, Salem, MA

December 19, 2013

Our view: Think twice before targeting nonprofits

The Salem News

---- — Danvers Selectman Bill Clark wants the town to hit up St. John’s Preparatory School for a little cash.

“They are the largest landowner in Danvers, and their property is probably worth the most of any outside the mall,” Clark said at a recent selectmen’s meeting. “And, yet, they don’t pay a thing.”

Clark wants the school — and other, yet-to-be named nonprofits — to make a voluntary payment in lieu of taxes to help pay for things like street paving, snow plowing and emergency services.

“We just have to look at diversified revenue,” Clark said of the Xaverian Brothers-sponsored school, “because they are a big impact on the town.”

Yes, St. John’s does have a significant impact on the town and the region; it is a positive impact that goes beyond the first-class education it provides. St. John’s isn’t separate from the larger community — it is a part of it. Danvers school, youth and community groups often use the Prep sports field and facilities. Danvers teachers collaborate on professional development programs with their peers from the Prep.

And St. John’s students are leaders in the community, as well, volunteering at places like Putnam Farms Senior Living and Northeast Arc and raising money for the Danvers People to People Food Pantry.

After singling out St. John’s Prep, Clark hastened to add that he was not interested in going after payments from churches or synagogues. Therein lies the problem — how do you decide which nonprofit to strong arm, and which ones get a pass?

Right now, the town’s approach to payments in lieu of taxes is haphazard. Danvers does not have a townwide PILOT program, nor does it have an appetite to develop one (selectmen rejected the idea three years ago).

The town does have PILOT agreements with Partners Healthcare, which owns Mass General/North Shore Center for Outpatient Care on Endicott Street, and Northeast Hospital Corp., which runs the Lahey Outpatient Center. Together, the payments bring a little more than $130,000 to Danvers.

But let’s remember, the majority of nonprofits in Danvers and across the North Shore are not awash in cash.

As Danvers Town Manager Wayne Marquis noted in a story by reporter Ethan Forman earlier this week, communities like Boston, Cambridge and Brookline use formulas to figure out what a nonprofit could contribute based on the services it uses.

In most cases, Marquis said, the contribution amounts to “25 cents on the dollar.” Is this what Danvers wants to be chasing down?

Clark does have a good point when he suggests the Prep, which will be adding a middle school, should help pay for a traffic light at the intersection of Summer and Maple streets, should it become necessary. It would be an improvement that directly affects the school.

As for a wider campaign to target nonprofits, pulling money out of their wallets is not the best way to prop up the town budget.