Our post from yesterday, “Fiscal Mismanagement: $20 Million Debacle” about the out-of-control renovation project at St. Cecilia’s in Boston has sparked a lot of emails and comments. Do take a moment to read the comments, especially some heartfelt comments from several priests. We had a few weather-related issues today that kept us from blogging, and are just now getting to share Part 2.
Just to be sure everyone is on the same page, as we wrote yesterday, St. Cecilia in Boston had $14 million in the bank from a previous land sale, embarked on what was supposed to be a $13-14 million renovation project but never raised money for the project beforehand, and hit construction cost overruns that have put the total project costs at as much as $20 million by the time the project is finished (leaving them as much as $6 million in debt). They are just now launching a capital campaign to hopefully raise $2 million, while at the same time the parish is running a $250,000 operating deficit from 2009-2011 . Oh, we forgot to mention, the project had oversight from the Office of the Chancellor in the Archdiocese of Boston and his staff experts, and the pastor of St. Cecilia, Fr. John Unni, is good friends with Chancellor, Jim McDonough.
If Ricky Ricardo of “I Love Lucy” were witnessing this, one can just imagine him saying in a loud angry voice, “Jim, you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do!”
Lest all of the details about the debacle at St. Cecilia’s distract from the main issues, allow us for a moment to remind you of the key things that make this noteworthy–not just for this particular project, but also for any parish council member and pastor who has a project to undertake elsewhere in the archdiocese:
- Cost: Why has the cost run over by as much as $2 million to $6 million? How did the price for the project get so high? Who provided oversight and who is accountable? What are the consequences for those who let this happen and approved it?
- Decision to approve spending $20 million on this project: Why was this project deemed a good use of $20 million (besides the fact that the parish had $14 million in the bank from a recent land sale)? Demographically, is this a location with a strong Catholic population or the potential to attract a strong Catholic population? What other alternatives are nearby to serve Catholics? Was this church ever on a list of possible parish closures, or should it have been? At a time when every dollar matters–and certainly every $1 million matters–why exactly was this project approved by the Chancellor and the Cardinal? Who approved it–the Chancellor? The Finance Council? The Cardinal?
- Contractors and Vendors: Who were the contractors used? Who chose them? Are any of them friends of Jack or Jim? Why are only a tiny number of contractors allowed to bid on significant construction in parishes? And why are parishes not allowed more freedom in determining who they use if a firm they wish to use is established, competent and reputable?
The project was originally described in May of 2009 as follows: Phase 1: Rebuild the Rectory, to code; Phase 2: Renovation of Lower Church; and Phase 3: Improvements to Upper Church (not to exceed $800,000). In 2009, the costs were estimated by the Renovation Committee for all 3 phases at $13 million. A figure of $10 million was published in the Boston Courant when they went out to get appropriate city and neighborhood approvals.
Here is what the church and adjacent parish hall looked like before the project (note: the rectory being renovated is actually in the left tower, as evidenced by the windows, which are unusual for a church tower):
The adjacent parish hall on the right side of the church, built in 1917, was in poor interior condition yet was generating $80,000 annually in rent to local organizations. It was demolished to allow for a handicapped-accessible entrance, and that source of rental income is now gone. Here is an artist’s rendition of what it is to look like.
Fast forward to fall of 2010. Even though the archdiocese has provided oversight for dozens upon dozens of school and parish renovation projects (including everything from building demolitions to pointing of bricks to church renovations and restorations), and even though they should know how to get 3 independent bids for every major job, and even though there should be skilled people who know very well by now what kinds of surprises to anticipate in construction projects and how to plan for overages, and even though there are skilled people who know you raise money if needed before such a project, not afterwards, this project proceeded–and ran over, by A LOT.
Here is the detailed assessment of the cost overruns shared in the parish council minutes of September 2010:
“As has been the case during the whole project, there have been unforeseen conditions to be dealt with: the tower was in much worse condition than originally anticipated, and the rectory basement fix, city code, issues, etc.”
How were the contractors chosen, and by whom? Surely a capable contractor with appropriate oversight from the Archdiocese, including the experts on the Chancellor’s director-level staff (who now are paid in sum total about $1.3 million) should have anticipated city code issues. Did the long-standing Boston city codes abruptly change mid-stream in the project or something? What controls were written into the agreement to protect and limit the church’s exposure to cost overruns? And when a project runs over by millions of dollars, are people not entitled to a somewhat more detailed listing of reasons than whatever is meant by “issues, etc.”?
We are told, but have not confirmed, that once the restoration of the church ran over budget, they removed the new HVAC system to save costs. Then other “unforeseen” issues arose, like the pointing turned out to be more extensive than originally thought.
Despite a staff including the Chancellor and his directors now costing $1.3 million, plus their direct reports who are supposed to be able to provide oversight for such projects, here we sit nearly 5 years after the Chancellor arrived with aging buildings across the archdiocese and no credible, active building or property management commission (e.g. one with priests/pastors and non-pastors, lay experts in heating/ventilation/air-conditioning systems, and staff with specialization in buildings and parish finance) overseeing such initiatives from initial proposals to completion. The person responsible for real estate on the Chancellor’s staff was a former loan officer with him at the Abington Savings Bank and objectively knows nothing about property management. Several of the staff skilled in building/facilities management were laid off in recent years (as part of the Chancellor’s supposed magnanimous efforts to cut heads in his department to free budget for more six-figure salaries) and never replaced.
Coincidentally, someone recently emailed us these pictures of what the new entrance looks like now from the front and rear.
(Anyone else wondering what they will do with all that valuable open space behind the entrance that was generating $80K/year in rent before?)
We are told the project is about 75% completed and running around $16-$17 million. When Phase 3 is finished we hear it could cost $20 million, but we have not confirmed that number. (If we are mistaken, we encourage someone from St. Cecelia’s to contact us and we will correct the numbers). The parish started out with $14 million in the bank, and could be in debt as much as $6 million when finished.
This is WITH oversight by the Chancellor’s office.
The whole thing reeks of mismanagement and corruption from end to end. Whoever is responsible for this fiasco needs to be held accountable for this.
As you can see from the comments, priests and laity are disgusted when they hear news like this. Here is what one pastor wrote:
The donors are not putting money in the collection baskets to assist the fat cats of Brooks Drive.As a pastor, I am at wits end to keep my parish in the black, I am very much doubting that I will be a pastor next year as the stress and demands which this administration has placed upon the position is really not worth the time and energy I am putting into it. I fear that slowly the Cardinal and his staff are eroding my love and dedication to the priesthood in Boston as a parish priest. I love the Eucharist and celebrating the Sacraments, but am sick and tired of all the red tape now placed upon the position. Sadly, I am getting to the point of just wanting out of it all.
Cardinal O’Malley, Fr. Erikson, and Jim McDonough–are you all happy that this is what you are bringing about in the Boston presbyterate?
If this is not heart-breaking enough, the corruption and mismanagement remain in contracting. At least when Gov. Deval Patrick saw the corruption in the state Parole Board, he fired the whole board. But here in the Boston Archdiocese, the leadership carries on with business as usual as though everything is going just fine at 66 Brooks Drive. Ongoing mismanagement in contracting is the topic for yet another post shortly.
Anyone reading this is still planning a donation to the Catholic Appeal? If so, allow us to offer a few words of advice. Ready for this? Grab a pen and a piece of paper. Here is the advice:
Do not give to the Catholic Appeal at this time. Redirect whatever you may have considered giving for now to your local parish or another good Catholic cause like any of these. We do not have a perfect answer for how you can earmark a contribution to your local parish and ensure it is not “taxed” by the archdiocese this year, but talk to your pastor. Ask him if you can earmark the donation and have it used to pay a specific bill, like the heating/utility bill, or a youth group expense, or musician stipends. Giving to a “Grand Annual” parish collection might also shelter the money from the voracious spending appetites at 66 Brooks Drive.
ps. By the way, if any pastors are reading this, drop us a line at bostoncatholicinsider(at)gmail.com or fill out our Contact Us form (anonymously if you like) and let us know if you have had limitations placed on you by the archdiocese in hiring your choice of contractors. How often has a particular contractor been forced on you (eg. Parent, McLaughlin & Nagle for audits, Nolan Waterproofing, others) by the archdiocese?