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 county tax revenue in Safeco Field maintenance.

Specifically, Dembowski—chair of the Council committee currently deliberating over County Executive Dow Constantine’s controversial proposal to use 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 only that—advisory—Dembowski says he also plans to try to attach an amendment to the Safeco Field funding ordinance that would stipulate that it go into effect after the Feb. 12 advisory vote, and that the Council reauthorize the plan. This would theoretically give the advisory vote teeth. Dembowski says he plans to introduce both the advisory-vote legislation and the amendment to the lodging-tax ordinance at the Sept. 5 Committee of the Whole meeting, when the Council will further discuss and vote on the legislation allocating the $180 million to Safeco Field. The Safeco Field funding plan has garnered significant criticism from a variety of stakeholders (many of 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 Mariners’ 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 asserted that they won’t sign a new lease unless the county allocates the lodging-tax revenue for stadium upkeep. (If 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 county voters’ 1995 rejection of a ballot measure 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 publicly stated that they support altering the proposal to boost funding for affordable housing at the expense of stadium upkeep, but no consensus has emerged around an 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 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.” He added, “I don’t know that I would advance a vote measure if Kohl-Welles’ amendment were to carry.”

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 be spent either on workforce affordable housing near transit hubs or on homeless-youth services.) The other Councilmembers did not respond to requests for comment.

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