Business group could help subsidize MBTA hiring, recruiting
The Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, one of the state’s most powerful and secretive business groups, is seeking to put money toward recruiting and training employees at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, an unorthodox move to improve the cash-strapped agency.
Dan O’Connell, chief executive officer of the influential nonprofit, has told members of the MBTA’s fiscal control board that the organization would be open to subsidizing visits for top-tier applicants and relocation expenses for new hires. O’Connell described the potential payments as an investment in more reliable service.
“The most important thing to business is the dependability of the system,” O’Connell told the board at an Oct. 20 meeting on the MBTA’s strategic plans, according to an audio recording from that day. “The loss of productivity when there’s a breakdown, when there’s a delay, is really very significant.’’
Businesses can help, he said, adding, “Anything we can do to work together to increase the reliability of the system, from commuter rail to transit to buses, is a very important part of workforce productivity and development.’’
The plan is in its early stages, but the continued talks between the group and transportation officials in Governor Charlie Baker’s administration suggest the unusual private-public arrangement could move forward.
It also comes as the MBTA is poised to start paying higher salaries to key hires, in an attempt to attract top talent. On Monday, the agency revealed it could pay the manager who oversees the Green Line more than $380,000 a year, including bonuses.
At the MBTA board meeting, O’Connell outlined a number of ways the business group, which includes top executives from many of the state’s biggest companies, could support the beleaguered transit agency. They include paying for or developing training for employees, including staff in the human resources department.
The proposal, while potentially welcome news to an agency that has struggled to compete for top talent, raises thorny questions about private-sector influence and the consistency of funding.
Neither the MBTA nor the business group would provide details about how much money might be involved or whether the support would be ongoing.
Jon Orcutt, a spokesman for TransitCenter, a New York-based foundation that studies and advocates for public transportation, said he was not aware of a similar funding arrangement. Organizations would need to proceed cautiously with such a model for a number of reasons, he said, including potential conflicts of interest.
“A couple of concerns would be what the longevity of the arrangement would be,” he said. “Are they really coming into it in an abiding way that bears fruit in terms of the capabilities and the institutional culture there?”
The proposal comes as the MBTA moves to privatize operations across the agency, a cost-cutting measure that has drawn sharp objections from union members and some political leaders. The MBTA and Baker administration have also insisted that additional public funding is not necessary, although they have acknowledged the MBTA’s current pay scales can make it difficult to recruit top-tier candidates.
Joseph Aiello, chairman of the fiscal control board, seemed receptive to the idea of outside assistance, saying the group would bring a valuable perspective on the local economy.
The business group, which typically keeps a low profile and meets privately several times a year, is sometimes referred to as a contemporary version of “the Vault,” a group of chief executives from decades ago who helped plan Boston’s future. The group costs $100,000 a year and includes top executives of companies such as Fidelity, Bank of America, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, the New England Patriots, and Suffolk Construction.
The group, which focuses on economic development across the state, has been quietly involved in several policy campaigns over the years, such as bringing international flights to Logan Airport and blocking the offshore Cape Wind project. Some of its members were also heavily involved in Boston 2024, an attempt to bring the Olympics to Boston.
“When they look at all of the barriers of the region being competitive with other regions across the world, they do have a unique position,” Aiello said. “This is what they think about, and I think that they recognize the importance of the transit authority.”
He acknowledged that the MBTA would need to look closely at any such deal with the partnership.
MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo did not acknowledge that officials were discussing the idea with the group but said they “welcome any efforts by the private sector that will help us attract and retain top talent.”
John Fish, Suffolk Construction’s chief executive and a partnership board member, said reforming the MBTA is crucial to attracting and retaining top-tier businesses.
“Every business group around the Commonwealth has really been discussing this issue, because, at the end of the day, it’s touching everybody,” he said. “If we don’t deal with this issue in the short term, that will not bode well for the future.”
O’Connell, a former Massachusetts secretary of economic development under Governor Deval Patrick, declined to discuss the plans but said the partnership was “enlisting other business groups” as discussions continued.
This would not be the group’s first foray into harnessing private funds for a public entity. At the urging of former Raytheon executive Bill Swanson, the group helped launch “Learn and Earn,” a job-preparation internship program at Bunker Hill Community College that has helped hundreds of students.
The proposal would target an acknowledged problem at the MBTA — its human resources department. Brian Shortsleeve, the MBTA’s acting general manager, recently said that the department had incorrectly billed about 20 percent of its employees for their benefits and that he would look to outsource some of its duties.
Throughout the year, MBTA officials have also suggested they will raise salaries for managers. Beverly Scott made about $220,000 as general manager before she departed last year, and the salary for another top position, chief administrator, is currently $175,000, well below levels at other large transit agencies. At the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, for example, the general manager makes close to $400,000.
Aiello downplayed the partnership’s involvement with the MBTA, saying they were just one of many organizations to have offered their expertise. But he acknowledged that any such joint effort would deserve more scrutiny.
“You’re always going to filter it through the lens of public policy and the feel of appropriateness, and that’s what we’re in the process of doing,” he said.