The War on Charities

Item 8.23a of tomorrow’s City Council agenda lists properties that are exempt from taxes and suggests that, at minimum, three colleges that do not pay PILOT should start ponying up money.

I’m tired of using the term “PILOT”, though.  “Payment in Lieu of Taxes” is too benign a term for what its proponents are really doing.  Let’s call it what it is: The War on Charities.

How much is the City of Worcester currently receiving in PILOT funds?

It’s unclear — I think various councilors have asked for reports on this, and I don’t believe PILOT is ever reported in the city budget.  I’ve tried to piece together what we might be getting in PILOT from various Telegram articles.  I do not include Holy Cross because they insist that any money they give to the city is not PILOT.

MCPHS – $56,000ish, directed to the Worcester Public Library (from “Agreement puts PILOT on course”, by Nick Kotsopoulos, T&G, 30 November 2008)

Clark University – $275,000ish, directed to the Worcester Public Library and Main South neighborhood (from “Clark will pay city $6.7 million: University giving $262,000 annually for library, Main South”, by Nick Kotsopoulos, T&G, 21 September 2010)

University of Massachusetts Medical School – $320,000 “to directly support the Worcester Public Library and Worcester Public Schools biotech and bioscience classrooms and curriculum.” (from “Four city elementary schools, library in literacy partnership: One City, One Library to set up branches”, by Steven H. Foskett, Jr, T&G, 16 June 2013)

WPI – $450,000 (?) for Worcester Public Library and Institute Park.  (From “WPI offers city $9M over 25 years: Payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement” by Nick K., 13 May 2009; “Big question: Are tax loss worries overblown?” by Shaun Sutner, 3 March 2013)

Based on the above, I estimate we’re getting about $1.1 million in PILOT every year, all of which goes towards specific purposes — little to none to the general fund.

The memo

The memo from the city assessor says that we could negotiate PILOT agreements for $2,131,607 total from Holy Cross, Becker, and Assumption.  Yes, you read that right: we could get $1 million more from those three institutions than we do from MCPHS, Clark, WPI, and the Medical School.

(I will now pause until you stop laughing.)

The assessor also proposes getting $2,333,470 from the state for the lands it owns, including Quinsigamond Community College and Worcester State University.

(Yes, the assessor missed his calling as a stand-up comedian.)

The assessed values

The memo also includes assessed values for all properties that are tax-exempt.

I encourage folks to read it, because some of the assessments will boggle your mind.

According to the list, Notre Dame Academy on Salisbury Street (three buildings and 11 acres) has an assessed value of $5,243,400.  Compare that to the Krocks’ 9-acre estate on Salisbury Street, which has an assessed value of $1,445,100.

One wonders who would pay out the assessed value for the highly developable land at Rural Cemetery ($10.5 million) and the Swedish Cemeteries (a bit under $16 million).  What’s stopping the trustees from selling the cemeteries off and putting in condos?

The Iglesia Casa de Oracion on Southgate (which I believe is accessed via Canterbury Street) is valued at $3,320,700.  For a building on three acres of land in a neighborhood where the city hasn’t been able to get anyone to lease for twenty years, and which is surrounded by properties that have been for sale for months upon months.

And that’s just what I saw in a cursory scan of the listings.  One can only imagine how accurate the rest of the assessments are.

To what end?

Honestly, I have no idea what the end game is for the proponents of the War on Charities.  So far, it seems like they’re just going after colleges and universities.

But when they can only get a million or two a year from those non-profits (and, realistically, that’s the upper end of what they could get), then they’ll begin to turn on all the other non-profits, who will have to somehow justify their existence to folks who only care about the bottom line.

All those places of worship who serve as anchors in their neighborhoods, who provide places for folks to meet (in religious and non-religious ways), who have food pantries and serve hot meals, who host community gardens — none of those intangibles matter if they don’t start paying up.

Who cares if the Historical Museum keeps a treasure like Salisbury Mansion for the city to enjoy, or any other non-profit that is preserving an irreplaceable historical landmark?  It’s all about the benjamins!

I would love to be a fly on the wall when someone tells Why Me/Sherry’s House or Children’s Friend that their organizations have been found lacking and should really be making financial contributions to the city coffers.

Neighborhood centers, the Worcester Youth Center, Boys and Girls Club, Friendly House, Worcester Animal Rescue League — what have you done for us lately?

For the most part, the non-profits in our city provide necessary services or functions that we wish to foster.  If we make things too expensive for them — if we start denying the real good they do each and every day — they will go away or cut back on services.

If they go away, will the city step up and provide the services those non-profits were performing at no cost to the taxpayers?

And if city government becomes responsible for those services, the “break” those non-profits are getting will seem a pittance compared to what the city will have to pay to replace those missing services.

We should think long and hard before going down this path.

Is it really worth asking organizations that have been in our community for decades or even centuries, whose membership is made up of people who live in this city, whose employees may make less for full-time work than city councilors do for part-time work, to pay something they are under no legal obligation to pay?

You might be able to convince some of the more well-off organizations (like colleges) to pay, but then (as we have seen, especially in the case of WPI and Clark) you create “tiers” where the organizations that are able to pay can have streets closed off or other perks that come from being in the game.

We already live in a stratified city where those in poorer neighborhoods believe (rightly or wrongly) that the wealthier sections of the city get better services.  Why do we want to increase this sense of haves versus have-nots?

Tomorrow night, we may hear a councilor say that it doesn’t hurt to ask.

But how can it not hurt to tell an organization that does good work in this city that that work is not enough?  What will that do to the partnerships that exist between city government and the non-profits?

I hope the City Council thinks about this proposal before taking action.  They should not support any proposal that doesn’t value the intangible benefits many non-profits bring to our city.


One thought on “The War on Charities

  1. […] 508 is a show about Worcester. This week, we talk about the Pulse’s “14 to Watch in 2014″ and PILOT. […]

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