Charging Tuition Could Put Cooper Union’s Tax Breaks at Risk

41 Cooper Square, a $166-million piece of “starchitecture” at Cooper Union, has become a symbol of the college’s ambitions and financial missteps. (Chronicle photograph by Scott Carlson)

[Updated (7/8/2013, 7:03 p.m.) with comment from Cooper Union.]

Cooper Union’s recent decision to start charging tuition to undergraduates certainly caused an uproar among students and alumni, who saw the move as defying the intentions of the New York City college’s founder, the industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper.

Felix Salmon at Architect magazine has now highlighted a statement put out by Doug Turetsky, chief of staff at New York State’s Independent Budget Office, who questions the special payments and tax breaks that Cooper Union gets from the land it owns under the Chrysler Building, along with other properties. The tax breaks amount to about $20-million annually.

“Schools typically get a property-tax break only for locations where classes are held, students housed, or administrative operations conducted,” Mr. Turetsky writes, but he points out that the college has hammered out deals for breaks on land that is not used for educational purposes.

“Cooper Union told the City Planning Commission it needed them [tax breaks] in part to generate funds to continue to provide a tuition-free education for its students,” Mr. Turetsky’s statement says. “With the public purpose of the unusual tax breaks now mostly a thing of the past … some New Yorkers may question why the city should forgo tax dollars on Cooper Union’s commercial-development deals at a time when the city’s own university system has seen repeated tuition hikes.”

Mr. Salmon says such musing puts at risk “nothing less than Cooper’s entire financial model.” But then he also says that probably nothing will come of it.

“If New York’s attorney general were to bring this case, it would be in the knowledge that a victory would mean the end of Cooper Union,” he writes. “For all that New York’s politicians would love to be able to get a little more tax revenue onto their books, it’s hard to imagine that any of them have the stomach to close down a world-renowned, 150-year-old institution in the service of little more than fiscal zeal.”

A spokesman for Cooper Union issued a statement to The Chronicle late Monday in which he pointed out that the property-tax exemption in the college’s founding charter “was not linked in any way to the Cooper Union being tuition-free.”

Rather, he said, the charter, which was issued by the New York Legislature, says the college shall be exempt from property taxes as long as it uses its property and income for the “instruction and improvements of the inhabitants of the United States in practical science and art.”

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