Friday, September 18, 2009

Fat Cats Turn Park-Keeper Groups Into Their 'Shady' Money Trees by James Fanelli - NY Post

Read original...

New York has handed control of most of the city's parks to private conservancies, which have cleaned up the spaces - and provided lucrative paydays to those who run them.

Green acres is the place to be.

Nonprofit park "conservancies" have raised $90 million to spruce up the city's natural spaces -- and in the process have sown a cottage industry of murky relationships, potential conflicts of interest and fat, six-figure salaries for its executives.

A Post investigation found:

* Madison Square Park Conservancy co-founder Debbie Landau pulls down $185,000 annually running the 6.2-acre Flatiron District park. Her sister Maggie is on the payroll, too, as the $114,962 director of events.

* Danny Meyer, a co-founder of the Madison Square Park conservancy and board member, got an inside track to land the $5 million food concession there. And his outside eateries raked in more than $60,000 last year hosting conservancy events.

* Bryant Park Corp.'s Daniel Biederman, whose group tends the 6-acre Midtown park, earns $229,000 while holding down at least two other plum full-time jobs.

* Randall's Island Sports Foundation head Aimee Boden collects two paychecks for the same job, overseeing the upkeep of the 480-acre East River park. She is paid $55,196 by the city Parks Department as an administrator and $94,469 by the conservancy -- an arrangement two comptroller audits have cited as a conflict of interest.

* Central Park Conservancy President Douglas Blonsky is the biggest earner, raking in almost $400,000 in 2008 in pay and benefits. His group raised $70 million the previous year for the upkeep of the 843-acre park.

More than a dozen conservancies exist around the city, all with a mission to provide additional -- or in some cases, the only -- upkeep of a park. They raise the majority of their funds through private donations but also pull down taxpayer-funded grants.

City Parks Department Commissioner Adrian Benepe has extolled the benefits of these public-private partnerships. He says the conservancies can raise private dollars for a park, and, in turn, the city can put more money into poorer parks that don't have conservancies.

"It's a very good deal for the city," Benepe said.

But critics argue the arrangements allow the Parks Department to skirt its responsibility of maintaining public spaces. They also complain that conservancies are given unchecked autonomy over parks and gain an inside track on profitable city concessions.

"These parks have become the conservancies' own private fiefdoms," said Geoffrey Croft, president of watchdog group NYC Park Advocates. "There is no transparency. There is no consistency."

Indeed, the wildly varying salaries of conservancy executives raise a red flag for critics like Croft.

Madison Square Park Conservancy spokesman Joe DePlasco defended co-founder Landau and its salaries, explaining they are privately funded.

"Under Debbie Landau's leadership, Madison Square Park has become one of the most important cultural and public spaces in the city," DePlasco said.

"She's raised every penny spent there, from maintenance and capital improvements to public art installations, concerts and readings."

The organization raised $3.1 million last year. DePlasco added that its board determines the salary of Landau's sister.

The conservancy was founded in 2002. The park's popularity grew in 2003, when Meyer opened his burger stand, Shake Shack, there. The conservancy beat out two other bidders for a city contract for the concession. The contract was sublicensed to Meyer.

It has proven to be highly profitable. In fiscal year 2009, the city got $220,256 of Shack Shack's $4.9 million revenue.

Meyer pays the conservancy 8 percent of Shake Shack's revenue. From that cut, the conservancy gives 4.5 percent of all the eatery's revenue to the city.

In 2008, Meyer paid the conservancy about $348,000. But the conservancy paid his restaurants Tabla and Eleven Madison Park $64,000 for hosting fund-raising events.

"He is not making money," said DePlasco, because "he actually closes the restaurants for fund-raisers."

Meanwhile, Bryant Park Corp. President Biederman defended his multiple salaries -- he gets $229,000 a year from the park group and another $229,000 annually from the 34th Street Partnership, a Midtown business improvement district that, with the city's backing, collects fees from local businesses for the upkeep of public space.

In tax filings, Biederman claimed he spends 40 hours per week working each job.

He also finds the time to run a consulting firm, Biederman Redevelopment Ventures, which boasts scores of clients.

One client, the Chelsea Improvement Company, a collection of businesses at Chelsea Market in the Meatpacking District, paid his firm $290,000 for an 18-month period for him to run its nonprofit operation, according its 2007 tax filings.

Biederman declined to say how much the Chelsea Improvement Company currently pays him or how much he has received from other clients.

The triple-play got him into hot water in 1998 with then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani. At the time, Biederman was running the Grand Central Partnership, another Midtown improvement district, on top of his jobs at the Bryant Park Corp. and the 34th Street Partnership.

Giuliani lambasted him for amassing a mini-empire and forced Biederman to resign from the Grand Central district.

When asked how he could perform so many jobs at once, Biederman told The Post he has the support of the board members for each organization he runs.

"We don't think we're overextended," he said. "The quality of the programs speak for themselves."

The two salaries Boden collects at the Parks Department and as head of the Randall's Island Sports Foundation were cited in a 2000 audit.

Then-state Comptroller Carl McCall raised concerns that Boden and other employees were being paid twice for the same work.

"We did not agree with their finding that this was a conflict," Parks Department Chief of Staff Jane Rudolph Woods said.

While the Parks Department doesn't oversee conservancies, Commissioner Benepe sits on their boards as an ex officio member. Benepe supported the salaries of all the conservancy heads.

He said the conservancies are private initiatives and don't require any government oversight.

"There is a mistake in the notion that there is a long line of candidates who want to take an active role in maintaining public parks," Benepe said.

"It's not the city's place to meddle. That would be the quickest way to kill the entrepreneurial spirit of these organizations."