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State House adds day room fee

Some say price tag would be prohibitive

The Legislature has eliminated free daytime usage of State House function rooms for most organizations, adding a fee that critics say will reduce public access to one of Massachusetts' most public buildings.

To help pay for the upkeep of the building, the state last week began charging interest groups as much as $4,650 for daytime use of the Great Hall, the Grand Staircase, and other historic rooms in the State House. The move shocked some organizations that already have events planned for the coming months.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts was unaware of the fees before it sent out 1,000 invitations to an event highlighting local congressional members in late September. The event now won't be held unless the fee is waived, according to event organizers.

"We got a call saying that there would be a $1,800 charge for the one-hour use for the Great Hall, and I was completely flabbergasted," said Nancy Murray, ACLU director. "If they want to have just investment bankers use it, then that's one thing. But they certainly won't have nonprofit organizations dealing with the public in there."

The daytime fee was proposed by the Bureau of State Office Buildings, which oversees the bookings and maintenance of the function rooms, and was included in a budget bill approved by the Legislature and Governor Mitt Romney. The rooms in question are used for lobbying events, educational seminars, blood drives, and social gatherings. They are particularly popular with lawmakers, as well as interest groups and nonprofits.

Between 300 and 350 events are held each year in these rooms. The fees are waived for legislators and government organizations, officials said.

"The bottom line is we instituted this fee not to raise funds, but to cover and recoup taxpayers' dollars," said Neil R. Kilpeck, bureau superintendent. "The fees include setting the function up, breaking the equipment down, the PA system, and wear and tear on the building."

The Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences had applied two months ago to hold an Oct. 14 event to lobby lawmakers and demonstrate new pharmaceutical technology. The group was told yesterday it would need to pay $3,100 for the use of Great Hall.

"The college, along with seven other pharmacy organizations, promoted and publicized this event for that date and time, and there is no turning back for us," said Christopher Sampson, spokesman for the college. "We need to get our message across, and we should be able to use a public space to do that. This isn't like renting out a hotel or the Kennedy Library; this is public space."

The organization is hoping for a waiver, which is allowed under the new measure at Kilpeck's discretion.

Until this month, the four State House function rooms could be used for free during business hours. The new daytime fees range from $1,800 to $4,650, depending on the size of the crowd. There has always been a fee for events held after business hours, ranging from $3,800 to $6,600 plus the cost of security. The after-hours events are unchanged by the new policy. To reserve a room, organizations must get a legislator or constitutional officer to sponsor the event. Representative Paul C. Demakis, a Back Bay Democrat and sponsor of the ACLU's event, said the fees are part of a Romney revenue-generating effort that coincides with his no-new-tax policy.

"I think it is wrong to be setting fees for access to the people's house so high that nonprofit groups like the ACLU and others with few resources will have no access," Demakis said. "It is another example of where we are setting fees so high to generate needed revenue so that we can tell the public that we didn't raise taxes."

Massachusetts is the only state in the region that charges for daytime State House room rental. Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine do not have rental fees during the daytime for their state houses, according to officials contacted yesterday.

At the center of this debate are four function halls: Great Hall, the Grand Staircase, Nurse's Hall, and Gardner Auditorium.

Great Hall, the most frequently reserved room, is a white marble hall adorned with a rainbow of municipal flags representing nearly every town and city in the state. At capacity, 400 guests can gather beneath the atrium's skylight. The Grand Staircase, a popular location for news conferences, sits at the center of the building and leads visitors up to the House gallery. The smallest room, Nurse's Hall, is a common site for smaller gatherings. Organizations have yet to use Gardner Auditorium, a theater-style room that holds nearly 600 guests.

Despite the State House's ornate architecture and historical relevance, organizations are looking elsewhere. Pamela Wilmot, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Massachusetts, has used local hotels instead of the State House to host political events.

"The State House is the center of our state government; it's a beautiful building and a great place to have functions," Wilmot said. "Obviously we are in a tight fiscal time, but I think public buildings are there for the use of the public."

Rick Klein of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Brendan McCarthy can be reached at bmccarthy@globe.com.

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