In the hyper-partisan atmosphere in Virginia, a debate is raging over bonding for a new Potomac Nationals ballpark (High A; Carolina League), as politicians debate whether a public referendum is allowed by law — or even if it’s necessary.
Prince William County is proposing the use of Industrial Development Authority bonds to finance the $35-million ballpark, with the P-Nats paying $2.7 million annually in debt service over 30 years, in addition to a $450,000 yearly rent fee for the land. Also, the county would build a new parking ramp at the ballpark site, Stonebridge at the Potomac Town Center, for use both by commuters and ballpark attendees. Prince William County supervisors have come to a tentative agreement on the ballpark, but have not yet reached a final agreement on an overall deal. Those opposing the ballpark, including the Americans for Prosperity organization (led by the Koch Brothers), argue that any public spending on sports facilities should be put before the public for a vote.
The use of IDA bonds, instead of general-obligation bonds, complicates things, however. No one seems to be quite sure whether IDA bonds, designed for economic development, are subject to public referendum or whether the county would need to hew to the public sentiment if a referendum was held. From InsideNOVA:
Yet Supervisor Marty Nohe, R-Coles, is unsure the county even has the legal authority to hold a referendum on the matter. Based on the legal interpretations he’s heard, he suspects that the county can only put a question on the ballot about “general obligation bonds,” or bonds to build things like roads, libraries or parks — the county last held a referendum on that kind of bond in 2006….
Quentin Kidd, the director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University and a close observer of Virginia elections, points to an “advisory” referendum in Virginia Beach last year that merely asked voters whether or not the city council should pursue a light rail system as something that could be analogous to what Candland proposes.
“It sounds like this might be a similar situation, where an advisory referendum is held on the general question of the stadium and that guides the decisions of the IDA,” Kidd wrote in an email.
Aaron Swerdlow, an attorney with Gerard Fox Law who has advised minor league teams on stadium deals, cautions that referenda generally need to more directly “approve spending” or authorize some other government action to make it onto a ballot.
Lots of opinions here and everyone has an agenda — ballpark opponents demand a referendum, ballpark supporters say a series of hearing before a vote will be plenty to discern public opinion. And with the bond structure set up the way it is — the county is financing the ballpark, not funding it, a distinction that tends to get lost in these situations — it’s hard to see a situation where industrial bonds are subject to anything other than an advisory referendum.
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