Tufts increased its payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) to the cities of Medford and Somerville to $450,000 each for fiscal year 2019 up from $275,000 in 2018, or a 64% increase. The City of Boston also received $450,000 for fiscal year 2019, but this was down from a contribution of $584,147 last year, a cut of 23%.
Tax-exempt organizations like universities voluntarily give PILOTs to their host communities to reflect a portion of the taxes a taxed institution would have paid. Tufts’ PILOT payments have been a source of tension in Medford and Somerville for years.
Rocco DiRico, director of government and community relations for the university, wrote in an email to the Daily that the goal of the increase was to strengthen the relationship between the university and its host communities while creating parity among them, as they will now receive the same amount.
“We are committed to having a positive impact in Boston, Medford and Somerville, and look forward to continuing a strong relationship with each city,” he wrote.
He also underlined the value of the non-monetary community benefits that Tufts provides to the communities including use of sports facilities, SAT prep programs, waived application fees at Somerville and Medford high schools, $1.9 million in financial aid to local students and the economic benefits of the university.
Since the last agreement expired in June 2018, the university and the cities of Somerville and Medford have been in negotiations over a new comprehensive PILOT agreement that would include the monetary payments Tufts makes every year as well as the community benefits.
In their response to the increased payments, local elected officials kept their focus squarely on negotiations for a long term agreement.
A release from Medford Mayor Stephanie Burke’s office, which broke the news of the new payments on Sept. 4, stressed that negotiations were still ongoing and that the payment was accepted in good faith.
A spokesperson for Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone, Denise Taylor, told the Daily in an email that Somerville too had accepted the check from Tufts and that the city looked forward to signing an agreement with the university.
The increased payment was not coordinated with the PILOT negotiation teams from both cities and came as a surprise, according to Somerville City Council President Katjana Ballantyne, a member of the Somerville PILOT negotiating team.
“It was unexpected because we haven’t finished the negotiations,” Ballantyne, who represents Ward 7 south of Tufts, said. “I was not aware as part of the negotiating team.”
DiRico said that the increase was based on what Tufts had heard from the communities in negotiation meetings last academic year.
“It was clear from those meetings that both cities wanted an increase in PILOT payments and parity with Boston,” he wrote.
Ballantyne was more specific, saying that along with parity, the negotiation team was pushing for a PILOT amounting to 25% of appraised taxes, half of that in a cash payment and half in the value of the community benefits the university provides. Under the previous agreement, Tufts’ PILOT was only 4% of appraised taxes to Medford and Somerville while it paid just short of 25% to Boston from 2015 to 2018.
Joyce Shortt, a member of both the Somerville PILOT committee and Our Revolution Somerville, a progressive advocacy group, said that this year’s payment did not meet the 25% threshold.
She pointed to a 2018 analysis by Our Revolution which found that Tufts’ hypothetical tax bill could run as high as $6.7 million for Somerville alone. To meet the 25% target, Tufts would need to pay a total of $1.675 million to Somerville, half of which would be community benefits. The cash payment, then, would need to total $837,500 to meet Somerville’s goal.
“What we saw was not so significant, and it doesn’t change the impact on the negotiations between the city and Tufts,” Shortt said.
Parity was achieved by a cut to the amount Tufts paid Boston.
Erin DiBenedetto, a member of the Medford negotiation team and a Medford School Committee member, said that in light of this, the payment was more a reallocation than an increase.
The cut marked something of an about-face for Tufts as the 2019 fiscal year marked the first time since 2014 that the university did not pay the full PILOT requested by the City of Boston.
Previously, Tufts had been unique among the city’s major universities to fulfill the entire request. Even after having cut its contribution to 88% of the request, Tufts still leads the pack with Boston University at 86%, Harvard University at 79% and Boston College at a mere 10%, according to statistics released by the city’s assessing department.
The Town of Grafton, where the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine is located, also saw a small adjustment in their PILOT from Tufts, which fell from $69,413 last fiscal year to $64,613 this year, according to the Grafton Treasurer’s office.
Back in Medford and Somerville, some, including Breanna Lungo-Koehn, the vice president of the Medford City Council, saw the increases as a move in the right direction by Tufts, but one that came only after sustained community pressure inside and outside the formal negotiations.
“The increase in payment is a good first step, but the council and community need to be kept in the loop with regards to the other important aspects of the agreement. The fact that no agreement has been reached is unfortunate and discouraging,” Lungo-Koehn told the Daily in an email.
However, DiRico maintained in the email that the payments elicited a positive response from Tufts’ host communities.
Some members of the cities’ PILOT committees said the payments did little to change the state of PILOT negotiations, the next session of which is slated for Sept. 20.
“I understand that there was a check that came in, but we haven’t finished,” said Ballantyne. “We’re far apart, and we’re still in negotiations.”