GAMBIER — Almost as long as Ohio has been a state, and definitely since the Ohio School Law of 1849, citizens and government officials have supported the idea of publicly funding educational institutions. Besides using tax money to fund schools, Ohio legislators allow property tax exemptions for public and private schools, colleges and universities.
Those real estate tax exemptions, also given to religious organizations, are approved or denied by the State Tax Commissioner, and approximately 15 percent of the real estate in Knox County is tax exempt. Special assessments, such as for the Muskingum Watershed District, are not exempt and must be paid.
Kenyon College owns about 1,200 acres of land in and around the village of Gambier. Some acres are with structures, some without. The total property assessment is about $24 million; the resultant property taxes would be around $1.25 million. Kenyon College does pay property tax ($106,000 in 2008-09) on some of its holdings which are not specifically education related — the producing cropland and the bookstore, for instance.
When asked whether the “loss” of that exempted property tax impacts the village, Gambier Mayor Kirk Emmert said the property tax exemption enjoyed by Kenyon College does not have a negative effect on the village’s budget. One reason, he said, is that village property tax proceeds go to the township. Another is that the village general fund is constituted from income tax receipts, and Kenyon, with a staff of about 550, is one of the biggest employers in the county. That translates into a payroll of around $32.5 million and village income tax revenues of approximately $500,000.
Emmert said Gambier also directly benefits when Kenyon expands. He said that construction permit fees, water and sewer hook-up fees, for example, and the 1 1/2 percent income tax paid by construction workers, all feed the general fund. He also noted that the college makes annual contributions to the fire department and college staff, and students support local merchants.
Mark Ellis, Kenyon’s news director, said the college has made a significant push to support local vendors, especially local agri-business; roughly 40 percent of the foods served at the college is from local/regional sources.
“We have a liaison who has developed contacts with the local farm community, and buy as much local produce as we can,” he said. “With our recently renovated dining hall, there’s a flash freezer, so we can get fresh produce in season and serve it throughout the year. ... We really believe in a sustainable community.”
College Township Trustee Doug McLarnan said Kenyon’s real estate tax-exempt status is not a problem. He appreciates Kenyon’s annual donations ($80,000 in 2009) to the area fire department and emergency medical squad.
“That’s something they’ve done for many years,” he said. “They also made a sizable contribution toward the purchase of our brand new fire engine, and some of the college students volunteer with the department. We have a real good relationship. We couldn’t afford to run a fire department without their support, and they couldn’t afford their insurance without our very professional, quick-responding firefighters and EMS personnel.”
Ellis, Emmert and McLarnan also said there are intangible benefits to the county. For instance, the college makes a cultural contribution to the county. There are free art exhibitions, free and open-to-the-public performances of music and theater students and professionals, as well as lectures by nationally known speakers.
“We wish more people in the community would take advantage of those,” said Ellis.
The college also maintains the Brown Family Environmental Center, a flora and fauna preserve with nature trails that are open to the public.
McLarnan said the community service provided by Kenyon College students is another intangible plus. They give of their time and energy to help many local primary and secondary students, he said. They volunteer to supervise clubs and activities at Wiggin Street Elementary, mentor gifted pupils countywide, tutor students at the Alternative Center and help youth in the juvenile court system.
Knox County Auditor Jonette Curry answered questions and provided financial information for this article.
Properties owned by Mount Vernon Nazrene University will be explored in Thursday’s edition of the News.