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Sunday, February 18, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The facts, figures behind the flap over Sonics arena

Seattle Times staff reporter

Sonics and Storm owner Clay Bennett was in town last week pitching his plan to build a new arena in Renton, paid for mostly with taxpayer money.

Like the deals that built Safeco and Qwest fields, the Sonics proposal is controversial and somewhat complicated. Even some lawmakers considering the proposal have appeared fuzzy on the details.

Here are answers to some common questions about the arena proposal, contained in Senate Bill 5986.

Q: How much would the arena cost?

A: The Sonics estimate the arena would cost $500 million. Since the team hasn't released even a sketch of the building yet, that number is likely to change. The Sonics had previously estimated the cost could go as high as $530 million, and Bennett said last week the building would likely prove the most expensive arena in the country.

Q: How much would taxpayers pay?

A: Bennett wants $300 million in state-authorized taxes, all collected only in King County. The remaining $200 million-plus in costs would be split between team owners and the city of Renton. Bennett has talked about a team contribution of $100 million but has promised nothing, and Renton officials say they don't know how much the city could pay. The arena construction also would be exempted from state and local sales and excise taxes.

Q: I read Senate Bill 5986 and it doesn't say anything about a basketball arena. What's up with that?

A: It's true, SB 5986 does not contain the word "basketball" or "Sonics." The legislation refers to the arena only as a "regional center." That's because the team is touting the building as a public asset that would be about much more than basketball. Bennett says the arena could attract a National Hockey League team, political conventions, corporate meetings and other events.

Q: Would the arena require a tax increase?

A: No. King County taxpayers are already paying the taxes to pay off debt from Safeco Field, Qwest Field and the Kingdome. However, the Sonics proposal would extend the life of some taxes that might otherwise expire or be redirected to other government services.

Q: Sonics supporters say these are just tourist taxes that locals don't have to pay. Is that true?

A: No. More than half of the money in the Sonics plan comes from sales-tax credits that divert money that could otherwise go to the state general fund. The rest comes from taxes on restaurant meals, car rentals and hotels.

Q: Wouldn't the arena's cost be much more than is usually reported when you add in the cost of paying interest on construction bonds?

A: Yes. Like any public construction project, the arena would be financed by selling bonds, which would be paid back over 25 years. Between 2012 and 2032, the Sonics proposal would actually tap $1.1 billion in tax money, with most of it eaten up by those bond payments, according to estimates by the Senate Ways and Means Committee staff.

Q: Would that money go only to the Sonics arena?

A: No. In addition to $300 million for the Sonics arena, the proposal would raise millions of dollars a year for arts groups in King County and pay for future maintenance at Safeco Field.

Q: Who would get the cash from arena events?

A: The Renton arena would likely be publicly owned, but Sonics owners want most of the revenue from the building — an arrangement similar to those given to the Mariners and Seahawks.

Q: How would the public benefit?

A: Supporters say the arena would create jobs and spur economic development. The arena would have more than 200 events a year, from concerts to trade shows, conventions and sporting events. And, of course, the arena would be a state-of-the-art NBA facility that Bennett says is needed to keep the Sonics and Storm in Washington state. The teams have said they won't play at Seattle's KeyArena after their lease expires in 2010.

Q: If we don't build the Sonics arena, will the tax money go to more important things such as schools or roads?

A: That's not as likely as arena critics like to say. While the sales-tax credits could be put back into the state general fund, lawmakers have grown accustomed to allowing counties to use such credits for economic-development projects. The same goes for hotel and car-rental taxes. Such taxes are paying for convention centers, performing-arts halls, museums and other projects in counties across the state. It is likely that King County politicians would find other local projects on which to spend the money rather than giving it back to the state.

Q: Can't we just tax rich athletes to make them pay for the arena?

A: So-called "jock taxes," which target professional athletes, are levied in many states. The taxes even hit visiting athletes when they play road games in the state. State Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, has proposed such a tax in Washington with Senate Bill 5891. That bill would impose an extra tax on all pro athletes who make more than first-year public-school teachers. But because Washington has no income tax, Tom's proposal would require a constitutional amendment and is considered unlikely to pass.

Q: Which state lawmakers are sponsoring the Sonics bill?

A: Five state senators have signed on as sponsors of Senate Bill 5986: Margarita Prentice, D-Renton; Jerome Delvin, R-Richland; Erik Poulsen, D-Seattle; Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens; and Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond. A companion bill in the House of Representatives, HB 2264, has two sponsors: Reps. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, and Fred Jarrett, R-Mercer Island.

Q: Will there be a public vote on this?

A: Not if the Sonics can help it. Bennett said last week he believes the team would lose such a vote and said politicians should show some backbone by making the decision themselves. The Sonics bill contains an "emergency" clause designed to make it harder to overturn with a public vote. The clause would force opponents to file a state initiative instead of a referendum — meaning they'd have to gather twice as many signatures to force a vote.

However, the arena plan also would have to be approved by the King County Council. And a majority of council members last week signed a letter pledging to reject any arena package that sidesteps voters.

Q: Wasn't there already a vote prohibiting tax money for the Sonics arena?

A: In November, Seattle voters approved an initiative restricting tax money for pro-sports facilities. But that initiative doesn't have any authority outside Seattle and doesn't bind the state Legislature or King County Council.

Q: Who owns the Renton arena site and are they on board with the Sonics plan?

A: Boeing owns the land, a 21-acre parcel at the south end of Lake Washington. A private developer, Harvest Partners, has a right of first refusal to develop the land and has planned to develop a big-box home-improvement store and other retail businesses there. But Sonics owners have been in talks with top Boeing executives and said they're confident a deal will be worked out, possibly as early as this week.

Q: Where can I get more information?

A: For bill details, go to the Legislature's Web site, www1.leg.wa.gov/legislature, and click on bill information. To reach Sonics supporters, see the Save our Sonics and Storm Web site, www.saveoursonics.org. To see the opponents' take, look at Citizens for More Important Things: www.citizensformoreimportantthings.org.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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