Mayor gives universities deadline on tuition tax

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Show us the money by Monday, or we'll pull the trigger on Wednesday.

That was Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's message to the city's universities yesterday, as he asked for a $5 million-per-year promise from the city's tax-exempt entities in return for the shelving of the proposed 1 percent tuition levy that he calls the Fair Share Tax.

"Depending on what it is [university leaders] decide to do, if they come forward and put up $5 million, we avoid the implementation of the Fair Share Tax," he said. "If they don't, then we will pursue it on Wednesday," when council is scheduled to take the first of two votes needed to implement the tax he said the city needs to replenish its pension fund.

"Asking universities to fix an underfunded pension fund in return for taking an illegal, counterproductive, and unprecedented tax off the table is unreasonable," said Duquesne President Charles Dougherty, on behalf of the Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education, in a written statement.

Councilwoman Theresa Smith scheduled a public meeting in Council Chamber at 2 p.m. Monday. University leaders, students, council members and the mayor are invited.

"I think everybody should be on record about where they stand and why they stand there," she said, adding that she is willing to vote for the tax.

The positions of the mayor and five council members on one side, and the university leaders and four council members on the other, have been well established since the Nov. 9 introduction of the tax proposal.

The mayor has said the city needs $15 million a year to replenish its pension fund, which finished the third quarter of the year with $280.7 million -- just 31.2 percent of the $899.2 million it should ideally hold. The city's tax-exempt institutions, he said, pledged to give $6 million a year in 2004, never reached that threshold, and should at least approach it now.

"We're willing to shoulder two-thirds of the burden, $10 million of the $15 million hole, and we're asking you to cover one-third of that," he said. The $5 million could come from a mixture of tax-exempt organizations beyond just the universities, he said, naming insurer Highmark and the West Penn Allegheny Health System as potential contributors.

He also wants the universities to join a push in Harrisburg for taxing authority to raise the remaining $10 million, possibly by boosting the $52-a-year tax on people who work in the city.

University leaders have said their institutions already provide enormous benefits to the city, and have refused to talk about contributions or a joint appeal to Harrisburg until the tax is off the table. Meanwhile, state Rep. Paul Costa, D-Wilkins, who sits on Point Park University's board and teaches a course there, has proposed legislation to ban the tax.

Students expressed disgust yesterday about what they viewed as hardball tactics.

"The tax is not the way to go, and neither is pinning the universities up against a wall," said Rotimi M. Abimbola, student president at Carnegie Mellon University. "If they pass it, they pass it. But everyone agrees that it's not the right thing to do. Putting students in the middle of it is a political tactic."

University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg released a statement saying that the "deadline that has been unilaterally imposed is unrealistic, and, as the Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education has consistently stated, voluntary contributions cannot be considered while that coercive proposal is being advanced."

He called it "ironic and unfair" that students and universities would be asked to pay for "years of irresponsible fund management" by the city.

A Duquesne University spokeswoman, meanwhile, said that school would be willing to join a city-led effort to seek a comprehensive solution to the city's fiscal problems, but only after the tax is nixed.

And student leaders at Pitt, Duquesne, Point Park University and Carlow University began communicating about a possible campaign to pressure Councilwoman Tonya Payne -- a declared yes vote for the tax, and an announced candidate for state House -- to change her stance.

Councilman William Peduto, who opposes the tax, said trying to "extort" money is the wrong approach.

"If we want to bring the universities and the other large nonprofit institutions to the table, the first step is to take the student tax off the table," he said. "I trust their word that they would be willing to negotiate once it were removed."

In recent days, the mayor and his allies have sought to resuscitate what they said was a 2004 deal with big tax-exempt institutions to contribute $6 million a year to the city.

"The nonprofits owe us $6 million a year, and all we're asking for is them to pay what they owe," said Councilman Ricky Burgess.

Lowering that number by $1 million, Mr. Ravenstahl said, is a recognition of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's $10 million-a-year matching grant to the Pittsburgh Promise of tuition aid to public school graduates. That could excuse them from donating to the city, he said.

Dr. Dougherty, in his statement, said the "universities categorically deny that they made any long-term financial commitments to the city." Donations made for 2005 through 2007 were "voluntarily aid [to] the city when it was on the brink of financial collapse."

His office was unable to say whether the universities would be represented at the Monday meeting.

Students who have been fighting the tax held out some hope that one more get-together might yield a solution.

"I am in support of talking whenever possible," said Daniel Jimenez, president of Pitt's Graduate and Professional Student Assembly. "Even when you have these big egos that have made strong public statements," he said, anything's possible "when people get together face-to-face."

Rich Lord can be reached at or 412-263-1542.


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