A Mariners executive said after the vote that the team should now be able to sign a new long-term lease to keep the club at the ballpark for the next 25 years.
The Metropolitan King County Council voted 5-4 Wednesday to approve $135 million in taxpayer funds for repairs at the Seattle Mariners ballpark, the second time the public will contribute significant money to help the ballclub.
A committee of the council hotly debated the team’s funding request over the five-hour hearing, which followed two other contentious meetings over the past several weeks. A final vote is set for Sept. 17.
The Mariners had requested $180 million for capital projects at the stadium, and said it would only sign a new 25-year lease to stay at the ballpark if the money was approved. The team’s current lease expires at the end of this year.
But council opponents had countered with a plan to give $25 million for Safeco Field and use the difference to build affordable housing.
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In the end, a majority of council members settled on what they considered a “compromise” in devoting $135 million over the 25-year lease. That last-minute plan was presented midway through the meeting.
Voting in favor were council members Joe McDermott, Reagan Dunn, Kathy Lambert, Claudia Balducci and Pete von Reichbauer. Council members Larry Gossett, Jeanne Kohl-Welles, Dave Upthegrove and Rod Dembowski voted against.
The council also voted 5-4 — along the same lines — to reject a proposal to put the issue on the February 2019 ballot as an advisory measure.
After the meeting, Mariners General Counsel Fred Rivera said that while the money slated for the ballpark was “significantly less” than what the team proposed, he appreciated the council’s efforts.
He said the team would go back and talk with the Public Facilities District that oversees the stadium, but it expects the money will be enough to allow the team to sign a new 25-year lease. The team had never threatened to leave Seattle; instead, executives said the team would sign a short-term lease and then go back to the drawing board to figure out a long-term plan if the public funds were rejected.
The results are not expected to change when the council makes its final vote. Wednesday’s hearing was a committee meeting, even though all nine members are on the committee, so the council has to approve the funds again at a regular, full County Council meeting.
Dembowski noted the public could still file a referendum by petition to overturn the council’s vote, “and that may happen.”
The Mariners have argued that they are footing the bill for the majority of the $800 million in fixes, upgrades and maintenance planned over the full 25-year lease, and that the public had an obligation to help with its costs because it is a publicly-owned stadium.
The public in 1995 actually rejected taxpayer funding for what became Safeco Field, but the state Legislature ultimately approved taxes for the stadium anyway. Public funds financed $372 million of the $517 million cost of the ballpark, which is 19 years old.
Council members who supported the public funds noted the importance of the Mariners to the community but also the team’s potential to bring in tourism funds. The money is becoming available from motel/hotel taxes that will be freed up once bonds used to pay for CenturyLink Field are paid off in 2021.
Dunn said, “$5.4 million a year to keep up that stadium is tiny,” noting it was a fraction of 1 percent of the county’s roughly $10 billion a year budget.
But the four council members who voted against it said they were strongly opposed to the idea of giving public subsidies to benefit one private business, particularly one owned by a billionaire, John Stanton, and considering the team is now worth $1.45 billion, up an extra $1 billion in the past seven years, according to Forbes.
“The Seattle Mariners have and will continue to have no problem whatsoever paying for their repairs and upgrades at the” stadium, Gossett said. The public funding is “absolutely not necessary. Not one iota of evidence has been presented that they need to turn to the public.”
Kohl-Welles ticked off the potential benefits the public is missing out on as a result of the current and future leases with the Mariners: The team pays no property taxes, which would be about $6 million a year. The team pays a “very, very low” rent of about $1.5 million a year, which will not come close to recouping the county’s public-funding allocation. There is no profit-sharing under the new deal. And the public gets nothing from a likely new naming-rights deal, even though the money, based on what other pro-sports teams have received recently, will likely exceed the $135 million given by the public (Safeco Insurance’s naming rights deal ends at the end of this year.)
Upthegrove pointed to study after study from around the nation from economists that have proved almost unanimously that public subsidies for sports teams are a bad investment: “It’s a racket and not in the public interest,” he said.
He added that the issue is emblematic of politics in general: “Those that have wealth are able to pull the levers of government to make more wealth for themselves.” The Mariners lobbied for their proposal, even hiring a former county official to help.
The funding structure for the hotel/motel tax money used in Wednesday’s deal is complicated and has changed a few times during the months-long debate over the issue.
Under state law, at least 37.5 percent of the lodging tax funds must go toward housing and at least another 37.5 percent needs to go toward the arts. The remaining 25 percent can go toward tourism promotion — like Safeco Field — or more arts and housing. The total funding pie is about $1.3 billion from 2021 to 2043.
Initially, the controversy came down to whether the money slated for the Mariners stadium instead should go to affordable housing. The council faced an onslaught of opposition from housing activists who packed the council chambers with hours of testimony on the plan.
The council ultimately chose to beef up housing spending to about $660 million total, up from the state-mandated minimum of roughly $500 million in the original plan, while still maintaining a significant contribution to the ballpark. They did so by stripping away funds that were previously slated to go toward other tourism-promotion efforts around the county.
Just $8 million will go toward other tourism programs, compared to $114 million in the competing proposal — meaning the Mariners stadium will get virtually all of the tourism-promotion funds from the tax. Groups in South King County, around Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, will be hit particularly hard by the plan and had pleaded with the council for aid, to no avail. Kohl-Welles noted it didn’t make sense to gut tourism-promotion funds considering the motel/hotel tax only raises revenue when tourists come, saying it was like “killing the goose that lays the golden egg.” Washington is already the only state in the nation without a dedicated tourism office, she said.