Saturday, May 10, 2003

Two-thirds is good, but Three-thirds is better

D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams is under attack on multiple fronts these days. Congress is unhappy with the high salaries of numerous city administrators. Congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton had a meltdown when Williams endorsed the concept of school vouchers. The city council wants more police on the street and lower taxes. And the Washington Times is befuddled by the mayor's religious crusade to bring the Montral Expos to Washington:

Mayor Williams, who never impressed anyone as a sports fanatic in earlier years, has become increasingly obsessed with bringing baseball back to the District. So obsessed, it seems, that the mayor appears to have opened up a bidding war with himself to lure the Montreal Expos to the nation's capital.

How else to explain the mayor's recent hefty increase in public-sector support for building and financing a new ballpark? More than two years ago, as Eric Fisher of The Washington Times reminded us in yesterday's news story, Mr. Williams offered public support totaling $200 million to lure a major league team to the District. Last winter, D.C. officials provided MLB executives with a preliminary financing outline that would have limited public stadium financing to $275 million.

This week, the mayor upped the ante by more than $60 million. He has now presented the D.C. Council with a ballpark package totaling $338.7 million, which includes $40 million to fund lending reserves and $9 million in bond acquisition costs. The package also includes $15 million to renovate RFK Stadium, where the team would play its first two or three seasons while a new $436 million ballpark was constructed. The balance of the package — $275 million — would directly subsidize the construction of the ballpark, representing nearly two-thirds of its cost. Despite its disproportionate contribution, the mayor's package would unaccountably allow the team's eventual owners to defray their share of ballpark costs by the amount of the stadium's naming rights, which would generate between $2 million and $4 million per year.

The mayor's generosity with taxpayer funds may not be enough, however. Reports suggest that Major League Baseball's relocation committee wants whatever city acquires the Expos to fully subsidize the stadium for the new ownership—two-thirds just won't cut it. Keep in mind the Expos are currently owned by the other 29 Major League owners. Their goal is to sell the team for as much money as possible. If a potential buyer has to incur the costs of constructing a new stadium, that will mean less for baseball. None of this justifies MLB's blatant extortion of Washington, but at the same time Mayor Williams—who came into office with a reputation for fiscal responsibility—is the one who's playing games with public funds.

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