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Fee system proposed for use of City Hall Plaza

Users’ costs widely varied in past; more transparency seen

For the first time, Boston is poised to set defined fees for the rental of City Hall Plaza, with the money going directly to city coffers.

The move comes after the Globe reported earlier this year that for ­decades, advertising firms, film crews, vendors, and other commercial entities made donations for use of the red-brick plaza to a nonprofit controlled by the mayor’s office. Until now, fees have been negotiated on an individual basis and varied from event to event.

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The Fund for Boston Neighborhoods collected $160,000 in 2011 for use of City Hall Plaza, representatives from Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s admin­istration testified Monday in a hearing before the City Council. But as a nonprofit, the fund is not subject to the same open record laws as a government agency. In the Globe ­report published in March, Menino vowed to change the way rental fees are collected for the plaza.

At least one fiscal watchdog ­described the proposal as a step in the right direction.

“Anything that makes it more transparent is great as far as my ­office is concerned,” said Matthew Cahill, executive director of the ­Boston Finance Commission, a city-funded fiscal watchdog agency. “The taxpayers are paying to upkeep that property and any [money that comes] out of it should be very visible and benefit the taxpayers.”

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Under the new rental fee system proposed by the Menino administration, events or promotions lasting two days or less would be charged the same amount: a $25 application fee and a rate of $200 per hour with a minimum of four hours. The fee, which does not include costs for cleanup or security, is designed to pay for wear-and-tear on the plaza. The money would be deposited into the city’s general fund.

“This will give us [set rates] so every­one is charged the same amount,” said Christopher Cook, the city’s director of arts, tourism, and special events, which handles rental of the plaza.

Longer-term events, such as a monthlong circus, would be charged under a different system. The real estate firm ­Colliers International will ­appraise City Hall Plaza to ­determine its commercial value for use as an event space. City officials would use that appraisal to create a public bidding process for commercial groups to use the plaza.

The money would be deposited into a revolving account in the city’s property management department. “That money is now going to be designated for community and culture events,” Cook said, pledging that the bidding process will ensure “taxpayers get their money’s worth out of those leases.”

Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, said that all rental fees should be deposited in the city’s general fund like other revenue.

“Why do they need a revolving fund?” Tyler asked. “It’s not as transparent. It’s separate from the general reporting.”

Cook and other Menino admin­istration officials said that the revolving fund would be open to full public scrutiny. Councilor Matthew O’Malley, who held a hearing Monday to discuss the City Hall Plaza proposal, said he would urge his colleagues to approve the measure, as early as Wednesday.

“Adding transparency is ­always a good thing,” said O’Malley, suggesting that the system could increase ­activity on the plaza. “It will create more money in the general fund, which will allow for city services and property tax relief.”

An executive with a video production company said the $200-per-hour fee for use of the plaza seems roughly on par with what film crews pay elsewhere, given that renting a studio costs about $1,000 a day.

But Shawn Whitaker, vice president of operations for ­DigiNovations, an Acton production firm, said rates can vary. “A lot of times, when we negotiate location fees, it’s all over the place,” he said.

Big Apple Circus has been bringing its big top to Boston for 25 years, and it had donated a percentage of ticket sales to the Fund for Boston Neighborhoods in lieu of rent when it used the plaza. In recent years, those payments have amounted to roughly $8,000 for a five-week run of performances.

The proposed fee system “would not have negative ­impact on us at all, given our long relationship with the mayor and the city and the benefits we bring, both in terms of revenue and entertainment,” said Joel Dein, director of communications for Big Apple Circus. “We’re all for transparency.”

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.
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