Thursday, November 19, 2009

City Strategy for Nonprofits Becomes a Strategy

This is big news that needs to be lauded:

Legislation quietly introduced Tuesday in Pittsburgh City Council gives the city's nine lawmakers veto power over almost all new construction by big tax-exempt institutions -- effective immediately. (P-G, Rich Lord)

This is a first step towards handling the non-profit conundrum the way cities like Boston handle it: "Contribute payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) to local governments in a significant amount, and on a long-term basis -- or you don't get to build, expand and play like you're accustomed."

"If approved, council will look at [construction plans] on a case-by-case basis," said Councilman Ricky Burgess, author of the measures. "I view this as restoring the proper role of council." (ibid)

If so, then we can assume this is not part of the game of "poker" that is being played regarding the Student Tax and the 2010 budget. If it's the proper role then it's the proper role -- and it is the proper role.

My only concern is that we may go this route briefly and then quickly settle for the amount we happen to require right now, locked in over the next 50 years -- rather than for an amount commensurate with what the nonprofits can afford and what their tax-exempt land is costing us. Of course, there is a data collection element to the raft yacht of legislation introduced by Burgess yesterday, so maybe this danger already has been anticipated.

Timing-wise, this is interesting in about eight different ways. For one thing there is the current wrangling with the universities. For another thing there is the straight-up politics: as a move which significantly empowers Council -- not the Planning Commission or the ZBA -- this is not a move that would ordinarily overjoy our Mayor. For a third thing there is the small matter of a Council presidency vote coming up -- Burgess has not been this active at legislating since his first four months in office, let alone legislating counter to the wishes of development interests. So he might be trying to reestablish some political individuality in the wake of having taken a few warranted hits over that.

Then again, it must be noted that Burgess ran on a platform of wishing to rescind or amend Act 55 outright in order to tax some of these non-profits, so this cannot completely be described as a shift. And it can't be denied that other councilors have ratcheted up either the legislative or communicative activity in recent weeks, in line with their own brands.


On a related and I want to say less important note: Mayor Ravenstahl held a press conference today to demonstrate that he has the five votes in Council to pass the Student Tax by way of assembling those five individuals next to him. It's clearly important to the Mayor to get that tax into the court system, but at the same time we can see it's a big bit of posturing. Honestly I wouldn't be surprised if, having established the right to that tax and prevailed upon the non-profits to pony up voluntarily, Ravenstahl rescinds the tax and looks like a hero. Then in response, Councilor Peduto released a brief press statement assailing the Mayor for "playing poker with people's lives" and doing it badly. That's an important distinction. I'm all for playing poker, especially if you find yourself in a poker game -- but you don't want to look at your cards, bug out your eyes, and go "Wow! I can't loose with this hand! I bet $10,000! You better fold, man."


  1. We don't need no stinking lawyers...Doug Shields can handle.

    Lay off the City's Law department and hire Shields.

    Probably would work for less than Luke's $625/hr lawyer.

    Unbelievable quote in paper, by Doug.

    What a deal. To bad Doug didn't run for Mayor.

    Don't think he has 5 votes needed to regain Council Presidency. That has been decided by the Mayor's support for tuition tax...

    Maybe Doug can represent former residents of Alpark Terrace ?

    The legislation to which Bram speaks of, is excellent...puts power in hands of elected officials (people) not appointees.

    Bravo Luke!


  2. I don't think Payne & Motznik will be on Council when the voting takes place.

    I would put my $$ on Peduto.

  3. From where I'm sitting (far away), it'll be between Burgess and Peduto -- with Kraus as an intriguing dark horse compromise possibility.

    BUT, if you're talking about the student tax Matt, I don't see why they can't squeeze that in by mid December. They don't recess for Hannukah, do they?

  4. This sounds great, but I hope it does not become a breeding ground for corruption. At least when taxes are paid, it's out in the open. These PILOT payments could easily become under-the-table incentives to vote for a buidling project, couldn't they?

  5. carpetbaggery - Ideally, or I hope even "commonly", these PILOTs are settled at once by contract for large numbers of years. They are not to trickle in as "events warrant". Then too, it's been getting so easy for these institutions to get buildings built and zones zoned as the years have gone by that almost anything would be an improvement.

  6. Re: The Tuition Tax

    Once again, this whole charade proves, without shadow of doubt, local politicans are unwilling to make tough decisions, such as CUT CUT CUT. The public service employees and those who work for government has sucked off the government teat for way too long. Experience REAL life for a change.

    The Boy Mayor even said it today.. "We didn't want to do this. We wish we didn't have to." Blah, blah, blah.

    Be a MAN and do what those of us in the private sector have been forced to do so as to survive. Trouble is, I'm starting to think that we, meaning the small-business owners, will not survive. For those who think this is hyperbole, you can KMA. I'm the wrong age, I'm the wrong skin color and I'm the wrong political persuasion.

  7. A few thoughts:

    1. The picture on the front page of the Post-Gazette website of Luke and his 5 Council votes (2 of them lame ducks and one, Burgess, a blatant lap dog) is VERY SCARY. Ladies and gentlemen, these are the people in charge of our City. Wow. Very scary.

    2. So, Luke, if you know that your budget needs to be passed off by the ICA, don't you think it would have been smart to sit down with them beforehand? They unanimously rejected it. Now, of course, we have another "crisis" situation because of your inability to work with others. You know, that stuff the rest of us learned in Kindergarten.

    3. And speaking of crisis, it must be increasingly clear to everyone that this Mayor (and his Gepetto, Dan Onorato) govern by one simple unifying principle, CRISIS. All of the significant issues that have arisen under Dan & Luke have all been left to fester to a crisis. Off the top of my head (and I know I'm missing some, so please add), here is the crisis list under Mayor Onoravenstahl:
    - Present crisis, education tax
    - Act 47 renewal
    - Pension takeover
    - Penguins arena/CBA
    - Casino
    - G20 funding
    - Library closings

    ... ALL were left by Luke to fester before they became a "crisis" situation. Ladies and gentlemen, THIS is the hallmark of failed leadership: waiting until a crisis to act, then threatening and scaring the masses.

    4. And, finally, where the hell is the "main stream" media in this town? Bram Reichbaum is the best journalist covering City Hall, and he does this for free. Earth to PG and Trib editors: Do your fucking job and report this adminisration for what it is ... a reactive, destructive group of people who DON'T know what they're doing and, as a result, they're killing this wonderful City.

  8. I second anon 7:32. Where has the substantive investigative reporting gone in this town? Instead, we get this on a daily basis:

    Bram, is there a PittsburghBlog Pulitzer for reporting? You've my vote if there is.

  9. Get your facts right: the pension crisis began in the 80's.

    And the City opted to go with The State option; Act 205 The Municipal Pension Recovery Act.

    Give the Mayor credit. he is trying to handle locally...something previous Mayors neglected to do.

    There are many local State Reps I suspect that hope he fails.

    I have never seen the Conservative Mountaineer so fired up. I've been there myself....

    I know some city employees and believe me for many there was a life before the City. Many are customers in thier on communities and tend to spend thier money at local small businesses. Maybe yours...


  10. I don't think anybody is alleging that the pensions crisis just befell us. Some folks are questioning if more could have been done over the past 3 years to make the next 3 years easier. (There have been a LOT of recommendations by the oversight bodies, and by our Controller, that are gathering dust.)

    Others are wondering if pursuing this new tax the Mayor "hates" even as cuts and efficiencies are being identified to fill the gap is the wisest strategy. It seems *strange*, that's for sure. The approach detailed in this post seems more direct and more precise; less collateral damage.

    The mayor needs to be given the proper amount of credit for confronting the problem now. However, *now* the bills are coming due stamped "final notice" and *now* there are state oversight bodies demanding that the problem be confronted now. So for doing now what he absolutely has to do now ... well, we can all debate how much credit he should receive. Or not. It's not that interesting anymore.

    I suppose I should just learn to accept a compliment, but it needs to be pointed out: most of what I do here starts with cutting and pasting the work of MSM journalists. So to appreciate the Comet while putting down pro journalists seems a little off. However its obvious there's a lot to be said for emphasis, analysis and holding onto threads of a narrative over time. It's always been my hope that the MSM would notice that there's an audience and probably a market for that stuff, but well...

  11. Why do you think Doug won't regain council presidency? Can you speculate as to which councilmembers will not support him?

  12. Meh ... two terms seems good for anybody. I'm imagining by now there'd be a sense that his natural locquaciousness PLUS the additional privileges accorded to the Council President can lead to less than perfect day-to-day efficiency. Besides which Bill's put in his years and is a ton more conciliatory and effective than he was as a relative greenhorn. The way he just sits there and takes it sometimes when he's getting personally and bluntly blasted from the other end of the table ... he's acquired the temperment and forebearance at least.

    I have no speculations on individual members yet.

  13. It just seems unlikely that Doug and Bill would duke it out for the presidency. I thought they were on the same team. Or is something going on? Now Burgess trying to step in might be another matter.

  14. I don't think they'll don their brass knuckles, but sure they'll duke a little. Nothing's "going on" that I know about, except it's always nice to have the big office as well as the far-outside chance of advancement. I remember during the debate over what to do with the antiundisirrevocable fund (pensions or debt) they were already jockeying for position and Motznik was clearly smiling over it.

  15. Re: council presidency. Don't forget that almost everyone in council believes that some sort of investigation or scandal may crop up this time round that would cause Luke to resign. He's avoided corruption charges so far, and I'd bet he'll safely avoid them again. I'd say you'll have a lot of people jockeying for council presidency and compromise candidates might also include Rudiak or Lavelle as voting and caucusing drags on. Might get ugly down at Grant Street before a Council President is chosen.

  16. I'd say if anything, that consideration Anon 11:51 would make the election of a raw rookie less likely. Remember that Luke had some months to a year behind him on the job when Riccardi stepped down. I rank Daniel and Natalia as relatively capable but I'm not quite prepared to potentially hand them the keys.

    Another good argument for a veteran.