A tax bill in the statehouse has fraternities and sororities in Burlington on the defensive.
The bill would revoke a long-standing tax exemption for the owners of fraternity and sorority housing and require them all to pay taxes based on the appraised value of the property.
For the 10 fraternity and sorority houses in Burlington, those payments add up to $278,120 a year, and the students in those groups say the bill threatens their presence in the university community.
Scott McCarty is a graduate advisor to the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, which owns a house on South Willard Street in Burlington. He says Greek organizations are being unfairly targeted by lawmakers.
“These are hard-working, dedicated men and women, who are leaders on campus, who are engaged in athletics, who are engaged in the classroom, who are doing everything right,” he said. “They just want to get by, and they’re being targeted and this is not fair to them.”
Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P Burlington, is the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee that drafted this bill. He says the current tax exemption for fraternities is unfair to the students who aren’t in a fraternity or sorority.
“Undoubtedly, this has nothing to do with trying to punish one student over another,” Ashe said. “It’s actually quite the opposite, trying to have equal treatment of students.”
McCarty and others say the taxes would raise the cost of living in a fraternity or sorority house to the point where the groups could be forced to sell.
“If a chapter house did have to shut its doors and a fraternity did decide to end, the most likely entities to purchase those properties would either be Champlain College or the University of Vermont, both of which are tax-exempt organizations,” McCarty said.
Ashe said the idea that the groups would have to sell doesn’t quite add up.
“Really, the question is, what about the person that lives in the building next door that doesn’t enjoy the tax advantage? They’re already paying in excess of what their neighbor in the fraternity house is paying in their rent,” he said. “So some of the doom and gloom scenario is based on a math that doesn’t quite stand to reason in light of the experience of other college students.”
While UVM doesn’t have any legal ownership over Greek housing, the university has a long history of fraternity and sorority involvement.
Pat Brown is the director of student life for UVM and has been there for 30 years. He said that when he started, every fraternity and sorority had a house. Now, “about half of our chapters don’t have houses. Some of them are very successful as organizations,” he said.
Brown said the bill, if it passes, would change fraternities and sororities at UVM.
"Whether they have a house or not, it will change the nature of an individual chapter. If some of them decide to leave, it will change the number of organizations we have on campus,” but other national organizations would likely be interested in filling the gap, he said.