Penn Democrats and Penn Student Power joined a coalition with other Philadelphia-based organizers urging the University and other large non-profit organizations to pay Payments in Lieu of Taxes, or pay an amount of money to a state or local governments in place of taxes, which are most commonly property taxes.
PILOTS refers to the voluntary financial contributions that nonprofits pay to the cities they are based in. According to Pennsylvania law, institutions of learning are exempted from the requirement as long as their revenue goes toward the support of the institution or charity.
Property taxes partially fund essential city-provided services such as fire and police protection, trash pick-up and road maintenance, and also the public school system in Philadelphia.
Though the University was part of a PILOT payment agreement during former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell’s administration in the '90s, Penn and Columbia University are now the only two Ivy League institutions that do not pay PILOTS to their local governments.
On May 5, Philadelphia Jobs with Justice, the local organization that is running the campaign with the support of Penn Dems and Penn Student Power, hosted a virtual speak-out about the social and financial impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on Philadelphia’s public schools. The event, featuring speakers including teachers, parents, and students of the Philadelphia public school system, attempted to expose the economic burden the pandemic poses to the Philadelphia School District — in an attempt to prompt action from the University.
"Penn is an economic leader in our city, controlling so much of our land, money, and jobs, so it is critical that Penn is paying their fair share of revenue to our public schools, along with every mega non-profit," Philadelphia Jobs with Justice Executive Director and 2017 College graduate Devan Spear said.
“We know that Penn won’t fix our public schools overnight," she said. "But it’s about establishing a steady new source of revenue to account for that fact that Philly has one of the highest percentages of nonprofit tax-exempt land of any major city.”
Penn Dems Legislative Director and rising College junior Francois Barrilleaux said that in addition to Penn Dems and Penn Student Power, the coalition consists of Penn Law students doing research for the project, unaffiliated Penn students, members of other local non-profits, local teachers, and parents.
“Together, we’ve been holding meetings and contributing ideas to collaborate on media and outreach to contribute to the campaign, most recently through the online event," Barrilleaux said. "We talked with city Councilmember Kendra Brooks, local school students, with at one point over one hundred people watching.”
Now that the campaign is underway, Penn Dems Secretary and rising College sophomore Emilia Onuonga said that Penn Dems is working on informing more members of the Penn community about the issue of PILOTS.
“Penn has a really complex and horrible history with Philadelphia, and it’s disheartening to see the dichotomy between Penn’s campus and the surrounding schools that are struggling right now,” Onuonga said. “We’re going to continue to put pressure on Penn to pay PILOTS, and hopefully bring more of the student body to be a part of the mission, in the process.”
Though it may not affect all Penn students directly, Barrilleaux hopes that the issue is one that Penn students will care about.
“As students, we do have the power to urge the University to take the issue seriously. We want to be proud of Penn, but the fact that we go to such a prestigious, well-funded institution that’s right next to schools that are failing students in our community, and that the University isn’t paying PILOTS to help that, feels like something to be ashamed of,” Barrilleaux said.