Nonprofits’ fees should not carry agenda

With New Haven’s state and federal funding ebbing fairly consistently, we were heartened to hear that Yale-New Haven Hospital officials have continued negotiating voluntary payments to City Hall in lieu of the taxes from which the nonprofit hospital is exempt. But while it is important for the city to accommodate its current budget problems with all due speed, we are troubled by the hospital’s implicit bartering of such funds in exchange for movement on the Yale-New Haven Cancer Center.

There can be no doubt that voluntary contributions from the city’s various nonprofit institutions are crucial to its short-term financial strategy. With roughly half of New Haven real estate exempt from taxation — including much of its most valuable property — the Elm City cannot function in the same way more industry-driven municipalities do without at least some concessions from its nonprofits.

Other city nonprofits have already acknowledged this reality. The Community Foundation of Greater New Haven and the Annie E. Casey Foundation are among those that have pledged respectable sums toward the city’s deficit. And last April’s agreement between New Haven and Yale University, which upped the school’s annual voluntary contributions by 80 percent to $4.2 million, proved that such donations can make an enormous difference.

We laud President Richard Levin for moving the University, the city’s largest employer, on this issue. And there is much that Yale-New Haven, as the city’s second-largest employer, can do as well.

That said, we understand that the hospital feels obliged to act in its own ostensible best interest. To that end, public relations for Yale-New Haven seem likely to benefit almost as much from a modest contribution as from a more substantive one. But if good publicity is at all on the hospital’s mind, we cannot understand why they would talk voluntary payments and push the cancer center in the same breath.

This kind of talk casts any sort of “voluntary agreement” into serious question. As much as New Haven needs the money, it is inappropriate for the city or the hospital to facilitate a scenario in which Yale-New Haven can essentially buy its way out of the city’s sticky zoning deliberations, although we know how frustrating those delays are. If the hospital is willing to contribute to New Haven’s budget, it should do so in good faith, in recognition of what Levin has called the “necessary services” provided by city funds — a fire department, for example.

In the long term, of course, the city should not expect nonprofit contributions to address all of its financial woes. These problems serve to underline the all-too-pressing concerns for economic development that have left nonprofits the city’s primary employers in the first place, and we reject assertions of some city officials that nonprofits should substitute for taxable industry indefinitely.

For now, though, the Elm City has few alternatives, and should come to terms with Yale-New Haven as soon as possible. But the hospital’s contribution should be made to acknowledge the ways in which it already benefits from city offices — not to encourage new ones.

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