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Sides near consensus on Fenway

By Meg Vaillancourt, Globe Staff, 7/14/2000

"delicate consensus" appears to be emerging among three of the four key political leaders on using a combination of existing hotel taxes, new parking fees, and garage revenues to provide a breakthrough in negotiations on a new Fenway Park, people familiar with the talks said yesterday.

Discussions between city and state leaders escalated yesterday, as Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino reviewed various Fenway financing schemes with Governor Paul Cellucci at a luncheon aboard the Italian Tall Ship Amerigo Vespucci and later with House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran at a State House meeting.

Cellucci, who reiterated his support for the team's ballpark bid in talks with Red Sox chief John Harrington yesterday, again blasted a city proposal that calls for imposing parking surcharges throughout Boston as a way of raising revenues to repay the city's investment in a new ballpark.

But Finneran said yesterday that although he had reservations, he would "consider" the proposal, and Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham appeared to support it. Both Finneran and Birmingham suggested a stumbling block in adopting the surcharges has been Cellucci's no-new-taxes pledge.

"The governor has supported increased fees [for other projects], so why is this fee increase a tax?" Birmingham asked. "I think it's becoming an increasingly Jesuitical enterprise to figure out what the governor considers a tax or not."

Cellucci, however, insisted the parking surcharge was equivalent to a tax. "I'm not going to support new taxes on working people," a clearly irritated Cellucci declared yesterday.

But city and state sources argue that they may have a way around the governor's opposition -- by structuring the parking surcharges as part of a "local option" bill, under which the Boston City Council would decide whether to impose the fees. They note Cellucci has supported similar voluntary local fee hikes for other projects, including an open space bill pending on Beacon Hill, without labeling them taxes.

Supporters of the surcharges, which would also be available to all cities and towns, hope that a local option bill would overcome Cellucci's no-new taxes requirement and remove what has become a major stumbling block in current talks.

"It's similar to what the governor has done before," said one source. "And there are a number of communities seeking revnues for their own tourist, recreational, and cultural activities. . . . A delicate consensus appears to be building, but it's not there yet."

Other observers were more pessimistic yesterday, noting that any ballpark financing deal must not only meet Cellucci's no-new-taxes rule, but also Menino's demand for 100 percent payback and Finneran's requirement that state aid be used only for infrastructure.

"It's a four cushion shot," said another source, adopting a pool hall analogy to the talks. "It could happen, but you could also end up with a scratch."

Yet several other revenue ideas appear to be gaining support in recent days as Menino, Finneran, Birmingham, and Cellucci attempt to craft a deal.

Finneran and Birmingham, for example, suggested yesterday that the state's definition of infrastructure could be "elastic" enough to include some site cleanup costs, which Menino has said the city cannot afford to assume. Depending on how the two leaders define the state's role, state funding for soil removal, for example, could go a long way toward closing the $30 million gap created by the city's decision to rule out cleanup costs.

There also appears to be some agreement on the idea of transferring a limited portion of existing meals, sales, and hotel taxes to the city to help it recoup its investment in acquiring the proposed ballpark site, sources said.

Cellucci said yesterday he was willing to consider a plan that would create a special district around the new ballpark within which the city could retain sales and meals taxes now collected by the state.

In a bid to further reduce the impact on the state, ballpark boosters have also suggested that city could retain only sales and meals taxes generated by new Fenway businesses. The state could keep the taxes it now collects on existing businesses in the neighborhood.

With barely two weeks left in the legislative session, Menino, Finneran, Birmingham, and Cellucci appear intent on reaching an agreement. But if the talks break down, the governor, who has been a strong advocate of a new ballpark, may file his own version of a new Fenway Park bill next week, sources said. Such a move would be largely symbolic, however, since it would need Finneran and Birmingham's approval to be adopted by the Legislature.

The Red Sox also appear close to reaching an agreement with a local hotel owner whose land is slated to be taken for the new ballpark.

According to sources, the teams architects and those working for Robert Sage, who owns the Howard Johnsons on Boylston Street, met this week to review plans that would allow Sage to remain on his property and build a new hotel on top of the small garage the Red Sox had proposed for the site.

Such an agreement could save the city millions in land acquisition costs since they would not need to purchase Sage's property for the ballpark. The team's current estimate for the total land acquisition cost is $90 million.

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 7/14/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

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