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Baseball's Price Tag

Monday, November 22, 2004; Page A18

MISSING IN ALL the debate over building a new stadium for Major League Baseball in the District is an independent and objective assessment of the project's likely costs. Four sets of estimated stadium costs are floating around, ranging from $434.7 million contained in the Williams administration's pact with baseball officials to $614 million, based on an analysis by The Post's news department. In between are estimates by the city's chief financial officer ($534.8 million) and auditor's office ($583.8 million). Somewhere in that mix should be an approximation of where the city could reasonably expect to end up financially when the ballpark is constructed and all of the infrastructure is completed. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and his leading supporter on the D.C. Council, Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), seem determined to ignore all analyses except their own while treating the three other cost estimates as if they came from meddlesome busybodies. This is no way for a responsible city to approach such a huge financial undertaking.

The question, as Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) put it, is not whether baseball in Washington is desirable, but at what cost? She has said, "Not at any cost," and we suspect many residents might agree with her. But regardless of the threshold for spending public dollars, the responsible thing for public officials to do is to ask hard questions about the amount of tax dollars that will be used. Residents and businesses that will have to bear the freight want no less.

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We understand there are differences of opinion concerning the infrastructure needed to accommodate a team. There are disputes over the cost to expand Metro's Navy Yard Station or the relocation of a Metro maintenance garage or even whether those changes are necessary. Estimated costs of land purchases also vary. But the way to resolve these and other outstanding financial questions is not to ignore them or to concentrate on rounding up the votes to win the debate. It is incumbent upon the Williams administration, which is driving this issue, to reexamine its cost estimates in light of the analysis by the city's independent chief financial officer, Natwar M. Gandhi, and by Deborah K. Nichols, the D.C. auditor who serves as the investigative arm of the Council. Residents will be justifiably uncomfortable if the mayor airily dismisses the reports of two credible city officials. Council members should refuse to act unless they are satisfied that all of the project's costs are on the table. This is no time for lowballing big numbers or papering over huge costs. The public -- baseball lovers and otherwise -- needs to know what it is getting into, and at what cost.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company