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'Nonprofit' doesn't mean 'free pass'

TO superstitious Philadelphia fans, Mayor Nutter's announcement before World Series Game 6 that the city would not be paying for a victory parade was all we needed to hear to know the Phillies would be in an uphill battle in Yankee Stadium.

TO superstitious Philadelphia fans, Mayor Nutter's announcement before World Series Game 6 that the city would not be paying for a victory parade was all we needed to hear to know the Phillies would be in an uphill battle in Yankee Stadium.

You think parade - but you don't talk about it, especially if you're admitting we can't afford to throw a once-in-a-lifetime repeat party for the region. But, jinx aside, it gets you thinking about what it is that we're really a part of here in Philadelphia: We're at the point we can't pay for a repeat World Series championship parade.

I've never mummed, but the Mummers Parade is a part of Philadelphia that shouldn't go away. I've been in a space shuttle as many times as I've been in a rowboat, but the original announcement that we'd lost the Dad Vail was stunning, even if the blame was solely with the double-talking organizers of the event and not Nutter.

St. Patrick's Day parades and Puerto Rican Heritage celebrations are begging for money just to function one afternoon a year. Tough economics and diminished tax collections have turned the spirit of Philadelphia into a luxury to be held over the heads of a public with outstretched arms as something we can't have no matter how much we want or need it.

But these events, and the functioning of our libraries and recreation centers, aren't luxuries - they are fundamental pieces of our vibrant city. We've been told for the last year that parades, festivals, libraries and rec centers are things we can do without when the bills come due.

The city must choose its essentials, and these things aren't.

It's a false choice and we know it. In the face of revenue shortfalls, the city sometimes picks and chooses its priorities and disregards some reasonable revenue streams. In a column a few weeks back, the DN's Elmer Smith pointed out the need for the city to review something called PILOTs ("payments in lieu of taxes") that assess large nonprofits like Penn and Temple for a sensible contribution for the city services they use.

These payments are incredibly low when measured against their holdings, especially revenue-generating facilities on their expansive campuses. The city now gets next to nothing in these payments despite the large portion of city real estate owned by these universities and other large nonprofits.

Other cities are exploring the possibilities of tapping this well with millions in proven reserves. Boston appointed a panel to review them earlier this year, even though the city already receives $32 million from them. Earlier this decade, Pittsburgh cajoled its major nonprofits to donate to a $20 million fund to pay for public services. And the state legislature has a bill pending that would allow cities to impose fees for essential services on certain nonprofits.

We know that some of the larger nonprofits have large operating budgets and even have some enterprises that make a profit each year. Their executives earn for-profit-type salaries (because they do a good job and have made those institutions into economic engines for our city).

The universities, medical centers and other organizations contribute much to the vibrancy of our city and have helped develop areas that needed it. But they've done this while remaining largely exempt from paying for city services like any other business. Admittedly, since the city real-estate tax and assessment system is in a state that even Franz Kafka couldn't put into words, our city couldn't even dream of calculating a fair payment from these organizations - but I think we should challenge these entities, much like Pittsburgh did.

Let's get a few business and nonprofit leaders together to examine the needs of the city's threatened libraries, swimming pools and cultural institutions.

They can examine the what some other cities are doing, calculate the needs we have and come up with a fair number for the next five years. Sunsetting the payments should dull the protests.

The money can be dedicated to funding just those "luxuries" we're told we can't have anymore, the ones that, to most of us, make Philadelphia home. Instead of calling them PILOTs, we can jazz up the acronym to FUN, for "funding underbudgeted necessities."

IT'S A WIN-win for all involved. The nonprofits avoid a potentially messy scenario in which the city battles them for these funds in an adversarial way. The city gets money to allow kids to swim and read. Residents have some events to attend that remind them that they live in a wonderful, culturally rich city.

While the recent budget mess dragged on for months and left us with unfilled pools, almost-closed libraries and a pre-emptively canceled parade for the ages, this year's version promises to be just as bad.

The small things city residents love will be threatened again. Before that happens, let's encourage our leading nonprofits to PILOT us into clearer skies - and let us have some FUN.

Reach A.J. Thomson at,