Is Taxing WC Students a Viable Option?

By Molly Igoe and Elijah McGuire-Berk
News Editor and Elm Staff Writer
Washington College Vice President for Finance and Administration Mark Hampton spoke at Chestertown’s Town Council meeting on Monday, Feb. 1 about the possibility of a PILOT program between the College and the town.
According to the Department of the Interior’s website, PILOT or PILT programs, which stands for “Payment in Lieu of Taxes” are “Federal payments to local governments that help offset losses in property taxes due to non-taxable Federal lands within their boundaries.”

The College has not agreed to participate in a PILOT program yet, and leaders in Chestertown are open to discussing other methods to help offset town costs.
The College has not agreed to participate in a PILOT program yet, and leaders in Chestertown are open to discussing other methods to help offset town costs.

At the meeting, Hampton set out to dispel myths about how much the College actually pays in property taxes by showing two diagrams that displayed the break down between tax-exempt and taxed properties, explaining that of the 206 acres that make up WC, half of that is taxed. The College is 12.44 percent of Chestertown’s 1,633.44 acres.
Hampton stated that given the amount of non-profits in town, the reasonableness of a PILOT caused concern in attracting and retaining these organizations. He said that non-profits live from donation to donation and from grant to grant, so an added fee would be difficult for any entity.
Chestertown Mayor Chris Cerino wanted to make it clear that the town values WC and is aware of all that they have contributed to Chestertown. He said, “A PILOT program implies that we don’t appreciate the College, which just isn’t true. We would like to initiate discussions to help each other, as we have helped issue the College bonds in the past. We think they can help us out with the program.” The town has issued a total of five bonds since 2008, which has lowered the interest rate the College has had to pay for various expenses.
Cerino explained that at this point, the town needs help financing public services that WC also utilizes, like the fire and police departments, because having 1,400 18-to-21 year olds, which will just increase in the upcoming years, puts unique pressures on the police force.  He said, “The police force consists of about 40 percent of our annual expenses, approximately $1.5 million, and the road crew comes in at around 40 percent as well right around $1.5 million.  These are services that directly benefit the College. The police department, in addition to dealing with major crises on campus such as the Marberger incident, which occur infrequently, gets called to break up or monitor off-campus student parties and provide added security for major events such as the War on the Shore lacrosse game.”
“If the College really wants to help us, the program is a possible avenue, but it has to be voluntary, and there must be a mutual understanding that this will be a partnership,”  Cerino said.
Chestertown Town Manager Bill Ingersoll echoed Mayor Cerino’s comments “There’s no way we can have a program unless the College agrees to it. It has to be 100 percent voluntary just like all the things we’ve done in the past with the College have been with a voluntary spirit.”

Town residents are concerned that the expansion of the College is straining the town’s infastructure.
Town residents are concerned that the expansion of the College is straining the town’s infastructure.

Cerino said that the initial response from the College has been that they will not be able to afford a PILOT program, which Hampton emphasized in his speech at the town council meeting this past month. Hampton said, “WC has a $64 million budget, but any leftover money has to be passed along to students.”  Cerino said that they are willing to find a plan that will not put a significant strain on the College.
Both Cerino and Ingersoll agree that a $100 fee for students each year would make the most sense. Cerino said, “We would probably do $50 a semester, which will add up to $100 per year. This would help the town immensely and is a modest amount of money considering how much students pay for tuition already.”
However, there have been many outspoken students at WC who are not thrilled about the plan, especially in regards to the $100 fee. The WC Democrats have been the most vocal about their criticisms.
The club’s Executive Vice President Julia Cohn said that she understood why the mayor wants the College to pay a fee, but wished that the College had informed students about the plan, rather than having to find it in the notes from a meeting.  “It was like they were trying to hide it from us,” she said.
Executive President Kyle Rugletic suggested that the town and the College hear what the students have to say about it.  He said that he’s willing to reach out to Mayor Cerino to “start a forum or a community event instead of just holding a town meeting with a few representatives from the College.”  Rugletic hopes that this would not only allow for more voices to be heard but also help tighten the relationship between Chestertown residents and WC students.
Joseph Swit, the club’s communications director, was unhappy with the proposed fee.  He said, “It does seem a little unfair that Chestertown would ask students to pay even more considering the College is by far their largest economic generator.”
The club’s Programming Director Cherie Ciaudella was more concerned about the College’s role in everything.  She said, “Anything that the College can do to help the town would be beneficial for both of us.”  She said, “Objectively, $100 is not too much per student and if the mayor is just talking about $100 per student, I’m sure that lump sum can be taken out of whatever the College does with the rest of our tuition.”
Another student who was willing to share his opinion was Student Government President Taylor Frey.  The first thing he pointed out was that the town doesn’t actually have the power to force the College to levy the fee on its students.  He said, “I highly respect the town officials that are trying to solve a very difficult problem,” but, “charging every student an additional $100 when most students are trying to make ends meet or going into a significant amount of debt to pay for a college education is not something that’s going to work for WC or our students.”  He also said, “$100 can be the difference between paying for a meal plan and housing. $100 for a student can make a big difference for their daily life.” While he said that it wouldn’t affect all students, he did say “a majority of students would be disadvantaged by this fee.”
Many residents of Chestertown also have mixed emotions about the College and the PILOT program. Cerino said, “The College has an interesting reputation among townspeople right now because they said they couldn’t afford to finance this program, but they have been able to buy land and build new buildings.”
Other townspeople argue that the town administration should not push this issue because the College is such an important asset. Ingersoll agreed. “A lot of people in town are connected to the College in some way and see how important it is; however, many still believe that because so much of our public services benefit the College that something should be done in lieu of taxes.”
Cerino pointed out that the College is expanding, which puts added stress on the town’s infrastructure. Ultimately, he said the best way is to mitigate these effects is for the College to help out financially.
Ingersoll said, “We’ve lived without taxes for 250 years, and we have survived thus far. Hopefully with a new college administration and new members in our administration, we will get a little closer and talk a little more. It may even be a good idea to invite a town board member to school board meetings to increase cohesiveness.”
Cerino said, “This PILOT program would be implemented at the end of this calendar year if the College is willing to help. We will have more discussions.” Ingersoll is optimistic about the ongoing relationship between the College and the town. He said, “the future is bright, and the College has never looked better.”
Mayor Cerino said that he would be happy to meet with anyone to discuss the proposed plans.

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