Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Fei, Hines, Horwitz on PILOTs as Property Taxes for Nonprofits

Interesting new paper on PILOTs: "payments in lieu of taxes" that some municipalities request of otherwise tax-exempt orgs. At a recent talk I did at Notre Dame on the topic of taxation and human rights, I explored the dual "social contribution" budgets that highly visible/profitable multinationals often have in impoverished places--the tax budget (that ends up appearing quite small in many cases) and the Corporate Social Responsibility or "CSR" budget (the fees some companies pay to build infrastructure or schools or provide basic services as a matter of "good corporate citizenship"). I brought up Starbucks' dealings with HMRC in response to charges of tax dodging as a rarely-seen tax-like-but-not-quite-tax arising in a developed country, and wondered aloud whether we ought to consider this kind of CSR outlay as in the nature of a tax, or not. One of the audience members suggested that the Starbucks payment or a CSR budget seems analogous to PILOTs, so it's worth taking a look at them. Good idea. I'll add this paper to the reading list. Here's the abstract:
Nonprofit charitable organizations are exempt from most taxes, including local property taxes, but U.S. cities and towns increasingly request that nonprofits make payments in lieu of taxes (known as PILOTs). Strictly speaking, PILOTs are voluntary, though nonprofits may feel pressure to make them, particularly in high-tax communities. Evidence from Massachusetts indicates that PILOT rates, measured as ratios of PILOTs to the value of local tax-exempt property, are higher in towns with higher property tax rates: a one percent higher property tax rate is associated with a 0.2 percent higher PILOT rate. PILOTs appear to discourage nonprofit activity: a one percent higher PILOT rate is associated with 0.8 percent reduced real property ownership by local nonprofits, 0.2 percent reduced total assets, and 0.2 percent lower revenues of local nonprofits. These patterns are consistent with voluntary PILOTs acting in a manner similar to low-rate, compulsory real estate taxes.

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