Amherst should get more money from UMass and the colleges

By George Ryan and Nick Grabbe

When a UMass student leaves the campus and gets in trouble, the Amherst Police Department, paid for primarily by Amherst taxpayers, deals with him.

When an Amherst College student goes to Town Hall to register to vote or get a passport, the salaries of the clerks who help her are paid through Amherst property taxes.

When a Hampshire College professor gets in a car, the cost of paving the roads, clearing the snow and maintaining the stoplights comes mostly from the budget of the Amherst Department of Public Works.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

And yet Amherst receives very little from these three institutions to help pay these necessary expenses, which run in the millions of dollars, because their land and buildings are exempt from local property taxes. This is one of the main reasons why the average residential tax bill in Amherst is among the highest in Western Mass. And next spring, residents will be asked to raise their taxes even further to pay for a desperately needed new elementary school.

Meanwhile, the previous Town Council has made substantial commitments that will have big financial consequences. They include:

  • Creating two new departments;
  • Implementing efforts to realize our energy and climate goals;
  • Exploring reparations for African American residents harmed by past injustice;
  • Addressing long-delayed infrastructure and capital needs;
  • Funding four major building projects.

In addition, Amherst is committed to maintaining the high level of Town services that residents have come to expect. All these commitments will put serious pressure on the Town’s budgets for the foreseeable future.

Difficult and painful decisions will have to be made. Some staffing goals have been deferred and may have to be abandoned, such as funding a staff position to oversee downtown parking, hiring an economic development director, or increasing the number of inspectors to enforce a stricter rental registration bylaw.

New sources of funding will be essential if we are to meet these ambitious goals. One key will be continued new growth, to enable the Town to raise revenue beyond the limits of the state’s tax-limit law. And that will mean more development, especially downtown and in village centers, and that in turn will require zoning reforms such as allowing duplexes by right.

But that will not be enough. Amherst needs to engage at the highest level with the three academic institutions in town to identify ways they can contribute to the Town’s long-term flourishing. It is in their interest, in terms of attracting faculty and students, to have a host community that people want to live in. The quality of Amherst’s schools, roads and cultural activities are important to those decisions.

Town officials are already having “productive conversations” with campus representatives, said Finance Director Sean Mangano. Town staff are also comparing the financial contributions of the three campuses with those of Williams College, UMass/Dartmouth and UMass/Lowell, and the Universities of Connecticut and Vermont to their host communities, Mangano said.

And the Town Council has made developing strategic partnership agreements with all three institutions a key goal for the town manager in 2022. He is tasked with entering into agreements that will seek to mitigate the financial and social impacts the three campuses have on the Town and also exploring possible collaborations in areas of mutual concern, such as housing, economic development, and the long-term financial viability of the Town.

In addition, there are efforts to get state legislation to formalize payments to towns that host state facilities. Amherst’s Finance Committee is working with the principal assessor to estimate the value of land and buildings on our three campuses.

Credit Ryan Mercer, Burlington Free Press

What are some examples of town-gown collaborations? Burlington, Vt. is especially noteworthy. In 2019, the city received $1.38 million from the University of Vermont to help pay for municipal services, and $94,000 to pay for police patrols near the campus, according to, an independent news source. The city also received a commitment of $8.9 million over 20 years to cover the debt service on a sustainable infrastructure plan.

The University of Iowa contributed $200,000 to a city-sponsored program that bought properties and resold them to individuals who met certain income guidelines. The University of West Virginia provided forgivable down payment assistance for its employees who participated in a city home ownership program. Lehigh University agreed to share the cost of the salaries for code enforcers to ensure that their students were living in safe, healthy off-campus housing. Duke University bought, rehabilitated, and sold 40 houses to faculty and staff.

So what sorts of payments do our three institutions of higher learning currehtly make to the Town? This past year, after many years of negotiations, UMass contributed $185,000 to the elementary and regional schools to help pay the cost of educating children who live in its tax-exempt housing. In addition, it makes an annual payment of $160,000 as “occupancy fees” in lieu of an occupancy tax at the Campus Center Hotel, and it reimburses the Town for police and fire support; in 2021 that was $400,000.

Amherst College, which has an endowment currently valued at $3.7 billion, recently made a one-time gift of $200,000 to help support the Jones Library expansion and renovation project and to help pay the costs of the Drake, the live performance space (though assistance the Drake doesn’t help the Town budget). Amherst College also makes an annual contribution to the local schools (in 2021 it was $75,000) and, unlike UMass, it does pay property tax on some of its properties in Town, especially off-campus faculty residences. In 2021 that property tax bill came to $649,449. And like UMass (whose statewide endowment in 2021 was $1.2 billion), it reimburses the Town on an annual basis for ambulance and fire calls. In 2021, that annual “support fee” came to $140,000.

These payments, while welcome, are not adequate to meet the demand that our academic institutions place on Town services. Amherst College or UMass could show what good neighbors they are, and get much favorable publicity, by paying some of the costs of making our new elementary school zero-energy, for example.

And while Hampshire College’s financial situation might preclude contributions, it does have substantial land holdings in South Amherst and could be a key player in increasing housing opportunities and economic development in that part of town.

All three institutions also possess vast reservoirs of intellectual capital and youthful idealism that could be put to work in our schools and in the larger community. They are essential partners in keeping Amherst flourishing and financially sound. These conversations will not be easy, but they are vital to the future well being of our community.

11 thoughts on “Amherst should get more money from UMass and the colleges”

  1. Yes indeed. I can think of 3 improvements Amherst College should fund:
    1) Sidewalk from Hitchcock to Route 9—most use by AC students and faculty/administrators
    2) Cross walks on College Street and South Pleasant. Again, AC use is almost exclusive.
    3) A flood light at intersection of Rte 9/College St/So Pleasant. Students are just about invisible after dark as they use the controlled crossing.


  2. The information about what other seats of higher learning are doing is extremely helpful, a major addition to the discussion. I continue to have my doubts about what leverage the Town of Amherst has with either the University or my alma mater, the College on the Hill. How can we bring these institutions to the table for a negotiation without leverage?


  3. While I agree with the premise of the article, I am disappointed in what I see are several instances where “climate action” and “net zero” are assumed to be extra expenses. This is a bias we all must get past if we are ever going to take the smart, fiscally responsible actions needed to address climate change and support the future of our town. We have this bias because we have been taught that short-term savings are more valuable than long-term savings and that environmental protection is something extra or nice to have. However, this is simply not true and not in the best interest of our town. Many, many studies have been done to show the cost of inaction on climate change far outweighs the cost of taking action now. We are relatively lucky in Amherst to not be near the coast or in an area that will experience the worst climate disasters, but the financial impact will still be felt as more and more of our tax dollars are used to address weather disasters and sinking cities. Further, we are currently experiencing the impacts of volatile and rising fossil fuel prices – net zero buildings that don’t rely on oil and natural gas are the fiscally responsible choice for our town’s budget. I would urge us all to not look at the preliminary data from the school building design to draw conclusions about the cost of net zero – this is only adding fuel to the fire of those who want any excuse to tear down the plan. For example, the upfront cost of solar means reduced electricity costs for years to come, which cannot be shown in a preliminary table. By including geothermal or air source heat pumps, that means we haven’t included oil furnaces (which, by the way, are also at all-time high prices!). We must be smart about the life cycle impacts of our decisions — and yes, we need the higher ed institutions to help us pay for them in a consistent and meaningful way!


  4. A negotiated agreement should include an annual PILOT [Payment in lieu of taxes] from these institutions. This would be a predictable annual source of income to the Town. In Boston partipating not for profit institutions are asked to pay 25% of what they would be assessed if they were not tax-exempt.


  5. My personal concern is investment in the community. Without investment and, really, commitment, how long can Amherst last as just a bedroom community? My little music school was funded by Valley Community Development Corp, John Coull was on the board and steered me through that process. And, as it turns out, Amherst’s little music school, the little train that could, was financed by Smith College. That should tell you something about priorities on this side of the river.


  6. Hampshire College has committed to a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) to the Town of Amherst for its ground-mounted solar array.

    “Finance Director Sanford ‘Sandy’ Pooler said the anticipated revenues from the solar project include $21,000 in the first year, which will increase annually by 2½ percent. Over the life of the deal, Pooler estimates the town will collect around $540,000.” — from an article in The Recorder by Scott Merzbach.

    That payment is for the use of college-owned land that was previously tax exempt. Hampshire makes a similar payment to the Town of Hadley.

    It should also be noted that Hampshire and Amherst Colleges own parcels of land in the Holyoke Range that are open to the public for recreation, some of which have been permanently set aside for conservation.

    Scott also authored this article:

    Disclosure: I am a former employee of Hampshire College and Five Colleges, Inc., and this does not necessarily reflect their views.


  7. I couldn’t agree more with the authors. It’s beyond time our higher ed institutions pay their fair share to our town.


  8. Making negotiating a strategic relationship with Higher Ed institutions an explicit part of the Town Manager’s performance expectations is a great step forward.

    Part of the issue in the past has been lack of clarity. I think the Town Manager is the right place for this work to be, and it gives the Colleges and University an opportunity to develop a more comprehensive, longer term approach that focuses on mutual benefits.

    Thanks for reporting on this!


  9. Thank you for this article. I have been wondering how much Amherst and UMASS contribute to our town. I think it would be helpful to review both Smith’s and Williams’ financial commitments to their communities. For example, Smith gifted Northampton $500K in December – see Williams gifted $5 million to the Williamstown schools – see…-Fodder-for-Debate.html.
    I am less concerned with UMASS because it is a public institution. Amherst College should care about the public schools as their staff’s and professors’ children go to them. I don’t understand why Amherst College doesn’t help our town with significant financial support.


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