Institutionalized | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper


Mon Valley residents have been here before: standing out in the rain, shaking their fists at corporate greed. Back in the old days, they used to decry the avarice of steel companies. On the rainy afternoon of Nov. 19, though, some 200 people were on the streets of Braddock, denouncing UPMC.

I guess it's true: Hospitals and universities really are the steel mills of the 21st century.

Actually, that might be unfair -- to the steel mills. US Steel's Edgar Thomson works still churns night and day along Braddock's river bank. UPMC, though, is shuttering Braddock's century-old hospital just 13 years after acquiring it, supposedly because it doesn't get enough use. Meanwhile, UPMC plans to open a new facility closer to Monroeville, where it can better compete for affluent customers with a hospital owned by its rival, West Penn Allegheny Health System. 

"It's not health care any more; it's wealth care," protester Annete Baldwin told me while holding a sign that read, "We are here to 'continue the conversation.'" 

Maybe it's no surprise that UPMC is acting like US Steel used to do: These days, they even operate out of the same skyscraper. And UPMC sure ain't the first employer to abandon Braddock. Behind Baldwin was a parking lot that used to be a Huntington Bank branch. Today, UPMC's hospital houses Braddock's only working ATM. Its cafeteria is the only place in town where you can buy a prepared meal. 

But at least those other employers didn't act like they were doing us a favor. 

Local officials have long sought to tax big nonprofits. But when you try treating tax-exempts like a business, they say, "We already contribute to the community! We're a nonprofit!" When they decide to stop acting like a nonprofit, though, they insist, "We have to run like a business!" That's what Braddock is hearing now.

Yeah, UPMC provides plenty of charity care. So what? Andrew Carnegie built low-cost housing for his communities. ("The [company] houses are kept in good repair," observed social researcher John Fitch. "The company rents these houses [for] 30 to 40 percent below that charged by other landlords. There is always a waiting list.") And yeah, UPMC gave $10 million for the "Pittsburgh Promise" tuition fund. So what? Carnegie built libraries. Did that give him a pass on crushing unions? Or were his actions -- good and bad -- just flip sides of the same corporate paternalism? 

There are differences between Carnegie and UPMC head Jeffrey Romoff, sure. But they're differences of degree ... and nonprofits are supposed to be a different entity entirely. 

Romoff made $4.5 million last year. That's not much by CEO standards: According to a May Pittsburgh Post-Gazette account, it's under half what top officials earn at other local companies. But as the P-G also noted, Romoff makes about four times the average of hospital CEOs in other cities. So is he selfless, or greedy? Probably he's a bit of both, just like the rest of us. But he gets to run his enterprise as if he's neither. He's treated like a prince for doing stuff nonprofits are supposed to do, and he gets to ignore the things conventional businesses have to do, like pay taxes. 

It was once much the same for steel titans. By manipulating municipal boundaries and tax rates just across the river from Braddock in Homestead, Carnegie was "largely relieved of contributing to the maintenance of the community," wrote Margaret Byington in 1907. "That burden is borne by the homes of the wage-earners." Sound familiar? 

And as the mills once did, large nonprofits have powerful friends. Just ask Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, whose plan to tax college students has run afoul of state-appointed financial overseers. Four of that panel's five members have university ties. 

Ravenstahl complained, though no one took him seriously because taxing students makes him the bully. Still, perhaps the real bullies are the schools, who have beggared students and residents alike, raising tuition while fighting efforts to raise tax revenue. 

The question is what we'll do about it. During the Braddock rally, residents were sitting on their porches just a block or two away from the hospital ... declining to join the rally, declining to get wet. 

"They're going to do what they're going to," one explained to me. 

A 19th-century millworker couldn't put it better. And beyond his porch, the rain kept falling on Braddock, hard. As if that's all it has ever done. 

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