Overdue rents continue to rise at DCR

Total amount is up 21% over past 11 months

DEBT COLLECTION is becoming an even bigger problem at the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, and the agency has failed to follow through on a pledge to hire a collection agency.

The delinquent rent owed DCR— defined as rent being over 120 days in arrears —  has increased by $88,425, or 21 percent, rising from $415,925 last September to $504,350 at the end of this July.

The overdue rent is owed by a total of 25 public and private sector entities — all of them repeat offenders, many of them prominent companies — according to data obtained from DCR, which is the largest landowner in the Commonwealth.

Mary Connaughton, director of government transparency at Pioneer Institute, was mystified by the lack of action by DCR. “Such procrastination from those charged with protecting the state’s financial resources is not only bewildering, it’s unacceptable,” she said.

DCR’s delinquency list is comprised of six concessionaires (owing $227,775), eleven cottage owners ($157,950), four high-ground users ($80,000), three utilities ($38,350), and one skating rink ($1).

The biggest surprise on the list?  The United States Secret Service owes DCR nearly $10,000 in back rent, apparently for the use of a high-ground telecommunications tower on DCR land.  Boston Special Agent in Charge Stephen Marks declined requests to comment.

The rent scofflaws include AT&T, which owes $12,825, or $8,550 more than it owed in 2017; Eversource, which owes $8,225, or $3,600 more; National Grid, which owes $17,275, or $8,580 more; and Sprint, which owes $70,925, or $33,500 less.

“We are working to reconcile any outstanding invoices and make appropriate payments to the Commonwealth,” a National Grid spokesman said in an email, which is the same thing he said last year.

Neither Eversource nor Sprint offered any comment on their debts to DCR.

An AT&T spokeswoman said, “We are in touch with the DCR to work through the data in this report.”

DCR’s dealings with AT&T illustrate the agency’s problems in collecting the rent it’s owed.  For each of the last three years, DCR documents reveal that AT&T owed DCR between $4,300 and $12,825.  But AT&T may not actually owe DCR a dime.

“While the previous agreement between AT&T and the agency has ended, it remains unclear whether the company continues to use DCR property and/or has equipment located on site,” a DCR spokesman said.  Until this issue is resolved, he said DCR will continue to bill AT&T.

There are also a number of private parties whose rent is past due.  Eleven individuals who rent land at Myles Standish State Forest on which their cottages sit collectively owe DCR $158,000.

The difficulty DCR encounters in trying to pry loose the delinquent rent has been going on for years, having been documented in two past audits (2013 and 2018) conducted by the state auditor, as well as in numerous reports published by CommonWealth that go back as far as 2012.

A consulting firm first hired by DCR back in 2014 has been paid $1.1 million to date to help remedy the agency’s collection problems.  Still, they persist.

As early as 2013 and again in 2018, the state auditor recommended that DCR refer accounts in arrears to a private debt collector.

“We found that, although DCR has a contract with a state-approved debt collection agency, it did not routinely refer overdue user fees for collection after 120 days as required by [state] policy,” the 2013 audit report noted.

In 2018, the state auditor found it necessary to repeat the recommendation: “DCR should refer all delinquent accounts receivable that are more than 120 days overdue to an agency for collection.”

In its response to the 2018 recommendation, DCR told the state auditor then that the agency “intends to procure a contract with an outsider collections firm.”

Despite that promise, over one year later and six years after it was first recommended, DCR still has’t hired a debt collection agency.

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DCR said this month that for now it is working on developing a dunning process and expects to send notices to delinquent accounts sometime later this year.

“Once entities have received a final notice regarding their past due debt, the agency will then move to commence the next steps, which will be determined on a case-by-case basis,” a DCR official said.  The next step, he noted, may include hiring a debt collection agency.