Are Universities Acting like Parasites in Some Communities?


NPQ has written fairly extensively about the effect of large nonprofits on the tax bases of communities. This piece written by Zaid Jilani for AlterNet asserts that the vague financial relationship between a university like Syracuse and its surrounding community can exacerbate poverty in those surrounding communities.

While universities like Syracuse drive economic development and attract businesses to their region, the towns surrounding the campus often contain high levels of poverty. This poverty, according to Jilani, stems from the large number of university buildings exempted from property taxes. Without this critical revenue source, the towns struggle to fund essential public services used by university employees as well as residents not employed by the university.

In the case of Syracuse, as of 2011 a full 51 percent of its property was not taxable because it is owned by nonprofits, the city, and the state. The two nonprofits with the biggest portion of that are the University and Saint Joseph’s Hospital Health Center.

Syracuse University is a private research university with enrollment of 21,400. It is one of the flagship universities of New York State, containing thirteen colleges including business administration, public administration, and engineering. It has a rich history dating back to the 1870s as well as an endowment of $1,183 billion; it charges its students tuition and fees of over $41,000 annually.

Sadly, it is an oasis of wealth in its community. The city of Syracuse is the 23rd most impoverished city in America, according to data released last year by the U.S. Census Bureau. One-third of the city’s residents, or 48,000 people, live on incomes of less than $23,500 for a family of four. Symbols of poverty are not hard to find, from the boarded-up homes to the public services that struggle to respond to the area’s severe winters.

Although university workers tend to receive higher salaries, these resources may not trickle down to the entire community. Some towns with universities struggle with limited funding for schools and other public services because the main employer is exempt from paying property taxes. Property taxes are the main source of revenue for elementary schools, streets, and public services, but nonprofits and government agency buildings are not taxable. As schools and other public services suffer from lack of resources, more and more families leave the university town and move to surrounding communities. The families that remain are often those most requiring the services the town is unable to fully fund.

Additionally, the city is forced to depend on the taxes it receives from the smaller amount of land that is taxable. These businesses and residents subsidize the university by providing the services the university system uses. These circumstances increase the divide between rich and poor.

The 2014 Census report compares 575 of the largest cities in the country, including several cities like Syracuse. While Syracuse’s position did improve from the year before, when it ranked fourth with a poverty rate of 38.2 percent, it remained within the bottom fifteen. Syracuse’s company includes cities like Bloomington, Indiana, and Gainesville, Florida, which also contain universities.

The city of New Haven, Connecticut, is trying to utilize Yale’s university system to bridge its divide. Yale is the second-richest university in the country, as measured by its endowment of $23.9 billion. Yet the divide between those in the New Haven community living in poverty and its wealthy increased by twenty percent between 2006 and 2012 and is one of the largest in the country. The community is building a retail district to employ those with few skills, connected to an expanded university research and technology area. Additionally, it is targeting resources to its low-income students including offering summer employment and technical training in its high schools.

The theme throughout all of these cities and the country as a whole is the loss of manufacturing jobs that provide good-paying employment to individuals without advanced degrees. Society cannot substitute these opportunities with university employment without providing education and other services to upgrade the skills of these workers. The rate of inequality in this country continues to rise, and university communities stand as symbols of this divide.

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Climate Change Activists File Innovative Class Action Suit against Dutch Government


Knowing the long-term effects climate change will have on the Netherlands and the world, the nonprofit Urgenda concluded it could not wait for its government to act. In November 2012, it filed a groundbreaking class action suit. In it, their attorneys used current human rights and tort law to claim the Dutch government is placing human life in danger by failing to reduce carbon emissions. If they are successful, some experts believe it will begin a major shift in environmentalists’ efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

Although many associate the Netherlands with windmills and bicycles, citizens rely heavily on coal-powered utility plants for most of their electricity. Additionally, the Dutch government’s goal of reducing emissions is far less ambitious than its European neighbors. At the same time, the country will be critically affected by the effects of climate change, since it is located three meters below sea level.

To force their government to act, an innovative class action lawsuit was filed by the Dutch nonprofit Urgenda on behalf of slightly less than 900 citizens and against the government of the Netherlands. The suit contends the Dutch government is not doing enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. On April 14th, the suit was heard by a district court in The Hague. If the court rules in the class’s favor, it will force the Dutch government to execute policies that will reduce emission by a minimum of 25 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2020.

The suit hinges on whether the rising of the Earth’s global temperature by 2 °C will cause conditions dangerous to human life. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) created this benchmark for developing nations. The Panel is a scientific body created by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in 1988. Its mission is to provide “the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of knowledge in climate change and its potential environmental and socioeconomic impacts.” The organization evaluates scientific, technical and socioeconomic information to develop a comprehensive understanding of the effects of climate change on the planet.

The class was originated by the Dutch nonprofit Urgenda. Urgenda, abbreviated from “urgent agenda,” is a leader in developing new methods of fighting climate change. Before filing the suit, the organization, led by its founder Marjam Minnesma, created a campaign to introduce solar panels to a large number of individual consumers. When the campaign was completed, the organization negotiated a deal with Chinese manufacturers for 50,000 panels.

Many of the members of the class have changed their lifestyle to limit their individual carbon emissions. They ride bicycles on a daily basis and heat their houses using solar panels. Unfortunately, they know their individual actions alone will do little to change the direction of climate change. They are hoping this suit will develop into a large movement to change carbon emission.

To build the movement, Urgenda spent critical resources translating research and court documents into English and posting them online. A similar class action suit with over 8,000 members is pending in Belgium. Additionally, lawyers in Australia, Canada, and the United States are investigating opportunities in their own countries.

A decision in the suit filed by Urgenda is expected by the end of June.

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