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If you’re a university sitting on lots of land in the District that isn’t taxed by virtue of your status as a non-profit institution, you’d be right to get worried: The Council is on the prowl for more revenue sources, and with the federal government not about to start paying property taxes anytime soon, higher education has a target on its head. In fact, Councilmember Mary Cheh is already threatening to make D.C.’s universities pay up, following in the footsteps of cities like Chicago and Boston.
On Thursday, the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area will hit back with a study by our old friend Stephen Fuller that documents how many dollars and jobs the region’s educational institutions funnel into the region’s economy. According to the advance release, the Consortium’s 14 members—-11 of which are located in D.C.—-employ 200,000 people who earn $3 billion collectively every year, and bring down $21 billion in federal funding for research and development. Their students, 63 percent of whom moved to the Washington area to attend school, apparently contribute 600,000 hours of community service every year as well.
I don’t think anyone doubts that universities are a positive influence on the District’s fiscal health, base of employment, intellectual life, and cultural vibrance. But should that be enough to keep them off the tax rolls? If it prevents them from outsourcing operations to surrounding jurisdictions, as they’ve already been doing—-and which is also tempting because of the advantage of having voting representatives in Congress—-then perhaps the answer is yes. But you do have to ask whether they’re inherently more worthy than a small business that also provides jobs and may help communities as much if not more.