Yule Be Sorry | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Yule Be Sorry

Getting non-profits to help the city is a dickens of a task

Just in time for the holidays, it seems, everyone is joining together to aid Pittsburgh in its time of need. Under a new state-approved plan to bail out the city, about 300 city employees will lose their jobs; anyone working in the city will see a $42 increase in their annual occupational privilege tax. Even some Pittsburgh corporations will pay a slightly higher tax bill.


The holdouts are the city's non-profits -- those tax-exempt churches, schools, hospitals and cultural groups we all like to feel good about. It's an oddly discordant note -- as if Ebeneezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchitt were sitting down to dinner, only to see Tiny Tim spit in the cranberry sauce, toss aside the crutch, and announce he was off to go pick up chicks.


There's nothing tiny about some of the city's non-profits, of course. Organizations like UPMC are among the region's biggest employers: Together with government agencies, they own more than one-third of the land in Pittsburgh, all of which is tax-exempt. The financial rescue plan calls for non-profits to ante up $6 million to help the city pay its bills, but any such payment is strictly voluntary. No one knows where the money will come from: Non-profits have been meeting behind closed doors to devise a response. And $6 million isn't that much cash anyway: The University of Pittsburgh's football coach makes one-tenth that sum.


And as city workers are poised to become charity cases, the future looks bright for the large charities themselves. Duquesne University, for example, recently paid $22 million for an apartment building near its campus. And now that the building has a tax-exempt owner, the city stands to lose its share of $600,000 in county and local taxes.


None of this sits well with the Ghost of Democrats Past, City Controller Tom Flaherty. He points out that one of Duquesne's top officers, Chancellor John Murray, also sits on a five-member board appointed to oversee the city's financial rescue. "I'm saying, ‘Hey, Chancellor Murray, throw a couple million in to help the city and show some leadership,'" Flaherty says. "He has no problem asking for cuts everywhere else, but you don't hear a peep about tax-exempt institutions."


Murray readily admits that "non-profits need to come forward and help the city." But, he says, "There is no state law that allows us to tax non-profits....Non-profits always have had a soft spot in the law" because institutions like hospitals and schools "bring so much to so many citizens: In our community, look at the employment and economic impact they have."


Murray insists he is powerless to wring money even from his own employer. Then again, he isn't trying very hard: In a Nov. 28 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial calling for "fiscal sanity," Murray laments such problems as government overstaffing, commuters not paying their share of the tax burden and an unfair tax code...yet he never once mentions the growth of non-profits as part of the problem. "[W]e ask you to join us in discarding political interests, self-interests or other distractions and focus exclusively on what is in the best interests of the city," the essay concludes...having at least discarded any mention of self-interest.


Yet self-interest might be the only way to ensure the non-profits do their part. As Murray noted, "There are lots of contributions made to charitable organizations, and much of that money comes from Pittsburghers." And you know what? We'd like some of it back now. So until non-profits have "come to grips with the idea that non-profits should contribute to the city," as Murray puts it, maybe city residents should stop contributing to non-profits.


This holiday season, when it's time to contribute to the large non-profit institution of your choice -- be it your alma mater, or the Carnegie, or your church parish -- look deep into your heart. Ask what you could spare for these noble causes. And then use that money to buy yourself something pretty instead.


You could help the non-profit out with cash, sure. But why should you? You're contributing to the local economy, bringing so much to so many other citizens...by buying a DVD player for your significant other, for example. Maybe we're not willing to help non-profits out financially, but we're doing them a favor just by being here.


God bless us, every one.

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