A tally of a new batch of absentee ballots on Monday all but doomed a proposal to raise the sales tax to help build a $325 million stadium for the Seattle Mariners.
The new tally, which left the measure trailing by 1,535 votes with fewer than 3,000 ballots left to be counted, sent King County officials and state lawmakers scrambling to find a new way to keep the Mariners in Seattle.
Mariners owners have previously said they would put the team up for sale if the measure failed. Chairman and chief executive officer John Ellis said owners would not comment further until the final tally Thursday.
County Executive Gary Locke said he asked Mariner executives last week to postpone putting the team up for sale for 30 days while officials try to come up with a new stadium-financing package. But he acknowledged stadium backers are working against the clock.
“We don’t know exactly how much time we have, whether a buyer might step forward in a week, six months or three months,” Locke said. “We’re in essence racing against an invisible opponent with an invisible time frame. Clearly we don’t have time.”
Even opponents of the measure said they would be willing to work with all sides to come up with a better plan to finance a new stadium - one that doesn’t include a sales tax hike.
“That’s what the voters voted against,” said Chris Van Dyk, organizer of the opposition group Citizens for More Important Things. “They certainly did not vote against baseball. They did not vote against the Mariners. They did not vote against the Seahawks. They voted against a sales tax.”
The measure on last Tuesday’s primary ballot would finance most of the cost of a new new stadium by increasing the King County sales tax from 8.2 percent to a state-high 8.3 percent, or 10 additional cents on every $100 spent. The cost to the average county resident was estimated at about $7.50 a year.
The measure would require the Mariners to sign a new 20-year lease and contribute $45 million to the ballpark. It also would provide at least $170 million in bonds for Kingdome improvements demanded by the NFL Seahawks, and to cover the cost of extensive Kingdome roof repairs last year.
On election night, the proposal had a 4,000-vote lead. That dwindled to 310 after a batch of about 36,000 absentee ballots was counted Thursday.
On Monday, after a count of 18,190 more ballots, most of them absentees, the tide turned. Totals stood at 243,557 votes in favor and 245,092 against, or 49.84 percent yes to 50.16 percent no.
About 1,000 special ballots from election night and less than 2,000 absentee ballots remained to be counted. The exact number of absentee ballots wasn’t known because they were still arriving by mail, said John Charles, manager of elections and records for King County.
Absentee ballots have been running heavily against the measure.
The Mariners’ owners have said they would sell the team if the measure fails. They say their current home, the 19-year-old concrete-roofed Kingdome, has kept down attendance and doesn’t have good seats, luxury boxes or expensive club seats to generate a profit.
The team is expected to lose $30 million this season, bringing the total owners’ loss in 3-1/2 years to $67 million. Hiroshi Yamauchi, the president of Nintendo, is the majority owner.
The Mariners’ Kingdome lease runs through the 1996 season.
Attendance hasn’t been a problem lately, with the Mariners playing their best baseball in franchise history. For the three-game weekend series against Oakland, exuberant crowds of 51,500, 54,589 and 46,714 screamed themselves hoarse as the Mariners came from behind twice for victories.
With six games to go, the Mariners hold a two-game lead in the AL West over the California Angels.
The Mariners’ owners last week said they opposed sending the issue back to county voters if the current measure fails, and instead want any new efforts to focus on the state Legislature.
Lawmakers paved the way for last week’s vote by authorizing the sales-tax increase, but legislative leaders have said there is little support for using state money to help pay for a new stadium.
Gov. Mike Lowry said he is reluctant to call a special session of the Legislature unless he was sure a fix would pass. He said he would convene a sports summit to study new proposals that he could take to the Legislature.
Locke said he would consult with legislators, Mayor Norm Rice and Lowry to come up with alternative plans. Options could include a sports lottery, a hotel-motel tax, and a car-rental tax, among other things.
Pete Von Reichbauer, chairman of the county council’s budget and fiscal management committee, backed the idea of a sports lottery.
“A sports lottery may be the only way the people of King County can hit a home run on this issue. It would allow us to keep the Mariners by building a new first-class baseball stadium without resorting to a tax or relying on the state to find another source of funds,” he said.
Von Reichbauer said he plans to meet with Maryland officials on Friday to discuss how Washington could institute a sports lottery. Such a lottery in Maryland has raised more than $168 million since 1988 toward paying off the debt on Camden Yards, the home of the Baltimore Orioles, he said.
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