Letter shows tensions remain between Town and College

On Feb. 11, The North Adams Transcript published a letter to the editor by Dan Gendron, a former Williamstown selectman, which accused the College of causing many of the Town’s woes. Gendron expressed his belief that the College exercises unfair and unwise control over the Town’s affairs, especially regarding economics.

He accused the College of being “a miserly landlord – despite its world class PR – that doubles as town government.” He based this claim primarily on the construction of the new elementary school. The College helped pay for the school, but now the Town is having trouble funding it. Gendron blames this problem on the College. “[Williams] needed a new elementary school for ‘image’ to attract professionals accustomed to the accouterments of a large city and not the Appalachian mountains,” he said.

Anne Skinner, senior lecturer in Chemistry and the former chair of the Williamstown Board of Selectmen, disagreed with this claim. “The votes that approved the financing for the school were overwhelming, both in turnout and support. Many, many of those voting had no connection whatsoever to the College,” she said. “Did [the Town] vote for something that is now possibly going to be a financial problem? Maybe, maybe not. But the town voted for it, not the College.”

The responsibility of financing the new school is currently unresolved. Many town members feel that the College should continue with its financial contributions to the new school, while many people at the College feel that they have already done enough, or do not feel that the College is responsible for ensuring that the new public school runs well.

“We are looking into what we can do now,” President Schapiro said.

In his letter, Gendron used the example of the elementary school to make the overall point that the College’s tax-exempt status was unfair and unwarranted and that the College consumes Williamstown’s resources without fair compensation.

“Williams needs to ante up,” he wrote. “And Williams needs to behave more like a College than an island state that conquers and colonizes as its secondary and unnecessary business as it eats up property, destroys the sense of village and removes more properties from the tax role.”

He then questioned the tax-exempt status of all colleges: “End the sanctimonious gifting of tax-free status to ALL institutions – it feels good, but it empties your pockets. They don’t need it unless they are a foundling organization. Everyone should pay something and God knows that Williams can certainly afford it.”

Currently, some colleges, including Amherst, have a Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program, where colleges contribute to their towns although they still technically have tax-exempt status.

According to Skinner, Williams does not have such a program for multiple reasons. For example, in the rare occurrence where graduate students living in tax-free dormitories have children attending local public schools, costs inflicted on the town are not accounted for in any way.

In addition, Williams already pays for some things that it does not have to. For example, the College pays taxes on the Taconic Golf Course. Yet, Yale University kept its golf course off the tax roll for many years.

College officials also state that another problem with programs such as PILOT is that there are many departments within the College that also need money.

According to Skinner, the effects of giving a blank check to the Town to finance the new school would include lower morale and budget problems on campus.

Those at the College hope that it will retain its tax-exempt status. “Given the widespread financial problems in the country, I’m not surprised at the push to take colleges off the tax-exempt list,” Skinner said. “I hope that doesn’t happen, but I really don’t feel that what Williams has done constitutes an example that would support removing its non-taxable status.”

“The College has stepped forward over and over again when we are needed,” Schapiro said. He cited the construction of the new elementary school and the renovation of Spring Street as two recent examples.

On campus, there is little opposition to helping the Town, especially considering its status as a non-taxable institution. The controversy arises over the question of how much help to give. “Williams shouldn’t be and can’t be the only answer to the town’s fiscal situation,” Schapiro said. “But, as always, we’ll be working with town officials to determine the College’s appropriate role.”

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *