Pittsburgh Council delays tuition tax to talk with universities

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Pittsburgh City Council opted today to hold off on a scheduled vote on a proposed tuition tax, for one week, in hopes that the delay would give officials and the universities time to work out an alternative.

The 7-2 tally on a motion to postpone the first of two votes needed to enact the 1 percent tuition tax came after emotional, and sometimes personal, debate about how to best spur productive talks that might lead to voluntary donations, a group request to Harrisburg for new taxing powers, or both. The universities issued statements today that any "meaningful conversation is dependent on the removal of the tuition tax from further consideration," in the words of Mary Hines, chair of the Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education board and president of Carlow University.

Council President Doug Shields and Councilman William Peduto urged colleagues to defeat the tax to reinvigorate talks with universities.

"You're holding a sword over somebody's head, and you will never, ever get an honest agreement if you do that," said Mr. Shields.

"They are not giving us a cent until this is voted down," said Mr. Peduto.

"Saying that we want to hold this one week is meeting them half way," countered Councilwoman Theresa Smith, who said she has arranged a Friday meeting with PCHE representatives.

She 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."

"Give us this week," pleaded Councilwoman Tonya Payne. "If it doesn't work, I'm woman enough to say 'I tried, but I failed, Mr. President.'"

The vote to postpone followed receipt of a letter from University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, calling for prompt removal of the proposed tax from the council agenda, "so that others can join forces with you in finding, shaping and securing a better way" to address the city's crushing pension problem.

The letter says the chancellor is "aware of the determined efforts that have been made in recent years to cut and contain operating costs" in the city, and aware of the city's need for help with its long-term shortage of pension funds.

Noting that he represents only Pitt, the chancellor in the letter wrote that it is "my sense that leaders . . . would welcome the opportunity to become actively engaged in a unified approach to secure the revenues essential to meet these long-standing obligations, whether through an increase to the local services tax or in some other way."

Mr. Ravenstahl and several council members have suggested that a boost in the $52-per-year local services tax on people who work in the city, perhaps to $144, might be an alternative to the tuition tax.

But, Mr. Nordenberg continued, "The higher education community remains strongly united in its belief that the proposed 'tuition tax' is an inappropriate vehicle" that council must "remove" from its agenda.

More details in tomorrow's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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


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