Today’s continued economic uncertainty has prompted bold actions by local governments as they struggle to secure necessary income while faced with substantial budget shortfalls, unpredictable tax revenues and critical services in dire need of funding. In this era of municipal belt-tightening, a rapidly growing number of local officials now look at previously untapped sources of revenue: nonprofit institutions.
Since Boston’s Mayor Thomas Menino first broached the issue several years ago, other communities – small, medium, and large – have followed suit and have turned to some of the country’s most significant nonprofits to augment the current tax base.
This has become an unprecedented source of revenue as well as debate, especially as questions arise around the endowments and land holdings of some of the country’s largest nonprofits, with universities, museums, hospitals and other community resources being cajoled, negotiated with and sometimes even publicly assailed in the media.
This country’s 1.5 million nonprofit organizations represent and cater to a myriad of important causes and missions, and in return, they have traditionally received immunity from real estate taxes and other taxes through their federally-designated 501(c)(3) statuses. However, the notion that charitable institutions are off-limits to the tax collector has recently been cast off.
As a result, municipalities now see an opportunity to extract some much-needed revenue from nonprofit organizations. This phenomenon has been working its way across the U.S. under creatively phrased monikers such as “voluntary contributions” and “payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT).”
We first noticed the momentum towards acceptance of this new model about 15 months ago when we developed a then-controversial op-ed piece for the Giving Institute’s blog about PILOT. Since then we have witnessed additional municipalities placing public pressures on their largest local nonprofit institutions. Most organizations are obliging, and only a few weeks ago a precedent-setting court decision undoubtedly propelled these controversial PILOT issues into the public arena.
The Mesivta Eitz Chaim of Bobov Inc. summer camp, located on 61 picturesque acres in Pike County, Pennsylvania, is operated by the Bobov Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York. Between June and August, the camp provides classes and lectures on Orthodox Judaism as well as some recreational activities, though the camp is primarily designed as an educational institution.
Although the camp’s dining and recreational facilities are open to the public, camp representatives were unaware of neither Pike County residents using the facilities nor Pike County or Pennsylvania residents attending the camp. As a nonprofit organization, the camp sought an exemption from real estate taxes, but Pike County and the local school district denied the camp’s request for an exemption based on the nature of the camp and its charitable status.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld two lower court rulings against the camp’s tax exemption. In order to receive an exemption, the Court held that a claimant must meet the definition of a “purely public charity” as measured in a 1985 Pennsylvania case (Hospital Utilization Project v. Commonwealth).
In Pennsylvania, an “institution of purely public charity” advances a charitable purpose, donates or renders gratuitously a substantial portion of its services, benefits a substantial and indefinite class of persons who are legitimate subjects of charity, relieves the government of some of its burden, and operates entirely free from private profit motive.
At issue in the case was whether the camp relieved the government of some burden, since the dining and recreation facilities were open to the public and the camp’s soccer fields, located outside of the camp’s gates, were used on occasion by the public. The Court affirmed that the occasional use of recreational facilities was insufficient to relieve Pike County’s government of some of its burden and made the camp’s property taxable.
This decision has the potential to be very important, especially in this challenging economic environment when many municipalities are cash-strapped. The implications from the point of view of the nonprofit are that local governments may look to charitable organizations as revenue sources. Furthermore, nonprofits that balk at payments in lieu of taxes may face a likely possibility that the municipality could challenge its nonprofit status, and possibly revoke it.
Here’s an overview of where PILOT programs are especially active:
Boston has become the clear leader in implementing PILOT programs, collecting almost $17 million annually from a variety of cultural, educational and medical institutions, with annual payments ranging from a few hundred dollars from a VFW Post to millions from hospitals and universities. In 2010, 36 nonprofits provided “voluntary tax” payments to the city.
New guidelines promulgated by Mayor Menino’s PILOT Task Force increased the number of nonprofits asked to contribute and pushed nonprofit payments up by 24%. Boston University and other large landholders have “volunteered” payments for municipal services approximating 25% of what they would pay if they were a for-profit entity.
Chicago has slashed critical city services amounting to $417 million. Colleges, universities and hospitals are being approached, although organizations of all sizes are affected.
One prominent example is the 20-member nonprofit Austin Green Team. Since 1989, the Austin Green Team has maintained over one dozen gardens and two greenhouses in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s west side, providing beauty and a sense of serenity to more than 100,000 residents. Under the Mayor’s 2012 budget, the Austin Green Team’s water service fee waiver is proposed for revocation, threatening the viability and survival of the gardens. The proposed budget plan includes eliminating fee waivers for virtually every nonprofit organization in Chicago.
In 2011, Worcester Polytechnic Institute entered into a 25-year agreement with the city to annually fund $50,000 to maintain and improve a neighboring park. WPI had already been making annual PILOT contributions of $180,000, including a 2.5% increase built in annually over the next 25 years. WPI president Dennis Berkey described the payments as strengthening the quality of the relationship between the college and the city. WPI also received assurances from the city that for the next 25 years, no additional taxes would be levied on the institution. However, a more important aspect of the relationship was the positive publicity lauded on the school for its support of the city.
Syracuse, New York
In 2011, Syracuse University began making $500,000 annual payments on a 5-year, $2.5 million pledge to the city of Syracuse. Responding to the pleas from the financially strapped city, University officials agreed to be the first nonprofit in Syracuse to make a voluntary payment after the City Council began exploring taxing some aspects of the University’s newly expanded properties. According to City Council, even as the University further shifts the burden of municipal services away from taxpayers, “It’s time for the University to kick in a little more to support these services.”
Providence, Rhode Island
Due to unprecedented financial problems, the Mayor of Providence initiated a program designed to pursue tax exempt institutions for a “failure to sacrifice.” The natural target was the city’s largest landowner, Brown University, who since 1764, was “freed and exempted from all taxes.”
Recent negotiations have yielded voluntary payments from Brown in the amount of $31.5 million over 11 years. Brown owns 200 buildings in Providence valued at over $1 billion in total, and if taxed, would pay the city $38 million annually. As Providence Mayor Angel Taveras summed it up, “every organization, including tax-exempt institutions, must share part of the burden of saving our city.”
Even with a slowly advancing economic outlook, the landscape has changed and nonprofits are unlikely to continue to benefit from their open-ended special tax exemption. With this in mind, land-owning nonprofit organizations should consider the following:
- Be prepared. Charitable organizations should not assume that their nonprofit status creates blanket immunity from all taxation. Houses of worship, community centers of all types, camps and other agencies owning larger parcels of land may be targeted for voluntary payments.
- Budget now for PILOT. Nonprofits should plan on including PILOT payments that might represent “reasonable” contributions to the municipality and tailor their budgets and programming accordingly.
- Get out in front of the issue and use it to your advantage. Appearing as a “good citizen” is important to nonprofits, especially those that are large landowners. Tailoring the PILOT to garner positive PR can strengthen an organization’s community image as well as possibly enable special consideration from the municipality later on. Nonprofits of all sizes should expect governments to ask them to step forward and contribute voluntary payments or pay usage fees to cover municipal services, including fire and police protection and other services.