Mayor Anthony A. Williams said publicly yesterday he feared that the D.C. Council would reject a stadium lease agreement unless Major League Baseball contributes more money, and within hours the council scheduled a high-stakes meeting with a top baseball official.
At a news conference, Williams urged Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) to meet with baseball officials. Cropp arranged a closed-door meeting with Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who is in town to resume lease negotiations, and her 12 council colleagues for 8:30 a.m. today at the John A. Wilson Building.
This marks the first chance the full council will have to air concerns directly to Major League Baseball about the rising cost of the $535 million project. Baseball needs to understand that stadium supporters are facing opposition from council "hard-liners," Williams said.
"It is unclear whether the council will approve the lease without some contribution from baseball," the mayor said at his weekly news conference. "It would be valuable for the council members to say, 'Help us,' to make baseball understand the situation here."
The lease, under whose terms the Washington Nationals would rent the ballpark along the Anacostia River, is critical to the future of the stadium project. The District must have the lease to issue construction bonds on Wall Street. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has said Major League Baseball will not sell the Nationals until the lease is finalized.
The council raised new concerns about the public investment in the project after city officials acknowledged that they have shifted $55 million in the stadium budget once slated for infrastructure, including the repaving of nearby roads and the expansion of the Navy Yard Metro station, to address some of the escalating costs.
But during the lease negotiations, Major League Baseball has refused the city's request for a $24 million letter of credit that would cover the rent in the case of a terrorist attack or players' strike and for $20 million to help pay for stadium construction.
Williams said he will send the lease to the council for a vote after it is completed and signed by Major League Baseball and the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, which is overseeing the stadium's construction. If the agreement is finished in the next two weeks, the council could vote on the document Dec. 20, members said.
Asked if he believed the lease agreement would ultimately be approved, Williams said: "It's an uphill battle. This is a very tough, able council. But I think we'll be able to get it through. I do. I don't even contemplate defeat."
But Major League Baseball has taken just as hard a line as the council has. President Robert A. DuPuy said this week that the organization might take the case to arbitration if the lease is not settled by the end of this month.
In a letter to Williams and Cropp that was received Tuesday, DuPuy chided the District for not having settled the lease or finalized a construction administration agreement that sets the terms by which construction will be monitored.
DuPuy also said baseball officials were concerned that the city has not gained control of 14 acres in Southeast on which to build the ballpark.
"We are growing increasingly concerned about the District's ability to meet the agreed-upon December 31, 2005 deadline, by which date a number of critical tasks in the Baseball Stadium Agreement must be completed," DuPuy wrote. "We expect the District to honor its promises."
Williams, who said he also would seek to meet with Reinsdorf, dismissed the letter as public posturing during difficult negotiations.
"Hello, we're under pressure, too," the mayor said of DuPuy's letter. "We're asking for air cover and you're sending mud pies."
Williams said he has asked leaders of the business community to help him gain more support for the stadium project from the council and city residents.
Council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), who has supported the stadium project, said she is eager to meet with baseball officials.
"Things have reached the point where because of the unexpected escalation of expenses, the citizens are saying maybe this is getting to be too expensive without a little bit of help," Ambrose said. "This is too big a chunk for us to swallow without help from the people who directly benefit."
Although the mayor and council have repeatedly insisted that they will not allow the project to rise above the $535 million approved last year, D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi acknowledged yesterday that the figure does not include an additional $54 million needed to pay financing fees on the bonds. That places the total cost of the project at $589 million, Gandhi said.
Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), who opposes public funding for the stadium, said at a council oversight hearing Monday that the financing fees were supposed to be included in the $535 million budget under the financing legislation.
But Gandhi said yesterday that the legislation was amended by the council last month in a package of technical changes, which allow for the fees to be paid with funds that baseball generated for the city this season and, eventually, with interest earned on the bonds. Williams said he stood by Gandhi's analysis.
Catania said the technical amendments were improperly brought to the council because amending a financing package to allow $54 million to be paid with additional funds is not a minor matter.
"From now on, I never want to see the $535 million figure," Catania said in an interview. "It's just wrong. . . . I want to know what are the true costs and what we're ultimately responsible for paying, and that we obey the process and the law has meaning."
Staff writer Thomas Heath contributed to this report.