Death of ‘The Burgess Tax’

Death of ‘The Burgess Tax’

“If you drive a car … I’ll tax the street,” The Beatles famously sang in 1966’s “Taxman.”

It continued:

If you try to sit … I’ll tax your seat

If you get too cold… I’ll tax the heat

If you take a walk … I’ll tax your feet.

Or in the case of Pittsburgh City Councilman Ricky Burgess for about a week:

If you try to educate yourself … I’ll tax your mind

If you try to seek medical care … I’ll tax whatever the doctors find.

Burgess last week introduced a bill that would have assessed a 1 percent tax on those paying for a college education and those paying for medical care within the city limits.

The same city councilor who argued against making public bridge inspection reports for fear of lawsuits’ liability says his proposal is designed to, as the Post-Gazette reported it, kickstart the conversation with Pittsburgh’s largest nonprofits about their role in the future of the city’s crumbling infrastructure.

By picking the pockets of those consumers, some of whom obviously already struggle to pay for such services.

All this comes in the aftermath of the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse and the refocused spotlight on Pittsburgh’s other aged infrastructure.

But as etymologist Nathaniel Baily reminded in 1736:

“Fair words will not make the pot boil.”

Of course, neither Burgess’ words, nor his intent, were fair. And the pot soon was at a roiling boil over The Burgess Tax.

By Monday of this week, steam burns evident, Burgess killed his own proposal with a more rational replacement, one with a history – seeking voluntary payments from the city’s numerous nonprofits.

The payments would be based on a percentage of what the organizations would pay in property and payroll taxes if they weren’t exempt, reports the Tribune-Review.

Indeed, Pittsburgh long has struggled with the dichotomy of hosting world-class educational and medical institutions but, because of their largely nonprofit statuses, not garnering commensurate tax revenue.

Some institutions have made payments in lieu of taxes in past years but those deals lapsed nearly a decade ago.

Yes, these very institutions contribute much to Pittsburgh. But they also use public services that must be paid for. Here’s to negotiations for new agreements to begin in earnest.

Under the revised proposal (said to be modeled after a Boston program), the Trib says the goal is to have nonprofits “pay either half of what they would pay in real estate taxes or 75 percent of what they would pay in payroll preparation taxes, or a combination of the two.”

Burgess’ original tack, however – a supposed trial balloon filled with lead — was callous and only cemented his growing reputation as being tone deaf.

But, all this said, the dirty little secret in seeking any new “in-lieu” payments agreement is this:

You can bet that cost will be passed on, in one form or another, to students and to patients.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).