Saturday, July 20, 2024

City Seeks Funding for Emergency Services From WM

The city of Williamsburg is seeking an agreement with the College of William & Mary to provide some funding for emergency service. (Photo by Amber Lester Kennedy/WYDaily)

Each year, hundreds of emergency calls bring Williamsburg emergency personnel to the campus of The College of William & Mary, where fires are put out and health crises addressed at no cost to the college.

The city provides the services for free because, as a public university, William & Mary is completely exempt from paying local taxes.

Williamsburg is hoping to get some compensation by introducing an Emergency Services Agreement with William & Mary in its 2014 proposed budget. A line item for $250,000 is included in the document, released April 1, but City Manager Jack Tuttle said Thursday the city is “not presuming anything.”

The idea was prompted by the March 22 announcement the college is purchasing the Hospitality House, a 20,000-square-foot hotel sitting on 3.6 acres of city land. Once the $21 million sale is complete in May, the hotel property will become tax-exempt, costing the city $110,000 a year in property taxes. An unspecified amount of revenues from business license, room, meal and retail sales taxes will also be lost.

“With an operating budget of $33 million, that’s a lot of money,” Tuttle said.

The college owns about 18 percent of the city’s total land, holding 1,088 acres (not including the future student housing at Hospitality House). The total valuation of the university’s land is $597.2 million, which would generate about $3.4 million in annual tax revenue if it could be taxed, according to John Mattson, city assessor.

City staff were nearly finished drafting the 2014 budget proposal when they received a notification of the sale on March 21. Knowing the impact was significant, they decided to consider pursuing an Emergency Services Agreement.

If the college agrees, its contribution would be completely voluntary. To be approved, the Board of Visitors would have to incorporate the agreement into its budget, but Tuttle said the process would likely happen over time. First, the college wants to see how others have handled similar situations.

“We are exploring what other public higher education institutions have done in this regard,” said Brian Whitson, associate vice president for communications and university relations. “We remain sensitive to the impact the college has on the city and its residents.”

In their research, city staff members have identified at least three Virginia colleges that have provided some funding to their localities for services: the University of Virginia to Charlottesville; George Mason University to Fairfax city and county; and Christopher Newport University to Newport News.

In September 2012, Newport News City Council approved a Memorandum of Agreement to provide emergency services for CNU. The agreement states CNU will reimburse the city for all labor costs associated with providing support for planned events, such as medical support for football games, within 30 days.

Because they are not state-owned institutions, private colleges all have service agreements with their localities, Tuttle said.

“We can’t tax federal or state property, and we also can’t say we’re not going to provide these services,” he said.

In the past three years, city firefighters responded to an average 387 calls from campus, constituting 29 percent of all calls for fire response in the same period. In the same three years, city EMT personnel responded to an annual average of 233 calls for service, or 10 percent of the city’s total EMS responses.

The city also provides support during various events, including the annual alumni block party for homecoming weekend. In those cases, the fees associated with obtaining a special use permit pay for the officers’ time.

The idea of an agreement already has the support of Mayor Clyde Haulman. He told WYDaily last month, “The college has been purchasing more and more property and it takes that off of our revenue stream. At the same time, the city provides a number of services to the college, such as fire protection and EMS. It may be time for a serious discussion about payments of fees in lieu of taxes. There is a significant budget impact here, but that doesn’t mean we change the level of services we provide.”

City Council will have its first opportunities to consider the idea when it discusses the budget at its 4 p.m. Monday work session and its 2 p.m. Thursday meeting, both in the Stryker Building.

“The only way these things work is by the university and the community coming to an agreement this is the right thing to do,” Tuttle said. “It has to be in that spirit.”

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