Once at the trough, it’s hard to leave, until it’s empty. The Mariner’s owners are having difficulty walking away, particularly since the King County Council may be filling it up again.
King County Executive Dow Constantine has asked the County Council for $190 million in public funds for the next two decades to help the owners pay for maintenance and capital projects to spiff up the Mariners’ stadium so that it remains a first class facility. The council will vote on the proposal this coming fall.
King County Councilmember David Upthegrove has raised concerns as the Budget Committee Chair, saying that there are other critical needs not being met, like the lack of affordable housing, which has been shown to directly lead to an increase in the number of homeless people. In addition, Seattle Times columnist, Danny Westneat wrote that the amount of funds being proposed for spiffing up the Mariners Stadium is almost equal to the amount that the Seattle City Council and Mayor have proposed for sheltering the homeless and building affordable housing through their new head tax, which has prompted a referendum to rescind it. Why not have the county spend those funds to build affordable housing outside of Seattle? Using Westneat’s figure, it would increase the number of funded affordable housing being funded by the head tax by more than 25 percent.
These observations remind me of similar ones made by Citizens for More Important Things, an organization founded by Mark Baerwaldt, Chris Van Dyk and me, which opposed the initial close to 500 million in public funding for the Mariners. King County voters supported our position in 1995, which was promptly nullified by special session of the state legislature that found a new revenue stream of public dollars for the Mariners.
So once again, the public must help the owners of a professional for-profit sports team maintain a building that was built to serve their needs. Why are we repeating the past?
Our local government, just as other cities and counties do, face this repeated problem because of two practices.
The first is that government does not adopt the principle that businesses use: you don’t lend out, and particularly give out, money without a clearly defined return. Otherwise, you are just rolling the dice in a game of chance. In November 2006, 74 percent of Seattle voters approved Initiative 91, and stopped that habit, by demanding a return on our public funds that was tied to the federal bond rate. The public was not out to punish owners, they just wanted to be treated as an astute partner when their money is being used. I had an independent poll of county voters taken and found that they were in agreement with I-91 by a margin of 2-1. The County Council should adopt this common sense approach.
The second practice is accepting the assumption made by the professional sports team owners, in this case the Mariners that they must have an attractive facility to remain financially viable. A legitimate consultant, B&D VENUES, was hired to identify “the cost of necessary capital improvements required to maintain Safeco Field in a first-class manner” through 2036. The owners of the team and the government entity that has oversight of the stadium, the Washington State Major League Baseball Stadium Public Facilities District (“PFD”), paid them. That is clearly a conflict of interest, since the Mariners’ owners, will directly benefit from the report’s findings. The County Council was not involved in their selection or in defining their scope of work.
Most importantly, nowhere in the 194 page report is there an assessment of lost opportunity costs, i.e. how else could the money be spent to benefit the public. The consultants, who were architects, engineers and a food service consultant were not paid to find out. That burden is on our elected officials, as it should be. But neither the King County Executive nor the County Council has allocated, as of this date as far as the public knows, their staff to determine how else these funds can be used to benefit county residents. This is important to know, particularly since only 43 percent of attendees at Mariner games are from King County.
The report does provide an estimated economic benefit from the public’s investment in the stadium. That’s fine, but it misses the point. How else could those funds be used and how much economic activity or avoided public costs could be gained if spent in another manner? This is exactly the issue that Upthegrove and Westneat have raised. These funds could help alleviate the crises we face from the lack of affordable housing, a crisis felt by far more county residents than those needing plusher seats in the stadium.
I believe that the county councilmembers wish to expand the circle of those that see government responding to their needs. That can be accomplished if they address the issues raised above. They must go beyond the engineering needs of the stadium and see the larger picture: What is the most cost-effective use of our public funds.
The request sent to the county council by the County Executive provides that opportunity. The council is being asked to endorse the PDF’s resolution, which established and approved terms for the long-term lease of the Ballpark.
The council has the right and the responsibility to alter these terms to the extent that they see the public receiving a greater benefit. That will only occur if there is a detailed and fair review of the proposal, with hard questions asked by the council. Without this engagement, the public’s interests will not be seriously represented. The citizens really do want more important things.
Nick Licata served on the Seattle City Council from 1998 to 2015.