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Pats still stiffing state for VIPs: Champs balk at $375K bill for police at fat-cat lanes

Patriot Ledger State House Bureau

BOSTON - With just weeks before their first preseason home game, the New England Patriots are still refusing to reimburse State Police for the cost of setting up ''fat-cat'' traffic lanes for players and other VIPs on game days.

The championship football team, which earns about $200 million in yearly revenues, is refusing to reimburse the state $375,000 for police details outside Gillette Stadium in Foxboro last season.

The team says it doesn't owe the money because of a deal struck several years ago to keep the Patriots in Massachusetts. The state says that deal has expired.

One option for the state, if the tab goes unpaid, is to do away with the express lane on Route 1 for the Patriots' upcoming home games.

Despite that threat, team owners also will not agree to pay for State Police troopers for future home game traffic details. The new season begins with an Aug. 18 exhibition game.

The Romney administration, which has been negotiating unsuccessfully with representatives of Patriots owner Robert Kraft for more than a year, says it is close to taking the case to court, said Katie Ford, spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Public Safety.

The so-called ''fat-cat'' lane allows preferred ticket holders, dignitaries and team members to whisk by less privileged fans stuck in traffic on game days.

Following the Pats' Aug. 18 preseason opener is a second exhibition game at home on Sept. 1 and the home season opener on Sept. 8.

Ford said other professional sports teams, including the Boston Red Sox and the Celtics, reimburse Boston police the cost of having officers direct traffic.

''The Patriots remain the only team in the state that has failed to pay for police details,'' Ford said.

Patriots lawyer Daniel L. Goldberg said the state is trying to renege on a longstanding agreement to pay for state trooper details on Route 1 during home games.

The dispute goes back to 1998, when the state helped convince the Patriots not to move to Connecticut. At the time, a cost-sharing agreement was reached: the state would pick up the tab for 55 state troopers posted on Route 1 on game days to direct traffic, and the Patriots would pay for another 25 troopers posted at the stadium.

State officials say the 1998 agreement was contingent on long-planned improvements to Route 1, which were completed in 2002, and that the deal has expired.

But the Patriots say it was a long-term deal and that the state has reneged on it.

After the state last fall threatened to terminate the VIP lane, the Patriots came up with a short-term agreement. The team - which already pays some $150,000 per year for troopers assigned to the stadium on game days - agreed on a provisional basis to also pay for troopers assigned to Route 1 traffic detail for the duration of negotiations. But should the team win its case, that money would be applied to future payments for troopers posted at the stadium, Goldberg said.

''In order to help the cash flow of the State Police, we agreed to front the money while we discussing the issue,'' Goldberg said.

Goldberg added that the team already pays for traffic control outside nonfootball events held at the stadium, and that the team pays a $1 million yearly fee to the state in exchange for the large size of its parking lot.

''In our view we already pay for the State Police details,'' he said.

Traffic control on game days is not just a matter of speeding first-class fans into and out of the stadium. Hundreds of pedestrians and drivers compete for pavement on Route 1 after the games, and some have been drinking since long before kickoff.

Michael Widmer of the budget watchdog group Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation said the Patriots should view traffic control as a cost of doing business.

''When a utility rips up the road to get at a pipe, they pay for the cost of the details,'' Widmer said. ''The private entity reimburses the public. This seems similar to that, it's a cost of doing business.''

But Smith College Professor Andrew Zimbalist, who has written extensively on the business of sports, said Kraft deserves credit for financing his sports franchise largely without public handouts.

''Kraft does deserve a great deal of credit for financing the stadium himself,'' Zimbalist said. ''That's rarely done.''

The amount under dispute - about $375,000 a year - is less than 0.2 percent of the team's $200 million in revenues.

Jay Gladden, associate professor of sport management at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said the amount would be considered substantial to any sports franchise.

''That's a significant amount of money to a shrewd businessperson like Mr. Kraft,'' Gladden said.

According to Forbes magazine, the Patriots' home boasts 6,000 club seats costing $500 per game on average. The Pats' average ticket price of $75 (excluding club seats) is the highest in football, and the waiting list for season tickets is more than 50,000.

Tom Benner may be reached at [email protected].

Copyright 2005 The Patriot Ledger
Transmitted Saturday, July 23, 2005
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