Without transparency, there is no accountability. We have too many needs to be haphazard with our spending.
The Wizards practice facility is being presented as an economic development catalyst for the St. Elizabeths campus in Ward 8, an area of the city that has not experienced the economic renaissance that neighborhoods west of the Anacostia River have in recent years. Investment in Ward 8 is long overdue, and Ward 8 can’t afford a bad return on our investments. The $55 million tab — $23 million in dollars the District has already put aside for redeveloping St. Elizabeths, $27 million of taxpayer funds allocated to Events DC, our sports and entertainment authority, and $5 million from Monumental Sports, which owns the Wizards — is the current estimate to build a practice gym with all the bells and whistles the Wizards feel they need to attract and keep in shape top-flight talent, as well as serve as the home court for our WNBA Washington Mystics and a concert venue.
I have concerns that we are spending $50 million to do something that Monumental Sports and its owner, Ted Leonsis, can do on their own. Teams in other cities have funded their practice gyms without taxpayer dollars. We also have to balance our interest in having a winning professional sports team, which is good for our city, against other pressing capital needs, such as modernizing our schools, making sure we have enough fire trucks and ambulances and creating a safe and reliable Metro transit system. District tax dollars don’t grow on trees, and $50 million isn’t just “a rounding error” in our budget, as one of my colleagues put it.
That’s why we need to focus on the risk that the cost to the District might go even higher than $50 million. According to the proposed contract for the facility, District taxpayers would pay for any cost overruns. I don’t think that is right.
This month, I did two things to try to bring more budget discipline and transparency to our spending on this project. First, I introduced a bill with five of my colleagues (councilmembers Brianne Nadeau, Mary Cheh, Kenyan McDuffie, David Grosso and Anita Bonds) to set $50 million as a firm budget limit for D.C. tax dollars. Under my proposal, if the costs go any higher than $55 million, private entities such as Monumental would pay any cost overruns.
Second, along with several of my colleagues, I filed a resolution that extends to April 7 the time the D.C. Council has to review and approve the contract. That would give the council enough time to hold a hearing (scheduled for March 24 at the John A. Wilson Building) to discuss risk factors that might cause the project to go over budget, how we can reduce them and who pays if that happens. It also would give our taxpayers the chance to weigh in.
The resolution also would allow the council to vote on the project. Before I filed the resolution, the entire $55 million project was set to be approved without any council markups or votes. A real legislative process would let us iron out problems such as who pays for potential cost overruns before the contracts are in place. For instance, D.C. United’s stadium had five separate hearings and roundtables, three committee markups and two full votes of the council.
These two pieces of legislation aren’t designed to kill the deal; they ensure we make decisions on the Wizards practice facility openly and with common-sense protections for taxpayers.
Elissa Silverman, an Independent, is an at-large D.C. Councilmember.