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.
Nearly three years after the Supreme Court ruled Allegheny County’s base year plan to be in violation of the uniformity clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution comes the report of a Task Force on reassessments. This latest foray into looking at the state’s seemingly insoluble assessment problem was created pursuant to a resolution passed by the General Assembly in 2011.
The Governor’s Transportation Funding Advisory Commission (TFAC) has a singular purpose as spelled out in the Executive Order creating it: “…develop a comprehensive, strategic proposal for addressing the transportation funding needs of Pennsylvania”.
Upon a moment’s reflection there is an obvious and glaring flaw in a newly appointed commission set up for the express and single purpose of looking for funding sources for the state’s transportation systems. Here’s a better idea. How about a commission to look for ways to solve the problems facing transportation?
For one thing, the eagerness to lump mass transit in with highways and bridges is a mistake. There are vastly different issues involved that should be examined separately. Transit operations are localized and have localized issues. Port Authority in Allegheny County, for example, is beset by vast financial problems of its own making and more funding will not solve them until the underlying problems are addressed.
Then too, road and bridge work faces unnecessarily high costs because of the requirement that employees on these projects be paid a prevailing wage. Before the Governor or the Legislature enact any new funding plan for transportation, they should take a long, hard and honest look at how much the prevailing wage requirement is adding to the annual cost of supporting transportation projects.
Further, do we know for sure that the engineering, design, and implementation procedures-including letting of contracts-used by the state are the best available and devoid of political favoritism? If not, why not?
This commission, with its unfortunate single focus on finding funding sources, is missing an important opportunity to find ways to save money or do things more efficiently. Looking for funding only sends a message that enables the spenders of the money to be less assiduous in their search for cost savings.
Unlike Mr. Smith who went to Washington and attempted to do the noble thing by defending liberty and attacking graft, Mayor Ravenstahl is going to Harrisburg to plead for state money to help the City with its perennial and seemingly unfixable fiscal problems. After rebuffing the Legislature’s efforts to help the City with its pension difficulties last year, the Mayor might get a polite but cool reception when he shows up in Capitol City.
This time he is coming with the purported support of yet another newly formed coalition of corporate, university and elected officials. Interestingly, one of those is the Chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh who vigorously fought the Mayor’s effort to impose a tuition tax on college students in the City. The Chancellor also headed the task force looking into a City-County merger. A task force that recommended strongly the City and County consolidate duplicative services. In two years since, there is no measurable progress in that direction. Now the Chancellor is back as a member of the new coalition agreeing to help lobby the state for additional sources of revenue for the City.
How ironic. The state is facing serious fiscal problems of its own and to make matters even worse, revenue is coming in a half billion dollars below projections in the current fiscal year-an additional shortfall to be made up somehow. The universities have complained about the inadequate funding they receive from the state while many municipalities and school districts will also be pleading for more state funds. And the answer from the Chancellor is to lobby for more or higher taxes on already strapped Pennsylvanians to fix Pittsburgh’s spending problem.
Perhaps it never occurs to these folks that the voters in Pittsburgh were silent partners and enablers in creating the monstrous fiscal mess the City finds itself in. And, it must be noted, the state has helped with new revenues several times already over the past couple of decades. If more revenue would solve the City’s financial problem, it would have been solved. Even under supervision of two state watchdog groups for the past six years Pittsburgh has failed to make substantial progress. The real problem is the City cannot bring itself to make the serious cuts it needs to make and it has refused to take the steps other communities have taken to reduce expenses through outsourcing.
Basically, Pittsburgh’s government is run by and for the people who work for the City government. Until that situation changes, Pittsburgh will never get well.