Opinion

Opinion | Mike Ross

To get revenue, get creative

This Wednesday, June 1, 2011 photo shows visitors to section 1 of Manhattan's High Line as they stroll along the elevated railway converted to a city park that winds through the meatpacking District and West Chelsea neighborhoods, in New York. The ribbon was cut Tuesday, June 7 on the long-awaited second section of the High Line. The new section ends at 30th Street, adding nine blocks and doubling the length to one mile. The first segment opened in June 2009 and runs from Gansevoort Street to 20th Street. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Kathy Willens/Associated Press/File

Visitors walked in Manhattan’s High Line park.

While reviewing my bill for a recent stay at the Standard Hotel in Lower Manhattan, I couldn’t help but notice the following entry: “High Line Deductible Donation: $2.00.”

“Hmmm,” I thought. “I recall no such donation.”

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That’s because the Standard Hotel automatically opts guests into a $1 or $2 donation, depending on the property, to a chosen charity. If they think to ask, guests may opt out of the donation upon check-in. But really, who does?

The High Line contribution has been in effect since 2009 and supports the former elevated train line — now turned popular public park — whether one chooses to walk through it or not. A spokesperson for the hotel didn’t want to share total figures raised. But, doing some basic math with some safe assumptions as to occupancy rates and the small percentage of coggers who may opt out, I estimate the contribution to date to be well over $1 million.

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Whatever it’s called — donation or fee — it’s a brilliant bit of public policy that Boston should copy.

Until such time as our national tax policy comes closer to the rate of other developed countries — it’s currently in the lowest quartile— we need to find other creative revenue measures to pay for the things that are important to us.

But not all measures are created equal. We recently saw the failure of one scheme. TD Garden was made humble by a group of Jamaica Plain teens, who rightly pointed out that a lapsed promise to hold fund-raisers for youth programming never materialized. As a result, the operators of the sports and entertainment arena agreed to pay $1.65 million towards an ice rink in Jackson Square.

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Far easier would have been a High Line style donation — perhaps $1 or $2 per ticket going directly toward a worthy cause instead.

Some Boston venues are already doing something similar.

The Boch Center, which runs the Wang and Shubert theaters, imposes fees of $3.75 and $4, respectively, to help fund the preservation of the two historic buildings. Last year the fees raised $973,000.

The Boston Common garage donates $2 to the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company for each patron who parks in the garage during the free summer series. That donation requires a voucher to be turned back in. But, even still, this season it raised more than $3,000 for the arts organization.

The better model is a straight surcharge — small enough so as not to discourage the underlying purchase, but large enough to make a difference when it’s all added up.

Imagine, for example, if an additional $2 for every ticket sold in Fenway Park were directed toward some worthy project. That’s more than $6 million per year.

Moreover, the funds should serve a cause that might not otherwise be supported. In Boston that might be funding a project in Franklin Park, renovating an inner-city community center, or realizing that ice rink in Jackson Square. Or funds could be pooled together to take on a really big “moon shot” project like extending the MBTA or building a seawall to address climate change.

In the semi-cult film “Better Off Dead,” a paperboy menacingly chases the lead character for the money he is owed for his paper deliveries.

“I want my two dollars!” he yells.

Even in 1985, the persistent chase for such a nominal amount seemed petty. But when connected to a broader policy, it can add up to some real change.

Mike Ross is an attorney and former Boston city councilor. He writes regularly for the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @mikeforboston.
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