EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) — It has been 125 years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Northwestern University doesn’t ever have to pay property taxes to the tony Chicago suburb of Evanston.
But the bitter feelings that ruling left between the prestigious private school and the city, named for one of the university’s founders, have never gone away.
Now that discord has surfaced in federal court, where Northwestern is accusing Evanston of creating a historic district to get back at it for refusing to pay voluntarily for city services.
The case is an extreme example of the often uneasy relationships between cities and the tax-exempt universities that are their lifeblood. While schools such as Yale and Cornell have eased the tension by paying for some services in lieu of taxes, Northwestern has remained steadfast against any such deal.
“We pay a great deal in taxes, but they are not property taxes,” said Alan Cubbage, vice president for university relations.
Northwestern pays more than $4 million a year for taxes and fees on parking, athletic events, utilities and other services, Mr. Cubbage said.
Even so, some residents and aldermen have long argued the school should pay more. Homeowners pay some of the highest property taxes in the area, a fact they attribute to Northwestern’s keeping so much prime property off the tax rolls.
In March 2000, voters approved a nonbinding referendum asking the city to negotiate with Northwestern to pay its “fair share” for services such as fire and police protection.
Northwestern, though, argues that the university’s 17,000 students and 5,700 employees pump millions of dollars in revenue and business into the city each year.
“It’s just a question of money,” the university’s archivist, Patrick M. Quinn, said of the disputes between the city and Northwestern that have cropped up since that century-old high court decision. “It’s as simple as that.”
Northwestern says money is the motive behind a 2000 Evanston ordinance that included dozens of university buildings in a new historic district — requiring city approval for changes to the properties.
In its lawsuit, the university says its properties were included in retaliation for its refusal to pay the city. The residents who crafted the district, along with the city, say that had nothing to do with the ordinance.
The council voted against a proposed settlement of the lawsuit earlier this month, and a trial is set for March.
To Alderman Steve Bernstein, who voted against the settlement, the lawsuit was an attempt by the university to throw around its weight even more.
“Somebody kicks you in the teeth, and you can take it, walk away, and they’re going come kick you in the teeth again,” Mr. Bernstein said.