Bad vibes for Red Sox
By Eileen McNamara, Globe Staff, 02/16/00
John Harrington may be about to learn that he who hesitates is lost.
The simultaneous meltdown of the state's largest health care provider and
the nation's biggest public works project is not good news for anyone in
Massachusetts, but it could prove fatal for Red Sox plans for a new ballpark.
Last spring, when the team unveiled a model of the 43,000-seat ballyard it
hopes to build across from Fenway Park, Boston's economy was booming and the
state was running a surplus big enough to encompass a new field of dreams for
the Old Towne Team.
The plan Harrington touted was specific enough to preserve the Pesky Pole,
but vague enough to omit any details about public financing. Some public money
was all but assumed; the real question was how much of the cost of the $600
million project taxpayers would have to shoulder. For months now, the team has
played it coy, refusing to put an exact figure on how much money it needs from
the public coffers, though estimates have been as high as $300 million.
In the interim, the twin sinkholes of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and the
Big Dig have opened under the feet of Massachusetts taxpayers. Which is likely
to be the higher priority for public officials - saving an HMO that insures 1
out of 6 Massachusetts voters or replacing a beloved ballpark that many of
their constituents do not even want to see torn down?
No one has concluded, at least not publicly, that the state is going to
have to take drastic action to bail out Harvard Pilgrim or the Big Dig.
Attorney General Thomas Reilly is searching, so far unsuccessfully, for
private interests to rescue the hemorrhaging HMO and Governor Paul Cellucci is
promising, so far unconvincingly, not to increase road tolls further to pay
for the wildly over-budget Central Artery/Harbor tunnel project.
But Massachusetts voters know better. In the end, it will be the taxpayers
who pay for the mismanagement of Harvard Pilgrim and the Big Dig. Reilly can't
persuade employers or hospitals to invest in Harvard Pilgrim without some
state guarantees. The HMO lost almost $200 million last year; it is still
losing money; it owes hospitals $300 million. Not exactly a low-risk
investment. The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority can't convince federal
highway officials that the Big Dig is only $1.4 billion over budget. The feds
won't even accept the authority's estimates of cost overruns any more without
having them corroborated by independent auditors.
There are lessons here for the Red Sox if the team hopes to salvage any
public financing of its new ballpark. Harvard Pilgrim's problems were
"discovered" in December, after assurances from administrators that the HMO
was on secure financial footing. The Big Dig was "revealed" to be operating
deep in the red this month, after assurances from project managers that
construction costs were under control.
Voters don't like surprises that promise to lighten their wallets.
It is not enough that the Red Sox are more beloved than the Patriots, whose
owner was lucky to have squeezed $70 million out of the state for a new
football stadium in Foxborough. It is not enough that the Red Sox are talking
to state and city decision makers "behind the scenes." (That's where Charlie
Baker and Jim Kerasiotes do business.) It's the public that will be footing
the bill and the public that needs to be persuaded.
A poll conducted last summer by SpoonWorks Inc., a Brookline political
consulting firm, found that 69 percent of Massachusetts voters oppose using
public funds to pay for a new ballpark. The poll was taken months before the
bottom fell out of the Big Dig and Harvard Pilgrim.
In a speech to the Boston Municipal Research Bureau last week, Mayor Thomas
M. Menino said he has "met with the Red Sox and told them their plan had to
make economic sense from the city's perspective. If the city has to finance a
part of the project to get it done, then city taxpayers deserve a fair share
of the return. I can't tell you what form that will take in the end, but I can
tell you this: The financing will be complex, and the city is treading
Nine months is a long-enough gestation period. It's time for the Red Sox
front office to spell out what it wants from taxpayers. If the team delays
delivery much longer, its plans for public financing of a new ballpark could