Tax-exempt land: County council's look should be broad-gauged

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As more land in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County is gobbled up by nonprofit corporations, it's worth re-examining the financial impact of so much tax-exempt property, as Allegheny County Council plans to do at a public hearing Dec. 5.

UPMC, the region's largest health care network, is the county's single largest property owner with $1.6 billion in holdings and 86 percent of it tax-exempt, according to a Post-Gazette investigative series. Other large "charitable" enterprises, including Highmark insurance, the West Penn Allegheny Health System and the University of Pittsburgh, also have handsome real estate portfolios.

Under a state tax system in which school districts, counties and municipalities get a major source of their revenue from property tax collections, it is necessary that every land owner and service user bear its share of the load. Unfortunately, a weak state law favors the interests of non-profits, including a large one like UPMC with a $10 billion global operation.

That's why council is right to scrutinize how to treat -- and, ideally, how to tax -- the property of nonprofits.

But the county hearing comes when the Service Employees International Union is trying to represent various UPMC workers. Councilman John DeFazio, a district director and executive board member of the United Steel Workers, will chair the meeting.

Given the backdrop of labor politics, the event should not be a club aimed at UPMC, but a lens through which a broad system of tax exemption and its public impact gets close examination.

Council members can do the county and state a great service, or they can politicize the issue for narrow gain.

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