In a scathing letter to the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, the State’s transportation department, MassDOT, has imposed strict conditions on the public funding it provides to the private, non-profit organization. The State will fund $2.2 million out of the $5.2 million Fiscal Year 2011 budget for the Greenway Conservancy. The Conservancy has not been able to raise the private money it expected, resulting in a budget that is a far cry from the $8 million originally proposed, but still up from the $4.8 million expended last year. In a time of tight budgets, the State is examining the Conservancy’s reliance on public funds, forcing greater accountability and disclosure. The MassDOT letter is dated July 13, 2010 and was released yesterday at a Conservancy Board meeting. (Click here to view the MassDOT letter.)
“The Conservancy budget for core park operations must contain a cost structure consistent with its place among the public facilities in the Commonwealth,” writes MassDOT Secretary and CEO Jeff Mullan. Other comparable public parks include the State-owned Esplanade and the City-owned Boston Common and Public Garden. Those parks operate with a fraction of the budget allocated to the Greenway. For example, the budget for the Esplanade is roughly $400,000, or less than 10% of the Greenway Conservancy’s budget, for a comparable State park that is 3 times larger.
The State agency is also questioning the salaries of park workers where the Greenway Conservancy is paying nearly double what the State pays for equivalent positions. For example, the Director of Operations for the Greenway receives compensation of $131,993 as compared to a State Forest & Parks Supervisor at the same level making $69,160. The State found similar discrepancies for several positions in the Greenway’s maintenance and horticulture payroll. According to the latest available IRS Form 990, the Greenway Conservancy’s Executive Director, Nancy Brennan, was compensated $223,000. (Click here to view the State’s analysis and salary comparison.)
In response to the Greenway Conservancy’s questionable cost structure, MassDOT has clarified in its letter that taxpayer money can only be used for maintenance and horticulture. However, MassDOT is still funding half of the total budget, including $1,786,500 million in cash and $443,500 through in-kind services such as plumbing, electrical, rent, fuel and equipment services. The other half of the budget will be made up from private contributions, prior year savings and interest from the Conservancy’s $13 million+ endowment, most of which was publicly funded.
In a list of conditions that could be interpreted as a “slap on the wrist,” the State felt the need to explicitly direct the Conservancy’s use of the parks with regards to public access. In addition, MassDOT is demanding more transparency and accountability in the Conservancy’s limited disclosure.
- “All spaces must be open to all people at all times,” the MassDOT letter states. While an obvious statement for most public parks, MassDOT could be responding to proposals and event guidelines that risk marginalizing public use or a de facto privatization of the parks.
- “The Conservancy will seek only actual and reasonable cost recovery for services it provides and not through the use of the land itself.” This condition is likely in response to the Conservancy’s method of charging thousands of dollars to groups using the parks, including community organizations. Renting out the parks is frowned upon by the State.
- Toward increased public disclosure, the MassDOT letter requires the “Conservancy will comply with the Commonwealth’s open meeting law … and public record’s law” as related to the use of public funds. “MassDOT will require a full accounting of all sources and uses of revenue received from the use of the Greenway … including the salaries of staff, payments to vendors and copies of all contractual documents. MassDOT will require revised financial reporting that clearly segregates the use of state funds from non-state funds.”
Yesterday, I attended the joint meeting of the Greenway Conservancy Board and the Greenway Leadership Council (GLC) where the Conservancy’s budget was unanimously approved along with MassDOT’s conditions. Interestingly, the Boston Globe’s Casey Ross was not at the meeting, yet published an article today, with a picture of brown spots on a Greenway lawn. The implication of sub-par maintenance was not a concern expressed by the Conservancy at the meeting. To the contrary, the comments were uniformly positive on the Greenway’s maintenance. Further, Conservancy staff touted an increase in programs and horticulture projects. More than anything else, Conservancy executives and Board members were particularly enthusiastic about the strong utilization of the parks this summer.
New signage should be installed later this year along the length of the Greenway. The six food vendors that started in June are seeing good demand. Adding to the food vending pilot, the Conservancy expects to install tables and chairs on several parcels along with 40-50 planters.
Plans have been shelved for the Conservancy to take over the operations for several acres on the outside edges of the Greenway corridor. The urban nursery for the North End ramp parcel remains on the agenda, subject to the Conservancy raising $250,000. Stay tuned for more posts on these subjects, as well as the disappearing chairs from the Greenway’s North End parks.