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Senate leader turns to Fenway

Birmingham proposal a blend of other plans

By Meg Vaillancourt, Globe Staff, 7/24/2000

ith a week left in the legislative session, there are now three Fenway Park financing plans on the table. Just days after Governor Paul Cellucci and Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino offered competing ballpark plans, Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham yesterday unveiled his own proposal, calling for the Red Sox and their fans to pick up more of the cost of the $664 million project.

In contrast to the other plans, Birmingham's proposal relies more heavily on "user fees," including a $1-a-ticket fee, a 15 percent surcharge on luxury suites, a $3-per-car game day parking fee, and in-the-ballpark sales and meals taxes to repay the city's investment in the project.

Birmingham, who has been a strong supporter of the Red Sox project, emphasized that he remains "open to negotiations" on each element of his proposal.

He also noted that his financing scheme was crafted to exclude any ideas that Cellucci, Menino, and House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran have ruled out.

"This is a good-faith effort intended to move the project forward, so it doesn't contain any poison pills," Birmingham said yesterday. "There is nothing in this proposal that is a nonstarter to any of the other participants."

Acknowledging the tight timetable on Beacon Hill, Birmingham proposed that the four political leaders and the Red Sox meet today to determine if there is sufficient common ground to get a ballpark bill passed this year.

"There are no new ideas being discussed, it's just differences around the edges," Birmingham said. "I think we should all sit down in a room and see if we can reach consensus."

Cellucci and Menino have also called for a ballpark summit. Although Finneran is expected to make his views known today, he has been mum on which, if any, of the financing plans he can endorse. As of last night, Finneran had not formally agreed to attend a meeting today.

Birmingham, however, said that if lawmakers are close enough to an agreement, the current legislative session could be extended a few days beyond the scheduled July 31 adjournment date. Under the legislative rules, it would take a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate to extend the session.

"We're cutting it very close," he said yesterday. "But if there's an agreement on how to approach the issue of financing a new ballpark, it's possible to get something done this year."

Birmingham's proposal blends some of the major elements of plans offered by the mayor, the governor, and the Red Sox. Like the others, it calls for the state to provide $100 million in infrastructure aid and the city to fund $140 million toward acquiring and cleaning up the proposed ballpark site. The team would privately finance construction of the $352 million ballpark and cover any cost overruns.

Acknowledging that the city's land acquisition costs could soar, Birmingham also proposed that the state agree to fund up to $28 million in soil removal as part of its infrastructure aid if the city's land costs exceed $140 million. Although Finneran may be reluctant to agree, Birmingham argued that the state agreed last year to make similar improvements to land owned by Robert Kraft as part of its infrastructure aid for the New England Patriots' new stadium.

"We've done it before," Birmingham said. "And everyone has to be willing to show some movement if we are going to get to yes."

All of the plans respect Menino's demand for 100 percent payback on the city's $140 million investment. But each offers a slightly different menu for how the state and the team should repay Boston.

Birmingham pegs the city's payback requirement at $10.4 million. Under his plan, fees on the Red Sox fans will fund nearly half that amount. Unlike Menino and Cellucci, Birmingham proposes that the city be repaid in part through ticket and luxury suite surcharges. He estimates that the fees could raise about $4.5 million a year.

The idea is likely to meet strong resistance from the Red Sox, who are struggling to privately finance the stadium project. The assumption that the team will bear all the cost overruns is also a threat to its private financing.

The Red Sox have argued that although they already have the highest ticket and suite prices in the league, they will need to charge even higher prices in the new ballpark. The mayor has also opposed ticket surcharges, suggesting they would be perceived as a "Menino tax."

Nonetheless, Birmingham said yesterday that ticket surcharges are a fair way to distribute the burden of funding the new ballpark. "Basically it's a user fee," he said. "I think the fans who are using the facility understand they have to help pay for it."

Birmingham's proposal gives the Red Sox $6 million a year in parking fees generated by the new city-owned garage included in the plan. The team has repeatedly insisted it needs $7 million in parking receipts to fund its portion of the project. While the Senate president's plan offers the team $1 million less than Menino had proposed last week, it is far more than Cellucci, who suggested that the city did not have to share any parking revenues with the Red Sox.

Birmingham's proposal relies less on state sales, meals, and hotel taxes. While political leaders have been reviewing plans that call for the creation of a special district in the Fenway/Kenmore area, Birmingham suggested that the state should transfer only inside-the-ballpark sales and meals taxes to the city.

Birmingham also suggested that the state transfer just a one-quarter of 1 percent in the hotel tax to the ballpark project, rather than the half-percent hike Cellucci endorsed last week. Concerns about cost overruns on the convention center project prompted him to retain some of the hotel taxes for that project, Birmingham said. Local hotels also opposed the transfer, arguing that few of their guests would come just to watch a baseball game.

This story ran on page B01 of the Boston Globe on 7/24/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

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