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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 carefully."

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 be stillborn.

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