Curve ball

The latest Mariners deal isn't everything it seems.

(Copyright 2001 Seattle Weekly)

No more taxpayer money for the Mariners! At least that's what the headlines said last week as the Mariners' owners announced they were dropping plans to sue the Public Facilities District, the quasi-governmental body that oversaw construction of the country's most expensive baseball stadium, Safeco Field.

Team owners had been searching for ways to put King County taxpayers on the hook for $100 million in construction cost overruns, and suing the PFD was one of their possible strategies. But two years after they first broached the subject, the Mariners backed off last week, explaining that the lawsuit "is not what the fans wanted us to do," according to Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln.

Despite the headlines and the fan tributes, however, the settlement agreement by no means marks an end to further taxpayer subsidies for the team and the stadium. On the contrary, the agreement directly provides for additional public monies to the Mariners and clearly lays the groundwork for more in the future. It commits local taxpayers to pay for repairing all the Safe's current deficiencies, plus any and all "updating" that the team, and the PFD, may feel inspired to do in the future.

To take a modest but striking example: By the terms of the agreement, the PFD is giving away a 28,000-square-foot piece of property—site of its former offices—to the team owners. The corner property is located right across the street from the Safe's southern entrance, and local real estate experts say it could be worth somewhere around $2 million. This arrangement was mentioned nowhere in last week's press release, which said only that the PFD's property "will be sold to the Club . . . for its fair market value."

In fact, under the terms of the agreement, proceeds from this "sale" will be returned to the Club, as PFD board member Bob Wallace confirms in an interview. "I don't think they'll ever get a check for it," he says. "It'll just displace other funds that they've had to put in to keep the ballpark up."

The Mariners intend to "assign" their purchase rights to a developer, who will erect a mixed-use office building with a public plaza on the property.

The PFD has also signed over to the Mariners any and all rights to recover damages from the architects, engineers, and others who helped build Safeco Field. Wallace says it makes sense to assign these claims to the team owners, since they paid the last $100 million and will be first in line for any recovery.

But the agreement gives the Mariners the right to sue for "any claim relating to . . . defects in the Ballpark or Garage," not just for allegations related to the initial overruns. Indeed, attached to the agreement is a list of fixes costing $2.5 million that the Mariners have already found necessary during Safeco Field's first two seasons of use. These include replacing the dugout floor, which, according to the team, "was inadequate (too soft)," and installing a $1.1 million windscreen to spare fans on the main concourse from a chill. (Mariners officials insist nothing's wrong with their parking garage, however, despite its visible cracking—see "Stadium garage crumbles,")

In most cases, the Mariners are blaming the stadium designers for defective work. No matter whose fault it is, last week's settlement agreement made it clear: It's all on the taxpayers' tab now.

By the terms of the Mariners' lease, all so-called "unanticipated capital costs" are assigned to the public. And last week's agreement declared that the term "unanticipated capital costs" would now "be construed" to include "the cost of repair or replacement of defective or deteriorating components or materials whose life expectancy has been shortened by improper design or installation." In other words, taxpayers are liable for repairing any botched jobs. This won't get the Mariners any closer to winning back their $100 million; they'll still have to do that through the courts. But it does define new areas for public subsidy of the stadium.

The agreement goes further, stating that "unanticipated capital costs" may also include any "upgrades" or "updating" that would "materially enhance the Ballpark or Garage." "It's possible," says Wallace jokingly, "that 20 years from now, in order to have a competitive baseball stadium, you need to have a hot tub in the middle of center field. Those kind of emergency improvements or major changes could be funded by [taxpayers]."

Unfortunately, from the owners' point of view, there's no taxpayer money around right now designated for paying those bills. So the agreement calls on the PFD to cooperate with the Mariners in making "reasonable efforts" to "augment" current funding and "secure additional resources" for stadium repairs and upgrades.

According to Wallace, the PFD has nothing specific in mind for those "additional resources." All the agreement means, he says, is that "in the event in the future there's something that arises—like the falling ceiling tiles at the Kingdome—then clearly we would cooperate with [the team], we wouldn't obstruct them."

For now, though, all stadium tweaks and touch-ups are being funded as "advances" by the team owners—who are to be paid back, the agreement says, "with interest at the Applicable Rate."

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