A 3-2 City Commission vote Nov. 2 approved bonds to pay for the city’s portion of the construction of the Baltimore Orioles spring-training stadium, but the bond option commissioners chose comes with a price. The city is at risk of losing $7.5 million from a state spring-training retention grant the city intended to use to pay its share of the construction cost.
If it loses that grant money, city taxpayers would have to pick up that cost.
“It’s a small risk,” said City Manager Bob Bartolotta. “We believe you’d never have to tap that second source of funding.”
Commissioners had two bond options from which to choose. Option A would have used only the state spring-training retention grant, or OTTED grant, to back the bonds.
Option B, the one commissioners chose, will use Recovery Zone and Build America funds to back the OTTED grant, because of the possibility the OTTED grant may not be awarded.
Both options carried risks. The group Citizens for Responsible Government, which opposes a publicly funded stadium, threatened to sue over Option A. It said the Orioles deal didn’t qualify for the funds, because two Florida cities were competing for the team.
The lawsuit threatened to delay funding, which could have caused the city to default on the Orioles contract. A default could have resulted in the county and the Orioles suing the city.
The risk with Option B also has to do with the potential loss of the OTTED funds. The city may have to resort to spending non-ad valorem taxes to make up that loss.
Vice Mayor Kelly Kirschner and Commissioner Terry Turner voted against the Orioles deal in July, because the city must pay for any and all environmental cleanup costs at the stadium site; they both voted against it Monday for the same reason.
The site is where the current Ed Smith stadium complex sits. The area was a landfill 50 years ago, and several toxins have been detected in the water and soil on the site, including vinyl chloride.
Kirschner said he was concerned because several environmental studies on the site since 1988 were not able to determine the full extent of the contamination, and the latest study, conducted by city contractor Leggettee, Brashears and Graham, also was not able to find the edge of the contamination.
But the consultant did say the contamination was confined to a small area at the center of four practice fields and did not appear to be moving. The company’s estimate for cleanup was $150,000.
The group Citizens for Responsible Government brought to light another potential problem for the stadium deal.
Leggettee, Brashears and Graham offered a job to Javier Vargas, a public works general manager who was overseeing the contractor’s work at the stadium site.
Leggettee Vice President Dave Wiley asked Vargas in an e-mail if he would like to go to Puerto Rico to serve as Wiley’s translator.
Vargas told commissioners that he immediately turned down the offer, but in the e-mail exchange, his first reply was: “Sure, I’ll do it!”
Wiley said the offer was made simply because the company doesn’t have any Spanish-speaking employees, but both men eventually decided that it was not proper for Vargas to accept the offer.
“Why would I believe a consultant’s report if there’s an impropriety there,” said Cathy Antunes, board member of Citizens for Responsible Government.
In the end, Mayor Dick Clapp and Commissioners Fredd Atkins and Suzanne Atwell believed the rewards of the Orioles spring training deal outweighed the risks and voted in favor of the bond proposal.
“It’s about trust,” Atwell said. “I go with this amazing (city) staff and consultants.”
Contact Robin Roy at [email protected].