County: Bears need to pay bigger share for stadium

Analysis shows admissions tax wouldn’t cover construction costs

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter


Updated: June 9, 2011, 8:32 PM


If the owners of the Yakima Bears want to move the minor league baseball team to Vancouver, they will have to come up with a better offer than a 70-30 public/private split on a $23 million stadium.

Based on the county’s estimate that a 5 percent countywide admissions tax would generate $965,000 a year, the county could only afford 53 percent of capital construction costs, Deputy Treasurer John Payne said Thursday.

“The revenue stream doesn’t support a 70 percent split,” said Payne, one of several county employees researching the proposal.

Commissioners on Tuesday voted 2-1 to negotiate with Short Season LLC, the organization that owns the Class A team, though they’ve yet to have a work session to publicly discuss details.

Neighborhood leaders to discuss stadium proposal

Leaders of neighborhoods with an interest in the proposed new minor league baseball stadium at Clark College are invited to a meeting at 7 p.m. June 22 at the Vancouver Housing Authority, 2500 Main St.

The meeting is sponsored by the Arnada Neighborhood Association, which says representatives of Clark College, the Yakima Bears and Vancouver will be there to discuss the process that, if approved, might move the proposal forward. Seating is limited to 88. Attendees can listen and ask questions.

Also Thursday, Commissioner Steve Stuart — the biggest baseball supporter among the three commissioners — made a key distinction by saying he will “absolutely not” support any construction bonds that would be backed by the county’s general fund.

Issuing a limited tax general obligation bond backed with the general fund ($279 million for the 2011-12 budget) would yield a better interest rate.

Stuart, however, said he won’t put the general fund, used for basic public services including law and justice, at risk should admissions tax revenue estimates fall short.

“If someone can convince me otherwise, fine, but that’s where I stand,” Stuart said.

County Budget Director Jim Dickman said if the bond was backed by the county’s general fund and revenue estimates did fall short, commissioners would have to make budget cuts in order to satisfy the bond debt.

“That’s not appropriate,” Stuart said.

Payne said the bond could be structured so team owners would have to find financing and have sufficient reserves in case the revenue stream from the admissions tax doesn’t meet expectations.

Asked to comment whether Short Season LLC would be willing to put up more money or have a reserve fund substantial enough to satisfy investors, spokesman Ron Arp issued a statement: “We are standing by our commitment made a month ago to cover all maintenance and operations and 30 percent of the capital debt service, for the privilege of reserving 38 days in a multiuse facility for home games each summer. We have had some preliminary discussions with county staff and are just beginning the work on a financing plan. We agreed to a 60-day negotiation period and there will be many conversations and options explored during that time. We prefer to comment only if and when we reach an agreement with the county,” Arp wrote.

Commissioner Tom Mielke voted no Tuesday to even negotiate with the team; that leaves Stuart and Marc Boldt as the only ones willing to consider welcoming the Bears.

While the facts that the county can’t afford 70 percent of capital costs and won’t use the general fund to back the bonds appear to threaten the proposal, Stuart stressed that discussions are in the early stages. Next week he expects to have a “milestone map” to guide people through the process; a work session will also be scheduled for commissioners and the Vancouver City Council.

“There are a lot of steps to take and partners to work with,” Stuart said.

The community benefits of having a professional baseball team as well as a facility that could be used by Clark College teams and other squads will be a part of the discussions, Stuart said.

Council could kill it

On May 13, co-owner and general manager of the Yakima Bears, K.L. Wombacher, announced during a press conference at Clark College that the team wants to move to Vancouver. The Bears would play at a 3,500-seat stadium which would be built on the college’s current baseball field, east of Interstate 5 and west of Fort Vancouver Way.

Before the public announcement, there were months of behind-the-scenes meetings with elected officials and Clark College leaders to gauge support for bringing the team to Vancouver.

But the proposal of an admissions tax has not been well received.

Under the county’s estimate, the tax would be applied to: movies ($650,273 of the revenue); Sleep Country Amphitheater ($86,625); Clark County Fair ($53,069); Washougal Motocross ($50,000); new baseball stadium ($47,500); Mountain View Ice Arena ($12,600); Clark County Events Center at the Fairgrounds (without Clark County Fair exhibits) ($8,000); Vancouver Symphony ($5,805); Vancouver Volcanoes ($1,250); and miscellaneous (swimming pools, billiards, downtown concerts, winery events, nightclubs, etc) ($50,000).

The “miscellaneous” category includes golf.

Kevin Coombs, general manager of the Green Mountain Golf Course, said the county underestimated how much revenue a tax on green fees would bring in. He said golf would bring in more than $100,000 in admissions tax revenue.

“I think it would be great to bring a baseball team to Vancouver,” Coombs said, but not if it involves taxing golf.

The county has seven 18-hole courses and four nine-hole, par-three courses.

“We’re all really suffering because of the weather and the economy,” Coombs said Wednesday. He said golf typically draws in players from a 30-mile range, and a 5 percent greens fee might push players up to Cowlitz County or south to Multnomah County.

The admissions tax, even if approved by Stuart and Boldt, could be effectively killed by the Vancouver City Council.

County Administrator Bill Barron has told commissioners that all of the cities would have to agree to the tax; if cities enacted their own tax, it would take the revenue away from the county.

For the purpose of the admissions tax, the revenues are driven by action in the city of Vancouver.

Budget analyst Adriana Prata calculated that 63 percent of the revenues would be collected within city limits.

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt said the city cannot legally promise the county it won’t enact an admissions tax “over the top” of the county.

Such an agreement would inappropriately bind future city councils from enacting a local tax, he said.

Instead, the city and county would have to have an agreement that specifies how much money the city would direct to the county to support the construction bond payoff.

Then, the city council would have to decide where that money would come from. If not from an admissions tax, the city would have to find another source of revenue.

Leavitt said the city council will have to talk about whether bringing the Yakima Bears to the city provides enough of a community asset to warrant the finances.

Councilor Jack Burkman said Thursday that the baseball proposal “plays out where I expected it to be, into our laps.”

“It’s really a simple answer for me. During our retreats, we said no new taxes without asking residents and public safety is a priority,” Burkman said.

“I do not support taking money out of the general fund for this, and I don’t support another tax on the residents.”

“In this economy, I don’t see how you could justify public financing,” Burkman said.

Other councilors said it was too soon to comment.

Andrea Damewood contributed to this article.