By Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Facing a severe budget crunch and diminishing revenue, a majority of the members of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors say they are unlikely to approve funding for construction of a minor league stadium for the Washington Nationals' minor league team, the Potomac Nationals.
Plans have been drawn up for a modern, $22.5 million ballpark to replace G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium, a deteriorating, 22-year-old county-owned stadium with aluminum bench seats near the county government office complex. The new stadium would be built on the same site and financed by bond sales, the cost of which would be split by the owner of the Class A minor league team and the county.
Six of the eight board members said in interviews they would not vote to approve the stadium deal. One was undecided, and another could not be reached to comment.
"I am not about to vote for it," said Maureen S. Caddigan (R-Dumfries). "It is just not the time. The money isn't there." She said she didn't think the board would be in a position to approve the stadium deal next year either, given the uncertainty of the county's revenue stream.
"I think the idea of a stadium for this year is dead," said John D. Jenkins (D-Neabsco). "We can't afford it. It is more important for me to put police officers on the street and to put teachers in the schools and to build roads and schools. But this stadium, the timing is absolutely wrong. I am not against one -- I would love to have one -- but we can't afford it."
Prince William, the state's second-largest county and one of the top 10 fastest-growing counties in the country, is in the same budget crunch situation as most local governments in the region. Because of the housing market slowdown, it is facing a $18 million decline in revenue for this year and will have to cut $22 million from next year's budget. The board is considering putting off building schools and roads to limit its debt service.
The county has the highest bond rating available and, as a matter of policy, keeps its debt service, or yearly payments, to 10 percent or less of its annual revenue. The board has decided to keep the tax rate flat for next year, which means residents will be paying less tax, because the value of their homes has declined.
With less money coming in, board members have to make tough choices on what to finance. So far, they have said that roads and schools are their priorities.
"I don't see how you can fund it," said W.S. Covington III (R-Brentsville). "I can't see putting off our roads or our schools to build a baseball stadium. If there is some way to finance it, I'd look at it, but I haven't seen anything yet, and it could not slow down our plans for roads and schools."
Team owner Art Silber has said that he needs the 6,500-capacity stadium built by 2008 or he might have to consider moving the team. In order to be ready for 2008, the county would have to approve it this spring.
Silber was undeterred when told that a majority of the supervisors said they would not vote for the new stadium under the present terms. He said he could raise enough money by selling the naming rights to the stadium and by getting the state to contribute about $300,000 per year to cover the county's portion of the debt service. The stadium bond could be approved in the next couple of months so that the facility could be ready for the opening of the 2008 season, he said.
"We are really comfortable that something is going to happen," he said. "We are still hopeful that we are going to make it happen in this budget year. Once everybody understands the financing, there will be no cost to the county."
He could not say where the $300,000 from the state would come from. Silber said the team has sent letters to Washington area corporations asking them to bid on the naming rights. He said the minimum bid is $10 million over 10 years.
"The supervisors are trying to be very understanding to what we need and the needs of the overall community," he said. "We do not have adversarial positions."
Board Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R) said that he was not optimistic that the board will approve the stadium this year.
"I think the only possibility of getting it down this year is if we can think of an alternative funding mechanism," he said. "Clearly because of the debt capacity, it is going to be difficult this year. We are not going to supplant any school or road to get a stadium. I want to get a stadium and would like to get it built, but doing it this year is going to be very unlikely."
Stewart said he had talked with Silber about alternative financing. He said the $300,000 in state revenue that Silber identified would come from state sales tax collected on items sold at the stadium, including tickets and other items, such as shirts and caps.
He said such an arrangement would require the approval of the General Assembly.
The stadium is in Martin E. Nohe's district. "I don't see how we can move forward on it this year," Nohe (R-Coles) said. "The stadium only makes sense if it is a win-win for the county, the team and the citizens. That might mean to put it off, it might mean to renegotiate the current financing plan. It is going to require a different approach that we haven't examined yet."
Stewart, Covington, Caddigan, Jenkins, Nohe and Hilda M. Barg (D-Woodbridge) said they would not vote to approve the current plan for the stadium this year. Michael C. May (R-Occoquan), who joined the board this month, said he was undecided. John T. Stirrup Jr. (R-Gainesville) could not be reached to comment.
Stewart said that unless a stadium funding plan that would not affect spending on roads and schools is devised, it is unlikely that he will even call for a vote on approving the stadium. "I never want to say never, but I think that no board member will choose the stadium over any road or school project," he said.