Saulsberry says he believes eight or nine council members are against the mayor’s proposal, a head count radically different than conventional wisdom in the city.

“We’ve got to find a way to reduce the risk to the city and make this a more workable deal,” said Saulsberry, who is scheduled to testify Thursday. “We don’t want to go all the way down the road and discover we don’t have council support.”

His plan, based in part on a two-year-old, city-commissioned study that calls for a public-private partnership to build the stadium, predates the extreme vigor with which MLB executives demanded a maximum level of public stadium dollars in the relocation deal. The hard-line stance was taken to protect the potential sales price for the Expos. MLB is accepting applications to bid on the club.

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