Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Student Tax: Rope-A-Dope Coming? [**]

I think I may know what's going on here.

It's a pretty cynical explanation, even for me -- and if I'm wrong it will soon be obvious, but here goes:

Confronted with a $15 million budget hole, the Mayor proposed a 1% tax on tuition, quickly gathered five Council members literally to stand behind him, and together they marched forward and far out on a limb in a public relations battle against universities. "This is happening," was the message, "unless you pony up and contribute some other way."

However, the ICA rejected a city budget which included the tuition tax -- not exactly forbidding us to attempt it, but demanding that we find another way to fill the budget gap. The ICA later endorsed a number of technocratic proposals (forwarded largely by Controller Michael Lamb and Councilman Bill Peduto) to fill that gap on at least a short-term basis. Meanwhile, someone at the state level was roused to preempt our ability to enact the tax -- as opposition to it became organized on a near-national level.

The universities, though still concerned, seemed to have little cause to quake in their boots.

On Wednesday, proponents of the tax on Council delayed voting on it for one more week -- to have "conversations" with the universities. Yesterday, a day on which the Post-Gazette ran an editorial emphasizing the need for Council to come up with "another feasible plan to raise those dollars" before it "tosses the tuition tax aside", Mayor Ravenstahl appeared personally before Council to advertise his affable willingness to consider all other alternatives -- but to repeatedly term what was now happening a "Band-Aid approach" and warn of likely cuts in 2011. Finally, four and a half Council members held a secret, productive meeting with the universities, and spoke secretively about its productivity.

It is December 5. Monday will be December 7. In about three weeks -- bearing in mind the Christmas holiday -- two Council proponents of the tax will be replaced by two near college-aged members who do not have particularly strong ties to the Mayor. It is likely then that any further delay would effectively kill the tax.

Why not rush it through? Is it possible some present Council members are getting cold feet? Would Tonya Payne wish, as her grand finale on Council, to be seen leading the charge in levying a controversial tax on young people, on educational attainment -- just prior to a likely run against State Rep. Jake Wheatley? Does Ricky Burgess, a professor at CCAC, really have an appetite for taxing students and displeasing academia -- at least part of his natural constituency -- if said legislation is destined to be preempted or legally overturned?

Yet they can't surrender -- neither the Mayor nor the Councillors --because they've all marched so far from home. So instead they embark on these "productive" discussions, wherein the productivity is classified but oh-so real!

And here's the beauty part: these talks can be made to sound more and more promising for at least a couple weeks, so long as the secrecy is maintained. Then the new Council members take over, and in short order one or both of them will say something frank about their posture toward the non-profiteers and the need to compel them (not their students) somehow contribute their fair share. So the "talks" collapse, and then:

"We were so close! The Mayor's classic Council, the collaborative, politically adult Council, everything was going so well, if only we had more time! But then these new brats came along, with their combative personalities and their Bill Peduto and their denim jackets, and they ruined the whole cooperative spirit! Now it's because of them we don't have a tuition tax and we don't have an agreement with the universities, and we only have a ratty Band-Aid and there will be horrendous cuts in 2011! Oh, if only the voters were smarter, and had sent us Council members more willing to cooperate with the Mayor and his allies!"

Now I don't know what will actually happen in 2011. I suspect we will find yet another Peter to rob in order to pay Paul. And I'm not sure when the Peters' bill will come due, and when those debts will be turned over to leg-breakers. Perhaps we will find a way to skin those non-profit cats before Service Cut Armageddon, or perhaps not.

Whatever it is though, in the increasingly uncertain meanwhile, the political shift which began in 2007 and gained serious momentum in 2009 -- away from the old guard and towards self-styled reformers -- will come in for serious scapegoating. That is instead of that old guard which actually gave rise to the entirety of our sticky financial situation.

*-UPDATE: Jon Delano calls the tuition tax "stupid". (PBT, Jon Delano; portions appear to be $$)

**-UPDATE 2: Jeez, it's like he's not even reading this. THE JIG IS UP, MAN! (P-G, Rich Lord)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Disorder in the Court! 3 Wacky Tales.

Been waiting for this:

"This is not acceptable," Judge Wettick said of the plan that county officials submitted to him instead of implementing his order to conduct a reassessment of property based on a four-year timeline starting in October. (P-G, Karamagi Rujumba)



Meawhile, Mayor Ravenstahl's nominee for Solicitor faced questions from the Council today, including some concerning his current gig.

The firm is representing the S Bar on the South Side, whose owner is suing the city over an ordinance that limits the number of alcohol-serving establishments on Carson Street by setting a "saturation level," Kraus said. "I think their flagrant flaunting ... is unlike anything I've ever seen, and the law firm of Caputo & Caputo is right there front and center." (Trib, Team Effort)

Duly. Noted.


Finally, Council delayed discussion on the Student Tax for one week, so as to instead dive headlong into the Council Presidency debate.

[Mrs. Kail-Smith] said Mr. Peduto's and Mr. Shields' push for a divisive vote represents "part of the problem. We do not stand together as a body. We do not work together as a body.

"It's I, I, I, and me, me, me." (P-G, Rich Lord)

Post-Gazette: Destory the Bad Thing.

The P-G Editorial Board makes fun of local architect Rob Pfaffman's idea to creatively re-use the Civic Arena, as well as the car he drives and the way his mother dresses him.

This pie-in-the-sky plan does not rate serious consideration. (P-G, Edit Board)

A few notes:

1) The editorial's most compelling-sounding point is that the arena separates the neighborhood from Downtown. That was certainly true of its genesis, but now there is the enormous matter of the Crosstown Expressway, including its complex intersection with Bigelow Boulevard. Any "reconnection" would take a lot more that extending Wylie Ave. through where the arena presently stands and a simple traffic light. That's the fearsome challenge.

2) I get zero impression that Penguins ownership is interested in undertaking an ambitious infrastructure extension and reconnection over its developable plot of land anyway.

3) The editorial also points out that Pfaffman doesn't have developers and financing lined up; well, the Penguins and the City have only just hired their planners. It's extremely early.

4) And it doesn't give the barest nod in the direction of the merits of creative re-use for significant and unique structures in general, let alone seem to appreciate the full import of the word "creative". It just sacks the idea with maximum authority, in the name of "getting the most money" for the Sports & Exhibition Authority.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tuesday: But ... But That's Church!

Reevaluating the non-profit status of certain of UPMC's properties may or may not pay off in the end -- but refusing to refinance billions of dollars of UPMC debt sounds like just the ticket. These County Council Bucs are playing hardball and I love it. (P-G, Team Effort; Trib, Tim Puko)

Oh and speaking of which, that zoning issue is not getting any less emergent. If there's one thing I can't abide its defiant arrogance. Would UPMC violate a mayoral stop work order? Would they cross a police barrier? (P-G, Edit Board)

You know, unless they're planning on erecting an LED or putting one of their conventional billboards smack on the church building itself, I'm fine with this. (P-G, Diana Nelson Jones; Trib, Matthew Santoni)

The West Pittsburgh Partnership cannot shake its reputation for secrecy and self-dealing -- of course, a great many CDC's have those reputations, and quite deservedly -- but Councilwoman Smith is linking the acceptance of CBDG money to a presumption of transparency (I assume that would also apply to community Weed and Seed meetings!) and she is trying to foster an alternative for West End neighborhoods. (C-P, Charlie Deitch)

Monday, November 30, 2009

Universities to City: We Know Better

I was a lot more sympathetic to the universities before they started opening their mouths:

Today, the university and surrounding community enjoy a harmonious relationship, even when considering the occasional complaint about noisy students. This is in large measure because we have changed the conversation and opted to collaborate. Instead of the town viewing the university as a cash cow to offset budget deficits and the university invoking its nonprofit status, RWU and Bristol's Town Council leaders adopted a collaborative approach designed to provide resources in a strategic manner while reaffirming the university's tax-exempt status. (P-G, Dr. Roy Nirschel)

I'm sorry, I'm having trouble seeing -- the condescension in the room is so thick and painful to the eyes.

This is where I lost my lunch:

Fresh from that election we revisited the issue of a payment to the town in lieu of taxes. Instead of a head tax or monies allocated for the town's general fund, the university and town developed a memorandum of understanding that went far beyond balancing the books for that year.

The town and university identified key needs in the community, such as support for an emergency vehicle, which benefited all citizens. (ibid)

Why do non-profits think it's appropriate to pick and choose which government expenditures seem useful enough to them? Is democracy not a good enough system anymore?

I don't know about Bristol, Rhode Island, but Pittsburgh contractually owes a gazillion dollars to its pensioners, a stampillion dollars in bonded debt, and another bazookillion dollars under a consent decree for its water infrastructure. Meeting these overwhelming obligations is very much "a key need in the community" which "benefits all citizens", because it's swamping the needs of everything else and we will drown -- drown! -- unless our major economic engines chip in significantly.

Oh and by the way -- Dunkin Donuts also employs a lot of people, and provides needed pastries and coffee to a community that has trouble rousing itself the morning and attaining alertness. Yet I've never heard them ask to be treated special. That's the thing about a community -- good guys need to chip in financially, too.

The universities really would be better off letting their students do the talking for them and keeping their own mouths shut.


So here's what I'm saying today. I'm no fan of using the Student Tax to get at the university scene through a back door -- but I'm even less of a fan of Rep. Paul Costa's bill to rip that option off the table. (x-CORRECTED)

We are a City, and a Home Rule Charter city at that, and we have certain legal rights, including the right to tax privileges. That law has meaning and I would not make it obsolete. If our City representatives enact a Student Tax, the remedy for that is political, i.e., we'll take care of it ourselves. We don't need the state sticking its beak in, hopped up on campaign donations by universities and other non-profits, to weaken City autonomy. Who knows, after we truly exhaust other options, we may all agree we need that Student Tax somewhere down the road.

Secondly, we should be pursuing Councilman Burgess's raft of zoning and appraisal legislation which has the aim of compelling serious PILOTs to the general fund -- the general fund -- like its our job. Let's see a press conference with the Mayor, all nine Council members, the Controller, every one of our Judges and Magistrates, and Steely McBeam this time.