Due to the College of William and Mary’s recent purchase of the Hospitality House and other factors, the city of Williamsburg is introducing an Emergency Services Agreement with the College in its proposed budget for 2014. Once the 20,000-square-foot Hospitality House becomes official College property, the hotel will receive tax exemption as a public building, taking away a source of city revenue.
Although the sale of the Hospitality House prompted city staff to actively pursue an emergency services agreement, Mayor Clyde Haulman noted conversations between the College and the city began over the past year and a half, as the city’s budget fell under increasing pressure, and it was forced to raise property taxes for the first time in 20 years.
“For decades, the city’s budget has been driven by two primary sources of revenue — one is real estate and property taxes,” Haulman said. “For Williamsburg, that’s in the 35 percent to 40 percent range. For most cities, it’s 70 percent to 80 percent. It’s not so high for Williamsburg because of sales and meal taxes. But with the recession and the long-term decline in tourism, it became clear the city needs to do something new to move into the future and to assure the revenue pace that we need for growth.”
City Manager Jackson Tuttle talked about the city’s obligation to ensure the safety of all Williamsburg residents, including the students on campus.
“About every decade, there’s a major fire on campus, and in between there’s hundreds of calls every year,” Tuttle said. “[Emergency services] have been there when students have committed suicide,” Tuttle said. “We’ve also had cases of students falling off roofs. The services the city provides are critical for the well being of the College and its students.”
Tuttle points out, however, it is not inexpensive to maintain a 38-member fire department and provide equipment and training on a 24-hour basis, particularly when the city provides essential medical and emergency services to the College free of charge.
According to Haulman, Williamsburg firefighters respond to an average of 387 calls each year, 30 percent of which are on campus. Emergency medical teams receive an average of 233 calls each year, 10 percent of which come from the College.
Haulman noted while it is part of the city’s responsibility to provide services for the College, average Williamsburg residents must pay property taxes to indirectly fund the emergency and medical services the College receives.
Director of University Relations Brian Whitson said, in these early stages of discussion, the College is exploring what other public higher education institutions have done in similar situations.
Haulman described the Memorandum of Agreement between the city of Newport News and Christopher Newport University as an exemplary framework the current talks might want to mirror. After being approved by the Newport News City Council and CNU’s Board of Visitors, the university now reimburses the city for emergency and police services.
Yet the implementation of an agreement will inevitably have a major impact on the College’s finances, particularly in light of the various measures the College has taken to address the sharp decline in state funding, most notably the recent tuition raises.
“The College doesn’t have money sitting around,” Haulman said. “It’s going to take real work to figure out an exchange. We’re going to have to be creative about the way we think about the deal.”