By Audrey Cooney, news staff

A recent proposal put forth by a Boston city councilor would create a new office aimed at facilitating communication between the city and its institutions of higher learning to enhance university engagement.

“Students from across the country and across the world attend our schools and receive incredible educations of a high caliber,” said Councilor Timothy McCarthy (D-5), while speaking to the city council at a meeting last week when he proposed the new office. “Along with them comes a continuously growing relationship between the City of Boston, the neighborhoods and these institutions.”

Boston is home to more than 25 colleges and universities. They all collaborate with the city regarding issues of student housing, building, event permitting and programming and more. However, most schools have their own offices designated to work with city government agencies, all operating independently of each other, according to McCarthy’s written proposal.

Creating an umbrella office to cover all of these interactions would “create a better platform for dialogue and create an opportunity for greater cooperation and use of resources,” according to the proposal.

This increased cooperation would benefit both the schools and the city itself, said McCarthy.

“I think that when you have colleges and universities like we do, really there’s three people that need to be involved here,” he said. “We have the colleges and universities for one, we have the City of Boston for two and we have the people of the City of Boston for three. And we have to be on the same page.”

He gives the example of a hypothetical Little League team looking to put on some sort of event, like a practice or meet-and-greet, with Northeastern’s baseball team. Instead of spending time trying to figure out who to contact, says McCarthy, organizers for the team could reach out to Northeastern immediately through the proposed new office.

“When people have questions or complaints about a college or university, instead of calling the school, they could call us,” he said.

The creation of this office, however, is not definite, and there is still work to be done to outline how exactly such an office would operate, along with how it would be staffed and funded.

“It’s still in the very early stages of policy, so there’s not too many concrete details yet,” said Kaitlyn Solares, an intern and legislative aide at McCarthy’s office. “We would first have to meet with more people and get a hearing to hear from students, faculty, other people from city hall.”

Carolina Rapta, the co-president of Northeastern’s student-run Council for University Programs (CUP), said she thinks that any improvement in communication between Northeastern, other area schools and the city government could only mean good things for the university.

“I feel like, in the future, if they could communicate more it might be helpful with programming things that are off-campus.” she said. “Like if we wanted to do something in a park, that would definitely require more than just the Northeastern police. It would require the city […] So if that could be something that we could expand to, that would probably be really helpful.”

Councilor Josh Zakim (D-8), who supported McCarthy’s proposal at last week’s council meeting, said the biggest benefit of such an office would be monitoring how higher education institutions like Northeastern impact surrounding neighborhoods.

“I think more coordination and contact between all of our schools and the city and our residents is great,” he said. “Our colleges are a great benefit to the city, obviously, but there are negative impacts of displacement of residents, rising rents, overcrowding, […] I think people need to be cognizant that it’s not all good, that there are some negative impacts, and I think we all have to work to mitigate that.”

Colleges and universities exacerbate their harmful effects on nearby neighborhoods by not making their voluntary payments to the city, Zakim said.

As he explained, Boston’s assessor requests that tax-exempt institutions like colleges and hospitals make voluntary payments in lieu of taxes. While hospitals tend to deliver the payments, several schools, including Northeastern, do not, said Zakim. These payments, he said, go a long way toward the services Boston provides its residents with regularly.

“It generates a lot of revenue for the city,” he said. “Which we need to provide police, fire, paving the roads, traffic control, all things which colleges and their students and staff use, even though they are exempt from tax by state and federal law.”

Northeastern contributes with voluntary payments and maintains its own police department, snow removal and garbage disposal services, said university spokesperson Matt McDonald.

“Through both financial and in-kind support of services and community-based programs, Northeastern’s contributions to Boston total more than $27 million annually,” he said. “Northeastern maintains a close and positive working relationship with Mayor Martin J. Walsh on issues important to the city.”

McCarthy, however, said the office would focus on increasing communication, not on raising funds.

“I’m not looking to get money from the colleges,” he said. “What I’m looking for is a better relationship […] All colleges and universities should strive to become integral parts of their neighborhoods, and this might be a vehicle to make sure that that happens.”

Photo courtesy of Ken Lund, Creative Commons