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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Thursday, April 18, 2024

Somerville groups push for more payments from Tufts

As Tufts and Somerville negotiate a new partnership agreement, activists are pressuring the university to offer more robust financial contributions to its host communities.

Two dozen community, labor and student groups signed a letter urging University President Anthony Monaco to “bargain in good faith” with Somerville. Tufts’ partnership agreements with both Medford and Somerville — which include payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) and community benefits — expired in June, and officials from Tufts and Somerville say negotiations for a new agreement are still in progress.

“Negotiations are actively ongoing,” Somerville Director of Communications and Community Engagement Denise Taylor told the Daily in an email. "The City's participation is being guided by the priorities outlined by the community.”

As part of a new agreement, the school is prepared to “significantly increase” its voluntary cash payments to Medford and Somerville, Tufts' Director of Community Relations Rocco DiRico said in an email to the Daily.

Tufts gave each city $275 thousand in annual voluntary PILOT payments under the school’s previous five-year agreements. The school is exempted from property taxes on most of its landholdings due to its nonprofit status, but Tufts’ property would have netted Somerville an extra $6.6 million per year in 2014 if it were taxable, according to a city assessment.

Somerville resident Joyce Shortt, a member of Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone’s PILOT Negotiating Team, said the previous PILOT figure is too low.

“There was no question that $275,000 was a very modest amount, considering how much Tufts benefits from Somerville,” Shortt said.

PILOT payments help pay for basic city services that Tufts uses, including Somerville’s fire and police departments, City Council President Katjana Ballantyne explained. Residents also noted that the school benefits from being in a desirable and conveniently located city like Somerville.

Residents have expressed frustration that Tufts’ PILOT payments to Boston — which hosts the school’s medical campus — are significantly larger than its Medford and Somerville contributions.

Tufts gave Boston about $584,000 in cash contributions last fiscal year, more than double its contributions to Somerville or Medford, even though the school’s property in Somerville is valued about twice as high as its Boston property, according to documents from both cities.

The letter from local advocates suggested that Somerville use Boston’s model, which asks nonprofits to pay 25 percent of their tax bill if they were taxable, half in cash and half in community benefits. DiRico explained that the three cities use different property assessments and tax rates, so comparisons are challenging, though the school plans to keep its payments to Medford and Somerville equal.

Alongside PILOT payments, Tufts offers in-kind benefits like athletic field access for youth sports, SAT prep and other school programs, grants to local nonprofits and space to host community events, as outlined in the previous partnership agreements.

These programs have continued even though the last partnership agreement expired last year, DiRico added. Some community members say they want more dialogue on community programs, with Ballantyne noting that collaboration with local schools benefits both Tufts and the city.

“That is an opportunity for the university,” Ballantyne said. “That advances their mission.”

Some residents say Tufts can best assist the city by addressing the area’s housing needs. Tufts’ full-time undergraduate population grew by more than 400 between 2007 and 2017, but the school has not added a major new dorm since Sophia Gordon Hall opened in 2006, leaving more students to search for housing off campus.

Edward Beuchert, a West Somerville resident and member of the PILOT Negotiating Committee, says this dearth of on-campus housing has put enormous pressures on the neighborhood.

“Families can’t afford to pay what a landlord could [charge] by renting it out to students,” Beuchert said. “It’s not affordable for people to get an apartment around here to house a family.”

Residents like Beuchert want Tufts to address this gap head-on by building a new dormitory. DiRico noted that the university is studying the feasibility of a new dorm building, but it is still working to add hundreds of new beds to its campus housing stock by optimizing existing property.

“We’re aggressively taking these other steps, recognizing the need to address housing as an important priority for the university and our host communities,” DiRico said.

Ballantyne and Beuchert emphasized that they do not see Tufts students as adversaries. Rather, they hope to work alongside students who are concerned about housing and community issues.

While Shortt, the Somerville resident and Negotiating Team member, is somewhat frustrated that PILOT negotiations are still ongoing, she is optimistic that the city will craft a strong agreement.

“If the outcome is a positive one,” Shortt said, “it will be worth the wait.”