Are Colleges in Boston Paying Their Fair Share?

According to a report in the Boston Globe, Boston College along with almost every other university in Boston has not been paying into the PILOT program, a voluntary program that requests that nonprofit organizations who own tax-exempt property worth more than $15 million pay twice a year to cover some of the costs of fire, police and other services like snow removal. The program was created under Mayor Menino in 2011.

Boston College owns half a billion dollars of tax-exempt property. The city of Boston requested that the university pay $1.15 million to the program in the past fiscal year. BC paid the city of Boston $317,888 and the city of Newton $123,212 for municipal services, but these payments were not part of the PILOT program. They were separate municipal payments that BC has been making to the city since the 90s.

Jack Dunn, the spokesperson for the University, told the Globe that, “As a nonprofit, religiously affiliated educational institution, we do not participate in the PILOT program”. He added that we pay for “the sole service we receive, which is fire protection service.” BC has its own police department, ambulances and trash removal services, so it does not receive those services from the city.

In an interview with The Gavel, Mr. Dunn expanded on his answer, explaining, “The city asked its non-profit organizations, all of whom are tax-exempt, to consider making a voluntary program to the PILOT program. We chose not to do that because it would require us to forgo our tax-exempt status.”

He added that “the best way we can assist the City of Boston is through the more than $30 million in community benefits that we provide to the City and its residents each year through scholarships, jobs, volunteer service, community grants and the public and private funding we procure for Boston’s public and parochial schools.” He cited St. Columbkille’s School, a Catholic school in the Brighton area, for which BC raised $4 million to keep open.

Photo courtesy of Amanda Ikard/Gavel Media.

Photo courtesy of Amanda Ikard/Gavel Media.

BC is not the only university not meeting the demands of the city, nor did it pay the least according to the report. Northeastern, which was asked to pay $2.5 million, paid nothing in the past fiscal year, although it has participated in years past. The only college that came close to meeting the request made by the city was BU, which paid $6 million out of the $6.5 million requested.

An article in Commonwealth Magazine’s Fall 2014 issue reported that “the nonprofits are paying a smaller percentage of what the city is asking them to pay.” In the article, Mayor Walsh showed cautious support for the program and for the universities, saying, “While the PILOT program remains a priority for my administration, it is a voluntary payment. The city maintains an ongoing dialogue with these institutions on a range of topics, including PILOT. We will continue to work with these community partners and review their commitments as the program moves forward.”

The refusal to meet requests and the seemingly nonchalant response of the universities has angered Boston residents and city councilors. City Councilor Josh Zakim of District 8, which includes Northeastern, released a statement stating, “Northeastern by its actions has habitually flaunted the PILOT program since its inception.”

He continued that this “is unfortunately symptomatic of an institution that insists on being a bad neighbor.”

Dan Sibor, Mr. Zakim’s Chief of Staff, told The Gavel that, “Yes, it’s a voluntary program, but in order to have a fair relationship with the city [the schools] should participate.”

Speaking about Northeastern, he said “In an ideal world, they should make up for all of it, but at a minimum, going forward, they need to start with the amount for the 2015 fiscal year.”

When asked about the universities in Boston as a whole, he said, “the numbers are the numbers. It’s insulting to the residents of this city.”

That same anger is reflected in comments online. They run the gamut from, “Last time I checked, BC was privately incorporated with a Board of Trustees which acts independently of the Catholic Church… nice try to circumvent your MORAL responsibility” to “Change the laws and force those cheap bast—ds to put in their fair share”.

Some online commenters, however, echoed Mr. Dunn’s sentiment that universities and their students also provide services to the city. Many college students, especially here at BC, volunteer in the surrounding communities – at preschools, shelters, hospitals, prisons and other places that need help. Students themselves are also an integral part of Boston’s economy, patronizing bars, restaurants, hotels and stores. The delicate relationship between the city and its universities is a balancing act, and one that needs more work on both sides.

 

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