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Low-tech methods hinder BRA’s work

Ayanna Pressley, city councilor at large, said she is angered by the lack of data collection.

Globe file photo

Ayanna Pressley, city councilor at large, said she is angered by the lack of data collection.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority’s compliance division, targeted in a recent audit that found the city failed to collect millions of dollars owed by developers, is largely run out of a single, gray cubicle on the ninth floor of City Hall.

The man in that chair is Aaron Hallquist, who spends several days a week combing through a crude database that lists hundreds of obligations by developers to pay for everything from tree plantings, to donations to civic groups, to road and sidewalk repairs.

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There is no computer function to send him reminders when payments are due. His database is not connected to other city departments, whose actions often trigger those charges. There is not even a way of determining when money is paid — or if it arrives at all — unless a community group complains.

His task brings to mind a man trying to mow the lawn with a pair of dull scissors.

So when auditors swept through the agency in recent months, they found what was utterly predictable: Millions of dollars have either gone missing or are past due, and the BRA has no idea how much more could be lost.

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“We do have a system for tracking these commitments,” said Hallquist, a trim, soft-spoken 37-year-old who has worked at the BRA since 2006. “However, it is limited. There is hardly any automation. I link information into it to create a record, but it’s labor intensive because everything is inputted manually.”

To critics, the ad hoc nature of the collection system is evidence that the agency favors the interests of developers over the needs of ordinary citizens whose neighborhoods are being reshaped by billions of dollars in real estate projects.

Each of those projects comes with legal commitments by developers to offset the impact on neighbors by building better roads to handle added traffic and below-market-rate housing to blunt the price inflation caused by their luxury apartments and condominiums.

“The audit confirmed what a lot of us had suspected a for while — that the BRA does not account for community benefits very well,” said Carol Ridge Martinez, executive director of the Allston Brighton Community Development Corp. “Community groups spend a lot of time negotiating those agreements, so it’s concerning that they’re not getting to the community the way people envision them.”

Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration is now scrambling to plug gaping holes in the BRA’s payment collection system amid one of the busiest periods of construction in Boston’s history. Projects valued at more than $5.7 billion are already under construction and, since Walsh became mayor, the BRA has approved developments worth $2.3 billion more.

Walsh has ordered a deeper investigation to determine the full amount of missing money and to examine the operations of the agency’s planning department, which is responsible for setting the ground rules of development in city neighborhoods.

“My takeaway from all of this is pretty basic — we need to establish acceptable business practices for most of the agency’s major operations,” said the mayor’s acting BRA director, Brian Golden. “The audit showed that we have a long way to go.”

As a candidate, mayor Martin Walsh vowed to reform the BRA.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe staff/file 2013

As a candidate, mayor Martin Walsh vowed to reform the BRA.

At-large City Councilor Ayanna Pressley said Friday that she intends to file legislation to create a new system for tracking developer commitments and ensuring that they are met on time. Hearings will be held in coming months, and Pressley’s office has created a website to solicit residents’ suggestions.

“I am particularly angered by the lack of data collection and compliance monitoring,” Pressley said in an e-mailed statement. “Development in Boston is critical to the city’s fiscal health and generates funding for many city services; these programs and funds allow for every neighborhood in the city to share in the financial benefits.”

In the months after he took office, Walsh fired the former head of the BRA’s compliance division, Christine Colley. Authority officials have refused to disclose the reason for her termination, but an audit by the accounting firm KPMG found the division to be rife with problems.

The audit revealed that the BRA and its sister agency, the Economic Development Industrial Corporation, could not produce a complete list of their financial contracts or payments owed by developers and tenants of public property owned by the agencies.

“Virtually all of the critical documents maintained by the BRA/EDIC are maintained in paper form,” the audit stated. “The lack of a system of internal controls . . . creates an environment where appropriate monitoring of activities and compliance with provisions of key documents cannot and does not occur.”

The 26-page audit, released by the Walsh administration Wednesday, is filled with other criticisms, as well. It found that the agency has no effective systems for tracking an array of agreements, including lease payments, funds used to pay for transportation upgrades, and deed restrictions meant to preserve affordable housing.

The compliance office itself has only existed since 2004. It is staffed by a handful of employees of the EDIC and BRA, who work in separate buildings. Although the two agencies share the same board of directors, they operate like separate entities.

One group of EDIC employees monitors whether developers are complying with commitments to hire minorities and women, while another tries to track and collect lease payments.

Hallquist, the official who works in the BRA’s City Hall office, is responsible for tracking commitments connected to dozens of development projects at once. For each one of them, he sifts through lengthy legal documents, enters the commitments into his Microsoft Access database, and tries to monitor whether they are paid.

Since much of the money is sent to city treasurer’s office — not the BRA — Hallquist receives no direct notification about payments. And since most of the agreements stretch over years, he said he finds himself asking the same question over and over: “Every year you just have to look at the anniversary date of the first payment and ask, OK, is that coming in again?”

Related:

BRA left millions in fees untaken, audit says

4/1: Developers urge Walsh to clarify BRA process

3/7: Walsh lays off 14 in BRA shakeup

12/12/13: Walsh puts brakes on swift revamp of BRA

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.
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