State lawmakers consider taxing Wallingford’s Choate Rosemary Hall, other private schools [Record-Journal]

September 16, 2015

Record Journal

Lawmakers may take up legislation in the next session that would tighten the tax exemptions on non-profit secondary schools, such as Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford.

Faced with less state aid to municipalities, the General Assembly passed legislation last session that requires colleges to pay taxes on residential properties with 20 housing units or fewer —off of their main campuses —if they use them to house students. The measure applies to both existing properties and future purchases.

But the legislation left out non-profit secondary schools, such as Choate, that have also purchased property off their main campuses, lawmakers said.

“Come drive down South Elm Street, North Main Street, Christian Street,” said state Rep. Mary Fritz, D-Wallingford. “It seems like every time a house goes on the market, Choate is there with the first offer.”

Fritz supports charging taxes on existing Choate holdings in private residences that were once on the tax rolls, similar to new regulations on private colleges and universities. House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, led the push to reform municipal tax exemptions for the past three years. His district is home to Quinnipiac University

“It’ll probably come up again,” Fritz said. Sharkey is “wedded to it.”

State Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, supports taxing Choate’s off-campus housing property, but only on future purchases.

“That would make more sense,”Mushinsky said. “It’s more fair than going back in time.

“There’s a number of these prep schools around the state,” Mushinsky continued. “They (Choate) have been a good neighbor; but the more exemptions there are, the harder it is on everybody else.”

Mushinsky also wants more state aid or payment in lieu of taxes funding returned to the municipalities to cover the amount of money cities and towns lose because of tax-exempt properties, such as Choate. The state has steadily decreased the amount of PILOT funding, although cities and towns with large inventories of non-profits, such as New Haven, received added funding in this year’s budget. But Wallingford lost about $5 million in PILOT funding, according to Fritz.

Sharkey wants to study the issue to determine how many secondary non-profits have residential housing for students, according to spokesman Larry Perosino.

“It did come up in discussions and is worth exploring,” Perosino said. “He does think it’s worth looking at.”

Senate Minority Leader Leonard Fasano, R-North Haven, initially opposed the idea, stating taxing non-profits is a “money grab” that, among other things, could lead to changing the tax-exempt status of other institutions such as churches.

“You don’t change the rules of institutions halfway through the game,” Fasano said. “That’s grossly unfair. If you don’t solve your structural problems with the deficit, where is this going to end? It’s a zero sum game.”
But he said taxation on residential purchases used to convert to dorms or teacher housing is worth serious consideration.

“I wouldn’t completely rule out property a school buys and converts to a dormitory, that’s an apartment,” Fasano said. “Off-site housing should also be taxed. There’s some merit to that.”