In a suit and bow tie, Elder Ron Hurt prayed alongside the 30 people seated in Deliverance Temple Church Thursday afternoon. Then, he segued into the political.
“We’re here today to send a prayer up to Hartford,” he said.
Hurt is one of 103 local New Haven leaders who have signed a recent letter to members of the state General Assembly in support of S.B. 414, a bill concerning Yale’s property taxes. The letter’s signees include members of the New Haven clergy, Democratic Town Committee members and local business owners. Prior to reading the letter aloud, Hurt told the crowd Thursday that, just like local churches, Yale should pay taxes on its commercial properties.
He delineated the distinction between Deliverance Temple’s main building on 584 Congress Ave. — where it carries out its core, tax-exempt mission — and its commercial property. The church leases 592 Congress Ave. to the China Cafe next door, for example, and thus pays thousands of dollars in taxes on that property and others each year, Hurt said.
“Yale should be treated the same way we are treated,” Hurt said.
Yale has met the contentious bill — which has support from Mayor Toni Harp, the Board of Alders and New Haven’s state delegation — with considerable backlash. The University argues that the bill would essentially tax the University’s academic property and revoke Yale’s tax-exempt status. S.B. 414 passed the state’s finance committee this month and awaits full debate on the state senate floor this legislative session.
Like many of the bill’s current supporters, the letter’s authors said that S.B. 414 will only clarify which of the University’s properties are taxable. The community letter insists that Yale’s academic properties are tax-exempt, saying that current law governing the tax status of Yale’s commercial properties is unclear.
“This ambiguity in the law makes our city’s ability to provide basic services dependent upon voluntary payments made by Yale that are subject to change at any time,” the letter reads. “Indeed, Yale’s ongoing opposition to the bill demonstrates the potential for such a change.”
The University, which paid $4.5 million of property taxes in 2015, has given over $96 million in voluntary payments to the city since 1990. That year, New Haven used a bill similar to S.B. 414 as leverage to force Yale into making those annual payments, according to Rep. Pat Dillon MPH ’98, D-New Haven, who wrote the 1990 bill.
A Thursday morning press release from Yale’s Office of Public Affairs and Communications aimed at clearing up “any misconceptions about taxation of Yale-owned real estate” described the voluntary payments as a “true social contract.” The voluntary payment, which is pegged to inflation and now stands at $8.5 million a year, is the largest of its kind from any American university to any municipal government. The release also noted that Connecticut is one of two states with a Payment in Lieu of Taxes program, which provides municipalities with revenue to make up for nontaxable property such as Yale’s.
“Most cities in the nation receive little or no direct revenue because of nontaxable academic property,” the release reads. “New Haven stands out in that it receives unusually large direct revenue for its city budget because it is the home of a nontaxable university. Municipal fiscal analysts, when rating New Haven’s financial situation, regularly cite the relationship with Yale University as a positive factor.”
Other attendees at Thursday’s gathering included grassroots labor organization New Haven Rising co-founder Rev. Scott Marks and Beaver Hills Alder Jill Marks.
Tensions over the bill since its public emergence last month have been drawn out between local support and the University’s denouncement.
Yale has released public statements, lobbied legislators and written emails to staff and alumni decrying the bill. In a Hartford Courant op-ed on April 2, Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs and Campus Development Bruce Alexander ’65 claimed that lawmakers raised the bill, alongside a now-dead endowment tax bill, due to requests from Yale’s unions seeking University recognition of Yale’s graduate student union, Local 33, formerly known as the Graduate Employees and Students Organization.
While Yale’s unions and New Haven lawmakers have shied away from attributing the bill to union pressure, members of Locals 33, 34 and 35 have all spoken in favor of S.B. 414. Four-year contract negotiations between Yale and its unions began mid-March.
The University maintains that it already pays taxes on all of its commercial property, meaning that any additional property taxes would be levied on academic property, according to the Thursday statement.
The bill defines commercial activities as any of the following occurring on University property: rents or other payments; fees collected for admission or use of any sports or entertainment facility; fees, charges or royalties for any goods designed, produced or manufactured; and fees or charges for any services rendered to the public or any for-profit entities. Current state law allows municipalities to tax commercial college and university property generating $6,000 or more income annually.
Yale has determined that academic properties with activities that fall under these criteria of the bill would be affected, including the Yale Center for Genome Analysis, Ingalls Rink, Payne Whitney Gymnasium and possibly the “labs of any faculty member who launched a successful startup.”
The University has also reached out to local groups that currently use its properties, noting that the bill may require Yale to end access to these properties for the sake of tax exemption. One such group, the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, would thus no longer be able to perform in Woolsey Hall, where it has held concerts for over a century.
In the public statement, OPAC noted that should the bill pass, taxes on Woolsey Hall would near $760,000 each year. OPAC said total property taxes owed by Yale under S.B. 414 would be “high,” but did not list a specific figure.
The University owned property in 12 municipalities valued at about $2.5 billion on the 2011 grand list — the aggregate valuation of taxable property within the town — according to preliminary fiscal notes released by the state’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis April 7. If not for its tax-exempt status, Yale would have paid $65.2 million in taxes to these municipalities in fiscal year 2013, with New Haven receiving $62.8 million of that revenue. But the OFA was unable to determine how much of that payment would be from properties affected by S.B. 414. Thirty-seven members of the city’s Democratic Town Committee representing 24 of New Haven’s wards have signed the community leaders’ letter, alongside city clergy, such as Congregation Mishkan Israel’s Rabbi Herbert Brockman, and local business owners like SeeClickFix CEO Ben Berkowitz.
If passed by the state legislature, S.B. 414 would become effective Oct. 1.