Southside Streets as Urinals

A resident of the Southside is facing assault charges for shooting a man with BB gun who refused to heed the resident’s demands that he stop urinating on his property. This after the man became fed up with the constant abuse of his residence by revelers.

So, now he must go to go court and hope for the best. Ironically, the man shot was charged with public urination but his charge was dismissed.

The history of the unsanitary, filthy behavior is one of longstanding and repeated pleas to the City for help from the residents have largely gone unheeded. If something is not done, it is just a matter of time before someone gets badly hurt.

If the City cannot offer adequate police patrols, it should require the restaurants, bars and saloons to build an adequate supply of public convenience facilities and keep them clean. Obviously, their own facilities are not enough to keep folks from wandering into alleyways or storefronts to relieve themselves. Anyone caught by police publicly urinating would be assigned toilet cleanup duty for two weekends. A second offense, three months and a third offense, 30 days in jail.

The City should ask the County for a share of the drink tax revenue collected by Southside establishments to help with patrols and perhaps construct toilet facilities to prevent drunks and miscreants from having to relieve themselves wherever they please. There was a proposal for an improvement district and an additional tax, but that plan did not move past City Council.

In short, this problem is not a hard one to fix as City Council apparently believes it is. When one of your neighborhoods is being treated like a sewer by residents and non-residents alike, the Council should get angry and act accordingly.

Pothole Ridden Thinking

A PG editorial this morning said that "the sorry condition of Pittsburgh streets is testimony to the fact that the city is not out of the fiscal woods". True, Pittsburgh is not out of the fiscal woods-it won’t be until there is an execution of a plan to deal with legacy costs and bring per capita levels of spending down to more competitive and taxpayer friendly levels.

A lot of people might think that the condition of the roads is testimony that the City has been focused on other things, like economic development and conjuring up schemes to grab more taxpayer money, than taking care of the municipal basics of public safety and public works. But the PG feels that the City needs to turn to commuters and non-profits for more money in order to take care of basic road maintenance.

Never mind that the City (like all counties and municipalities) gets a share of the Liquid Fuels tax ($4.6 million in 2010) that is used for road maintenance and levies the Local Services Tax ($12.5 million in 2010) which replaced the old $10 Occupational Privilege Tax and has statutory language that mandates that one of the four possible uses for the LST is "road construction and/or maintenance". What else would they suggest? An increase in the wage tax under Act 47? For one, it cannot be done because of legal restrictions and two it would cause an increase in the wage tax for people living in the City, making their rate far higher than it would be on non-residents. Plenty of places have commuter taxes (New York, Philly, etc.) and that has not solved the financial difficulties.

Maybe a return to focusing on the basics would work.

Higher Education: Target One for More City Revenue

Another City Council plan to extract money from higher education in Pittsburgh has surfaced. Under the plan proffered by Mr. Burgess the City will negotiate a payment in lieu of taxes based on the value of land on which colleges and universities sit and the value of city services provided to the students at these institutions.

The Councilman’s approach is superior to the Mayor’s plan to levy an education privilege tax on students based on the tuition they pay. Mr. Burgess would at least try to determine the value of City services used by students. However, his plans falls short for several reasons.

First, the Burgess plan would base the estimate of student service use on what the City spends on other residents. But this obviously misses the mark. Most colleges have their own campus police forces and effectively replace city police for routine patrols and non-felony investigations. Then too, how many campus fires have City fireman responded to in recent years?

Large institutions and commercial establishments also pay separately for garbage collection so one of the City’s most expensive services provided to residents is not consumed by students. Beyond these drawbacks, the City cannot provide services to the students without providing services to the faculty and administrative staff. And since many of them live in the City and pay taxes, the estimate for students would have to take that into account. A very messy problem at best.

Using the spending on residents as a measure of the amount spent per student is simply not a meaningful way to approach this issue.

At the same time, how does Mr. Burgess intend to estimate the tax revenue paid directly or indirectly by students? Many students live off campus in nearby housing and pay rent to property owners who in turn pay a portion of that rent to the City, County and school district. Their presence creates purchasing power to support shops, dining and tavern facilities that simply would not exist without that spending. Those businesses pay property taxes, license fees, LST taxes, wage taxes and payroll preparation taxes to the City. Indeed, many students are employed in the City and pay wage and LST taxes to Pittsburgh, undoubtedly at levels that exceed their usage of city services.

Finally, evaluating the value of land for the tax exempt institutions will present enormous theoretical and practical problems. The land derives a great deal of its value because of the presence of the institutions and the people, businesses and housing facilities needed to support the institutions.

In short, unless or until some organization with the resources and public confidence necessary to carries out a full blown, credible study of the taxes paid and services used by the institutions, all the talk of education privilege taxes or land taxes should be put on hold.