D.C. baseball funding in peril


WASHINGTON - A divided D.C. Council balked at giving final approval last night to a half-billion-dollar stadium funding package needed to secure baseball's return to the city after 33 years.

Rather than approve the package as expected, the Council continued to debate into the night. After nearly 12 hours of meeting, Council Chairman Linda Cropp, who was considered a critical vote on the package, said she couldn't support the deal because it relied too much on public money.

"I cannot in good conscience vote for this bill with all of the public dollars there." Cropp said. "I did not see the type and level of movement [from baseball] that I had hoped for and anticipated."

Without the guarantee that a stadium will be built, Major League Baseball could decide to move the former Montreal Expos - recently renamed the Washington Nationals - somewhere else.

"Major League Baseball tomorrow morning will have to make a decision on how they want to proceed or go to some other place." said Council member Jack Evans, a proponent of bringing baseball here.

The package Cropp rejected includes $534 million in public funding for a new, 41,000-seat stadium near the Anacostia River, as well as for the modernization of RFK Stadium, which will be the home of the team while the new stadium is built.

Baseball has given the city until Dec. 31 to pass a stadium financing plan or risk losing the team, now called the Nationals. Evans warned colleagues before yesterday's vote that defeating the funding plan "guarantees we will not have baseball."

As debate continued, Cropp offered an amendment that would require that the city obtain 50 percent private financing to build the stadium. The 50 percent would apply to stadium construction but not to related costs such as land acquisition.

In approving the measure, the council tacked it onto the overall stadium funding package. A vote on that package was still pending. Whether or not the final package was approved, the amendment itself could be enough to frighten away baseball because there no longer is any guarantee that a stadium will be constructed.

"If you wanted to kill the deal, why didn't you do that this morning?' asked Council member Harold Brazil. "Why would you kill the deal that we had fought so hard to get - I mean, for 30 years."

The meeting began with dueling chants of "Vote no!' and 'Vote yes!' from spectators in the packed hearing room. Brazil clapped his hands and mimed swinging a bat. Cropp said the room would be evacuated if the chants continued. Later, a spectator yelled an obscenity at Evans before voluntarily leaving the chamber.

Mayor Anthony Williams, who has tried for months to rally support for the stadium deal, watched portions of the meeting from a seat facing the members.

Several Council members said the District should have negotiated a better deal. The current plan calls for the stadium to be funded largely through a gross receipts tax on large businesses and a tax on stadium concessions.

"Somebody is going to have a very nice Christmas gift." said Council member Adrian Fenty, who argued against the mayor's funding package. "We are giving Major League Baseball a $584 million gift."

"We need to say the deal is off and then come back to the table." said Jim Graham, another member.

Agreeing with Graham was attorney Mary Williams, a spectator at the meeting who said she lives across the street from the stadium site and serves on a neighborhood commission advising the Council. "I love baseball. But we would like Major League Baseball to pay an equitable portion."

But Brazil said: "If you want to get baseball, this is what you've got to do."

In addition to adding the private financing mandate, the Council approved a series of other changes. One measure significantly reduces the stadium tax burden on large businesses. It would make up for the lost revenue by scrapping the city's plans to soon lower a utilities tax on corporations and the federal government. The maximum large businesses will now pay for the ballpark fee will dip from $48,000 a year to $16,500.

Another change approved yesterday calls for the District to look for a new stadium site if costs at the Anacostia site rises above $584 million.

The Council gave preliminary approval to the funding package on a 6-4 vote on Sept. 29. Cropp and two other members abstained to send a message to baseball that final approval was not secured without concessions.

On the eve of yesterday's vote, baseball sent the city a letter addressing specific Council concerns. In the letter, baseball said:

It will increase by 50 percent the number of days the city can use the stadium for its own events. Under a five-year trial period, baseball said the city can use the stadium for 18 days - instead of the previous 12 - but that no more than eight days can be during the baseball season.

It is willing to limit the damages owed by the city if the stadium isn't completed by March 2008. The city would be liable for no more than $19 million per year.

It will strengthen the team's community responsibilities, which includes youth programs and a plan to set aside a half million "affordable' tickets a year and distribute free tickets to charities.

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