Museum of Fine Arts director Malcolm Rogers has stepped up the rhetoric in his battle against the City of Boston’s decision to raise “voluntary’’ payments to the city, which are paid in lieu of taxes (from which nonprofits are exempt). Writing in The Art Newspaper, in an opinion column titled “Don’t kill the goose,’’ Rogers sounded a warning for museums across the country: “When civic leaders look to cultural organizations as a source of revenue, rather than as an invaluable resource for the communities they serve, it has dire implications nationwide.’’
The payments requested from the MFA have just been raised from $55,000 in 2010-11 to $250,000 in 2011-12 and will be $1,025,000 in four years. The $17,000 that the Institute of Contemporary Art is now being asked to pay will likewise rise, to $86,000 by 2016. The increases are the result of Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s revised Payment in Lieu of Taxes plan, known as PILOT. It affects nonprofits such as universities, medical centers, and museums owning property worth more than $15 million. It asks the MFA to pay a contribution based on 25 percent of what it would pay under the city’s commercial tax, less a 50 percent community service credit.
Asked yesterday for a response, a press representative of the City of Boston said the city “appreciates the dedication and commitment of the MFA in bringing exceptional cultural experiences to our city. The PILOT program is not intended to be an unattainable goal for local institutions but a formula for leveling the playing field for shared city services.’’
The increases come at a time when the city’s finances are under pressure. In 2009, Menino set up a task force to reform the plan and identify inconsistencies.
The new revenue-raising plan is based on the estimated cost of providing basic city services, such as police and fire protection, snow removal, and emergency medical treatment, which account for roughly a quarter of the city’s budget. Over a five-year period, payments to the city by the major tax-exempt organizations will gradually increase from $15 million in 2011 to $48 million in 2016.
Tax on property is the city’s largest source of revenue, but 52 percent of the city’s land area is not taxable because it is owned or occupied by tax-exempt organizations, including government.
Rogers believes the MFA, which, unlike comparable major US and international museums, receives no funding from the city, should be exempt from the payments. He points out that the museum generates great wealth for the city. It also provides, he claimed, $2.1 million annually in quantifiable benefits (free admissions, mainly) as well as other non-quantifiable benefits, such as free educational programming and partnerships with hospitals. In the article, published yesterday, Rogers warns that the PILOT plan will mean cuts to the MFA’s outreach programs, as well as job cuts. He suggests that the city look for other sources of revenue.
“To preserve a quality of life that enriches the community we need to foster a culture in Boston and across America that invests in cultural institutions, rather than taxes them,’’ Rogers wrote.