PILOTs: Grounded or Ready for Flight?

"It’s in the university’s best interest to help the city thrive. And the city has to realize it can’t kill the goose". That’s the assessment of the lead author of a Lincoln Institute for Land Policy report on PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) programs between cities and non-profits. Killing the goose might have been what would have happened if the "post-secondary education privilege tax" proposed by the Mayor of Pittsburgh would have gone into effect.

The report provides quite a comprehensive picture of where PILOT agreements exist, but it still is not perfect owing to the fact (acknowledged by the authors) that many municipalities might have individualized agreements with non-profits or might not identify them as PILOT programs. The data shows there are only 117 municipalities in 18 states that have a PILOT agreement. Many are concentrated in the northeast U.S.

Pittsburgh is one of those municipalities: it has reported a positive dollar figure under the heading of "non-profit payment for services" at least going back to 1999. The highest amount for any one year came in 2006 when the total was $9.038 million as the Pittsburgh Public Service Fund came together. Recent audited numbers are much lower.

The report says that with the scrutiny on non-profits as to what constitutes non-profit activity and the pressure on local budgets that the interest in PILOTs is quite high, but yet their use it not widespread. Municipalities in Massachusetts account for 70% of the agreements found in the report. As we wrote in a Blog two years ago, Boston-a city that is often looked to when studying non-profit/municipal agreements-had a total value of hospital and university property that was just slightly less than the value of Pittsburgh’s total (taxable and exempt) property.

Pittsburgh’s last few budgets have said this in regards to PILOT agreements with non-profits: "the City and the non-profit tax-exempt organizations are developing a long-term arrangement regarding this revenue source".

Is Council Serious About Shutting Down the Parking Authority?

Members of Pittsburgh City Council have expressed frustration with the operations of the Public Parking Authority.  Some have mentioned the possibility of dissolving the Authority. Perhaps that’s because Council members have spent the better part of the past two and a half years debating, deliberating, and discussing how to solve the City’s massive pension problems with the  Parking Authority and its assets a major element in those discussions.

 

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Does County Have a Non-Profit Commitment?

It may be a small (perhaps miniscule is a better way to term it) piece but in the 2011 County budget there is $4 million in non-profit contributions that some on Council have labeled "phantom revenue".

That’s because there is no assurance the money is coming other than a prediction by administration officials that it will be there. That echoes what was said earlier this year. As of September it was reported in print media that "no deal has been reached to provide those funds, but [the County Executive] pledged that an agreement would be signed by year’s end and the money would be available for 2011. He declined to identify any of the non-profits with whom his administration is talking."

It is not clear if it is one non-profit or a group of non-profits, whether the contributor(s) carries out services in communities not including the City of Pittsburgh or if there is overlap between City and non-City locales, or if the $4 million is for a specific service(s) the County provides or if the money is restricted or targeted in its use.

If the County’s agreement does come through it will be quite a coup given the often contentious climate between non-profits and local government in the region. Recall that just a year ago the City attempted to impose a tuition tax after other fees aimed at non-profits fell through. The County Executive noted at the time that there were better ways than a legal fight to gain the support of non-profits. In addition, non-profit payments to the City have fallen from the 2007 audited amount of $5 million or so.

If the deal does not come through then there will be scrambling to locate another source of funds to make up for the shortfall.

Budget Fantasyland

The Mayor’s recently released budget wanders into the world of fantasy, delusion and denial. A trifecta seldom seen. With the prospect of PMRS taking over the pension plans in January and the failure to lease the Parking Authority assets, Pittsburgh faces a large increase in pension contributions in a year or so.

With the first pass at the budget rejected by the Oversight Board because of inadequate credible revenue prospects, the revised budget for 2011 will make up the difference by using the reserves in the fund balance. No cuts in spending or other revenue enhancements are planned. For 2012, the Mayor projects $20 million in non-profit contributions. Currently the City is receiving $1.7 million. What’s more, the County is also projecting significant revenue from non-profit contributions. In both cases there is no evidence whatsoever the money will be forthcoming. In all likelihood, if the Oversight Board holds firm in its position regarding the need for credible revenue forecasts, the out year budget proposal will be denied.

Moreover, the Act 47 team will undoubtedly be dismayed by plans to use up the City’s reserves in coming years. It too, will-or should-send a very strong denunciation of the Mayor’s budget plans.

Beyond the financial oversight organizations’ justifiable opposition to the reckless nature of the budget proposals, there is a more salient point. Why is there no talk of expenditure cuts? Have the Mayor and Council so poisoned the well of cooperation with the rejection of each other’s proposals to utilize parking assets that further conversation about contracting out, asset sales, and consolidating services with the County are completely off the table? If so, Pittsburgh can expect some very rough sledding and a very probable tightening of state mandated financial control. This is especially true in light of the coming financial crunch at the Pittsburgh School Board where repeated refusals to make substantial operating expenditure cuts are digging a deep fiscal hole.

Using up reserves is nothing more than a delaying tactic in hopes that a miracle will occur and some benevolent Legislature or Congress will bail out the City. Afraid not. The City must get past this fantasy.

Phantom Revenue, or a “Ghost of Bad Budget Decisions” Past?

Next year Allegheny County hopes to get $4 million in revenues-officially termed payments in lieu of taxes-from non-profit organizations. A likely bet is that the non-profits targeted by the County will be hospitals and universities, both inside and outside of the City of Pittsburgh as the County covers the City’s boundaries.

The County’s desire to get non-profit money for next year should not come as a surprise. It was mentioned at this time last year that the County would seek $4 million. The County Executive made a distinction at the time between the County’s request and what was shaping up to be a battle in the City over the proposed tuition tax. "These are two separate issues…the city budgeted [for the revenue through nonprofits]. I didn’t budget for it at all; it’s not in my budget until 2011." The County Council president added that "we don’t come at this with any level of leverage. The city tried their approach, but we have been focusing on a much different style,"

And what different style would that be? The 2011 budget is here, but there is no type of agreement with non-profits on paying the $4 million. "No deal has been reached to provide those funds, but Mr. Onorato pledged that an agreement would be signed by year’s end and the money would be available for 2011" was what one newspaper report noted. How long before we hear claims about how rich non-profits are not doing their civic duty to help the County out in difficult times?

Target a revenue source, place it in the budget, and work out the details later: that’s not in the spirit of good governance.

Tuition Tax—R.I.P.

The tuition tax, also known as the "Post-Secondary Education Privilege Tax", also known as the "Fair Share Tax" has been put to rest after weeks of almost coming up for a vote before City Council only to be temporarily shelved time and again. All along proponents had the necessary five votes and an opinion from an attorney that the tax would stand up to a court challenge.

So what comes next? Obviously the City is determined to obtain $15 million to put toward pension costs. According to early news reports on the tax being tabled, there is a collation of universities and colleges, along with some of the City’s corporate interests, that will work toward getting "significant legislation in Harrisburg". What could it be? Certainly an increase in the $52 Local Services Tax-levied on everyone who works in the City-would not help many of the same college students targeted by the tuition tax since many have jobs. And a boost in that tax would certainly be enabled for all municipalities (except for Philadelphia) since that’s what happened just five years ago when the last pieces of "significant legislation" were crafted for Pittsburgh.

All of this smacks of the "don’t tax me, tax the fellow behind the tree" mentality on the part of the college community-they won’t see a tuition tax, but would be perfectly fine with enabling a new or higher tax instead of holding the City accountable for its continued growth in expenditures in recent and coming years.

And what makes this coalition think that legislators would be agreeable to help? Just a few short months ago the City was a big part of the collapse of the initial plan for municipal pension reform (the City wanted exempted so as to pursue the parking garage lease plan). Now the "heavy hitters" want to return to the Capitol to pursue a new a pension solution? Good luck with that. What other revenue sources can there be? The City has obtained the RAD sales tax, payroll tax, casino money, etc. They need to take a much more hard line approach to their costs.

County Calls Both Sides of Non-Profit Coin

Will there be signs of an identity crisis at County Council’s regular business meeting tomorrow night? On the one hand, Council is scheduled to take up business regarding the issuance of over $1 billion in refinancing bonds through the County Hospital Authority for the benefit of UPMC. The taxpayers are not on the hook for any of the bonds, the purpose of which, according to the legislation, is "to benefit the health and welfare of the citizens of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania".

Soon thereafter, at the same meeting, Council is expected to consider two separate pieces of legislation, both concerning the tax-exempt status of parcels owned by UPMC. One would direct the Solicitor to "undertake a challenge to the tax exempt status of all parcels owned by UPMC within Allegheny County". The second would deal specifically with the parcels comprising the UPMC Braddock hospital site, the hospital slated for closure by UPMC.

Council is purely within its rights under the state’s tax exempt property law (The "Institutions of Purely Public Charity Act" of 1997) and if there are properties in use by the medical system that don’t meet the law’s test then those properties would have to pay real estate taxes if they are not already. For instance a 2009 report by the state’s Legislative Budget and Finance Committee noted that the University of Pittsburgh (not UPMC) paid $700k in real estate taxes to the City, County, and School District in 2007.

So would County Council breezily approve the refinancing deal and then show a hard line approach on the parcel legislation? It is hard to say. Even City Council has brought up the idea of adding additional layers of approval for building projects located in zoning districts labeled industrial or medical-educational while praising the benefits of "eds and meds". That goes without mentioning the "educational privilege tax" proposal.

This season is shaping up to be a challenging one for the non-profit community in the region.