The endless debate over whether taxpayer dollars should fund sports stadiums has sprung up again—this time in King County government.
King County Executive Dow Constantine and several county councilmembers want to use new tax revenue to fund maintenance and repairs at Safeco Field, but Councilmember Dave Upthegrove criticizes the proposal as a public subsidy for the privately owned Seattle Mariners.
The county plan calls for money raised by the lodging tax—the longstanding fee levied on hotels and motels throughout the county, colloquially known as the “hotel-motel tax”—to fund arts programs, affordable housing near transit, and necessary maintenance and repairs at Safeco Field. Originally established in 1967, the tax helped finance the construction of the Kingdome and CenturyLink Field.
In 2020, the debt of the capital costs of CenturyLink field will be paid off, annually freeing up an expected $36 million in tax revenue for other projects. And there is no sunset clause on the tax, meaning that the revenue stream is ongoing.
Constantine proposes spending a portion of the revenue from tax towards annual maintenance costs at Safeco Field. Starting in 2021, $4 million out of that anticipated $36 million would go towards the stadium. According to staff at the county budget office, the annual allocation to Safeco Field would increase steadily over time, coinciding with optimistic revenue projections from the hotel-motel tax. By 2043, the total allocation to Safeco Field would amount to just under $180 million.
“Hotel/motel taxes were established 50 years ago so that visitors would pay to build the Kingdome and bring Major League Baseball and NFL football to town,” said Constantine. “A small portion of those visitor taxes—roughly 12 percent—will go toward upkeep of the nuts and bolts of our iconic ballpark.”
The large steak of the annual revenue from the tax would go towards 4Culture—the county’s public authority for funding arts programs. Another 37.5 percent would be allocated for affordable housing and youth homelessness services through the county’s Department of Community and Human Services.
Upthegrove, however, is strongly opposed to spending public money on Safeco Field. Hours after the proposal was unveiled by the executive’s office, Upthegrove put out his own statement lambasting the plan.
“The Mariners are a successful private company and they should be responsible for covering their own expenses,” Upthegrove told Seattle Weekly. “At the end of the day we’re really just offsetting costs for a large popular business.”
Upthegrove argues that the county isn’t required to spend that much on Safeco Field, and could instead funnel more money towards affordable housing. State law requires that the hotel-motel tax revenue be divided up primarily between arts funding and affordable housing—each receiving 37.5 percent—while the remainder go towards tourism promotion. However, since there is no defined percentage that is mandated to go towards tourism, technically, the county could shift more of those remaining dollars towards affordable housing projects or arts funding.
“This is all flexible dollars. These are all dollars that can legally be spent on affordable housing,” Upthegrove said. “It is a policy decision that we’re making to not spend it on affordable housing and instead to subsidize a popular business.”
The same day the proposal was announced, the Seattle Mariners renewed their lease on Safeco Field with the Public Facilities District (the entity that manages the stadium) through 2049. Revenue from the the hotel-motel tax would go into a fund for maintenance upkeep at Safeco, a money pool that the Mariners and the Public Facilities District would also be obligated to contribute to, per the terms of the lease. The majority of the fund comes from contributions from the Mariners.
An outside consultant report on Safeco Field upkeep needs concluded that roughly $190 million is needed for direct facility maintenance through 2036.
Kevin H. Callahan, director of the Public Facilities District, told Seattle Weekly that newly agreed upon lease does not rely on the county funneling hotel-motel tax money to Safeco Field for upkeep. “It’s a stand-alone set of terms,” he said.
Virginia Anderson, one of the five Public Facilities District board members who voted to approve the lease—two voted against it—told King 5 that if County Council decides not to approve the funding allocation from the hotel-motel tax, that they’ll “come up with a new finance plan to take care of capital improvements..”
Constantine’s proposal has support from at least three King County Councilmembers: Council Chair Joe McDermott, Pete von Reichbauer, and Jeanne Kohl-Welles. Councilmembers Larry Gossett, Rod Dembowski and Reagan Dunn could not be reached for comment.
Councilmember Kathy Lambert wrote in a text message to Seattle Weekly that while she hasn’t seen the specific language of the proposal yet, there are many other businesses “that could use help to expand and thrive.”
In contrast, Councilmember Claudia Baluducci said in a phone interview that she is open to the proposal. “This is a stadium that exists, it’s owned by the public, it’s got a team in it,” she said. “We should maintain the building and since it’s a public building we should use public money to maintain it.”
The legislation will likely get introduced on Monday, May 28, before being referred to a specific policy committee for further deliberation.
“Professional sports are part of our successful regional economic development,” said von Reichbauer. “The Seattle Mariners provide jobs at every level of the employment spectrum because they attract tourists from Canada and the Pacific Northwestern states. These tourists stay at our hotels, shop at our restaurants, and buy goods while visiting our region. In addition to one of the best ticket values for family entertainment, the Mariners provide economic stimulus to our economy through the jobs they create.”
Councilmember Kohl-Welles told Seattle Weekly she supports the plan because the Mariner’s bring in tax revenue for the county. “I see it as a public benefit overall,” she said. “It’s kind of circular because we bring more people to spend money than if we did not have Mariners.”
“I don’t buy his argument,” Kohl-Welles said in reference to Upthegrove’s criticism. “The taxpayers benefit in the long run because we get more revenue.”
She added that sports teams like the Mariners work alongside other local institutions like the Seattle Opera and the Pacific Science Center to attract tourists and generate both tax revenue and general economic activity.
Alex Fryer, a spokesperson for Executive Constantine, declined requests for comment in response to Upthegrove’s concerns and referred Seattle Weekly to their initial May 23 release.
According to the consultant report on Safeco Field, the stadium brought in $2.4 million in tax revenue in 2015, and is estimated to generate a little over $46 million over the next 20 years. The same assessment estimated that the stadium supports 2,200 jobs and $100 million in wages annually.
Much has already been written nationally about how public financing of sports stadiums rarely garner equitable returns in tax revenue for governments. Locally, concerns over giving too much taxpayer money to sports venues have overshadowed debates surrounding the Sodo stadium proposal and the plans to redevelop KeyArena.
“I love baseball. But at the end of the day [the Mariners are] a private company,” Upthegrove said. “That business should pay for their own expenses.”
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