If Mayor David Cicilline '83 has his way, Providence will become the first city in America to tax private colleges for, of all things, enrolling students. At the mayor's urging, the Rhode Island House of Representatives recently approved a bill that would let cities impose a $150-per-student fee on private colleges for each semester of the academic year. Another bill under consideration would remove Brown's tax-exempt status and cost the University additional millions of dollars annually.
The two bills are meant to ensure payment for road maintenance, police, firefighters and other city services utilized by students and institutions of higher education. Cicilline calls it the "Fair Share Plan." We'll call it a double standard. Colleges in Providence lose about $1,200 per student to taxes, colleges everywhere else in the country do not. Clearly playing fair isn't Cicilline's main concern. A balanced budget (by any means necessary) is a more urgent priority for the mayor as he prepares for his upcoming reelection bid.
According to a May article by the Associated Press, Cicilline's office couldn't point to any studies establishing what it costs the city to provide students with basic services. The total cost is unlikely to exceed students' indirect contributions to state and local government coffers. A 2005 report by Appleseed Inc., a consultancy, found that Brown students spent an estimated $40 million locally in 2005. The University paid over $100 million to Rhode Island companies for construction, goods and services that year and spent over $144 million on research. A significant proportion of that money funneled back to the city through taxes on sales and income. The University also paid $12.8 million directly to state and local governments.
Students at Brown and other local colleges devote thousands of hours to volunteer work in the city. The Swearer Center for Public Service runs a number of projects alongside community organizations and keeps students informed of service opportunities. Given the current economic climate — Rhode Island currently has the second highest unemployment rate in the country — it is especially important that members of the Brown community continue their efforts to make a difference in and beyond Providence. We fear that Cicilline's decision to blame students for the city's financial predicament will only foster resentment and weaken students' felt obligation to their communities.
The tax on learning should serve as a pointed reminder of the importance of student involvement in the political process. Should either bill become law, local officials might smell blood and further increase taxes on students and colleges when funding runs low. Providence students should start to consider voting in local elections, preferably for candidates who don't take universities for granted.
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UPDATED July 20 at 1:30 p.m. Due to an editing error, an outdated version was uploaded originally. The correct version of the editorial was published in the print edition.