No tuition-tax resolution comes from meeting

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An unusual public meeting between the city of Pittsburgh's elected leaders and its titans of education failed today to end a standoff regarding a proposed first-in-the-nation tuition tax.

"Everyone is anchored in their position, and I don't see anyone moving," said Councilman Bruce Kraus, 90 minutes into the 2 1/2-hour gathering in Council Chamber.

With half a dozen students and a larger number of school officials in the audience, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl sat next to University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg, sometimes trading private quips, but fundamentally disagreeing on the proposed 1 percent levy.

"For you all to suggest that somehow the amount of money we are asking these students to pay will put you at a competitive disadvantage or somehow ruin education in Pittsburgh, as has been suggested, is just flat-out wrong," said Mr. Ravenstahl, noting that the schools boost tuition by 3 percent to 5 percent most years.

"The way in which this discussion has to this point unfolded, has been, in my mind, destructive," said Mr. Nordenberg. "I think that it does damage relationships in ways that are hard to repair."

He said that if the tax passes, he'll take the money he would have otherwise donated to the city, and put it toward suing.

Mr. Ravenstahl reiterated that he's given the universities the alternative option of paying $5 million a year, one-third of the amount the administration has said is needed to begin replenishing a wobbly pension fund. Then the city and the schools would go to Harrisburg in search of help raising the balance.

Joining Mr. Nordenberg at the council table were Community College of Allegheny County President Alex Johnson, Chatham University President Esther Barazzone, Robert Morris University President Gregory Dell'Omo, and Pittsburgh Theological Seminary President William Carl. They were united in their view that, as Dr. Barazzone put it, "Merely $300 a year would be very, very damaging to our students and their families."

The five members of the sharply divided council who have said they will vote for the tax dominated questioning of the academic leaders, sometimes pleading that if the universities don't help the city, the poorest residents will be harmed.

Councilwoman Tonya Payne said that if the universities don't come through, the city will have to "actually increase taxes on our residents, who can't shoulder any more of the burden. They simply can't do it."

Ms. Payne, who will leave council at year's end, said she "can't leave those people behind. I can't shoot them in the head. I can't do that."

While university leaders promised repeatedly to work with the city as soon as the tax is shelved, they disputed the claims of some elected officials that the city was promised, in 2004, $6 million a year from tax-exempt institutions.

"When the city was in the midst of a serious financial crisis -- a crisis that brought state oversight in its many forms -- members of the nonprofit community did step forward and help the city in its time of need," said Mr. Nordenberg. "To be clear, there was no commitment of $6 million." Nor was there an agreement to give beyond 2007, he said.

Council could vote on the tax Wednesday, but Councilman Ricky Burgess said he may first amend the legislation so the levy wouldn't take effect until July 1.


Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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