University Being Pressured to Give More — Will it be Enough?
By Jane Regan
SOMERVILLE, Dec. 21, 2018 — The end of this month will mark a half year since the expiration of a five-year “PILOT” agreement between Tufts University and the City of Somerville.
A new agreement — one that may be more beneficial to the people, government and organizations of the city and, some might say, also more fair — is potentially on the horizon, thanks mostly to the hard work of engaged community volunteers and some elected officials.
Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone has set up a negotiating team that will meet with Tufts representatives to hash out the new agreement.
Will City Hall and the team push for an agreement that goes beyond the previous one? Will it be fair? Will it represent the wishes of the city and her residents?
The previous contract between Tufts and the city was called a partnership agreement. From 2013 through early 2018, Tufts paid the city $275,000 annually and allowed the use some athletic fields during certain hours. It also offered a number of programs that benefit the community. (Those programs have continued even though the agreement has expired.)
The contract was for all intents and purposes a PILOT, or “Payment in Lieu of Taxes,” which is an agreement more and more large non-profit institutions have negotiated with their host cities to make up for the fact that charitable non-profits do not have to pay real estate taxes.
In many places, including Boston, PILOTs are composed of two “payments” — one-half cash and one-half donated programming and services — and are based on what the real estate bill would be, if the institution were not tax-exempt. The City of Boston asks large non-profits to hand over (in cash and services) 25 percent of what it would owe. (Not all institutions do.)
The 2013–2018 Tufts-Somerville agreement was a bit more casual and was not based on the would-be tax bill.
If Tufts had to pay real estate taxes in Somerville, in FY2018, for example, it would have generated “residential tax at $596,700 and commercial tax at $6,103,800,” according to Heriberto Morales, Somerville’s director of Commercial Assessments, writing in February.
The $275,000 payment represented far less than 25 percent or even one-half of 25 percent of the would-be bill of over $6.7 million. The $275,000 equaled four percent.
Tufts offers other benefits
The university has recently countered that it offers Somerville much more than the cash payments.
In its “Community Benefits Report,” available on the City of Somerville’s PILOT page, Tufts notes that it gives students from the city over $800,000 in financial aid. But Harvard and MIT also give local students scholarships.
Tufts also sends scores interns and student teachers to many city institutions, and hosts various programs. Again, so do MIT and Harvard.
In its report, Tufts claims that the many hundreds of hours its students put in at local agencies and non-profits was worth $24 per hour in 2017, and noted that therefore, it had contributed almost another $2 million worth of services in 2017.
But similarly, in Cambridge, MIT and Harvard also offer many programs — including interns, student teachers and others — to the Cambridge and its institutions.
Finally, Tufts notes that it pays for water and permit fees and also the taxes due on taxable real estate. Harvard and the other institutions also pay these kinds of bills.
While there is no denying the benefits that Tufts and its institutions, faculty and students provide to Somerville, Harvard and MIT also provide many benefits to neighboring Cambridge.
Nevertheless, Harvard and MIT pay Cambridge proportionally much more cash than Tufts, and their payments increase automatically every year.
A new working group, a consultant, a survey… a better deal?
When the old Tufts-Somerville agreement became public in 2013, and when reporting uncovered that Tufts was paying Boston the full 25 percent of what its tax bill would be (one-half in cash and the other in programming) for its non-taxable land in that city, many in Somerville, including current and past aldermen, community activists, state officials and this author, decried the unequal treatment.
Five years later, members of Our Revolution-Somerville and other concerned residents, union members and staffers from local non-profits decided to form a “PILOT working group”* in order to “to assure that the cities of Somerville and Medford get a fair deal from Tufts,” according to Co-chair Joyce Shortt.
West Somerville resident Edward Beuchert is also a member. Co-founder and current board member of the West Somerville Neighborhood Association (WSNA), he recently said he is pleased with its progress which has included a public meeting on March 24 and then “a standing room only meeting on April 23 with Tufts Co-directors of Community Relations Barbara Rubel and Rocco DiRicco.”
At the meeting, “in particular we advocated for PILOT parity and construction of new dormitories to deal with the massive housing problems created by Tufts annually increasing student enrollment,” he said.
PILOT members have also written op-eds and tabled at events, he noted.
All that activity got the City’s attention.
In the spring, Curtatone hired a consultant who launched an online survey, met with city stakeholders and ran a community workshop on May 28. A report that came out of that process — the document was made public in August — noted that Somerville residents and institutions were making five main demands:
1.) Higher, and increasing payments to the City.
2.) Continued and deepened commitment to the education of residents of all ages.
3.) Better communication about university-community issues and master plans.
4.) That Tufts construct “significant new student housing on campus.”
5.) Improvements in traffic and transit-related issues.
Beuchert said he was pleased with the outcome of the City-led effort, noting that the report has “many good ideas.”
The most important aspects, in his opinion, are three:
- for “PILOT parity,” meaning to get the university to pay or provide 25 percent of what it would owe, if it paid taxes, or $1,675,125 based on 2018 figures,
- support for the city’s educational system, and
- “a solution to the housing crisis.”
At the April 23 meeting with Tufts officials, Beuchert said the group especially advocated for “construction of new dormitories to deal with the massive housing problems created by Tufts annually increasing student enrollment.”
Because of the common concern over the city’s housing crisis, the Working Group has also teamed up with student groups working on the issue, like the Tufts Housing League, according to Beuchert.
About one-third of all Tufts students live off-campus each year. In 2015, 818 students were living at Somerville addresses, according to a report the university is required to file with the City. [See map.]
Tufts has its own a housing crisis. Earlier this year, the administration announced “tiered housing,” where students would get nicer on-campus digs if they paid more. A student group — the Tufts Housing League — immediately formed and has been protesting the “classist” policy. THL also organize a Nov. 29 rally attended by several hundred students and neighbors where various aldermen, Beuchert and other activists spoke.
Tufts students, like Parker Breza (Class of 2019) of Tufts Student Action, which helped organize the rally, see a direct connection between the two housing crises.
“Tufts has neglected to build a high-density dorm since 2005, while over-enrolling for the past several years. By admitting more students without proper housing capacity for them, Tufts forces thousands of students to live in the surrounding neighborhoods, displacing longtime Somerville and Medford residents in the process,” Breza wrote in a recent email.
THL member Conner Goggins (Class of 2021) noted that his organization and others believe Tufts needs to include a discussion of housing in the PILOT negotiations.
“This would be mutually beneficial, with more housing for Tufts students, with less stress on housing supply for nearby residents,” Goggins noted in a recent email.
While formal negotiations have apparently not yet begun, in April Curtatone told the Boston Globe that he would be asking for $840,000 and “also wants Tufts to help address affordable housing and quality-of-life issues as part of a new agreement.”
The next meeting of the Tufts Community Benefits Negotiating Team, which — according to Beuchert — includes himself, Ward 7 Alderman Katjana Ballantyne, School Superintendent Mary Skipper, Ward 4 School Committee member Andre Green and others, is scheduled for early next year.
Beuchert said he is optimistic.
“I think Mayor Curtatone and our aldermen have done an excellent job soliciting community input for the next agreement,” he said. “I see the next steps as being up to them, i.e. what are they willing to offer Somerville?”
* Full disclosure — The author is a member of the committee.