Public Funding for Safeco Field Upkeep Could Go Before Voters

King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski wants the public to weigh in with an advisory vote

King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski wants voters to weigh in on the controversial plan to invest roughly $180 million in county tax revenue in Safeco Field maintenance.

Specifically, Dembowski—who is the chair of the council committee currently deliberating over County Executive Dow Constantine’s controversial proposal to funnel roughly $180 million from the county’s lodging tax (a fee on hotel and motel stays) over the next two decades to finance stadium repairs—hopes to put the plan before voters on the Feb. 12, 2019, special election ballot in the form of an advisory vote.

“We should ask the voters how they want to prioritize these dollars,” Dembowski told Seattle Weekly. “It’s the right thing to do given how controversial it is.”

While a stand-alone advisory vote would be just that, advisory, Dembowski said that he also plans to try and attach an amendment to the Safeco Field funding ordinance that would require that it not go into effect until after the Feb. 12 advisory vote and that the council reauthorize the plan. This would theoretically give the advisory vote teeth.

Dembowski said that he plans to introduce both the advisory vote legislation and the amendment to the lodging tax ordinance at next week’s Committee of the Whole meeting on Sept. 5, where the council will be further discussing and voting on the legislation that would allocate the $180 million to Safeco Field.

The Safeco Field funding plan has garnered significant criticism from a variety of stakeholders (many whom argue that the money should be spent on affordable housing given the regional housing and homelessness crisis), including King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, affordable housing advocates, and members of both the Seattle City Council and the Public Facilities District (the entity that manages the stadium). At a Aug. 29 council hearing on the legislation, 91 people signed up to testify. “If [we’re] going to spend 180 million dollars to subsidize a ball team and there’s significant community opposition, then let’s see what the voters have to say,” Dembowski said. “And I don’t think that they’re for it.”

The Mariner’s previous 20-year lease at Safeco Field is set to expire at the end of this year. However, while the ballclub agreed to new lease terms with the Public Facilities District last may, they’ve also held the position that they won’t sign a new lease unless the county allocates the lodging tax revenue for stadium upkeep. (In the event that the county doesn’t approve the funds, they would sign a short-term lease extension and go back to the negotiating table on a long-term lease.)

As justification for sending the proposal to a public vote, Dembowski cited the fact that county voters originally rejected a ballot measure back in 1995 to finance the construction of Safeco Field, after which the state legislature and the King County Council approved a funding plan that didn’t require a public vote. In the final arrangement, public funds covered $372 million of the stadium’s $517 million total cost. “I think they have the right to weigh in on this and that we should listen to them,” he said. “People take this very seriously and have long memories on it.”

Five councilmembers have publically stated that they support altering the proposal to boost funding for affordable housing at the expense of money for stadium upkeep, but no consensus has emerged around a potential alternative plan. County councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, a former sponsor of Constantine’s proposal, reversed course and introduced an amendment that would slash the allocation for Safeco Field to $25 million and increase funding for housing by about $184 million. However, only councilmembers Larry Gossett, Upthegrove, and Dembowski have tentatively endorsed Kohl-Welles’ amendment.

Dembowski said that if Kohl-Welles amendment were to be adopted at next week’s committee meeting (where a vote is planned on the funding proposal), then he likely wouldn’t advance his advisory vote pitch. “I’d want a vote if we were going to have a significant investment of dollars [in Safeco Field]. I don’t think $25 million isn’t significant. But at that scale I don’t think we would need to go to the voters.”

“I don’t know that I would advance a vote measure if Kohl-Welles’ amendment were to carry,” he added.

For Dembowski’s pitch to work, both the advisory vote and the amendment to the lodging tax ordinance attaching its implementation to the outcome of the vote would have to be approved by his colleagues. Councilmember Kathy Lambert wrote in a text message that she would “potentially” support Dembowski’s plan if more specific language doesn’t get added to Kohl-Welles’ amendment dictating where the money will go. (State law allows for the lodging tax revenue to either get spent on workforce affordable housing near transit hubs or on homeless youth services.) The other councilmembers did not respond to requests for comment.