Somerville officials were blunt about the lack of progress in negotiations with Tufts for a new payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreement in a community meeting held Wednesday night at the Somerville Public Library West Branch.
Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone said that “nothing” had been resolved after 10 months of negotiations and announced that the city was setting a deadline of February 2020 for agreement to be reached. The other seven members of the committee unanimously agreed with the mayor.
If the negotiations are not completed by then, “all bets are off,” Curtatone warned.
PILOTs are voluntary agreements which the untaxed nonprofits sign with their host communities to compensate them for some of the property taxes they would pay were they not tax exempt.
The university pays its PILOT in cash payment to the host communities’ general funds and in non-monetary benefits such as access to sports facilities, scholarships and opportunities for local high school students and community service done by students.
The previous agreement expired at the end of 2018, and the two sides have been holding monthly negotiations since then.
The eight members of the Somerville committee unanimously reported that little progress had been made since they last updated the community in an April briefing.
Curtatone said that the only point in which there has been agreement is the city’s demand that there should be parity in Tufts’ cash PILOT payment to each host community.
The university paid $450,000 to Somerville, Medford and Boston each for fiscal year 2019, which represented a 64% increase in payment for Somerville and Medford.
At the meeting, however, the mayor and the residents in attendance lamented that this amount only represents about 8% of hypothetical property taxes for Somerville, instead of the 12.5% they hope to get. In addition, parity with Boston was only achieved through a cut to Boston’s PILOT payment.
Beyond the cash payments, Tufts’ role in Somerville’s housing crisis was a key focus of both officials and residents.
Katjana Ballantyne, president of the Somerville City Council, argued that the large number of Tufts students who seek off-campus housing drives up rents, which were already high, and pushes out working class families.
“[Tufts] doesn’t see that they have a housing shortage, it’s us who have the housing shortage with their students,” Ballantyne said.
Both Ballantyne and Curtatone said that they have been pressuring the university to build a new dorm to take the pressure off neighborhoods. Curtatone explained that the city negotiators have submitted language on housing issues, but that Tufts has yet to respond.
Andre Green, the Ward Four representative on the Somerville School Committee, explained that the two sides have gone back and forth on the work that Tufts students do in classrooms in Somerville, including helping to teach classes, and how that work applies to PILOT. According to Green, currently there is no system in place to ensure these programs exist outside of student interest.
“The good news is that Tufts agrees with us in theory. The devil’s in the details, it’s a question of how we do it,” Green said.
Rocco DiRico, Tufts’ director of government and community relations and a member of its PILOT negotiating team, told the Daily in an emailed statement last month that the university will continue negotiating with the city this semester and hopes to secure a long-term agreement with Somerville and Medford.
“We look forward to continued negotiations with both cities,” he wrote.
Ballantyne repeatedly stressed that the PILOT is entirely voluntary, and the university could pay nothing without violating the law. This led conversation in the direction of what the city would do if the university did not submit to the city’s demands.
“If what’s proposed is not something that meets the values and objectives of the community then we shouldn’t agree to it. Then we have to make a decision as a community about how we want to respond to that,” Curtatone said.
The key protection the university relies on to shield itself from these more muscular tactics is the Dover Amendment, which Ballantyne explained prohibits municipalities from impeding non-profits from carrying out their missions.
Ballantyne, who represents Ward Seven on the Somerville City Council, gave an update on a bill working its way through the Massachusetts state legislature that would exempt Somerville from the Dover Amendment so they could require Tufts to provide an institutional master plan. This plan would outline Tufts’ intentions for expansion for years down the road.
However, for the third session in a row, the bill is stuck in the Committee on Bills in the Third Reading, where it has died twice before. A Tufts Daily investigation last spring revealed that this was in part due to lobbying overseen by University President Anthony Monaco.
Green said he thought that community outcry might be the most effective means of getting concessions from Tufts.
“To move off of what he was saying, in terms of our leverage, the biggest one is Tufts doesn’t want this to be a big messy deal,” he said. “They want it quiet, they want it quiet from a public relations standpoint.”
He urged residents to speak out and organize around the issue.
Residents also expressed outrage over Tufts’ links to the Sackler family, the billionaire owners of Purdue Pharma who are widely believed to have contributed to the opioid epidemic.
On this point, Curtatone was especially blunt, evoking the 77 Somerville residents who have died due to the epidemic and saying that he was working to see Tufts held accountable.
“That’s blood money. At the end of the day, that’s blood money,” Curtatone said.