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Adrian Walker

At BRA, the rent is due

If you have ever harbored thought of becoming a delinquent tenant, the Boston Redevelopment Authority is your kind of landlord.

According to a just-released audit, the city’s main development agency has left millions of dollars on the table in uncollected rents and fees for the property it owns, from the Marine Industrial Park to Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Just how much has gone unclaimed isn’t known, because, frankly, the city’s pro bono auditor didn’t have time to get to the bottom of the BRA’s bookkeeping.

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The auditor was shocked that operations that in any modern business would be computerized have instead been recorded on legal pads, the details of long-term leases all but forgotten. One tenant in the Marine Industrial Park recently agreed to settle a $1 million debt for $400,000, after city officials discovered a string of incorrectly forgiven missed payments.

“I was surprised that there wasn’t a better process in collecting money to the city,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Thursday. “It’s money that could be used for housing and amenities and other things to free up tax dollars.”

As a candidate last year, Walsh talked about revamping the BRA. Back then, he had no idea what its real issues were. He thought the biggest problem with the agency was that it didn’t listen enough to neighborhood concerns. With access to its inner workings, he has learned that the agency’s problems are far more basic.

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People often ask when Walsh will get around to acting on his sometimes tough rhetoric about the BRA; the answer is that he’s still learning what needs to be fixed.

“When I spoke on the campaign trail, I wasn’t speaking about what this audit found,” Walsh acknowledged. “I thought separating economic development [from planning] was the issue.”

The audit casts a shadow on the whole way the Menino administration did business. For all his micromanaging tendencies, Tom Menino wasn’t necessarily a big fan of procedures and checks and balances. He seemed to believe that the fewer stated regulations, the easier it was to do what he wanted. Communication was often a casualty of his ad hoc approach to management. Sometimes nobody knew who was responsible for what.

Walsh defends the BRA’s overall performance, albeit awkwardly. “There was a lot of good development going on,” Walsh said. “I’m the benefactor of some of that development. . . . Most of the cranes you see around town were on the ground before I became mayor.”

Walsh is in the uncomfortable position of wanting to avoid criticizing a venerated, and sensitive, mayoral predecessor with whom he often disagreed. Some of the City Hall culture he inherited is clearly a mystery to him.

Even as he defended the BRA’s operations, Walsh mused about asking for another audit, to look at how the agency has made decisions. Good luck with that one. As The Boston Globe’s Sean P. Murphy reported last year, the BRA board unanimously rubber-stamped hundreds and hundreds of decisions with little, if any, debate. Walsh says the BRA’s operations seem improved since he took office. “I keep hearing from people that the process seems better and the answers seem better,” Walsh said.

Taking over a bureaucracy run by someone else for 20 years is a daunting task, albeit one Walsh begged for. This audit may end up being just a small example of the ways in which city government is in desperate need of modernization. Who knows what other records exist only on a legal pad somewhere? The old regime banned voice mail for nearly two decades, because Menino didn’t like talking to a machine and thought other people hated it, too.

Reforming the BRA was supposed to be about big ideas; instead, it has to start with remembering to collect the rent. When it comes to city government, the small things often loom large.

More coverage:

BRA left millions in fees untaken, audit says

12/22/13: BRA cuts deals at expense of affordable housing

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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