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CONCORD

Few heed call for voluntary payments

Town officials press tax-exempt entities

By Jennifer Fenn Lefferts
Globe Correspondent / February 24, 2011

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A year after sending all nonprofit organizations in town a letter requesting voluntary cash contributions in lieu of property tax payments, Concord officials report having had little success persuading them to step up.

One selectman said he has struck out, while another said he has seen at least a glimmer of hope from some groups. But they said they are not giving up, nor will they try to strong-arm any of the tax-exempt entities to help out.

“I haven’t been successful with anybody,’’ said Jeffrey Wieand, the chairman of the Board of Selectmen. “But I’ve talked to people who are at least thinking about it.’’

The town’s letter last year asked each nonprofit to consider making annual payments of some amount. Leaders of many organizations said they were turned off by the tone of the letter.

Since then, selectmen decided to approach groups individually to see whether they could make some progress.

Few groups have been willing to commit to anything other than continued support of the town through in-kind donations or through the services they already provide, Concord officials said.

“We’re not being met with overwhelming success, but they are thinking about it,’’ Wieand said.

But Selectman Greg Howes said he has made no progress.

“We wanted to be direct about the need and offered some possible pathways,’’ Howes said. “I’m just hitting a wall at each turn.’’

Emerson Hospital and Concord Academy, two of the town’s largest nonprofit entities, said they have no plans to provide a specific annual contribution.

“We will continue to work closely with town officials to support the community we serve,’’ said Naomi Funkhouser, a spokeswoman for Emerson Hospital. “To date, that financial support has been in the form of in-kind donations. Discussions are always ongoing.’’

The hospital’s in-kind donations have included emergency medicine and disaster planning, preventive care, programs for children and adolescents, senior services, and health education, Funkhouser said.

Gail Friedman, a spokeswoman for Concord Academy, said the private school is standing by its previous position that nonprofit organizations should remain exempt from paying property taxes. She said the school contributes to the town in other ways.

“It’s important to realize that independent schools can help towns in a variety of ways,’’ she said. “Concord Academy values its strong relationship with the town of Concord, and will continue to share its campus and talents.’’

Last year, Friedman noted, Concord Academy renovated a space in the Fire Department’s quarters, donating more than $35,000 worth of labor.

The school also remains committed to offering access to facilities on its Main Street campus to the town and local charitable groups, she said.

Wieand said that while the town appreciates in-kind donations, they are not always consistent and so do not help balance the town’s budget.

“Asking people to pay money is never easy, and they never rush to do it,’’ Wieand said. “But we are trying to get the nonprofits to make a regular payment that we could count on and budget for.’’

Wieand said just three of 34 local nonprofit institutions that were sent letters last year agreed to make a cash payment. The Concord Art Association donated $1,000, while two independent municipal operations, the Concord Housing Authority and the Concord Municipal Light Plant, chipped in with payments of $17,890 and $355,000, respectively.

Wieand said the nonprofits are exempt from paying property taxes, but receive many services from the town, such as public safety and public works. He said it is only fair that they pay a small amount to help take the burden off residential taxpayers.

“In a town that has a lot of tax-exempt properties, it would be nice if they kicked in and helped pay,’’ Wieand said. “It’s very expensive to provide town services, and we provide them to all the nonprofits.’’

The total value of tax-exempt property in Concord is $935 million, which means that the town loses out on about $12.2 million in revenue each year.

Most of the tax-exempt properties are assessed at less than $3 million, but there are also several large pieces of land worth more.

They include the properties owned by Harvard University, assessed at $88 million; the Middlesex School’s campus, valued at $77 million; the Concord Land Conservation Trust, $76 million; Emerson Hospital, $30 million; and Concord Academy, $26 million.

Howes said he hopes that the groups reconsider, but added that the town has no plans to try to force the issue.

“We just want to work with our neighbors,’’ Howes said. “We’ll continue a dialogue and pull aside each group as they are willing to do so, and try to redesign it so it’s a win-win.’’

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.

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