The Greenway Conservancy’s Money Trees

Below is my letter to the editor of the Boston Globe in response to its flawed assertion that the Greenway Conservancy needs more money in its article, “Greenway funds fall short as costs rise” by Casey Ross.

The Greenway Conservancy’s Money Trees

The April 19th Boston Globe article, “Greenway funds fall short as costs rise,” fails to acknowledge that the Greenway Conservancy spends more than 15 times what is necessary to manage the park. According to its own benchmarking consulting study, the Conservancy spends $250,000 per acre as compared to a “regular” park that would cost only $15,000/acre. These “regular” parks include the Esplanade, Boston Common and the Public Garden. I have attended every Greenway Conservancy and Leadership Council meeting in the past two years. Never before have I witnessed such wasteful spending nor lack of transparency. The organization needs to stop its excessive spending, cut costs and increase its disclosure to gain the public’s trust.

One of the Greenway Conservancy’s largest costs is executive salaries. Nancy Brennan, the Conservancy’s Executive Director, cries poor in the Globe article yet takes home a $225,000 compensation package according to IRS filings. This is more than the Governor and many times that of a park-related manager. With several other 6-figure executives walking their halls, it is no wonder the Conservancy is quickly burning through its generous taxpayer funds. The Conservancy has been stashing much of its funding into a rainy day reserve fund that exceeds $12 million. The  assertion, courtesy of Ms. Brennan, that the Greenway is running out of money is not only unfounded, it is ridiculous.

The good news is that MassDOT and the State have woken up to these facts because they are tired of cutting every other budget line item, many of which involve much more important municipal services. The State’s funding of the Greenway Conservancy is a luxury in a time when libraries are being closed and every other public service is being cut back. Park experts know that it does not cost $8 million/year to manage less than 20 acres. By the Conservancy’s own numbers, the State could maintain the parks for less than $1 million/year, even with the special features and fountains.

The legislators that created the Conservancy were certainly looking for something more than a regular park but they had no idea how ineffective an organization they created. The Conservancy staff was hired to raise private funds, which they have failed to do. The economy has hurt charitable giving, but the Conservancy should take some of the blame for failing to bring private donors to their cause. The Conservancy has also failed to rally the volunteer community. Master gardeners have appeared at several public meetings offering dozens of eager volunteers, yet are turned away because of disagreements with the Conservancy.

In my neighborhood, the North End Greenway parks get some community use, but not nearly as much as Christopher Columbus Park, Langone Park or DeFillipo Park (the Gassy). Why? These “regular” parks are integrated into the neighborhood fabric with community activities and local groups. Contrary to that goal, the Conservancy is spending $250,000 on “branding signage” to separate itself from the surrounding areas. Its staff mostly works on its own programming and events that are distinct from what is going on in the neighborhood.  Much to their chagrin, the most successful events are community-focused such as storytelling, fitness activities and family games which cost next to nothing. The out-of-state visitors they prefer, tend not to linger but pass through quickly after wondering why they paid $3 per person for an extremely short carousel ride.

Talk of new “revenue sources” as mentioned in the Globe article is concerning because it is could inhibit the public use of the parks. The Conservancy has a basic conflict that encourages it to “rent the parks” and raise money to fund itself.

A lack of trust in the Conservancy comes from its limited transparency. Unlike a public agency, there are minimal financial details disclosed about its operations. This is despite the fact that most of their funding (over $15 million) has come from the public. The volunteer Greenway Leadership Council (GLC) has helped pierce the veil a bit, but its advisory role gives it no real power.

Everyone wants the Greenway to be successful. Unfortunately, the Greenway trees don’t grow enough money to keep up with the Conservancy’s spending. The organization needs to learn financial discipline, cut its costs and operate more efficiently. The State needs to remind the Conservancy that these are public parks, funded with public money. Paying themselves to pursue foolish dreams or renting the parks for fees is not in the public’s interest.

Matt Conti

Related posts:
Greenway Leadership Council Talks 2010 Budget, Plans & Programming
Fun Facts From Greenway Conservancy’s Annual Report – Following the Money
Greenway Article: What about Neighborhood Parks?
Greenway Events Create Controversy at Leadership Council Meeting
Debating Development & Conflict Issues at the Greenway Conservancy Meeting
Greenway Conservancy Revises Park Guidelines; Little Improvement for Public