Pursuing a court case against the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) will tangentially affect the City’s institutions of higher education according to the Pittsburgh Council of Higher Education, which in turn will affect the task force working on non-profit issues (such as payments in lieu of taxes) that was created as a condition of the oversight board for approving the 2013 budget. Sounds like a house of cards or a big city version of the domino theory.
Because if the City challenges the medical system’s charitable status, as it has made clear it wants to, then the universities will feel threatened, and then any talk of cooperation on the task force will crumble under the specter of a lawsuit.
The universities indicate through a letter to the Mayor that they would prefer to move on to less controversial subjects like "…the city’s burgeoning pension obligations and the imposition of a tax on those who commute to the city". If the universities’ focus sounds eerily familiar it should: it was not long after the Mayor floated a variety of taxes and fees to see what would stick that what survived was the "post secondary education privilege tax" on college tuition. After that was eventually dropped in late 2009, the universities (along with one large Pittsburgh corporation) promised to go to Harrisburg and seek reform for pensions (this was post Act 44, but prior to the garage privatization plan) and possibly spreading the tax burden on to others. We noted at the time that "the universities should not, and in good conscience cannot, move from celebrating their hard work against the tuition tax to helping the City lobby Harrisburg for some other tax, most likely to be one imposed on people who cannot vote for the City’s elected officials."
There is a glimmer of hope four years later: the Council letter did note "The ultimate solution is not to look at another source of funding, but rather looking at the financial stresses of the city…Maybe there are some approaches that would reduce the need for funds". There’s been no shortage of recommendations on that line of thinking.
Last week we learned that the Rivers Casino and the Steelers had agreed to ante up $200,000 to cover free rides for North Shore Connector passengers. That brought the total of such payment agreements to $360,000 when combined with the Alco Parking and Stadium Authority contract reached earlier.
Well as the saying has it; easy come, easy go. On Friday last week Judge McVerry ordered the Port Authority to pay the ACLU and a group advocating felons’ right to vote $340,000 for PAT’s refusal to allow the group’s ads to be displayed on PAT buses. We have yet to learn how much legal expense PAT has paid out fighting the case or how much more will be required if they opt to appeal the Judge’s decision.
One could argue that PAT is better off by virtue of reaching the agreements for the $360,000 in free ride payments since it was almost certain to lose the lawsuit. But, it still begs the question: Why does PAT expect so few passengers who would be willing to pay that they would settle for $360,000? That certainly does not gibe with the optimism about the ridership included in the application for Federal funding. However, it is unlikely any of the most vocal proponents will be stepping forward with an explanation of why they were so wrong.
How’s this for twisted logic. The Council Chair who has disobeyed Common Pleas Court orders and openly decries and maligns the Supreme Court order requiring Allegheny County to re-assess real property now wants the County to bring a lawsuit against state statutes governing property taxation and assessment. The suit would seek to have the state system declared "broken"-whatever that means-and ask the court to order the Legislature to fix it.
One must wonder at the audacity of a person who has been so critical and disrespectful of the court system and their rulings on assessments who now wants the same courts to side with his argument that the state assessment system is "broken" and order new legislation to be passed.
In the first place, the Supreme Court has already addressed the issue. It has decided not to rule against the use of a base year as being unconstitutional per se. The court ruled that each county’s experience must be judged as to whether the base year produces unconstitutional results. Granted most probably will, but that was not viewed by the court as sufficient to declare the base year unconstitutional, only as it applied in Allegheny County. Thus, it is highly improbable the Supreme Court-where a Council suit would eventually land-will rule against itself. Moreover, unless the Court allows a King’s Bench Warrant and agrees to hear the suit quickly, the case would have to work its way through many months or years of lower court proceedings. By that time Allegheny County will have completed the re-assessment currently underway.
Finally, the Supreme Court is unlikely to order the Legislature to rewrite assessment laws. The Court ordered the Legislature to fund local courts years ago and that has not happened. Why go that route again? The Court has issued a ruling that can be used in other suits brought against other counties’ assessment systems. Allegheny County’s precedent can be used by courts in other counties to overturn assessment systems if the evidence proves egregious and biased assessment errors. For now that is the only remedy available.
If the Legislature would take its responsibility seriously, it would reform the state’s out of date assessment laws to require regular re-assessments. But there is little interest in doing that so the Court rulings will have to be the principal route to getting fairness in the assessment systems. For the most part, local elected officials have no more stomach for taking on the issue than the Legislature does making the courts the only option. Fortunately, there is now a precedent that can give plaintiffs hope.
All told, the push by Council Chair to seek changes through the courts is both ironic and sad in light of the disdain for the courts he has repeatedly demonstrated. The claims of unfairness by the Council will fall on deaf ears. What is unfair in all this is the County government’s willingness to leave grossly inequitable property assessments in place for so long.
As home rule government begins its second decade in Allegheny County-the effective date of the Home Rule Charter was January 1, 2000-taxpayers and residents of the County have several big issues coming at them related to their government.