Payments in Lieu of Taxes
Charitable nonprofit organizations, including private universities, nonprofit hospitals, museums, soup kitchens, churches, and retirement homes, are exempt from property taxation in all 50 states. At the same time, these nonprofits impose a cost on municipalities by consuming public services, such as police protection and roads. Payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) are payments made voluntarily by these nonprofits as a substitute for property taxes.
In recent years, municipal revenue pressures have led to heightened interest in PILOTs, and over the last decade they have been used in at least 117 municipalities in at least 18 states. Large cities collecting PILOTs include Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. Boston has one of the longest standing and the most revenue productive PILOT program in the United States.
PILOTs are a tool to address two problems with the property tax exemption provided to nonprofits. First, the exemption is poorly targeted, since it mainly benefits nonprofits with the most valuable property holdings, rather than those providing the greatest public benefit. Second, a geographic mismatch often exists between the costs and benefits of the property tax exemption, since the cost of the exemption in terms of forgone tax revenue is borne by the municipality in which a nonprofit is located, but the public benefits provided by the nonprofit often extend to the rest of the state or even the whole nation.
PILOTs can provide crucial revenue for certain municipalities, and are one way to make nonprofits pay for the public services they consume. However, PILOTs are often haphazard, secretive, and calculated in an ad hoc manner that results in widely varying payments among similar nonprofits. In addition, a municipality’s attempt to collect PILOTs can prompt a battle with nonprofits and lead to years of contentious, costly, and unproductive litigation.
For this Policy Focus Report, authors Daphne A. Kenyon and Adam H. Langley have researched the continuing policy debate over property tax exemptions among municipalities and nonprofit organizations, and they offer the following recommendations.
PILOTs are one revenue option for municipalities. They are most appropriate for municipalities that are highly reliant on the property tax and have a significant share of total property owned by nonprofits. For example, a Minnesota study found that while PILOTs could increase property tax revenue by more than ten percent in six municipalities, there was negligible revenue potential from PILOTs for the vast majority of Minnesota cities and towns. Similarly, PILOTs are not appropriate for all types of nonprofits. PILOTs are most suitable for nonprofits that own large amounts of tax-exempt property and provide modest benefits to local residents relative to their tax savings.
Municipalities should work collaboratively with nonprofits when seeking PILOTs. The best PILOT initiatives arise out of a partnership between the municipality and local nonprofit organizations, because both sectors serve the general public and have an interest in an economically and fiscally healthy community. In some cities, case-by-case negotiation with one or several nonprofits is best, as is the case between Yale University and New Haven. In cities with a large number of nonprofits, such as Boston, creating a systematic PILOT program can promote horizontal equity among tax-exempt nonprofits and raise more revenue than negotiating individual agreements.
Both state and local governments should consider other alternatives to PILOTs. State governments should consider providing grants to local governments that host tax-exempt nonprofits to compensate them for their loss of property tax base, as is done in Connecticut. If states are unwilling to provide such grants, municipalities can consider alternative ways to raise revenue from tax-exempt nonprofits, such as increased user fees.
About the Authors
Daphne A. Kenyon is a visiting fellow in the Lincoln Institute’s Department of Valuation and Taxation and principal of D. A. Kenyon & Associates, Windham, New Hampshire.
Adam H. Langley is a research analyst in the Lincoln Institute’s Department of Valuation and Taxation and a master’s student in economics at Boston University.