King County wants to drop $190 million taxpayer dollars on the Mariners, helping the team build a brewpub, club-level premium seating and other amenities at Safeco Field. Good thing there are no more pressing needs for that money right now.
At a time when thousands around here are struggling to make the rent, news has hit that local government chose this moment to propose funneling tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to help out a single wealthy tenant.
Oh well. We’re apparently going to get a helluva beer garden out of the deal.
The “single tenant” is a private, for-profit baseball team — the Seattle Mariners. So in one sense this is just the latest episode in the age-old show of pro sports angling for a slice of government welfare.
But given the furor over Seattle’s new “head tax” for homeless housing, it’s also another sign of how feckless our local leadership is. Why did we just pass new taxes on business, touching off a political firestorm, if we’re flush enough to pour tax dollars into a brewpub, premium club seating and other amenities at a half-billion-dollar baseball stadium?
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This past week King County Executive Dow Constantine proposed devoting a portion of existing hotel-tax revenues to help pay for maintenance and capital projects at the Mariners’ ballpark. Over two decades the Mariners would get up to $190 million from the tax.
The club has been paying for most of the stadium maintenance, so it’s not clear why they need $190 million from taxpayers now. King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, who has been sounding the alarm, said Mariners executives lobbied him.
“My sense was that they’re a locally loved business, and they have a government-relations team, so they figured, ‘Why not go to the county and see if they’ll cover some of our costs for us?’ ” Upthegrove said.
A consultant studied the stadium and found it will need, in the coming decades, about $385 million in fixes and other maintenance work. That study identified another $160 million in amenities it would be nice for the stadium to have, such as new artwork, more club-level seating and a 175-seat brewpub that’s open to the outside with special access to the park for ticket holders and Diamond Club patrons.
The deal shares the costs between the team and the public — meaning the $160 million in nice-to-have amenities would effectively be made possible by the taxpayers.
“I am deeply disappointed in the Mariners’ demand for additional public support … to maintain and upgrade the venue that the public provided to them for what I consider to be nominal rent,” said Dale Sperling, a member of the public board overseeing the stadium, in a meeting.
Now I’m all for more brewpubs in Seattle. We won’t have reached peak brewpub in my opinion until there’s at least one per block. But even beer swillers like me must concede that the private market is churning out brewpubs at more than an adequate rate, without government assistance.
But what was most head-turning about the taxpayer windfall for the Mariners is the amount. It’s not all that far off the $237 million in new taxes the Seattle City Council just approved with its radioactive head tax.
“Look how brutal that Seattle head-tax fight has been,” said Upthegrove, who represents South King County. “It’s causing all sorts of headaches for the city. And then here we are, choosing to quietly give away almost as much money, to one company.”
It’s worse than that. The hotel tax is a dedicated revenue stream with no end date. That means it could be used to pay off bonds for, say, affordable housing. As Seattle’s task force on how to pay for homeless aid noted: Housing bonds “make available financing that could support the development of a much larger number of units of housing in a significantly shorter timeframe.”
Great! But the Seattle City Council, desperately seeking a compromise, agreed to sunset its head tax after five years. So they now can’t use the money to pay off bonds. This is why for all the storm and drama of the head tax, the plan now only calls for the building of 591 new units of affordable housing.
Just diverting the Mariners’ proposed stipend — an average $9 million per year in hotel-tax revenue over 20 years — could pay the debt service on an estimated 750 units of new housing.
So right under our noses was a bigger housing plan — one with no tax increase. And also one with no acrimonious repeal effort, no protests in the street, and no hacked off businesses (well, possibly one, the Mariners).
As it is, the head tax is such damaged goods it may well get repealed this November. Which would leave us, after three long years of struggling with this homelessness crisis, right back where we started.
Come to think of it, that’s so depressing we may need that taxpayers’ brewpub after all.