King County Council Approves $135 Million Public Investment in Safeco Field

A council committee voted to advance a last-minute “compromise” plan to fund stadium maintenance.

With a narrow vote 5-4 vote, a King County Council committee approved a plan to spend $135 million on Safeco Field maintenance, down from the original $180 million investment proposed several months ago by County Executive Dow Constantine.

Back in May, Constantine rolled out legislation to use roughly $180 million in future revenues from the lodging tax (a fee on hotel and motel stays) to pay for infrastructure maintenance at Safeco Field over the next two decades. The plan garnered opposition from housing advocates—who packed several hearings on the ordiannce—and King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, who argued that more of the money from the tax can be spent on affordable housing given the regional housing and homelessness crisis.

The backlash prompted Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, a former sponsor of Constantine’s legislation, to pull her support from it and introduce an amendment that would slash the Safeco Field investment to $25 million and send an additional $184 million to affordable housing.

But in a last-minute move at a Sept. 5 Committee of the Whole meeting, the council passed an amendment—introduced by Councilmembers Claudia Balducci and Joe McDermott—that would instead cut the spending on Safeco Field to $135 million while boosting the allocation for affordable housing by $165 million to $661 million, up from the $496 million earmarked in the county executive’s original proposal. The amendment reshuffles $100 million from general tourism promotion in the county to achieve this, at the expense of organizations who were slated to receive the money such as the Seattle Southside Regional Tourism Authority.

Councilmembers Kathy Lambert, Pete von Reichbauer, and Reagan Dunn joined Balducci and McDermott in voting to approve the measure, while Larry Gossett, Upthegrove, Kohl-Welles, and Rod Dembowski voted against it. Kohl-Welles’ amendment to cut the stadium spending to $25 million was also put down by an identical 5-4 vote.

McDermott had been a sponsor of Constantine’s original spending plan, and Balducci had voiced her support for it back in May. “Compromises aren’t loved by anyone,” McDermott said prior to the vote on his amendment. “I believe this amendment strikes a strong balance.”

Balducci defended the proposal by arguing that it allocates “more than the minimum” amount of funding designated for affordable housing by state law from the lodging tax revenues and that Safeco Field is a publicly-owned asset. “It is public. It exists. I support the idea of putting a reasonable amount of funding toward maintenance,” she said.

Von Reichbauer praised John Stanton—the majority owner of the Mariners who is worth over $1 billion—while expressing his support for the amendment. “They’re [Stanton and the Mariners] going to put money back into this community,” he said. “It’s important to recognize that this is a bargain of an agreement, not somebody taking advantage of somebody else.”

Councilmembers Upthegrove, Dembowski, Gossett, and Kohl-Welles blasted new proposal to only cut the Safeco Field funding to $135 million.

“This continues to invest $135 million into Safeco Field … I don’t think that’s right,” Upthegrove said. “This is a private, for-profit business and it can and should pay its own expenses.”

Upthegrove also said that public financing of stadiums is “a racket” and “not in the public interest.”

The Mariners have argued that since the stadium is technically owned by the Public Facilities District (the entity that manages the facility), the county should contribute funding toward maintenance and upkeep, such as fixing the retractable roof. The ball club had also maintained previously that it wouldn’t sign a new 25-year lease in Safeco Field—which ends in December—unless the county approved the $180 million for stadium upkeep.

An outside consultant study identified roughly $385 million in necessary maintenance that Safeco Field needs, of which the Mariners have said they will pay roughly $200 million. The same report also said that the ballpark needs roughly $180 million in non-essential upgrades like a brewpub and expanding parking. The Mariners have said they plan to finance these improvements themselves.

Fred Rivera, executive vice president and general counsel for the Mariners, told the council Sept. 5 that the amended funding plan would likely be satisfactory for the club. “I do believe that the proposal that is now being considered, from a financial perspective, will allow us to get the [lease] deal done,” he said.

In a statement provided to Seattle Weekly after the vote, the ball club praised the amended plan: “We want to thank the County Executive and members of the County Council who worked out this compromise. If approved by the full Council, we believe we can work with the Public Facilities District to finalize a lease agreement that ensures Safeco Field continues to be a first-class ballpark, community asset and economic engine for our region.”

After county voters rejected a public financing plan to build Safeco Field back in 1995, the state Legislature and the King County Council approved a tax package that didn’t require a public vote. In the final arrangement, taxpayer funds covered over $300 million of the stadium’s $517 million total cost.

Kohl-Welles argued that her proposal was itself a compromise that both funds necessary stadium maintenance and invests a considerable amount in affordable housing.

“My proposal really is not an either-or proposal,” she said, going on to claim that the $25 million allocated for Safeco Field in her amendment would adequately help the Mariners pay for the necessary maintenance if they don’t invest in other upgrades to the stadium, such as more parking and a new brewpub.

“This money is not needed by the Mariners. Period,” Kohl-Welles said. “Why should we be putting taxpayers’ money into that? It doesn’t add up.”

She also noted during the meeting that the Mariners will only pay $1.5 million per year in rent under the new lease — and that the club doesn’t pay property taxes — as evidence that the lease arrangment is skewed to benefit the team.

“We, the public, don’t get that money for a publicly owned facility,” she said. “Why should we be taking on more needs of the Mariners?”

Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, one of the advocacy groups that lobbied in favor of Kohl-Welles amendment, told Seattle Weekly that while she applauds the additional funds for affordable housing, the amended plan still has the wrong priorities.

“I am still befuddled as to why the Mariners are going to get, apparently, $135 million in public funds—that they likely don’t need—when we are in the midst of what everyone acknowledges is a crisis,” she said.

The committee shot down a proposal from Councilmember Dembowski to put the Safeco Field spending plan before voters through a public advisory vote on the special election ballot in Feb. 2019. Again, the vote was 5-4, with councilmembers Dembowski, Upthegrove, Kohl-Welles, and Gossett voting for it.

Several other amendments were also voted down along the same 5-4 divide, such as one that would allow the county to reclaim the lodging tax allocation if the revenue that the Mariners get from the naming rights of the stadium (which is also up for grabs at the end of this year) exceed the $135 million allocation.

The legislation now goes to the full King County Council for a final vote. However, given that the Committee of the Whole consists of all nine councilmembers, it is unlikely the vote breakdown will change, and the amended spending plan will likely pass as is.

In a statement released after the vote, Upthegrove said that the Safeco Field spending plan was a “irresponsible use of public funds.”

“Something is broken in our political system when those who already have great wealth can pull the levers of government to benefit themselves,” he added.

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