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Greenway Conservancy approves budget, says BID still in the works

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  July 15, 2011 08:49 AM

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(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)

The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, seen from Congress Street looking northeast.

The new fiscal year for the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway looks much like the one just ended, but its board hopes that by next year a new business improvement district will provide a “third leg” of funding.

The conservancy’s board approved a new operating budget this week that keeps funding roughly level with the budget year that ended on June 30 and forecasts comparable revenues. But a board member working on the proposed BID said there is reason to believe governance issues could be resolved in time for the next year’s budget.

Jesse Brackenbury, director of business operations for the conservancy, presented the proposed budget to the board and the Greenway Leadership Council at a lightly attended public meeting Tuesday morning. He said the operating budget for the 15-acre park system would decrease slightly, from $4.71 million for fiscal 2011 to $4.63 million for the new fiscal year. Revenues are projected to decrease as well, from $4.04 million to $3.93 million.

As in the previous year, the conservancy will make up the difference between revenues and expenditures using “carry-forward funds set aside during flush times so that we can maintain the greenway and the momentum we have at essentially the same funding level,” Brackenbury said.

The conservancy received $2.23 million in cash and in-kind support from Massachusetts Department of Transportation in fiscal 2011. Though the agency’s budget is not yet final for this fiscal year, the conservancy has reason to believe it will be funded at 95 percent of that amount for this year, or $2.12 million. It also anticipates a one-time allocation of $50,000 to cover costs of the move to another floor within the MassDOT building at 185 Kneeland St.

The conservancy plans to make a larger draw on its approximately $14.5 million endowment this year due to a new spending policy approved by the board and to the decision last year to begin investing the endowment rather than maintaining it in cash or cash equivalents, Brackenbury said. The new policy calls for keeping the endowment level through strategic annual withdrawals — about $610,000 for fiscal 2012.

The new budget decreases the amount spent on administration and development and raises the amount spend on programming to 75 percent, “putting the dollars in a best-practice way toward the park and programs,” Brackenbury said.

The organization plans to devote more money to horticulture and hire two new maintenance staff, but its maintenance contract with WORK Inc. will remain steady at $508,000. Nancy Brennan, executive director of the conservancy, wrote in an email that “WORK Inc. provides maintenance services under our supervision like trash clean up and removal, mowing and power washing, set up and removal of park furniture, and snow removal.”

Because the WORK Inc. contract includes snow removal within the park and even last year’s heavy snows cost only $65,000 in additional removal costs, the amount set aside this year will be reduced from $200,000 to $80,000.

“We have to be conservative about the way we’re budgeting snow,” Brackenbury said, “because unlike the way some towns handle it, there’s not another pocket to go to draw money for snow.”

Brackenbury presented the conservancy’s capital budget separately from the operating budget because, he said, much of the capital plan was dependent upon fundraising. Its largest segment was the amount set aside for a permanent, custom-designed carousel, which is estimated to cost up to $2.95 million, of which $1.6 million has been promised by an anonymous donor.

Though conservancy officials say they have received words of encouragement from many who support the carousel, some have expressed reservations about the plan.

The conservancy is also working to raise funds for new furniture and an in-ground planter at the Chinatown Park and a promenade in the Wharf District. And the organization has begun speaking with North End residents and members of the Greenway Leadership Council about small-scale improvements to the North End parks.

After some discussion, the budget was unanimously approved.

Following the vote, Georgia Murray, chairwoman of the conservancy’s board, said she learned in May that $31 million set aside by the state in 2007 for development of projects on parcels containing highway ramps would likely be eliminated from the state’s budget for fiscal 2012. But she had been reassured that money would be there to support a public process to develop those parcels.

“The state is committed to spending what it takes to make sure that the mitigation of those ramp parcels is done correctly, with a community process,” Murray said.

Board member Young K. Park addressed the conservancy’s efforts to supplement its state funding and donor contributions by creating a “third leg”: a business improvement district that would raise funds through a tax on commercial properties abutting the parks.

Park said the organization faced several obstacles in building a BID. For one, many of the large commercial buildings adjacent to the greenway are owned by companies headquartered in other cities or countries and thus unable to see the need or benefit of improvements to the parks. Another, ironically, is the greenway’s apparent success, Park said.

“The reaction has been, ‘You know, the park looks great. It’s wonderful. The greenway is getting all this positive feedback. Why do the abutters need to make a contribution when this is a state park?’” he said.

Still, through more than six months of speaking with property owners, Park said the conservancy has learned much about their reservations and is working to show the role the owners can play in the vision for the greenway’s future.

To keep its real estate desirable, Park said, the Financial District must remain competitive with growth in the Back Bay and South Boston’s Innovation District. And to do that, the district needs to be a 24/7 neighborhood, something that growth on the greenway can help build, he said.

Park said the organization will soon complete a business case that will make its argument and will return to the abutters over the next two months to present the case, with a goal of winning over enough abutters to have the BID in place by fiscal 2013.

A major concern of abutters has been that the conservancy would retain control over the greenway despite property owners’ contributions. Park said the conservancy has to explain that since funds from the BID would make up approximately one-third of its budget, its members would have one-third control.

By law, the BID would have its own board with control over the portion of the budget derived from its funds. The BID board would follow the same process that the state currently follows, Murray said.

“What we do every year when we see the state funds, is we go to the state with a budget, and they’ll only fund maintenance and horticulture,” Murray said. “And they’ll fund it to a typical state-level park but not to an urban park with the hardscape that we have and the enhanced horticulture that we want to have.”

Unlike the state, though, the board of the BID would have no other outlet for the funds, so it would decide among uses proposed in the conservancy budget, Murray said. But there is no indication that the property owners were interested in making specific demands related to small details of the greenway, she said.

Leadership council member Dave Seeley expressed concern that members of the BID would have greater influence on decisions that could outweigh public sentiment and said it was necessary that the process be transparent. Park conceded that there could be a tension between transparency and the owners’ desires, but said part of the conservancy’s job was to explain to the owners how the BID would work.

“Part of the process that we’re going through is really a process of education and explaining to them that this is not a backroom deal with the mayor,” he said. “This is a public park with its own set of rules, and you need to play by those rules.”

Park said that despite some owners’ initial opposition to the BID, once they understood the plan, many were now supportive.

“I know that you’re hearing [opposition] from some of the property owners, but the vast majority are actually on board, especially the small- and medium-size property owners, because they know that it’s going to help them,” he said. “So fundamentally they’re on board. The problem we’re having is that some of the larger property owners are seeing this as an opportunity to advance their own agenda.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the conservancy’s endowment would be maintained in a steady state through annual withdrawals of .61 percent. It should have stated that balance would be maintained through strategic annual withdrawals, with the withdrawal for fiscal 2012 at about $610,000.

Email Jeremy C. Fox at jeremycfox@gmail.com.

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