D.C. Mayor’s Office Looks to Resolve GW Hatchet Court Dispute

Nearly two years into a court battle between the District of Columbia and the student-run GW Hatchet newspaper over a disputed property tax bill of $17,000, the D.C. Mayor’s Office said it is hoping to “bury the hatchet without burying the Hatchet.”

John Falcicchio, chief of staff to Mayor Muriel Bowser, said last week that he will gather more details about the case and follow up with the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, which oversees property tax collection in the city.

“Your inquiry has made us aware of the dispute,” Falcicchio said in an email. “We will follow up with the independent Office of the Chief Financial Officer to gather more details and determine if there is a path forward.”

Organizational chart for the D.C. government, showing the Mayor’s Office and the CFO’s Office are independent of one another/Courtesy: Government of the District of Columbia

The city’s response comes after MediaFile detailed an ongoing legal dispute between the city and The Hatchet, the second-oldest newspaper in Washington and a vital source of news for students at The George Washington University.

Hatchet officials and the CFO’s Office declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

In 2013, Home for the Hatchet, The Hatchet’s nonprofit real estate arm, purchased a townhouse in Foggy Bottom for $950,000. To do so, the nonprofit took on a $1.25 million loan from a bank in Maryland to pay for the building and cover construction and renovation costs, MediaFile found. At the time, Hatchet officials said the move would allow the student newspaper to “gain” independence from the university, which had been renting The Hatchet office space for years.

The Hatchet’s independence is relatively unique for a collegiate student newspaper. Fewer than 30 student newspapers nationwide are “entirely freestanding and with a separate existence from their colleges,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the D.C.-based Student Press Law Center. “Even fewer own their own building.”

But The Hatchet’s move to a new townhouse came with an unexpected cost: a rising property tax bill.

The townhouse initially came with a property tax bill of about $8,500 a year, city records show. In 2015, however, the bill shot up to about $16,000 annually.

When the city’s Office of Tax and Revenue turned down the newspaper’s request for a property tax exemption in 2014, Home for the Hatchet sued the city in D.C. Superior Court. Lawyers representing the newspaper argued The Hatchet should not have to pay property taxes because the student newspaper is an educational organization.

The D.C. Attorney General’s Office, representing the Office of Tax and Revenue, countered that The Hatchet is not considered an educational organization under D.C. law. The Attorney General’s Office declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

The Washington Post reported in August that D.C universities had avoided $111 million in property taxes last year, including GW, which had avoided $39 million.

Overall, the city collected more than $2 billion in property taxes in 2015.

In recent weeks, local journalists, educators and Foggy Bottom neighborhood officials have come to the defense of The Hatchet, which has been struggling in recent years with declining revenue.

“I do think it’s highly unfortunate that the Hatchet has to pay these taxes while GW does not,” said Eve Zhurbinskiy, a GW student and treasurer of D.C.’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2A, which serves the Foggy Bottom neighborhood. “The Hatchet provides an invaluable service to the community, and I’m hoping that this matter is resolved in a way that’s suitable for all parties and does not diminish the Hatchet’s operations.”

Patrick Kennedy, a recent GW graduate and the chairperson of the commission, also called for a quick resolution to the dispute.

“These are obviously trying times for all newspapers — none more so than independent, college newspapers serving a localized audience,” he said. “But the Hatchet provides a tremendous public service to the neighborhood and indeed to the D.C. community at-large, so I would hope that it is possible for both sides to find an equitable solution.”

The Hatchet is seeking a retroactive property tax exemption. If granted, the newspaper would receive nearly $50,000 for the four years it has owned the townhouse.

“In the meantime, I’ll be making a donation,” said Zhurbinskiy, “because the Hatchet is a crucial resource for student life.”

Photography by Aly Kruse, MediaFile staff photographer.

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