The Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority has helped raise more than $1 million since 2011 for local charities through its popular Pell Bridge Run and two other events. But with it has come questions about authority assets being used to promote and runs the events, high operating costs and where the donations are going. This week, Jim Hummel sits down with a longtime critic of the authority who has been trying for years to get answers, and with the authority’s executive director, who is also helping run a foundation created to oversee the events.
These are some of the 25,000 people who have run, walked or bicycled across the Pell Bridge in Newport over the past eight years, helping to raise more than $1 million for nonprofit organizations. They are participating in events created in 2011 by The Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority, whose executive director Buddy Croft says they have become immensely popular.
Croft: “To get up at the towers and take selfies and getting up on those magnificent structures, it’s a sight to behold.”
For the first five years the authority, with the help of a paid events manager, staged the races - giving upwards of a hundred thousand dollars each year to dozens of local charities.
That caught the attention of Nancy Howard of Portsmouth, a retired federal contracting officer who started looking into the turnpike and bridge authority when lawmakers began considering a proposal to toll the Sakonnet River Bridge. Her review of the authority led her to what is now three annual charitable events every year that make use of the Jamestown-Verrazano, Newport-Pell, Sakonnet River and Mount Hope Bridges.
Howard: “I don’t think that a quasi state agency whose mission is to maintain bridges should be operating a foundation. They just shouldn’t do that. It’s not under their purview.”
Howard questioned how an authority could double as a charitable entity, giving money to nonprofit organizations without forming a foundation to do it.
Hummel: “When you started asking these questions, what was their reaction to that?”
Howard: “Basically it was like ‘What’s the problem? Why do you care. What does it matter if we run a race and donate the money to charity?’ Again, that’s not the problem. The problem is should you be operating a charity and are you using the money appropriately?”
Howard said she believes it was her questions - and prompting - that led the authority to create a separate nonprofit foundation in 2016, which now oversees the races, filing tax forms with the IRS. The foundation still uses Gray Matter Marketing as the events manager, at a cost of $3,000 per month plus a 25 percent commission on most of the corporate sponsorships the company can secure.
In a wide-ranging interview at the authority’s headquarters in Jamestown last month, Croft defended the authority - and the foundation.
Croft: “There are no toll dollars, no toll revenue dollars, or are there any gas tax dollars that go out to the organizations. All of the expenses are paid for from the events themselves, from either registration fees and/or sponsorships. And then when we give to the organizations afterward, all of that again I stress, involves no toll dollars, no gas tax dollars, it all comes from the events themselves.”
But Howard says the line between the authority and the foundation is not well-defined, noting that the authority’s legal firm helped set up the foundation, the nonprofit’s annual 990 tax form is reviewed by authority accountants with no reimbursement from the nonprofit and turnpike and bridge authority vehicles are used to help on event days. The event is also promoted on the authority’s agency-funded website.
And for five years before creating a foundation, the authority itself distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to dozens of entities, with no specific criteria. So why no foundation?
Croft: “We initially looked at the foundation back in 2011 when we had our initial race. We looked at it then and didn’t think it was something that we needed to go to at that point in time. We wanted to see if these caught on, if they became popular events. As they grew in popularity we thought it might make some sense to look at forming a foundation.”
Howard notes that the grants are heavily weighted toward organizations in the Newport and Jamestown area.
Howard: “We’re supporting the community, but why aren’t you supporting the community in Providence, who may also go across the bridge every day? And someone is picking and choosing, someone is making the decisions that we want to donate to the fireworks and want to donate to arts and culture in Newport and in Jamestown too, there was a few agencies they donated to over there. I guess they’re just currying favor, or maybe want people to not be as upset when they’re doing construction, every single day on the bridges.”
Hummel: “What about the people who would say, well it’s pretty heavily weighted just because you’re here in Jamestown, why should those organizations get it, as opposed to others across the state?”
Croft: “Jim, it’s not a perfect science in selecting, we do the very best we can as a foundation board. I would say that a lot of the organizations that receive money from other parts of the state, they serve clients down here also, but we are sensitive to the local communities to a certain extent.”
Hummel: “How do you decide who gets an award?”
Croft: “You apply online for the nonprofits, we will ask them such things as what’s your annual budget, give us a financial snapshot, what are you going to do with the dollars, things of that nature. We’ll ask them if they can volunteer for the event. This last year we had about 58 organizations apply to us, I believe 37 were funded. We do the best we can. We look at the local communities, we give them the benefit of the doubt. Some of the organizations we look at people that have challenges, disadvantaged, people that have health challenges. We’ll look at some organizations like that, then the board will make a decision as to who will get funded and sometime after the first of the year we mail out checks.”
The most popular event - and the biggest money maker is the Pell Bridge run, now in its 8th year. On a raw, rainy Sunday in October more than 3,000 entrants braved 20-know winds to make the 4.2-mile trek from Jamestown to downtown Newport. The race took in more than $200,000 in registrations and sponsorships - but it also cost $83,000 to run.
The Pell Bridge event was so popular the first two years, the authority created the 4 Bridges Ride in 2013, giving bicyclists the rare opportunity to ride over the bridges in Jamestown, Newport, the Sakonnet River Bridge and the Mount Hope Bridge, finishing in Bristol after 26 miles.
Last year saw the creation of a third event, the Mount Hope 5k. But that and the bridge ride do not make as much money. Altogether expenses ate up about 50 percent of the three hundred thousand plus dollars raised from the three events this year.
Howard: “I don’t think has been appropriately audited. The turnpike authority has to have their books audited, but this information is not audited by anyone.”
Croft said after our interview that the foundation is considering some changes.
Croft: “We asked our auditors to look at the 990s, to make sure that it was something that passed muster. They did look at the 990s….”
Hummel: “Auditors for the authority?”
Croft: “That’s right. There is not a separate audit, that is one of the things we’re contemplating as we grow as a foundation. It’s one of the things we’re contemplating.”
He also said the foundation will consider expanding its board to include public members. Right now it consists of the authority’s chairman, another member, the authority’s legal counsel and Croft.
Croft: “There will always be on that foundation board, I do believe there will always be members from the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority because of the close cooperation that we have with the event manager that runs the race. When we do these races we keep the bridges open. There’s a lot of logistics that go into that. A lot of safety issues. So to that end, these bridges are magnificent structures, but they’re complicated structures.”
Hummel: “Some people would say: your job is to maintain bridges. Why are you in the charity business?”
Croft: “I think that we have done a very good job maintaining the bridges and we have never ever, ever, ever lost sight of our charge to maintain the bridges. In 2011 when a decision was made to go to these (events) we thought it was a good idea. We maintain that we’ve done that in a wholesome process and that it’s a good thing.”
In Jamestown, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.