Analysis of College impact on town requested

A petition calling for a detailed analysis of the financial impact of the College on Williamstown will be considered at the annual town meeting on May 21. The petition, which was signed by 17 townspeople, will coincide with discussion on the draft of a document entitled “Municipal Finances, Services and Facilities Draft Vision Plan,” presented by RKG Associates Inc., a firm working as a consultant in the development of a town master plan. “The draft master plan . . . suggested, at the instigation of the same group [of residents who have now drawn up the petition], that some sort of study be done,” said Anne Skinner, senior lecturer in chemistry and member of the Williamstown Board of Selectmen.

“There is a public perception that the town’s cost to provide municipal services to Williams College exceeds total revenues generated by the College and its associated real estate,” the document states. This perception, it continues, leads to town-gown tension, which is compounded by the lack of a concrete financial arrangement between the town and the College.

The petition contends that, as a consequence of the College’s tax-exempt status and the town’s rapidly rising residential property rates, “homeowners are paying an increasing share of the overall tax burden.”

“Williams College, like other educational, religious and non-profit institutions (the Clark Art Institute, for example), pays no property taxes on building used for educational purposes,” said Skinner. “That includes dorms, classrooms and support facilities like Buildings & Grounds. Williams does pay property taxes on all the housing rented to faculty, on the Faculty House and on the Taconic Golf Course, plus a few other buildings. The College is, in that way, the largest taxpayer in town.”

In other words, the College pays taxes on all its properties not used for educational purposes, including most of the buildings on Spring St., said James Kolesar, director of public affairs.

In addition, the College makes regular payments and “looks for opportunities to contribute to specific projects of broad benefit to the community and college,” said Kolesar. Annual donations of $15,000 to the local fire district and $16,000 to the Village Ambulance Service, for example, are long-standing commitments. In the 1999-2000 academic year, the College made payments to the town totaling $834,522. Recent incidental gifts include $1.5 to $2.5 million toward construction of the new Williamstown Elementary School, $770,000 to the Town Of Williamstown towards the cost of Spring St. renovation, $130,000 to provide a new home for the Village Ambulance Service, which now resides on College land rented on a “dollar-a-year” basis, and $50,000 toward the cost of developing the town’s master plan.

College gifts to town projects help the town, the draft states, but their informal nature leaves the town dependent on the generosity of College officials. “The value of the contributions has never been quantified on an annual basis, nor has any effort been made to systematically estimate the cost and revenue of Williams College to the town. . . . It is recommended that the town and college jointly undertake such a study as the basis for understanding the institution’s net fiscal impact on the community and for negotiating future cost-sharing agreements that are in the mutual interests of both parties,” explains the document.

The supporters of the petition favor a “payment in lieu of taxes arrangement,” whereby the College would reimburse the town for all municipal services provided by the taxpayer. “One complaint,” explains Skinner, “is that College vehicles do not pay excise tax (a form of property tax), but put wear and tear on the roads.” This argument has its flip-side, however. “All the tourists who come to Williamstown in the summer also use the roads without paying us,” points out Skinner. “[Taxpayers] subsidize that because the tourists help create jobs and business in town. So does the College – so is this a legitimate issue or not? It’s quite possible to argue both ways.”

If it is found that the current financial arrangement best serves the dual interests of the town and the College, an impact study could provide a basis for determining which projects the College should fund in the future, and how much it should contribute. This issue will become especially pertinent upon the completion of the town’s master plan. The finalized plan is expected to recommend several costly new projects and services.

“Reaching an agreement on a cost-sharing formula for capital improvements recommended in the master plan could be a logical outcome of this analysis,” the draft states.

Though an impact study might prove “really interesting and helpful, if done thoroughly and correctly,” said Kolesar, the cost may be prohibitive. He claimed that the level of support the petition will eventually find “depends on the details that haven’t been provided yet,” but anticipates that “many people [at the town meeting] will find it unnecessary and others will find it potentially costly. . . If it is going to cost town money, there won’t be a lot of interest in it,” he said. Moreover, Kolesar disagreed with the draft’s analysis of the negative public perception of the College’s financial impact on the town. To many residents, he said, it is “transparently obvious” that the benefits the College provides for the community greatly outweigh its costs.

“In general, I think town residents believe that the advantages of the College outweigh any costs such as services provided by taxpayers to a tax-exempt entity,” agreed Skinner.

If this is the dominant opinion at the town meeting, it may be determined that a financial impact study is unnecessary.

In 2000, the College employed 476 Williamstown residents. It spent $13.3 million with Berkshire County vendors, and $4.4 million with Williamstown vendors. It deposited $25.6 million in direct deposits of salaries and wages in local bank accounts. It is estimated that College students spend $2.8 million in the town annually.

Additionally, on average, 20,000 alumni, prospective students and family members visit every year. Williams also houses and supports the Williamstown Theater Festival and hosts summer conferences that bring to town roughly 6,000 participants.

The College saves the town the expense of providing athletic facilities by offering its own for use by local schools and residents for free or at subsidized rates.

Area high school students who have exhausted their school’s offerings in one or more subjects can enroll in courses at the College for a nominal fee, and Williamstown residents may audit courses for free with the consent of the instructor.

Residents may also patronize the Williams College Museum of Art and enjoy borrowing privileges at Sawyer library free of charge. Additionally, the College offers thousands of cultural and athletic events almost all of which are open to the public free of charge.

Kolesar characterizes the College’s attitude towards the town’s master plan, including the recommendation for an impact study, as cooperative rather than confrontational. The College’s own Campus Planning Committee shares certain members with th
e town’s planning committee, and the two groups will hold a joint meeting next month to discuss future plans.