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.
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.
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 vtdigger.org, 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.