Saturday, November 12, 2005

Taxing the Arts, or asking for a fair share?

I was curious to see that a somewhat local item had made the national AP site. The Board of Selectmen of the town of Peterborough has recently reversed years of tradition by taking away an artist colony's tax-exempt status. Since 1907, The MacDowell Colony has hosted hundreds of writers and artists each year on its 450 wooded acres. One of the town's lawyers argued that the artist colony does not benefit the general public, merely the artists in residence.

The town has reevaluated the status of several large charitable organization recently in an attempt to keep overall taxes down, and meet the community's growing expenses. If taxed on the value of its 450 acres, MacDowell would owe Peterborough $156,000 annually in property taxes. The town opted for compromise. It initial assessed the colony $50,000 in taxes, stating that it would be willing to accept $17,000 in order to recoop the cost of supply the colony with town services. However, it threatened to take the colony to court when MacDowell refused to pay, based on its tax exempt status.

Many who live in Peterborough feel that the town is becoming greedy. Should charitable organizations have to pay taxes on their real property like everyone else? Probably not "like everyone else". However, if part of the charter of the charity is not to preserve property from development, I think charities that hold large tracts of land should be taxed on any land not used to further the charter of the charity. The tax could be at a much lower rate that the rest of us pay, but there could be some tangible give back to the community.

If I were administering the MacDowell Colony, I would partner with another charitable organization, such as The Nature Conservancy. The bulk of the land could be donated to a land-trust organzation, whose main mission was to keep large parcels of land undeveloped. The writers and artists that visit MacDowell could still benefit from having gentle access to the inspiring isolation of that wilderness, but Peterborough would have less 'ground' to stand on when it game to taxing the Colony.

If the Board of Selectmen are truly being greedy, I would just love to see them attempt to take on The Nature Conservancy. Peterborough would end up spending more in that losing legal battle than they could hope to recoup in decades of taxes on the disputed property. I wonder if the Colony has considered such a strategy.


briwei said...

You should get in touch with them and suggest it. But I agree with you. If the land is not furthering their goals as a non-profit, there should be some giveback to the community. At the very least, they ought to be required to pay back for services. I'm sure the charter is very murky, though.

Kitten Herder said...

Actually, I did send them my idea. The media contact was on vacation through yesterday. It'll be interesting to see if they respond, or just chalk me up as some weirdo.