Pilot Action Group Holds Holiday Event at City Hall; Calls for Wealthy Nonprofits to Pay Their Fair Share

Christmas carols rang from Boston City Hall on Dec. 18, but they weren’t your average Jingle Bells. PILOT Action Group, a coalition of more than 20 community, faith, student, and labor groups, staged an event asking wealthy nonprofits to pay their fair share of taxes.

This summer, the City Council held a hearing regarding the Payment in Lieu of Taxes

(PILOT) program, and heard from several city employees and residents to learn facts and opinions on the program, which began in 2012. PILOT Action Group appeals “directly to the wealthiest non-compliers and by asking the city government to hold nonprofits accountable for their missing payments,” according to a release from the group.

By state law, nonprofits are exempt from paying property taxes but they do receive city services that are paid for by other taxpayers. However, through the PILOT program, institutions owning over $15 million of real estate in Boston are encouraged, but not required, to pay a quarter of the taxes they would owe if they were not exempt. Half of the quarter may be paid in “services to the city and its residents, or community benefits,” according to the release.

Enid Eckstein of PILOT Action group said that at the event on December 18, a performance of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” was put on in the lobby of the Mayor’s office; the Grinch represented universities who are not making their PILOT payments. Seven-year-old Amy Polanco dressed as Cindy Lou Who, shouting, “All I want for Christmas is for you to pay your PILOT payments!” At the end of the demonstration, the Grinch (adorned with college logos) gave Mayor “Santa” Walsh a check for the $77 million dollars that has gone unpaid from PILOT payments.

This was “not your typical petition in the Mayor’s office,” Eckstein said of the demonstration, which attracted between 75 and 100 people.

Children from Boston Public Schools and their parents, along with a brass band, also enjoyed singing Christmas carols with modified lyrics to get their point across. Throughout the hallways of City Hall, the group sang “Jingle bells, jingle bells, PILOT’s on the way, Oh what joy it is to go to fully-funded schools—hey!”

BPS students spoke out about the need for funding in their schools, including 11th-grader Fiona McManus. “Every day I read from textbooks older than I am, and I pray that there’s soap in the bathrooms, even though there never is,” McManus said.

The group asked Mayor Walsh to put pressure on universities, and delivered to the mayor a petition signed by over 1000 people. Eckstein said that the petition demands the reevaluation of properties, since they are currently valued at 2008 rates. “It’s time for all the PILOT payers to have their property reassessed,” she said. The petition also calls for the creation of a definition of “community benefits,” finding ways for the city to push harder to get PILOT payments from those who don’t, and the creation of a new PILOT commission with a community engagement process.

City Councilors AnnissaEssaibi-George, Lydia Edwards, Ed Flynn, and Michelle Wu also spoke at the demonstration, Eckstein said.

“Boston is home to fantastic educational institutions, world-world-renowned hospitals, and distinguished cultural centers that help make our city great and attractive. However, these institutions own a lot of property in Boston, property that has not been reassessed since 2007,”CouncilorEssaibi-George said. “It is important that these nonprofit institutions pay their fair share of taxes to offset the burden on Boston taxpayers.”

According to the release, Cortina Vann, an organizer with the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance (MAHA) said that “universities like Northeastern are growing and expanding into the neighborhoods’ rental market with students outcompeting with lifelong residents.” She added that there is a “racial homeownership gap that is unacceptable. PILOT is a way for major nonprofit institutions to give back and address the housing crisis that they as institutions are helping to feed.”

Since the inception of the program, many institutions have been making payments, but universities like Boston College, Harvard University, and Northeastern University have not been keeping up with theirs, though Boston University increased its contribution from last year, the release states.

“Today’s action is a light-hearted part of our campaign but this is a very serious matter for the residents of Boston,” Eckstein said of the event. “These institutions benefit tremendously from being located in an exciting city. They should pay their fair share of the costs. We will continue to expand our campaign until they do.”

Eckstein said that PILOT Action Group’s next steps include a working session with City Councilors, and they have some community forums coming up as well. In addition, she said they have sent letters to the underpaying institutions and are planning to meet with some of them over January and February.

“We feel that Boston is blessed by having all these not for profits, but it’s also a challenge for the city,” Eckstein said. “It’s a challenge for Boston to build collaborative and productive relationships with these institutions.”

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