There were some that predicted that a new mayor of Boston would attempt to dismantle the Boston Redevelopment Authority and strip Boston’s planning and economic development agency of its far reaching power in Boston.
After assuming office last year, one of Mayor Martin Walsh’s top priorities was a reorganization of the BRA and launched an full audit of the agency.
Last week, Walsh and BRA released a report on all of the reforms and improvements that have been made at the BRA since Walsh took office.
“It’s a really exciting time for our organization, as we’re evolving into a more modern, nimble, and accountable agency to serve the needs of not just developers, but of the residents and community members of Boston,” said BRA Director of Communications Nick Martin. “We have our hands full, but we’re certainly headed in the right direction.”
The year in review report released, entitled “Building the New Boston Redevelopment Authority,” is divided into four sections: 1) Improving Policies and Protocols; 2) Modernizing Systems and Organizational Structure; 3) Maximizing BRA/EDIC (Economic Development and Industrial Corporation) Assets and Enhancing Fiscal Accountability; and 4) Nurturing Opportunity and Financial Empowerment among Residents.
“The fact that we were able to make so many important reforms at the BRA while supporting four billion dollars in new construction that broke ground last year speaks volumes about the new leadership of the organization and the talented staff they have around them,” said Walsh of the report. “This report highlights all of the progress we have made so far, but our work is not over. We will continue to make adjustments so that we keep building trust and confidence in the BRA.”
Walsh and BRA Director Brian Golden helped to usher in a new wave of leadership at the BRA last year. Newly appointed senior positions included the Chief of Staff, Director of Development Review and Policy, General Counsel, Director of Communications, Director of the Office of Jobs and Community Services, Controller, and Compliance Program Manager.
“This document is a roadmap of the improvements underway at the BRA and the ones to come in the months ahead,” said Golden. “Our charge is to reinvent the way we do business in order to create an agency that reflects the world-class city it has helped to build. We don’t seek to erase past blemishes or hide our faults. We seek to learn from them. “
According to the report, under the leadership of Golden and the BRA’s Director of Development Review and Policy, the agency has implemented several new policies and is in the process of creating others to improve transparency and accountability. Funding to support affordable housing creation through the Inclusionary Development Policy is now being managed more effectively through a partnership with the City’s Department of Neighborhood Development. The BRA’s Board of Directors passed policies to enhance transparency related to the disclosure of beneficial interests by development proponents, the review and approval of overlay zoning district proposals known as Planned Development Areas, and land takings and transfers involving the BRA. A standard application for funds associated with community benefits, which are negotiated when large projects are approved, is also being developed, as the process for disbursing discretionary funds was cumbersome and unpredictable in the past. The BRA expects to begin using the application this coming spring.
The report also states that modernizing systems and investing in technology to support the agency’s operations was a top priority in 2014. The information technology division introduced a new work order management system for IT service and research requests. Developers must now file information about proposed projects using a web-based portal that makes it easier to track key data. The BRA’s website now also allows for electronic tracking of procurement documents for work that is publicly bid. Other technology improvements made last year include a new zoning viewer tool, live streaming video of monthly BRA/EDIC board meetings, and a digital asset management system that allows staff to easily access photographs, renderings, and other images.
KPMG’s performance review of the BRA/EDIC, which was completed last July, found several troubling deficiencies with respect to compliance and asset management practices. The redevelopment authority’s Finance Department, which oversees compliance, is overhauling protocols to improve accountability and has already made significant headway in addressing the concerns. A new Compliance Program Manager will produce a manual to train staff and other stakeholders on the BRA’s compliance responsibilities, and there will be regular reviews to ensure policies and procedures are followed appropriately. The agency will also upgrade software in order to better track developer commitments, community mitigation funds, and housing agreements.
New lease management software was implemented late last year, and all BRA/EDIC leases are expected to be digitized by the end of February. KPMG’s report pointed to over $5 million in overdue receivables, a significant amount of which stemmed from overdue rent from tenants in BRA/EDIC owned properties, as of last spring. The Finance Department has aggressively collected overdue payments and reduced the BRA/EDIC’s receivables balance to less than $1 million, as of the end of November. The department also updated its accounting practices so that intercompany payments that were once categorized as loans, which inflated the receivables balance, are now categorized as grants.