Uncertainty Remains Surrounding the Nonprofit Hospital Tax Exemption

In a recent ground-breaking decision, the New Jersey Tax Court in AHS Hospital Corp., d/b/a Morristown Memorial Hospital v. Town of Morristown shattered the previous near incontestability of the tax exemption that has shielded nonprofit hospitals from local property tax obligations for over 100 years. In response, the New Jersey Legislature, in conjunction with the New Jersey Hospital Association, quickly joined forces in an attempt to formulate a “fix” and alleviate the resulting great uncertainty that has left municipalities and nonprofit hospitals clamoring for answers.

The resulting bi-partisan supported fix, embodied by Bill No. 3299 (approved early this year) was sent to the Governor’s desk for signing with just days left in the recently completed legislative session. Unfortunately, due to the fast track of this legislation, the late submission of the bill for consideration to the Governor’s office, claims of constitutional infirmity swirling, the Governor, not having been afforded adequate time for fair comment, instead allowed the time to lapse for taking action on the bill. As a result, the bill was killed by virtue of the Governor’s pocket veto.

The import of this failed bill is that while it worked to attempt to reaffirm the longstanding exemption applicable to nonprofit hospital property, it also, in a controversial twist, declared that even those portions of the hospital that were being utilized for, or supporting, for-profit medical activities, should be exempted from taxation. By attempting to continue the exemption, even for components deemed unquestionably “for-profit” by the tax court in the AHS Hospital case, this bill worked to effectively strip away the host municipality’s ability to effectively contest the applicability of the exemption. In return, however, the Legislature attempted to create a special “Community Service Contribution” obligation that was to be borne by the hospital in lieu of paying taxes. This contemplated Community Service Contribution was championed by the sponsors as being readily calculable and serving to remove the need for costly litigation to determine what, if any, portions of the hospital should remain exempt. The funds received by the municipality through this “contribution” obligation in turn would have been earmarked to offset local expenses and financial hardships created by the presence of these typically large facilities that introduce thousands of patients, employees, professionals and associated vehicular activity into the community. The failed bill therefore, although controversial, appeared to strike a reasonable balance between stakeholders, affording both hospitals and municipalities benefits that were left to chance in the unstable environment created in the aftermath of the recent tax court decision.

The killed bill would have required non-profit acute care hospitals to pay a Community Service Contribution equal to $2.50 a day for each licensed hospital bed at the exempt acute care facility.  In addition, satellite emergency care facilities of acute care hospitals would have been required to contribute $250 a day for each such facility.  These mandatory contributions were to have been made in equal quarterly installments and, as in the case of tax payments, payable on February 1, May 1, August 1 and November 1 of each year. These new obligations were to also have been treated the same as other local tax obligations from an enforcement perspective (i.e., the same penalties for late payments and exposure to municipal lien foreclosure actions would apply in the event defaults).

The proposed legislation also dictated that 5% of these contribution payments were to be paid to the County. Such fund sharing would not otherwise have been required in the traditional payments made in lieu of taxes (so-called “PILOT” payment) setting. As a result, the failed bill also afforded county officials some measure of comfort and pre-empted any claims that counties were being unfairly ignored.

This failed legislation further afforded the subject hospitals and satellite emergency care facilities an opportunity to seek relief from these Community Service Contributions obligations where the facility was able to demonstrate that it: 1) had a negative operating margin in the prior tax year; 2) was not in full compliance with the financial terms of any bond covenants, 3) was in financial distress, or 4) was at risk of being in financial distress.

The present impasse however occasioned by the pocket veto continues an environment of uncertainty that will undoubtedly foster a spike in tax court actions to determine the scope and applicability of the hospital tax exemption. Consequently, the question that remains is not if, but when, some refashioning of this proposed legislation will find its way back to the desk of the Governor for adoption.

As the law continues to evolve on these matters, please note that this article is current as of date and time of publication and may not reflect subsequent developments. The content and interpretation of the issues addressed herein is subject to change. Cole Schotz P.C. disclaims any and all liability with respect to actions taken or not taken based on any or all of the contents of this publication to the fullest extent permitted by law. This is for general informational purposes and does not constitute legal advice or create an attorney-client relationship. Do not act or refrain from acting upon the information contained in this publication without obtaining legal, financial and tax advice. For further information, please do not hesitate to reach out to your firm contact or to any of the attorneys listed in this publication.

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