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Choate’s tax-exempt status prompts political debate - Record Journal

I am quoted (in BOLD ITALICS below) in this piece from what I said at the meeting on Tuesday (7/11). I continue to maintain that there needs to be a discussion regarding how Choate and Wallingford continue to work together in the future. I have heard concerns from residents regarding the education budget and the cost of educating the children of Choate faculty housed on campus and I think that those are valid questions to ask.

I would encourage folks to watch the meeting (posted on YouTube) and listen to all of the commentary both pro and con. Questions raised by resident (and Choate neighbor) Phillip Youker about the process of moving residential properties into a category of 'dormitory from a planning and zoning perspective are ones that could be handled in a very bipartisan manner. Having that discussion might be the place to start where folks could all be on the same page...

Choate’s tax-exempt status prompts political debate

By Kate Ramunni Record-Journal staff


WALLINGFORD — It’s not a new issue, nor as simple as it may appear — whether Choate Rosemary Hall should be contributing more financially to the town than it does. Councilor Jason Zandri requested an item be added to the Town Council agenda for its Tuesday meeting to discuss Choate after hearing concerns from residents on social media, including on Facebook, where there are active pages devoted to Wallingford.

“The initial topic was Choate’s expansion, so that’s why the item is outlined as citizen concerns with respect to Choate expansion activities, but the conversation is bigger than that,” Zandri said. “One of the issues we have with any social media avenue is the fact that data and information tend to not only be marginalized and opinionized, sometimes it’s entirely misdirected.”

As a nonprofit, Choate does not pay taxes to the town on the majority of its holdings. Some have suggested the school should make a payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, to help offset the town services it uses. The state has a PILOT program that reimburses cities and towns for the revenue lost from nonprofits and state or municipally owned properties, but private high schools are not part of that program, unlike nonprofit colleges and universities. Efforts to rectify that in the state legislature have failed to gain ground.

“Technically we can’t (tax Choate) because of the kind of institution that they are,” Zandri said. “Why aren’t we collecting any type of PILOT from them? At the same time, it’s important to understand the element of that ask.”

Zandri said he often hears complaints about Choate purchasing properties, taking them off the town’s tax rolls. So, he said, he looked into it.

“I wanted to quantify how much property Choate has bought up because I think sometimes perception and reality are different things,” he said. “The way people talk, it sounds like they’re buying up property every other weekend.”

What he found is that Choate has purchased 11 properties in the past 23 years, he said.
“Nine are exempt from property tax, one remains a rental property and is taxable, and one was sold after being acquired,” he said.

“There’s only 10 properties that they’ve bought and maintained and kept over 23 years.”

Many times, it’s the sellers approaching the school offering to sell it their property, Zandri said. In the past three years, seven sellers approached the school, and it declined to purchase any of those properties, he said.

The school also receives bequests of property in wills.

“I don’t believe their expansion plans are as aggressive as everyone believes it is,” he said.
The school also has contributed to town revenue by selling property it owns, Zandri said. For example, in 1976 the school sold 65 acres that is now Laurelwood Drive to a developer. Those homes now bring in $300,000 tax revenue, he said “We talk about what Choate contributes. Nobody in this town pays an equitable amount for the service they get,” Zandri said. But the school contributes to the community in numerous ways, he said, such as when it spent $1.4 million in 2021 for upgrades to the intersection of Christian and North Elm streets, and most recently, donated $20,000 toward the purchase of a new playscape at Doolittle Park after its old one was set on fire. “A lot of what they do i sn’t known to residents,” he said.

But Councilor Christina Tatta pointed to the amount of revenue the town is losing based on the school’s holdings. The total assessment for those properties is $170,134,640, she said, which would translate to $4.9 million in revenue for the town. In reality, the school pays $17,618 in taxes on its property that is taxable, she said.

The school has bought homes for faculty and their families, including their children that can be attending Wallingford public schools.

That should warrant a conversation about asking the school to offset those costs, said Jesse Reynolds, whose family has lived across the street from the school for about a century.

“I don’t see why the town can’t come forward and say, ‘Hey let’s talk about the arrangement that we have,’” he said. “Faculty live in homes that were on tax rolls and their children attend our schools. There is a cost there. There’s a lot of money we don’t collect and when it is suggested they should, they say they do a lot for the town. Well, a lot of organizations do alot for the town. I think it needs to be revisited.”

The school isn’t required to pay anything to the town, Zandri said.

“I do believe the volume on this is getting a little louder where the people are saying, why don’t we look at stuff like this,” he said. “It’s not an unfair question, but here’s my only concern — the people who are asking, do you know what they do to begin with? If you still think that it’s not enough and there really should be a set PILOT, we could pass a resolution that the administration should engage on their own.”

But that risks losing what the school is already doing, and if that should stop, Zandri said, it could result in the school agreeing to pay a PILOT that is less than the value of what it already contr ibutes.

Ivy Street resident Steve Knight said it’s an issue that dates back as long as the school has been in Wallingford.

“There’s always been resentment by certain people in the community that this independent organization doesn’t pay taxes,” he said.

“But if all of that property had been developed residentially, we would be in a world of hurt” because of all of the houses that would have been built filled with children who would be in the public schools, he said.

“I look at Choate in large measure as open space,” he said. “Residents don’t pay their fair share. They can’t be charged the way businesses are charged. I really have a question about whether we want to start hammering an organization that has been a good neighbor to this community since its inception and that we feel entitled to tax. I think we are missing the big picture of what Choate does for this town and in being the center of this community. It makes it a much richer and frankly less dense town center. I think we should be happy about that. I think it’s made a world of difference how this town feels to the rest of us who live here.”

Mayor William Dickinson Jr. said the school can’t be forced to pay anything under state statutes.
“PILOTs typically have to be allowed by state statute,” he said. “When it comes to nonprofits and educational institutions, there is no such language anywhere, so basically you’re asking out of generosity… It’s not a legal argument, just please pay us more. .”

Nonprofits are recognized as tax exempt as a matter of public policy, Dickinson said.

“Are we really honoring the purpose of that institution and to what degree does that help or hurt their mission?” he said. “I’m not sure how far you go when you enter an arena where it’s no longer based in law, no longer based in regulation, it’s based upon a desire for money.”

Staying relevant

The school has no official building and expansion plan, Choate spokesperson Alison Cady said. But it takes work to keep the school relevant in an increasingly difficult market, she said.

“In the past, and particularly in the last 12 months, we have been asked about the school’s building and renovation plans, the transparency of those plans and the goals of our projects and plans for the future,” she said. “In order to remain a top independent boarding school, Choate will need to invest and upgrade and maintain its physical plant. Our prospective students and families have evolved.

They’re discerning consumers looking for the absolute best options for their students.That experience includes top notch facilities, innovative programs.”

The town has never asked for a conversation about the possibility of the school making a voluntary contribution to the town, Cady said. She couldn’t say whether the school would agree to that discussion, she said.

“In my opinion, Choate provides so much of a great community partnership and so many services to the town and economic development beyond what they’re doing on their own campus,” Councilor Autumn Allinson said. “I’ll hear people out, but it would be a long leap for me to say that I would want to change their structure because they are extremely helpful to us and they do elevate the town of Wallingford in my opinion.”

In the end, money won’t resolve the issue, Councilor Tom Laffin said.

“It’s easy to talk about the PILOT programs, and is certainly a conversation that can be kicked around whether that would be a PILOT or not, but I think that came up because it is something tangible that we can discuss,” he said. “That won’t resolve what really kickstarted all this, which is the ‘not in my backyard’ frustration in that area, and that will always exist. It is not going to solve that problem.”

Paid for by:
Jesse Reynolds for Town Council,
Kristi Doerr, Treasurer

Approved by:
Jesse Reynolds
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