THE CHIEF QUESTION before D.C. Council members when they vote on Mayor Anthony A. Williams's baseball stadium financing plan is not whether they support bringing the national pastime back to Washington. Along with many Washington area residents, we believe that big-league baseball belongs in the nation's capital. At issue is whether the mayor's plan to finance a $395 million ballpark for the Montreal Expos is a wise or poor use of public dollars. Love of the game should not dictate the council's response. Nor should the interests of Major League Baseball. Determining the benefits, costs and risks to D.C. taxpayers -- and whether the mayor's proposal serves the city's best interests -- should be the council's primary concern.
On that score, the council has not gotten off to a good start. Last week's marathon public hearing, which squeezed nearly 200 speakers into a one-day session lasting until almost 2 a.m., was hardly a good display of democracy in action. The hundreds who lined up to share their opinions seemed to be regarded as nuisances to be briefly endured and then dispensed with as quickly as possible in one sitting.
Equally, if not more troubling, was the dismissive treatment of Natwar M. Gandhi, the city's independent chief financial officer, who released a fiscal impact statement that said the stadium plan's cost could be at least $90 million more than initially estimated. "What [Gandhi] says doesn't really bother me," said Stephen M. Green, a chief negotiator of the baseball deal on behalf of the mayor. "Every time I've dealt with him, he makes a fiscal impact statement like the end of the world is coming." But from Capitol Hill to Wall Street, Mr. Gandhi has standing, and for good reason. He serves as a watchdog over the city's fiscal health, and he's done a commendable job. If, in his judgment, the mayor's negotiators have failed to take into account the costs of infrastructure improvements and unforeseen contingencies that have caused many other sports facilities to fail to come in on budget, it is incumbent on council members to respond to his professional concerns with the seriousness that they warrant.
There are several other questions on the table, many raised by council members such as Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), that need answering before a vote is taken. Why, for instance, is the District being asked to pay 100 percent of new stadium costs, in contrast with other cities? Why not a public-private partnership to finance the stadium, as recommended in a study the mayor commissioned in 2002? How does the council reconcile the findings of 90 economists and the Cato Institute that challenge the mayor's claims of economic development and job opportunities that a publicly owned stadium would bring? What is the fiscal impact of the mayor's last-minute offer to issue an additional $400 million of tax-increment financing debt for community projects as a way of pacifying stadium critics?
Spectators no more, now it's the council's turn at bat. Will members dig in, or bail out?