06/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sharing the Pain

One thing is a constant when a city, state, or nation runs into hard times - people are generally willing to pitch in, particularly if they feel that everyone's doing their fair share to meet the crisis. In the current economic crisis, the pain of hard times is coming down in buckets, with cuts to mass transit, the likely elimination of virtually all summer youth employment slots, and a decision by the Bloomberg administration to charge rent of as much as $1,000 a month to homeless families in city shelters.

Those of us who try to serve New York's working poor might find these reductions somewhat more tolerable if we had any sense that the pain of the cutbacks were being shared evenly across racial and class lines. But there's very little indication that New York's wealthiest are pitching in, even in modest ways. All of us have been hammered over and over again that efforts to increase taxes on multi-millionaires and billionaires is just off the table -- they would certainly leave New York and immediately go to Des Moines. So no new taxes on the rich.

But I have another suggestion that might show everyone that we're all in the same boat. It's an idea that's been kicking around for decades: place a time-limited surcharge on mega nonprofits that don't serve the poor or disabled. Back in 2005, Bonnie Brower of the City Project calculated that 57 percent of the assessed value of land in New York City was either untaxed or partially untaxed because it was owned by nonprofits. Before we ignore this as immaterial, her estimates were that a failure to tax these properties amounted to a seven billion dollar loss to the city coffers ("Land Doesn't Pay," Village Voice, May 10, 2005). That's just the beginning, because many of the large nonprofits don't pay water and sewer charges either. If the City of New York were willing to impose a short-term surcharge on some of these institutions - no more deficit.

This isn't the first crisis where this suggestion has surfaced. When I was Special Advisor to Mayor Koch, back in the 1980s, the same idea emerged. What stopped it then was the outpouring of opposition from the city's elites who dominate the boards of the largest hospitals and cultural institutions, suggesting that this would lead to the end of culture and cutting edge health care in New York City.

Many of us look back on those days with a sense of some nostalgia. You could actually go to a place like the Museum of Natural History without paying what is now virtually the admission price to Disneyland, and leading hospitals at least went through the motions of providing some level of health care to the uninsured. Today, with admission prices of everything from the Bronx Zoo to Museum of Modern Art making it impossible for any but the wealthy to attend regularly and nonprofit hospitals like NYU routinely sending those without insurance to Health and Hospital facilities, it would seem a good time to ask that they kick in for a year or two some mandatory payment in lieu of taxes - marching shoulder to shoulder with homeless families being asked to pay rent.

In the same vein, it seems only fair that Columbia University, with an endowment of $5.7 billion, might ante up some property tax payments at least until the city gets back on an even keel - particularly since the city has no problem with charging the New York City Housing Authority, which serves people mostly at or below the poverty level, $23 million a year in payment in lieu of taxes. Come on - the rich can pitch in, too.