The pressure is on University administrators to pay PILOTs.
On Thursday morning, the Philadelphia City Council approved a non-binding resolution calling on Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration to ask large nonprofits in the city for PILOTs, or payments in lieu of taxes.
PILOTs are contributions that nonprofits can make to local governments to account for the usage of essential city services like trash removal, police and fire protection.
Under Pennsylvania state law, nonprofits like Penn are exempt from paying property taxes. Renewed calls for PILOT agreements come in the midst of funding issues in the School District of Philadelphia since property taxes go in large part towards funding public schools.
The resolution, which was introduced by Penn alumnus and City Councilman W. Wilson Goode, passed on a 15-1 vote, with Republican Councilman Dennis O’Brien giving the lone “nay” vote.
Despite rising pressure from government officials, University administrators continue to firmly oppose PILOT payments.
Penn’s position on the issue has not changed, Vice President of the Office of Government and Community Affairs Jeff Cooper said.
Regarding the resolution’s passage, Cooper said, “This is a City Council request to the mayor. Neither the mayor nor Superintendent [William] Hite have asked [Penn] for [PILOTs]. We continue to talk to the mayor and the superintendent about what is best to do for the school district.”
The bill’s use of the term “mega-nonprofit” also drew criticism from Cooper. “The bill does not mention ‘nonprofits.’ It mentions ‘mega-nonprofits.’ What does ‘mega’ mean?” he said.
Moreover, Cooper did not see the PILOTs issue as merely directed at Penn.
“The issue of PILOTs relates to the nonprofit sector broadly and not Penn specifically,” he said.
The resolution does broadly call for payments from “mega-nonprofits” in Philadelphia, which include universities like Drexel and Temple, as well as major health care institutions.
However, since protesters from the Student Labor Action Project disrupted Penn President Amy Gutmann’s holiday party in December to call for PILOT payments, the citywide campaign for PILOTs centered on Penn.
Philadelphia Jobs with Justice, a coalition of over 40 student and community groups focused on economic justice, targets Penn specifically on its website with the hashtag #UPennFairShare. JwJ is also the umbrella organization of SLAP.
Director of JwJ Gwen Snyder testified in front of the City Council Thursday morning before the vote. She called the decision to not pay PILOTs “unconscionable when our city is so deeply in need.”
Penn came up specifically as an example of a “mega-nonprofit” at the Council meeting this morning, when College sophomore and SLAP member Devan Spear addressed the assembly.
“I came to the University of Pennsylvania because I believe in its reputation for civic engagement,” she said. Spear acknowledged the University’s other forms of civic engagement, but insisted that this does not mean “that the University of Pennsylvania should be completely exempt to contributing to property taxes just like any other large, wealthy institution in the city is required to.”
“I believe that the PILOTs program is a step in the right direction to making Penn the best partner to the city it can be,” she added.
While JwJ and SLAP view the adoption of today’s resolution as a victory, their fight for PILOTs is far from over.
“We’re taking all of this as a mandate that we should keep doing what we’re doing and start to push harder,” College senior and SLAP member Chloe Sigal said.
Sigal mentioned an open letter from JwJ to Amy Gutmann as evidence of the citywide pressure on Penn. The letter, which was published last week on JwJ’s website, was signed by seventeen other community groups.
SLAP also hopes to have another meeting with Penn administrators. They had previously met with University officials after the protest at Gutmann’s house.
Either way, SLAP sees the near-unanimous passage of the resolution as evidence of a citywide consensus on PILOTs.
Sigal said the vote is “another way of showing that Philadelphians care about PILOTs and want it to happen."
Deputy News Editor Jennifer Wright contributed reporting.
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