Last September almost 40 members of Massachusetts Fair Share, an influential citizen action group, decided to march around President Bok's office demanding that Harvard more than double its payments to the city of Boston.
Fair Share claims Harvard has a "moral and fiscal responsibility" to make in-lieu-of-tax payments to Boston in return for city services and to ease the property tax burden on Boston area residents, especially those living on fixed incomes.
Harvard owns over 7 million square feet of property in Boston, including the Medical and Dental Schools and some residential housing. Fair Share estimates the tax value at $16 million, but non-profit institutions are legally exempt from property taxes except in the case of the residential holdings.
Fair Share says the requested payment represents 20 per cent of what Harvard would owe the city were it not tax exempt.
Currently, the University pays almost two million dollars to Boston to cover three projects for which it has made special financial arrangements with the city.
Harvard has made an agreement with Boston to pay a flat percentage of the rents collected at Soldiers Field Park, a housing facility for individuals affiliated with the University, in exchange for zoning approval.
Another $1.5 million agreement accompanies the zoning variance for the Medical Area Power Plant, which is not owned by Harvard, but by Medical Area Total Energy Project, Inc. (MATEP), a private corporation established by Harvard in order to enter into a tax agreement with the city. Harvard also makes payments on a Mission Hill housing project, also owned by a separate corporation (Mission Park Inc.) in which Harvard is a minority stockholder.
Two Harvard officials met with Fair Share representatives last October to discuss the group's demands, but the conferees would only agree to exchange information.
At that time, Robin Schmidt, vice president for government and community affairs, said Harvard would increase its payments to Boston if Fair Share could prove Harvard takes more from the city than it gives back in services and payments.
A month later, the Boston City Council endorsed a resolution calling on Harvard to increase its payments to the city in order to ease "the undue hardship on city taxpayers." Rev. Thomas D. Corrigan, co-chairman of the Boston Fair Share tax coalition, feels the resolution gives his group more credibility, but he points out that the City Council has no authority to force Harvard into making the payments.
On January 13, Harvard would not allow Fair Share to attend the annual meeting of the directors of the Associated Harvard Alumni (AHA) even though the topic of discussion was "Community Interaction with Boston and Cambridge."
Schmidt sent a letter to Fair Share saying there was no time on the agenda to include Fair Share's request to discuss in-lieu-of-tax payments. The group showed up at the meeting anyway, but University officials would only allow it to distribute leaflets before the meeting began. After Fair Share left the campus, Schmidt was able to find time at the end of the meeting for the AHA to discuss the issue.
Schmidt was unavailable for comment.
Fair Share's tax coalition has been concentrating for the last few months on the Classification Amendment which is a referendum on the November ballot in Massachusetts. The amendment would change the State constitution's language on property assessment.
Currently, the primary source of revenue for cities and towns is the property tax. Traditionally, property has not been assessed at full value, and residential property has been assessed at a lower value than commercial property, the reasoning being that businesses can afford to make higher payments than homeowners. This practice was declared unconstitutional by the State Supreme Court in 1974 with the accompanying directive that cities and towns in Massachusetts assess all property at 100 per cent of its fair market value. This practice, Corrigan said, doubles or triples taxes on homeowners, and falls particularly hard on those with fixed incomes. If passed the Classification Amendment would make it constitutional for cities to assess property at less than full market value, and would also allow them to use different rates for different classes of property, such as private household, industrial and commercial property.
After Fair Share's campaign for the Classification Amendment ends in November, Corrigan said the group will again be looking to "see how places like Harvard can be invited, urged, coerced, or embarrassed to take this issue more seriously instead of refusing to meet with people."
Fair Share will modify the emphasis of its campaign against Harvard by trying to attract more allies. This, they believe, is possible now that more individuals have become curious about the role of tax-exempt institutions since Proposition 13 and similar "tax revolts" began to stimulate a greater community interest in lowering taxes.
Fair Share's tax coalition has already been successful in wrangling over $9 million out of the major airlines which use Boston's Logan Airport. In addition, the group was instrumental in changing Massachusetts law to allow the release and publication of the names of outstanding delinguent taxpayers. This action has led to the city's collection of millions of dollars in back taxes. Fair Share has also gone after individual delinquents with equal success.
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