Once, it was enough for Belmont nonprofits to contribute expertise - educational, medical, and cultural - to the town they called home. In exchange for fire, police, and infrastructure services, the tax-exempt organizations gave back enrichment.
But in tough fiscal times, Belmont is asking for a more tangible contribution: cash.
Letters going out next week will ask all of the town’s 38 nonprofit entities for voluntary payments to cover the essential services that the town provides to them. The nonprofits, which range from private schools to churches, are legally exempt from paying property taxes.
“We’re trying to establish a public-private partnership,’’ said Robert Reardon, chairman of the town’s Board of Assessors. “Everyone else is picking up an additional cost.’’
The letters ask for a combined total of more than $530,000. But officials at several nonprofits said it is too early to give an answer.
“We offer substantial services to the town, which we feel has significant monetary value,’’ said Bill Mahoney, director of communications for the private Belmont Hill School, which is being asked to pay about $56,000 per year. “We want to be respectful of the town - we don’t want to comment until we’ve seen the latest proposal.’’
The suggested payments in lieu of taxes are based on the amount of land that a nonprofit owns, and are intended to cover the cost of providing police, fire and public works services.
The payments are a fraction of the approximately $3.1 million that Belmont says the organizations would be paying without their special status.
“Some of these nonprofits are actually in better financial condition than the town,’’ said Charles Laverty Jr., vice chairman of the Board of Assessors. “We think they have some responsibility, and we’re trying to make them recognize it.’’
Land owned by nonprofits
According to information provided by the board, 13 percent of the land in Belmont is owned by tax-exempt institutions.
And, according to the board, the local nonprofits have been expanding fast. Since 2000, they’ve bought up enough taxable land to add an additional $25 to the average annual tax bill, Laverty said.
“It’s a two-way street,’’ he said, summing up the town’s message to the organizations. “We’re giving you something, you guys are expanding, you have the financial ability contribute something back.’’
The board can’t compel nonprofits to make payments in lieu of taxes, commonly known by the acronym PILOT; it can only cajole. A growing number of cities and towns in the state have turned to the strategy to help make ends meet.
“We’re not alone in this,’’ said Reardon, who oversees Cambridge’s program as director of the city’s Assessing Department. “There are many communities receiving PILOTs.’’
Cambridge, he said, receives $6 million a year through its program, which Laverty helped launch in the early 1970s. Boston recently expanded its PILOT program.
Newton, too, has expanded its PILOT program over the last year. Newton currently collects $277,000 per year from participating nonprofits.
Boston College, which usually gives $100,000 annually, agreed this year to commit an extra $300,000 over the next three years to support technology in schools. Recently, three country clubs banded together to buy the city a dog to start a police K9 unit.
“It really is this partnership,’’ said Bob Rooney, Newton’s chief operating officer. “We’re having very good success.’’
But getting charities on board with making voluntary annual payments is a daunting proposition.
In 2010, Concord sent letters to 34 nonprofits asking for payments in lieu of taxes, but only the Concord Art Association agreed, offering $1,000, and local officials dropped the issue, according to the town assessor, Lane Partridge.
“It’s a very difficult thing,’’ Partridge said. “It would be nice if they would contribute something, but under the law they don’t have to.’’
Currently, seven nonprofits participate in Belmont’s PILOT program, for a combined annual contribution of nearly $37,000, according to the Board of Assessors.
This year, Reardon said, the board would be happy just to double that number.
“We love having the organizations here, they’re great for the town,’’ said Reardon. “As much as we benefit,’’ he said, “it doesn’t come without a cost.’’
Officials with the nonprofits say what they give back can’t be reduced to dollars and cents.
“There’s a whole host of things which is hard to put a number on,’’ said Jennifer Ryan, legislative director for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, which has a property on Juniper Road in Belmont.
The Habitat Education Center and Wildlife Sanctuary consists of about 90 acres of undeveloped land, Ryan said. The open space raises the values of nearby homes, protects endangered species and wetlands, and diminishes the risk of flooding for the surrounding area.
In addition, she said, the sanctuary offers free admission to Belmont residents, free meeting space to local organizations, and free technical expertise to town boards dealing with wildlife and habitat issues and zoning bylaws.
It also lends its tractor to the town, and staff members volunteer their time on service projects.
“It benefits municipalities to have conservation land,’’ she said. “I’d be nervous about putting a dollar figure on it.’’
The Board of Assessors is asking Mass Audubon for more than $165,000.
Mass Audubon, said Ryan, has a blanket policy against participating in PILOT programs, based on concerns about limiting its ability to function as a charity.
The town doesn’t expect every nonprofit to participate, said Laverty. Some, he said, are struggling just to stay afloat, but there are others that could - and should - be giving something back.
The Belmont Hill School, according to the board, has spent nearly $10 million buying five properties since 2006.
In the last three years, according to the board, Belmont police and fire crews made service calls to the school nearly 400 times.
The board’s biggest target is McLean Hospital: It is asking for nearly $213,000.
“Once we receive a letter outlining the details of the request, we will review it carefully and determine the next steps,” said Adriana Bobinchock, McLean’s director of public affairs, said in an e-mail.
A 1999 agreement with Belmont officials allowed McLean to develop a portion of its campus in exchange for the transfer of land to the town for a cemetery and public open space.
“As part of this comprehensive agreement, the town specifically agreed that McLean would no longer be required to pay any real estate taxes,’’ Bobinchock said.
Belmont Day School is another of the top targets for the Board of Assessors, which is asking the private institution for almost $22,000.
“We want to be as supportive as we possibly can, but on the other hand we have a budget, and we didn’t budget for this’’ in the current spending plan, said Annette Raphel, Belmont Day’s head of school. “I think it’s more nuanced and trickier than it looks like.’’
Raphel said Belmont Day tries to give back to the community as much as possible, with examples including inviting teachers from the public schools to professional development forums. And Belmont Day offers financial aid; next year, she said, it’s poised to give out $1 million.
The school hasn’t seen the town proposal, said Raphel, and hasn’t made a decision on whether to participate.
“It’s not that we don’t think it’s a good idea,’’ she said. “We’d love to be good community members.’’
Chairman Reardon said the Board of Assessors would be willing to negotiate in-kind contributions.
“This is our way of saying, ‘This is a start,’ ’’ he said of the board’s letter. “It doesn’t have to be cash, it can be some other in-kind that would benefit the town also, and continue that public-private partnership.’’
If a nonprofit balks at an annual payment, then things like renovating a road or donating a piece of equipment to the town would be viable alternatives, according to Reardon.
“The cost of living is high,’’ said Laverty. “These costs keep going up. We’re just looking for some assistance here in a difficult time.’’