Community Government

State Demands Greater Accountability From Greenway Conservancy

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 toview 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.

5 Replies to “State Demands Greater Accountability From Greenway Conservancy

  1. Why is the state giving the Conservancy $2.2 million to be used only for maintenance and horticulture, when the Conservancy budget shows that only $2.4 of the $5.2 budget is actually slated for this purpose? (In FY10 it was only $2.1; what’s costing a third of a million dollars more this year?) What is the Conservancy doing with the other $2.8 million?

    In other words, why is the state paying for all the maintenance, and leaving the Conservancy free to spend millions on unnecessary items? The only reason the state allowed the Conservancy into the door was that it promised to do all the operations and maintenance exclusively with private money, to rescue us because THE STATE IS BROKE! Evidently, it’s too broke to pay for our essential services, it’s too broke to operate the Greenway itself, but IT’S NOT TOO BROKE TO PAY THE CONSERVANCY TO OPERATE IT, WITH SECRET CONTRACTS AND CLOSED-DOOR MEETINGS.

    If this Conservancy is not going to spend its private money on maintenance, if the state taxpayers are funding the maintenance — why do we need this private group of corporate interests (the Greenway Conservancy is really the Artery Business Committee) running our public park, and having to be admonished that it can’t charge users fees nor control who is allowed to be in the park? This Conservancy has proven itself not only unnecessary, but detrimental. We are paying them to keep us off our land.

    If the Conservancy wants to be a private Friends group and raise private donations to pay a dozen administrators big salaries and offer to help out with some extras, I suppose that’s their prerogative; then they’d have to get public permission to do what they want in the park, and we could refuse. But we certainly don’t need to have them controlling our public space and legitimizing their private fund-raising as the heroic stewards and rescuers of our public realm.

    The Conservancy, thank goodness, has only a five year lease, and not the 99-year lease they wanted. It is up in February of 2014. We should plan for its dissolution by then, if not before. At that time, they must give back whatever is left of the $12 million in public funds they received before they even had to mow a blade of grass, as well as any private money they’ve collected for the park. And when the park is run in a normal fashion, it will not cost millions of dollars a year. Even if it’s operated at the per-acre cost of New York’s Central Park, it will cost no more than $300,000 — and this is no Central Park. The state should simply put the maintenance contract out for competitive bids, so we can see how much it really costs.

    If the public understood what’s been happening, the lease would be up today. Unfortunately, the Globe simply channels Conservancy public-relations scripts lamenting that the "struggling non-profit" is in mortal danger and needs more money, so I thank this blog for being the reporter of record.

    I urge Rep. Aaron Michlewitz to take this issue in hand and halt this squandering of public money; the state has many urgent needs that are going unfunded, and we can’t afford any more of this private-sector help.

  2. The head of the Conservancy makes $223,000? Wow. That seems excessive.

    I don’t understand why the Parks Dept can’t take care of the greenway. This seems like an awful lot of money to spend on a narrow piece of grass and some fountains. In today’s age, it’s no wonder the state cut them back. Seems like an easy cut to me.

  3. I don’t understand the Globe article. The greenway looks great to me. They must have looked long and hard to find that one brown spot. Moving the lawns and picking up trash doesn’t seem to be an issue here. Once again, they got it wrong. Seems like there is an "in" with the conservancy.

  4. In your recent post the Greenway Conservancy was characterized as engaging in excessive spending. Some of the information you provided to your readers was incomplete, and I’d like to offer some additional context.

    The post reported my salary as $223,000. My annual salary for the last five years has been $165,000, plus benefits. At certain times over the past six years, our Board of Directors has voted a performance bonus for me in recognition of the scope of my contributions. We would ask that you set the record straight, in part so that this error does not occur again.

    In my role, I serve as an executive director but also as the primary major gifts fundraiser for an organization which relies signficantly on privately raised donations and other non-State revenue.

    The Conservancy’s experienced Director of Park Operations has an annual salary of $108,000, plus benefits. The Greenway parks are complex and have challenges other parks do not have. Unlike the Esplanade, the Public Garden, Boston Common, and Franklin Park, there is an engineering component constantly in play because the Greenway is built on and over an interstate highway tunnel. Our scope includes plazas and granite pathways plus features like five fountains and more than 50 specialty lighting systems, and urban horticulture which require specialized knowledge and expertise.

    Even in light of all these complexities, a recent study comparing the Greenway to other world-class urban parks in the US placed the Greenway near the bottom of per-acre expenditures on operations, maintenance, and public programming.

    Your post also failed to appreciate that State funded the partnership with the Conservancy as best it can at this time. We all want it to be the best it can be, which is no small challenge in a time of economic contraction. We appreciate the passion people have about the Greenway. But understanding the facts – and communicating them clearly – is an important component to healthy civic dialogue.

    – Nancy Brennan
    Executive Director
    Rose F. Kennedy Greenway Conservancy

  5. Thank you to Ms. Brennan for her comments.

    On the pay issue, the latest IRS Form 990 is quite clear:
    $165,000 Base
    $25,000 Bonus
    $33,000 Benefits
    $223,000 TOTAL
    The previous year’s IRS form lists the total compensation as $225,000.

    Regarding the other Conservancy salaries, I think Secretary Mullan said it appropriately that his "colleagues at DCR are pretty highly skilled" as well. Frankly, to say otherwise is an insult. The Esplanade is just one example of a State-owned park that has similar complexities between a major roadway and the Charles River with several feature areas.

    While the Globe looks for practically non-existent brown spots and others question usage (another non-issue), the mission of "world-class" and "best-practices" has to include efficiency. The hurdle for the Conservancy is to convince the public that it can better serve them than DCR with a Friends group. That question has yet to be answered, in my view. But the outsized compensation and spending does not bode well.

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