Curley House for sale?

March 6, 2009
By

DAVID TABER

FinComm offers 2¢ worth on city budget

PONDSIDE—The Boston Finance Commission (FinComm) last week issued a sprawling set of recommendations for trimming fat off the city’s Fiscal Year 2010 budget—including selling the Jamaicaway mansion owned by former Boston Mayor James Michael Curley.

Despite that hard-nosed recommendation, FinComm staffer Mathew Cahill said the commission would welcome an alternative plan.

“If they are going to market it [as rental space], they should get a plan in place,” he said. Right now, it seems to be “available to the Boston Redevelopment Authority and people who know people at the city.”

Lisa Signori, head of the City Department of Administration and Finance, left the door open for the sale. “Everything is on the table,” she told the Gazette.

Administration and Finance is currently working to close an at-least $140 million projected gap in the city’s fiscal year 2010 budget. The $140 million projection is almost certainly low, Administration and Finance staffers previously told the Gazette.

At any rate, the sale of the Curley House would be a drop in the bucket.

The city purchased the house at 350 Jamaicaway in 1988 to pre-empt its sale to a private buyer. It was val-ued at $775,000 and the city paid $1.5 million for it, a move the commission opposed at the time, according to its report, “because there was no plan in place for the use of the Curley House.”

It is currently assessed as being worth about $2.2 million, according to the city’s property assessment web site.

The city used funding from the George Robert White fund to purchase the building. That fund was set up “to be used for creating works of public utility and beauty,” according to a 2006 commission report dealing solely with the house.

That report said the house had hosted events 27 times between 2001 and 2006. The FinComm’s recent report said it has been used “fewer than 10 days annually over the last few years.”

Those events have included a party for the Tennessee delegation to the Democratic Convention in 2004, and at least one fundraiser for the city-sponsored literacy program ReadBoston where author Jack Beatty read from his Curley biography, “The Rascal King.”

At press time, the city had not responded to a Gazette request for a list of events held at the house since 1988.

The space is not among those listed as being available to rent on the city’s property management web site. Noting that another fund-purchased property, the Parkman House in downtown Boston, is also not listed in the site, City Hall spokesperson Nick Martin said that might be because the fund holds the deed to the property, and the city department merely oversees it.

As of 2005, rental of the Curley house for functions had raised $37,200, the 2006 report said. Over $600,000 from the fund and from city Department of Property and Construction Management appropriations had been devoted to maintaining it.

According to the recent report, that department is maintaining the house, but “expenses are not itemized” in the department’s budget.

As recently as a few months ago, the city installed drywells on the property to deal with storm water run-off issues, Cahill said.

“The neighborhood is sensitive, so there have not been too many functions,” he said.

A New York Times article from 1988 quotes then-Mayor Ray Flynn as saying the house would be turned into an immigration museum.

But local amateur historian Gerry Burke said there is not enough parking for it to be used as a museum, he said, “Unless you macadam the whole back yard,” and turn it into a parking lot.

Both Burke and Cahill mentioned that there were conversations a few years ago about offering the building to the Republic of Ireland for use as its consulate.

Burke—the semi-retired former owner of Doyle’s Café—said his main fear is that if the mansion is sold it will be torn down and developed as condos.

He said he thinks the house should be offered as the residence for “the next duly elected mayor of Boston…I don’t know how Menino does it. At least he deserves the solace of a nice mansion from the populace.”

The recommendation to sell the house is par for the course for the FinComm, he joked. “You know, it was formed specifically to go after guys like Fitzy and Curley.”

John “Fitzy” Fitzgerald served as mayor from 1906-1908 and again from 1910-1914. Curley served from 1914-1918; 1922-1926; 1930-1934 and 1946-1950. He also served as governor from 1935-1937 and was twice elected to the U.S House of Representatives. Both had reputations as corrupt but admired populists.

Founded in 1917—during Curley’s first mayoral administration—the FinComm was formed because state govern-ment wanted “someone the Mayor’s Office couldn’t fire” reviewing city finances, Cahill said.

But while the city’s relationship with the commission may have been rocky in the past, in the current budget crisis, they “have been pretty receptive to us. They’ve been willing to meet with us and discuss items,” Cahill said.

The commission is made up of Cahill and one other staffer, Cahill said. “What we did was we sat here and came up with every idea we could to save money.”

The report also called for the sale of the city-owned building at 152 North St. that houses the FinComm’s own offices, he said.

Other, potentially more lucrative report proposals include reducing overtime expenses in the police and fire departments and restructuring the fire department. It also includes a proposal that the city offer incen-tives for up to 400 of the cities higher-paid employees with over 30 years on the job to retire early and then abolish a third of those positions. That could save the city $34 million, according to the report.

It endorses Mayor Thomas Menino’s call for city unions to accept a temporary pay freeze in 2010 and the Boston Public Schools’ proposed plans to redistrict and limit the need for busing.

“It’s a good report. It covers a wide range of topics, some of which are under discussion,” Signori said.

Some of the recommendations, particularly those concerning the fire department, would likely have to be negotiated with city unions. Signori said she was not able to comment on which ones would necessitate union negotiation.