You've probably heard of the "Anybody But Luke" crowd, right? Well, I can tell you where everybody who is anybody will be on the night of Dec. 3.
They'll be hanging out with city councilor Bill Peduto.
Rich Lord had some of this earlier today over at the P-G's pay site, but I figure most of this blog's audience is too fiscally strapped to afford the subscription. (I mean, if you're here, it probably means you can't even afford to read our free print edition!) So perhaps it's worth noting here as well.
This Thursday, city councilor Bill Peduto is holding his "Second Annual Holiday Fete" at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. For just $250, you can hang out with Peduto and friends, listen to a DJ, sample booze and food.
The budget-conscious might have to skip this event, and trade rounds with Peduto at Kelly's some other night. But in the meantime, they should check out the roster of event co-chairs and the folks on the event host committee.
Many of the names are no surprise: Erin Molchany (of the young-professionals group PUMP), Pgh Filmmakers panjandrum Charlie Humprey, longtime friend Justin Strong. But some of the other dignitaries are a bit more interesting:
-- Judy O'Connor, wife of the late Bob O'Connor
-- B.J. Leber, former WQED official and ousted member of O'Connor's inner circle in the latter days of his too-short administration
-- Guy Costa, former chair of Public Works (and the guy who helped let Peduto live out his dream of heading up this year's Columbus Day parade)
-- Mark DeSantis, Ravenstahl's mayoral challenger in 2007
-- Kevin Acklin, Ravenstahl's mayoral challenger in 2009
-- Debbie Lestitian, ousted member of the city's Sports and Exhibition Authority board
In other words, Peduto's party is being attended by many of the folks that Luke Ravenstahl or his chief of staff, Yarone Zober, passed over during their rise to power.
Except Pat Ford. Someone else will have to bring the cigars, I guess.
But the list doesn't just include also-rans in local political contests. Hosts and co-chairs also include ...
-- Fred Sargent, head of Sargent Electric
-- David Matter, head of Oxford Development and one-time advisor to the late Richard Caliguiri
-- Gabe Morgan, western PA head of the Service Employees International Union
-- Developers Steve Mosites and James Scalo
-- Reed Smith attorney/Democratic bigshot Dan Booker
-- Pat Clark, who (full disclosure) is married to CP staffer Al Hoff
Why does any of this matter? Maybe it doesn't. But on Election Day, I wrote an incredibly ponderous essay whose bottom line was that too often, challengers who take on endorsed Democrats don't have
a sufficient number of "go-betweens" -- mediating mechanisms that act as "force multipliers" for a candidate's message ...There aren't enough people with an audience willing to take a chance on a candidate. There haven't been enough unions willing to put themselves on the line with an endorsement. There haven't been enough people willing to sign their name to a check. There aren't enough people reading, let alone writing, the blogs.
[The lackluster challenges to Ravenstahl reflect] the lack of an infrastructure, a power base, large enough to amplify a candidate's message effectively.
I don't think the folks hosting Peduto's shindig are enough to provide that infrastructure: If they were, Ravenstahl might not be in office today. But if you're Peduto, it ain't a bad crowd to have behind you as the New Year approaches.
As noted here earlier, today was the day for students to make a show of force against the city's proposed "tuition tax." Our very own Chris Young reports that some 150 did so, creating a "standing room only" crowd in city council chambers.
City councilors spent some time trying to make the institutions themselves the bad guy here. (Perhaps with some justice, as we'll see shortly.) When Mary Hines, the president of Carlow University and chair of the Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education, testified against the tax, Jim Motznik saw a quick opportunity to score points.
After Hines stepped from the podium, Motznik asked her to come back. "Would you share with us your salary?" Motznik asked.
Hines disclosed that her salary was $210,000. Oooooooooohhhhhh ....
But opponents of the tax were up to some pandering of their own, as when Daniel Jimenez -- who is rapidly becoming the best-known Pittsburgh college student not wearing a jock strap -- testified. Jimenez testified against the tax, and councilor Bill Peduto asked him how much he earned. Jimenez, a grad student, said he made roughly $25,000 a year, mostly due to a fellowship he earned at Pitt.
Yes, yes, you're all very clever, you city councilors. But this back-and-forth just shows -- again -- the dilemma here. City officials are going after students because the large non-profits themselves are too rich and powerful. The politicians look like the bullies today, but that's because they've been getting bullied for years. To use an analogy that should appear on every Pittsburgh college student's SAT:
City politician : student::
a) Large institutional non-profit : city politician
b) Mistreated pit bull : small child
c) Underpaid butler : sloppy houseguest
d) All of the above
The correct answer, of course, is "D." In fact, last week provided a perfect illustration, though you may have missed it. Even as Pitt is urging government to keep its hands out of student pockets ... Pitt was requesting tax dollars from government.
You may have missed this brief Post-Gazette blurb, as I did, because it ran on Thanksgiving Day. But Pitt is making its annual budgetary request from the state. The school is seeking a little under $200 million from Harrisburg -- which is "only" a 5 percent increase over the previous year.
There's much more about the budget request in the current issue of the University Times. An excerpt here:
After several years of 8.5 percent requests, Pitt is seeking a 5 percent increase in its state appropriation for FY11, which begins July 1. Asking for a 5 percent increase "demonstrates need without being unrealistic," said Vice Chancellor for Budget and Controller Arthur G. Ramicone ...
In Pitt’s Nov. 12 request to the state Department of Education, administrators stated that the University intends to limit tuition increases to 4 percent and to increase the compensation pool by at least 3 percent if the state appropriates the $194.68 million the University is seeking.
Look at that: If Pitt gets its nearly $200 million, it will hold students to a tuition hike of only 4 percent. I was an English major myself, but assuming tuition of $13,000 per student, that means next year, Pitt students will be shelling out an additional $520 ... roughly three times what Ravenstahl's tax would cost them. And again -- that's assuming Pitt gets the money it wants from OTHER branches of government. If it doesn't, tuition will likely increase more.
Think about that for a second. The decisions made by Harrisburg's politicians could cost students far more than ANYTHING Luke Ravenstahl has considered. But guess which public official is the bad guy here?
But hey, at least there's some upside for those paying tuition. Among the items in Pitt's budget request: $449,000 for "student life initiatives."
Got that? Pitt is asking nearly half a million bucks from the state to support "student life" ... but says the city has no business asking students to cover living costs for anyone else.
Of course, in the topsy-turvy world of non-profit advocacy, Pitt can claim that $449,000 is something the rest of the city should be thankful for. After all, it's money coming from Harrisburg that might otherwise not end up here. But the point remains: If Pitt can ask government for money to benefit students, is it REALLY so shocking government is asking students for a few bucks in return?
A little later today, we'll be posting news of City Council's public hearing on the tuition tax, which is underway even as I type this. Students are slated to speak, and student leaders from Pitt and CMU have issued a statement pledging to release a petition with "thousands of signatures ... in opposition of the proposed tuition tax."
I hope so for their sake, because when I saw Rich Lord's preview in the Post-Gazette this morning, I was distinctly underwhelmed.
The operative passage:
After the mayor's 2010 budget address featured the tax, student government leaders from nearly all of the city's schools gathered at Pitt. CMU's student government put up a Web site, www.stoptuitiontax.org. As of Wednesday, 2,543 different computer users had visited the site, 108 of those wrote e-mails to City Council, and 29 used it to report that they had called a council member
Only 108 students wrote e-mails? Seriously? To put that number in perspective, that's half the number of people who showed up for a rally to save UPMC Braddock. And that rally was taking place outside in mid-November, in a steady rain. Here you've got students doing on-line activism from the comfort of a bedroom or computer lab, and still they can barely make a showing.
That's not to say there aren't committed student activists. In the P-G's print edition, Lord's story quotes a student leader, Daniel Jimenez, who appears elsewhere on the same page -- in a Pitt-sponsored ad objecting to the tax.
Jimenez, a grad student who worked on the petition-gathering effort, is quoted in the ad noting that pays parking, sales and amusement taxes like many other folks. He also owns a home and pays taxes on the property, and wage tax on the money he earns working.
"I'm rehabbing my City house to improve it and my neighborhood," the ad says. "But the City says I don't contribute."
Pitt has been running these quarter-page ads for the past few days. At the same time, the Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education -- which represents 10 non-profit institutions of higher learning -- has been running its own companion campaign in the P-G.
The council's quarter-page ads insist that "Students Already Pay Their Fair Share."
"Students who live in campus residence halls do enjoy a measure of protection from local property taxes," the ads concede. "However, less than one-quarter of our students live in university-owned housing. The other three quarters do pay property taxes, either directly on the homes that they own or indirectly through the rental payments that they make."
The ad frets that students "actually could pay more for city services than well-paid professionals who work in the city year-round."
That is, I guess, a reference to the fact that commuters pay only a $52-a-year levy. Which might sound outrageous -- especially if you think, as I do, that commuters can and should pay more. But on the other hand, as I pointed out before, you could argue that students probably USE city services more than well-paid professionals, who by definition go home at the end of the day. (And let's face it: You'll find a much smaller number of well-paid professionals putting a burden on city services by partying at Semplefest.)
Of course, well-paid professionals are better able to pay than students are -- no matter how little the professionals may use the services. But do city colleges really want us to decide these issues on the basis of who can best afford to pay? If so, it's natural to wonder how much all these ads cost ... and whether that money shouldn't have been directed to city coffers instead. Won't the cost of those ads be taken from students' tuition as well?
All this gets to the heart of the dilemma here. As everyone knows, students are easy to tax in part because, up until now, they just don't vote or get involved in city politics much. Meanwhile, the colleges themselves have money and resources to fight this battle ... but they're exactly the kind of big institutions city officials really want to tax. Students are caught between grasping public officials and grasping universities, who are used to having prior claim on their wallets.
I approach the news of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's separation from his wife Erin with trepidation for a couple reasons. My own parents divorced when my brother and I were only a few years older than the Ravenstahls' son. I hope it doesn't come to that for the mayor's family. My parents' parting was as amicable as it could be, but you couldn't call it fun.
In any case, while I've certainly had differences with Ravenstahl's public policies, I don't care about his personal life.
What interests me more is the news, tucked down into other media accounts, that the Ravenstahls have retained Philadelphia attorney Richard A. Sprague "to address privacy matters."
How big a deal is Sprague? Among other things, he has taken on the state's largest newspaper -- and the American Bar Association -- and won.
It's been noted elsewhere already that Sprague once had state Senator Vince Fumo (D-Philadelphia) as a client. Another previous client was basketball star Allen Iverson, who in 2002 was cleared of gun charges after Sprague's "grueling cross-examination" punched holes in the testimony of prosecution witnesses. Long before that, Sprague prosecuted Tony Boyle for the 1969 murder of Jock Yablonski, a Pittsburgh-born labor leader who sought to reform the United Mineworkers, and who was killed for his trouble. (You can watch a 45-minute video of Sprague talking about the case here.)
Sprague has taken on the media too.
In 1990, a jury awarded Sprague a $34 million libel verdict against the Philadelphia Inquirer. (Years before, the paper had accused Sprague, who then worked in the Philadelphia DA's office, of quashing a murder investigation.) It was said to be the largest verdict ever against a news organization, though the amount was later reduced, and the Inquirer's owner settled for an undisclosed sum.
As celebrated lawyer F. Lee Bailey wrote in a foreword to a biography of Sprague, "Sprague is not afraid of anybody. He's not afraid of the biggest newspaper in the state ... or the toughest union bosses."
He also wasn't afraid of the American Bar Association. Sprague took them to court too. And that book Bailey wrote the foreword to? Publishing it was reportedly part of the settlement.
According to the Legal Intelligencer (reg. req'd) and other accounts, Sprague objected to a 2000 ABA Journal article that described him as "perhaps the most powerful lawyer-cum-fixer" in the state. The ABA maintained that the phrase was meant to praise Sprague, but Sprague noted that "fixer" has negative connotations as well.
Eventually, the ABA and Sprague settled, with the Bar Association issuing a statement that read, in part, "[W]e did not intend to disparage Mr. Sprague in any way. Rather,we intended the word to mean someone who is skilled in resolving problems in high-profile, complex cases. We apologize to Mr. Sprague for the personal distress that resulted from our choice of words."
The settlement reportedly also involved a pledge by the ABA to "pay for the publication of Sprague's biography, written by Philadelphia Daily News reporter Joseph R. Daughen."
So let there be no doubt: Richard A. Sprague is one heck of a lawyer. And just in case there is any question whatsoever about this, I intend that phrase to mean he is skilled in resolving problems in high-profile, complex cases.
There's been a lot of talk about how Bishop Thomas Tobin, who heads the Catholic Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island, has urged Congressman Patrick Kennedy to not take Communion because Kennedy supports abortion rights.
And wouldn't you just know it, Tobin is a Pittsburgh native. I haven't heard anything about the local connection since the Kennedy brouhaha blew up, but a few years back, the Providence Journal did a series on Tobin noting his Pittsburgh roots, right down to the fact that "He was a great fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, of Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris and their four Super Bowl titles in six years." The story also notes that at the ceremony installing him as bishop, Tobin
struck a note of levity. He mentioned having already received many letters, including from one fifth-grade student who admonished him for enthusiastically following Pittsburgh football. He read from it.
"I heard you are a Steelers fan," the child wrote. "I am a Pats fan. We are all Pats fans. Too bad for you!"
The bishop paused, then added, to laughter: "Obviously, I have a lot of work to do up here!"
The Journal even featured a 1973 video of Tobin's ordination here in Pittsburgh. (He's the young guy with the thick-framed glasses, though he doesn't say much.)
So I guess you can put Tobin's name on the roster of people who left Pittsburgh to become prominent exponents of conservative ideals. Put it right there below folks like Orrin Hatch and Rush Limbaugh.
Sadly, Tobin doesn't exactly do his hometown proud in this exchange about Kennedy with Chris Matthews. Starting around the six-and-a-half minute mark, you start to feel like Saint Sebastian got off easy.
In a blog post earlier today, I asked what seemed like a fairly simple question: Why are students so worked up about Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's proposed "Get The Hell of My Lawn" tax ... when they merely grumble at tuition hikes that cost much more every year?
The answer to that question, it seems, is also simple. Students perceive a tangible return for the money they invest in their tuition. Even if they don't get to use the shiny new labs, those investments too enhance the prestige of the school -- and thus the value of their degree.
The way Ravenstahl has structured this tax, meanwhile, almost seems calculated to make them resent it.
Our intrepid reporter Chris Young was at a city council meeting on the tax today. Among the 50 in attendance were numerous students. He asked several of them a variant of the question, "Why don't you get this pissed off at tuition hikes?"
Not surprisingly, most students he spoke to agreed that, in the words of Pitt sophomore Austin Davis, "universities need to hold the line on tuition." But they also felt there was some kind of payoff. A Robert Morris student, Justin Lotz, put it this way: "Even though I'm charged fees [at school], we have more equipment. If I had to give a tax to the city, I wouldn't see any benefit from it."
I'll be honest: A part of me is tempted to say, "Grow up, students. Being a citizen isn't the same as going shopping." I pay tax money to pave roads I'll never use, and to subsidize a fire department I hope never to call on. I don't mind, partly because people out there are doing the same thing. It's part of living in a community.
In fact, students have a sort of touching belief that everyone else sees nothing but an upside in having them around. One student, for example, asked Young to "Imagine Oakland without college students." Well, I lived in Oakland for two years, and there are plenty of long-term residents for whom that is a constant daydream. But those residents learn to take the good with the bad, the excesses of Semplefest with all the advantages students bring. That's part of living in a community too.
But I can't blame students if they aren't racing to sing Kum-ba-yah with the rest of the city these days. As I noted in a column after the tax was first announced, it's almost as if city leaders were trying to make students as angry as possible. Almost all of the tax revenues are earmarked to pay off the city's massive pension debt ... which means "Many of the city's youngest residents would be footing the bill for some of its oldest."
That's not really the mayor's fault. The money is earmarked for pensions because, earlier this year, state financial overseers placed a mandate on the city to start paying at least $10 million a year into its pension fund. The overseers did absolutely nothing to suggest where that money was going to come from. So this is what Ravenstahl came up with.
The result is a revenue stream that pays for the one thing students will have the least sympathy for: a pension whose problems date back before they ever enrolled -- and whose beneficiaries may have retired before they were born.
Which is too bad, because the thing is ... students and the rest of the city have one big thing in common. In one way or another, EVERYONE is being beggared by colleges. Tuition goes up, while contributions to city coffers remain flat or decline.
And while it's fun, and fashionable, to blame Ravenstahl for all this, it's bigger than him.
I've been a reporter for nearly 15 years. And throughout my career, city officials have complained that the non-profits -- among the city's biggest employers -- need to do more. Ravenstahl doesn't have much in common with his predecessor, Tom Murphy ... except for the fact that both have pleaded for more support from the universities and other non-profits.
Why does nobody seem able to keep the real problem here in mind? That question, it seems, isn't quite so simple.
As first noted here last week, when students heard about Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's tuition tax, they took to the Tweets rather than the streets. A few more Web sites have gone up since then, and these are more focused on political action than on bitching on someone's Facebook wall.
CMU students have assembled a "Stop the Tuition Tax" Web site, complete with city council phone numbers, sample letters, and an online petition.
Over at the University of Pittsburgh, meanwhile, grad students -- who've been often overlooked in the debate so far -- have launched an online petition opposing the tax.
And if you're browsing the internet anyway, check out this story about how the higher-ed community is watching Pittsburgh grapple with the tuition tax. One takeaway here is that whatever you want to say about Ravenstahl's proposal, the city is on the cutting edge of something:
Other cities are trying to find some way of generating tax revenue from the thousands of students who study there each year. Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino launched a task force in January to standardize and increase voluntary payments coming from the city’s colleges and universities, as well as its hospitals. David N. Cicilline, mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, this spring proposed a $150 per semester tax on students at the city’s four private colleges.
The Association of American Universities (AAU) first warned its 62 member institutions of the coming wave of municipalities looking to tax higher education about 18 months ago, said M. Matthew Owens, an associate vice president for federal relations.
As for the student activism ... there will be a special council meeting about the tax at 1:30 p.m. today. It'll be interesting to see how many students log off and show up for it.
While I'm on the subject ... how come nobody gets this worked up when their colleges jack up tuition by 6 or 7 percent a year?
Maybe it was the rain, but it was hard to be optimistic about today's rally to save Braddock Hospital. I wasn't alone feeling that way, either. As I walked over to it, I saw a number of residents sitting on porches, just a block or two from the facility.
"Not going to the hospital rally?" I called out to one resident.
"They're going to do whatever they're going to do," he shouted back, waving his hand dismissively.
UPMC's decision to shutter Braddock is really just the latest in a decades-long story of neglect and betrayal. Braddock is already on life support, and until now, the hospital was its lifeline. An upstart activist group, Save Our Community Hospitals, notes that Braddock didn't just provide jobs and medical care -- its cafeteria is the town's only restaurant. It also boasts Braddock's only ATM.
I counted about 200 people gathered in front of the hospital on Braddock Avenue. The turnout was bumped up slightly by some single-payers and a couple folks holding "US out of Middle East" signs.
As you might expect, a lot of the signs on display took liberties with UPMC's acronym and marketing campaigns.
"We are here to 'continue the conversation,'" one sign jeered.
The woman holding that sign, Annette Baldwin, was like a lot of Braddock dwellers. She'd given birth to a child in that hospital, and worked there for a time. And she, like a lot of her neighbors, was angry that UPMC was shutting down the hosptial, even as it gears up to build a new facility in Monroeville, a more affluent community a few miles away.
"It's not health care anymore," Baldwin said. "It's wealth care."
A number of activists and politicians made similar points. Braddock councilwoman Tina Doose told the crowd that UPMC was spuring the "poor, predominantly African-American members of this community." In fact, council president Jesse Brown told the crowd, he had been in touch with the US Justice Department, and was seeking a civil-rights action against UPMC.
Standing off to the side throughout the rally was Braddock mayor John Fetterman. Brown and Fetterman are at odds, and Fetterman didn't seem terribly optimistic about the outcome of any civil-rights complaint.
"You have to hope the closing doesn't happen," Fetterman said, "but if it does, you need to start doing disaster contingency planning. We're talking about a building that is larger than a Wal-Mart on five floors, and with poor parking."
Fetterman was also dismissive about UPMC's offer to donate the hospital to the community. "That just allows them to wash their hands of us," he says -- and saddles the community with a giant vacant building that is, he says "a midnight plumber's dream." Fetterman would prefer to have UPMC pledge a sum of money to help rehab the building should a new occupant be found. Braddock already has plenty of vacant structures, thanks.
So far, though, Fetterman says no offers of money have been forthcoming.
Fetterman recalled that almost exactly a year ago, there was an effort to save the House of Hope, a UPMC-operated clinic for pregnant mothers struggling with subtance abuse. "I defended UPMC at the time," Fetterman said. "In retrospect, I feel pretty foolish."
As you may have heard by now, city council has introduced legislation that would require paying a prevailing wage to custodial, food-service, or other employees employed at projects that receive city tax-subsidies.
The legislation has been talked about for months now, and is the first of a handful of initiatives designed to improve labor and environmental standards at city-backed developments. Presumably, the measure will be discussed more fully at next week's city council meeting. But for now, a few things are worth noting.
First, the bill has seven co-sponsors. Among them are outgoing councilors Tonya Payne and Jim Motznik (who got a big attaboy from labor figures and other supporters outside council chambers yesterday). NOT among the sponsors are Patrick Dowd and Ricky Burgess.
Payne and Motznik's support is notable because they are usually staunch allies of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl -- and the mayor opposes the bill. (You may recall a protest at the mayor's office concerning the legislation over the summer.)
Dowd and Burgess' opposition is notable, in part because Burgess is mounting a bid to be council's next president. Dowd, meanwhile, ran for mayor against Ravenstahl earlier this year ... strange to see him less committed to the bill than Payne and Motznik.
Dowd cautions that while he didn't co-sponsor the bill, that doesn't mean he'll vote against it. Not being a sponsor, he says, "positions me to maybe bring people together in a conversation -- progressives, developers who are dead-set against it."
But Dowd does strongly object to the bill's timing. "I find it unacceptable that they are introducing this so late. We're in the middle of budget season now, and we have pretty significant budget issues." That will prevent a meaningful discussion of the bill, he worries ... and the bill is too important to pass without that conversation.
"If this legislation is so great -- and I'm open to it being so -- let's not shoot it in the foot with some legal problem that results in its being overturned in court," Dowd says. "I'm definitiely receptive to the idea, but I've got a lot of questions. Can the city show us data on projects that we have funded that would meet [the bill's requirements]? Let's look at what percentage of jobs already meet those wages, and what percentage would benefit from the legislation."
Dowd also objects that "they've talked about a whole package of changes -- and we're looking at just one part of that." The reform's environmental components shouldn't be left to the side, he says. That initiative is backed by the Sierra Club, which has backed Dowd in the past "and who I support. I'm not interested in supporting these reforms piecemeal."
Dowd suspects the fact that the "folks introducing the legislation think they have votes now that they may not have in the future."
That may sound odd, given that Motznik -- the nominal mayoral ally -- is being replaced in just a couple months with Natalia Rudiak. During her council run, Rudiak enjoyed copious support from the SEIU, who are big supporters of the prevailing wage bill. Payne, meanwhile, is being replaced by Daniel Lavelle ... and city councilor Bill Peduto, who backs the prevailing wage legislation, campaigned actively on Lavelle's behalf.
I'm making calls to some bill sponsors, to give them a chance to address Dowd's concerns about the bill's timing. I'll post that here.
But this much seems clear: This vote wouldn't be easy for Rudiak and Lavelle -- especially when they haven't even had a chance to adjust the height on their office chairs. As Chris Briem noted last spring, for example, even as Rudiak won her district 4 race, voters in that part of the city were also giving Luke Ravenstahl his widest margin of victory. Would it be smart to put Rudiak in such a tight spot between her backers and her constituents?
When a bill has seven co-sponsors -- a veto-proof majority -- you might think passage would be easy. But don't break out the champagne just yet.
No one knows what lies in store for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's 1 percent tuition tax. But one thing seems clear: It's going to be a test for the state-appointed financial oversight process.
There's already been some attention given to a letter city councilor Bill Peduto sent to the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority today. In that letter, Peduto notes that the ICA was formed in part because in 2003, then-Mayor Tom Murphy proposed a budget that relied on non-existent tax revenue. "We again find ourselves in the same position," Peduto wrote. Ravenstahl's tax is supposed to raise $15 million, but it's not clear whether his tax proposal is legal either. "City Council needs to have these revenues certified and approved by the ICA prior to considering the budget proposal," Peduto asserts.
In fact, there's word from Grant Street that the ICA is indeed trying to schedule a meeting for next week, perhaps as early as Tuesday. And Peduto's letter was actually the second such request made to the ICA this week. On Tuesday, City Council President Doug Shields sent a longer letter to ICA Chair Barbara McNees.
"Without the express and unconditional approval of the mayor's budget by the ICA, the Council cannot proceed with its budget deliberations," Shields writes.
Shields predicts that educational institutions "will vigorously litigate the matter in the Courts," and complains that the city law department has not provided a legal analysis "that clearly indicates that the city has the ability to enact such a levy." Shields also notes that by state law, the city's budget "shall note include projected revenues that ... require the enactment by the General Assembly of new taxing powers or the approval of a court."
Shields raises other concerns as well: For example, "How does [the tax] apply to for-profit institutions that already pay city payroll and property taxes?"
So far, the ICA has hedged on all these matters -- which strikes me as kinda interesting. After all, the board was created because city officials couldn't be trusted to make tough decisions. But the ICA hasn't had to make them either -- until now.
To date, the ICA has conditionally approved an earlier version of the city's budget. But that edition contained a vague line item pledging $16.2 million in revenue enhancements -- without saying where the money would come from. Since Ravenstahl proposed his tuition tax, ICA executive director Henry Sciortino has issued little more than boilerplate. According to the Post-Gazette, Sciortino muttered something about how the ICA "urge[s] the city to maximize its operating efficiencies ... before they go after new revenue."
In related developments, councilor Ricky Burgess has made a fiscal proposal of his own: Compile data about how much city services cost ... and about how much university tax-exemptions cost the city. Then use that data to leverage money from the schools.
As Burgess explained to me earlier today, he plans to put three related proposals on council's table next week.
First, Burgess wants to assess what it actually costs, per capita, to provide everyday services to residents. Burgess says that he'd ask the finance department to calculate the city's overall budget for services -- NOT including things like pension payments or debt -- and divide that by overall population. Second, he wants the city to carry out an assessment of the properties owned by tax-exempt universities and other educational institutions. With those numbers in hand, Burgess says, the city could begin negotiating with colleges about "Payments in Lieu of Taxes."
"That's my approach," says Burgess. "Let's be systematic and data-driven."
It might not be quite that simple. For one thing, it's notoriously hard to get reliable property valuations on tax-exempt property. Where, for example, do you find the "comparables" for the Cathedral of Learning? It's not like a lot of other skyscrapers in the university district have gone on the market lately.
Then too, why only look at educational non-profits? There are numerous hospitals scattered around town, each depriving the city of a sizable chunk of property-tax revenue. Why not look at those?
For two reasons, Burgess says. First, Ravenstahl's tuition tax is targeted at students, "And I want to compare apples to apples." Second, Burgess says, cities like Boston -- where schools like MIT and Harvard each contribute seven-digit sums to city operations -- have already established a precedent for treating universities differently from other big non-profits. Then too, he says, "UPMC already participates in the Pittsburgh Promise" -- a college scholarship program for city schoolkids.
"Pitt and Carnegie Mellon are sitting on billion-dollar endowments," Burgess says. "They have the wherewithal to solve the city's [pension] costs on their own. For them to not participate is unacceptable."
There's a bit of a good-cop/bad-cop dynamic going on here. Ravenstahl has proposed a tax that goes right after students ... and Burgess has emerged with a proposal that gives schools a chance to assume some of the burden. It's not that he and the mayor were planning this, Burgess stresses. Still, he says, maybe schools will be a bit more responsive to the city's pleas than they've been before:
"In the past, there was no alternative if [the schools] didn't pay," he says. "But the mayor's plan gives us an alternative. If they won't participate on the front end, they leave us no choice."