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THE 40 BOSTON residents who demonstrated in front of President Bok's office last Wednesday, claiming that Harvard should double what it now pays to the City of Boston, did not themselves represent a substantial political force. But they raised an issue that merits a serious and carefully thought-out response from University administrators--something more than the ducking-out tactics Harvard officials have displayed so far in avoiding meetings with the group.
The question to be resolved involves Harvard's obligation to the City of Boston, where it owns more land than it does in Cambridge. Although university-owned land is legally tax-exempt, Harvard officials say special arrangements for three developments have led Harvard to pay more than $2 million a year to the city government--half a million more than Harvard pays to the City of Cambridge. The University claims that the current payments to Boston arose out of Harvard's concern about the city's financial condition. But the members of the Boston chapter of Massachusetts Fair Share who came to the Yard last week claim that Harvard's payments are minimal. Fair Share researchers say Harvard would pay $13.5 million to the city if it were not tax-exempt. Fair Share does not argue with the University's tax-exempt status, but claims that Harvard should increase its payments to the city by $2 million to shoulder its "fair share" of the city's tax burden.
Although the group has not articulated the formula it used to derive the $4 million total, it is clear that some payment above the current level may be in order. University officials are fond of saying that a large part of the $2 million Harvard pays now is "voluntary," but such claims represent mere semantic distinctions. Of the three projects on which officials say Harvard makes some payment to the city, one is a housing project financed by Citicorp and therefore not legally tax-exempt. Another is a housing project on which Harvard agreed to make in-lieu-of-tax payments in return for a zoning code exemption. The largest part of what the University pays will ultimately derive from a similar package granting a zoning exemption in return for payments on the Medical Area power plant project. But that agreement, expected to fall between $1 and $1.5 million, has not yet been settled.
Harvard should examine what it draws from the City of Boston in the way of services. Estimates place more than half of Boston's land in the tax-exempt category, so any burden Harvard places on the city must now be borne by increased taxes falling heavily on working class homeowners and renters within the city limits. Those who benefit most from Harvard's activities in Boston--affiliates like the faculty of the Medical School--live in the suburbs beyond the reach of the city's taxing power.
Any causal connections between payments to Boston and tuition levels are not well-defined, but if Harvard uses the city's services the burden of that expense should not fall largely on city residents for whom any benefits from Harvard's presence are at best indirect.
Four million dollars may not be the proper amount for Harvard to pay, but it would be wrong for the University to continue to ignore the questions Massachusetts Fair Share has raised about the economic justice of Harvard's current payments.
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