I’ve written about the trend for cities to establish PILOTs (Payments in Lieu of Taxes) for nonprofit organizations. These payments (nominally voluntary) can be seen as a civilized way for museums to be good neighbors, supporting their community in economically troubled times. However, PILOTs may set the stage for a more formal erosion of tax exempt status. Unfortunately, many such examples are cropping up. Here are a few scanning hits that I hope don’t presage such a trend:
In Rhode Island
Newly elected Governor Chafee has just proposed a 6% sales tax on all tickets to performances and exhibitions, including those sold by museums, historical sites, zoos, parks, art galleries and libraries. It would also institute a 1% sales tax on items sold to charitable, educational or religious organizations. (Including, of course, museums.)
At the end of last year’s legislative session, lawmakers introduced a provision in state’s Miscellaneous Tax Bill that created a new 6 percent sales tax on all performances for non-profit groups that take in more than $50,000 in ticket sales annually. It’s set to go into effect on April 1. This could be seen as a values statement about nonprofits as much as a fiscal decision, as the new tax will only raise about $650,000 this year (less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the general budget).
A report commissioned from the nonprofit government issues firm BGR reviewed nonprofit property tax exemptions in Orleans Parish. The report concluded that eliminating the exemption would significantly increase government revenues or (in a revenue-neutral scenario) at least reduce overall property tax rates. It notes “there are some compelling arguments for eliminating the nonprofit exemption altogether and making property taxes a cost of doing business.” BGR presents recommendations for a new framework for non-profit property tax exemptions, including requiring a nonprofit benefiting from an exemption to demonstrate it “relieves the government of a burden or provides important public benefits.” Can museums demonstrate they are performing a function that government would otherwise need to take on? Hmmm. Probably not. So that leaves us arguing over what constitutes “important public benefits.” In this political climate, I don’t feel too sanguine about the outcome of that debate.
And the “public benefits” provision in the BGR report is a troubling echo of theBoston PILOT report which proposed charging nonprofits for the city services they receive, backing out the monetized value of the benefits the nonprofit provides to the city. How do we place a dollar value on the educational and social experiences we provide our communities, not to mention our roles as preservers of cultural, artistic, and scientific heritage? (That’s a serious question—I would love you to send examples of researchers or organizations attempting to do so.)
And perhaps these proposals point out the strategic downside of touting museums as economic drivers. It may become too easy to seize on that number (a museum’s putative contribution to tourism and local sales) as the quantified “benefit” factored into the tax debate.
Please write in to share news you spot that gives early hints on possible futures of nonprofit status. What actions can we, as a field and as individual organizations, take to stave off a future in which nonprofit museums are no longer tax-exempt?