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Locals protest tax exemption

Nearly 100 Providence firefighters, police officers and community members protested the University's exemption from paying taxes on many of its properties Jan. 11, blasting fog horns, chanting and holding signs that read "pay your share." The protest was the latest sign of escalating tensions in an ongoing debate over how much the University should contribute to the city.

While President Ruth Simmons spoke at a Providence Foundation meeting inside 121 S. Main St., which houses several University offices, protesters on the street said the University should have to shoulder a greater tax burden so Providence residents could be spared.

"I just spent 151 days in the hospital with cancer treatment over this last year with 19 procedures in 15 months, and you think I'm not ticked when I get hit with a bill and somebody else is coming up wanting us to pay more taxes?" said Bobby Lowder, who lives just north of Brown's campus. "If all universities paid on their income-producing properties and their income — what they make, from the bookstore they've got, all the rest of that — like any other business, you wouldn't have a problem."

The University is exempt from paying taxes on property used for educational purposes. But Brown, along with Providence's other private colleges and universities, made an agreement in 2003 to voluntarily pay $50 million to the city over 20 years — a total that is significantly less than what the University would pay under regular property tax rates. Brown also pays taxes on recently purchased property, including the site of the protest, according to a University statement released Jan. 19.

The protesters said these contributions are not enough, especially at a time when Providence is in dire financial straits.

Lowder expressed concern that firefighters may lose their pensions due to the city's fiscal problems. "That's wrong," he said.

Firefighter Wayne Oliveira said the University could pay more taxes without even feeling the hit.

"They bought up a third of the city, and they need to help," he said. "They need to help because of the simple fact that the citizens of Providence are drowning in taxes, and they're footing the bill."

The University's Jan. 19 statement outlined its support for the city. In addition to its financial contributions to Providence, the University also provides jobs to 1,400 city residents and attracts people to the city who often start job-creating businesses, according to the statement.

But Providence City Councilman Nicholas Narducci Jr., Ward 4, voiced his doubts. 

"How many of their employees, if you're looking at it that way, live in Providence?" Narducci, who spoke at the protest, asked in an interview with The Herald.  

While he said Brown does play a role as an employer, Narducci questioned the trade-off for the city. "Would we be better off for them to employ all outsiders and us to get their tax dollars?" he said. "Probably."

Rep. Leo Medina, D-Providence, said the issue is not specific to Brown.

"Between Johnson and Wales, Brown University and RISD, you have the highest-value property and paying zero," Medina, who also spoke at the rally, told The Herald.

He said the city should not tax classroom buildings, but should consider taxing buildings that colleges and universities profit from, such as dormitories.

In its statement, the University reiterated its offer to increase its payments toward the city's school system.

"We seek to be part of the solution and offered Mayor (Angel) Taveras a plan to enhance the $4 million in voluntary and property tax payments we already make annually to the city by providing an additional $10 million over five years to support the schools," the statement read.

Simmons and Taveras last year made a tentative deal for the University to provide the city an additional $4 million per year, but this proposal was never presented to the Corporation — the University's highest governing body — according to an article published in the Providence Journal Jan. 10. Taveras sent a letter to Simmons Jan. 4 expressing his disappointment and warning that the city may "pursue that revenue from Brown using alternate legal pathways."

Less than half an hour after the protest ended, Taveras stepped out of a black SUV and walked inside the building.


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