Mayor Elorza seeks new tax on nonprofits, driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Elorza administration is asking the General Assembly to set aside millions of dollars in new state aid for Providence, in part by imposing a tax on certain properties owned by nonprofit colleges and hospitals throughout the city.

In his annual legislative agenda, Mayor Jorge Elorza is also seeking additional financial support in the fiscal year that begins July 1 through the state’s payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) program and the education funding formula.

Elorza submitted his list of requests to the 21 state representatives and senators from the city of Providence at a meeting in City Hall Monday evening. The all-Democratic Providence delegation is co-chaired by Reps. John Carnevale and Joe Almeida.

As is the case in most years, the bulk of the city’s requests include additional aid or legislation that would save money. Providence ended the 2014-15 fiscal year with a $5-million shortfall and now has a cumulative deficit of $13.4 million.

While administration officials have predicted the city will not end the current fiscal year with a deficit, a five-year plan submitted to the City Council in December projects annual shortfalls of between $5.9 million and $17.9 million between 2017 and 2021.

The proposed tax on what Elorza calls “non-mission essential nonprofit properties” is the city’s latest attempt in a years-long quest to collect more funding from the major colleges and hospitals located in Providence.

It’s unclear exactly what properties would qualify as non-mission essential under Elorza’s proposal, but it is likely Carnevale will help craft the legislation. In past years, the Silver Lake Democrat has routinely sponsored bills that would allow municipalities to seek reimbursement for public safety services provided to the nonprofit institutions.

City officials believe at least half of all property in Providence is owned by tax-exempt institutions. A report prepared in 2015 by the city’s internal auditor showed Brown University owned 158 tax-exempt properties with a combined assessed value of more than $1 billion as Dec. 31, 2014. Johnson & Wales University owned 42 tax-exempt properties worth more than $280 million.

In the current fiscal year, Providence is slated to receive $27.1 million in PILOT funding from the state as well as $228 million in education funding. The city is already expected to see an additional $7.5 million in education aid next year and $7.2 million for the 2018 fiscal year, according to a schedule laid out in the state education funding formula that was approved in 2010.

Gov. Gina Raimondo, who will deliver her annual budget address Tuesday night, has indicated she intends to make revisions to the school funding formula, but she hasn’t tipped her hat on the exact changes she plans to make. In his legislative agenda, Elorza asked for more money for English language learners and special education as well as “adjustments for fairness for charter school funding.”

When it comes to car taxes, Elorza asked the General Assembly to partially reimburse municipalities for raising their tax exemptions to $2,000. (Providence currently has a $1,000 exemption.) While the state is responsible for assessing car values, Elorza wants cities and towns to be authorized to use a combination of retail and trade-in values to “develop an equitable tax assessment.”

In addition to the finance-related bills, Elorza told the delegation he would like to provide driver’s privileges to undocumented immigrants because it promotes public safety. He said he supports the Good Samaritan law that Governor Raimondo signed last week that provides limited immunity from criminal drug charges for people seeking medical assistance at the scene of an overdose Elorza also said he supports Raimondo’s plan to partially pay for infrastructure improvements through truck tolls.

Other minor requests include the creation of a port advisory council to promote Providence’s waterfront and a bill that would require the state to clear snow on the sidewalks of roads it owns.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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