, Salem, MA

April 17, 2013

Our view: An unseemly squeeze in Hamilton

The Salem News

---- — Once again, Hamilton officials are gearing up to press Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary to pay to send the children of seminarians to the public schools.

Two selectmen are scheduling a meeting with seminary officials to discuss the issue, which seems to arise every few years. When this came up four years ago, the seminary agreed to make a payment in lieu of taxes of $100,000 a year, and they have met that pledge every year. But the town wants more.

How much more varies, depending on which tuition rate is cited, but town selectmen estimate that it costs $8,000 a year to educate each child of a seminary student. With 40 to 50 children a year attending town schools, that would bring the total to at least triple what the seminary donates now.

Of course, it would be wonderful if the seminary — a nonprofit institution that is legally tax-exempt — felt able to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to Hamilton as a gesture of good will. But the college president points out that its own staff has had no raises for four years, and the seminary struggles to keep its costs affordable for students who are training for the ministry. Their students are not looking ahead to lucrative careers in business or finance, which would enable them to pay off thousands of dollars in college loans, but to years of what is generally modestly paid service to others.

And so the tendency of some townsfolk to keep squeezing the seminary for more money is, at some level, unseemly. The law is on the seminary’s side. Period.

Lots of other cities and towns incur costs resulting from the presence of tax-exempt institutions, and many of those communities have fewer financial resources than Hamilton. Nonprofits that can afford to do so — Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum comes to mind — contribute financially and otherwise, many of them generously. But others struggle to raise enough money to fund their own missions, and do not donate any money. That’s the way it goes.

We exempt them from taxes because they provide other benefits to society, benefits that we prize as much as, or more than, money. People who don’t like that can try to change the law, but focusing resentment on a few dozen schoolchildren accomplishes nothing.

That said, it would behoove selectmen and seminary officials to conduct their upcoming discussion in public session, so that everyone can understand the positions of both sides. Selectmen agreed to designate only two members to participate, to avoid violating the Open Meeting Law when they meet in private, as the seminary has requested. But what this needs more than anything is a public airing; because until both sides understand each other, the resentment is not going away.