Connecticut College needs to pony up

Tax-exempt Connecticut College pays New London a measly $12,500 a year in lieu of taxes. No, that's not a misprint. The rich college pays its poor host city just $12,500 for all the city services it receives.

I circle around to this topic again because the deal by which the college pays this money, the result of a 2007 settlement of a dispute over whether its commercial use of some buildings might be considered taxable, is expiring soon and due to be renegotiated.

City Law Director Jeffrey Londregan recently renegotiated a similar deal with Mitchell College, one related to its purchase of the old Michael's Dairy on Montauk Avenue.

Sending the law director might not be the best choice to negotiate a good deal. The $28,750 in annual payments from Mitchell from the old five-year deal were only tweaked, with the college paying just a few thousand more.

I understand the law director was looking very narrowly at the issues related to the dairy property. And I don't think many city residents would be out for blood when it comes to what the struggling college might be able to pay.

I think the issues for the wealthier Connecticut College are significantly different.

In that case, Mayor Michael Passero ought to take on those negotiations himself and widen the scope of the conversation to include a plan on how to help the college do more for the city.

I would suggest the mayor, a college alumnus, take college President Katherine Bergeron to lunch and begin a long conversation.

Isn't this the kind of diplomacy voters had in mind in switching to a mayoral form of government?

Of course the mayor has no real leverage to make the college pay anything in lieu of taxes. But that might change. The General Assembly considered yanking colleges' exemptions a few years ago and may again. Removing the exemptions for hospitals is being weighed now.

Colleges would be wise to engage in some cooperation and diplomacy with host cities before that day comes.

Lots of schools across the country are recognizing the need to help the cities that host them. Here in Connecticut, Yale University volunteers $8.2 million in payments to New Haven every year, in addition to the $4.5 million it pays in taxes on its commercial properties.

Brown University in Providence, Bergeron's last employer, pays $8 million in voluntary and property tax payments to the city. Brown also pays $2.3 million in fees and maintains its own campus law enforcement agency.

I know Brown's endowment was reported at more than $3 billion and Connecticut College's was a little less than $300 million in 2015.

An English major, I never took a math course while at Connecticut College, but I know that a proportionate share of its own endowment, compared to Brown's, would mean Connecticut College should be contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars to New London.

The actual tax bill, if the General Assembly ever allows the city to present one, would be more than $5 million a year.

So I suggest the mayor play the shame card at lunch.

It should be truly embarrassing to every member of the college community that the college is paying only $12,500 a year to the poor city that dutifully responds to all its emergency police and fire calls. There are homeowners who pay more than that.

And I am sure the mayor knows to remind the president, if she brings up the college payroll and volunteering by members of the college community, that all taxpaying businesses, from Electric Boat to the pizza houses at the bottom of the college hill, have payrolls and employees who contribute to their community.

I do think there is probably much more that the college could do to help the city than write a check. Look at the great example set in nearby Middletown, where Wesleyan University is moving its bookstore downtown, making it a retail hub and economic driver for the city.

Bergeron has a lot of big thinkers up on her campus. How about getting them to develop creative ways in which to harness the college's ample resources to fuel economic development, as Wesleyan has?

If nothing else, form a committee. Get a conversation going up and down the hill.

Certainly the college can do a lot more to help the city that generously gave it its start.

This is the opinion of David Collins.


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