Promises, Promises: Political tribulation has hampered City’s quest for nonprofit support

Nathan Scheck, Albino Kraken
Pittsburgh has been “ordered” by the ICA to reopen talks with its nonprofits to receive higher payments in lieu of taxes — with a June 30th deadline to “report back”.

The city has been communicating with its nonprofits on that subject for the past six years.
At present, we are receiving less money from these frequently profitable large institutions than we did six years ago.
It is hard to fathom what is expected to change this time.

In surveying the past six years of fruitless talks, two fateful moments seem to stand out:
1. The sum gathered from the closed-book Pittsburgh Public Service Fund roughly halved following UPMC’s announcement to become the major donor to the Pittsburgh Promise — indeed the medical giant briefly revealed an intention to quit PILOTs altogether in exchange. This was reversed in response to some awful publicity involving provisional tax credits asked for in exchange for Promise donations, but seems to have been un-reversed the following year.

2. After three years taking a self-described “cooperative” approach to negotiations, the Ravenstahl administration attempted to get tougher — and chose the method of threatening to levy a tuition tax on university students. The tuition tax was also noteworthy for taking universities to task while holding other major nonprofits harmless, unlike some other options: a tax on hospital bills or beds, hikes in discounted medical water rates, or a fee on all-day parking. The tuition tax failed both to pass, or to motivate a better deal — indeed it seemed to poison the water for further productive talks.

Please add your own comments beneath the Roxette video if you know of anything else which belongs in the narrative after reviewing and exploring these news excerpts.

Act I: Talks and confidence

It [the budget] counts on $17.7 million from a yet-to-be-built slots casino next year, $10 million from the state each year, and $5.7 million annually from nonprofit groups starting in 2008 — none of which is guaranteed, he said. (Oct. 18, 2006)

Ms. McNees said the revenue predications were based on state estimates and that the authority is in talks with nonprofit groups. (Oct. 21, 2006)

It’s my belief that we will be able to successfully get those revenues…  from the nonprofit community,” he said. “They’ve been great partners in the past.” (Nov. 14, 2006)

Mr. Peduto said he thinks the red ink will flow by 2008. He said the long-term plan includes “phantom revenues” including overestimates of payments by nonprofit groups, deed transfer and parking taxes, and state aid. (Dec. 19, 2006)

Included in the revenue estimate is $4.3 million from nonprofit organizations. The mayor said he has received verbal pledges in that amount and is seeking binding commitments. (Sept. 21, 2007)

“At this point [pledges from nonprofit groups] are verbal and we’re in the process of establishing agreements and commitments,” Mr. Ravenstahl said. There’s no promise by the groups “that I’m aware of, because we’ve not met to speak about it,” said the Rev. Ron Lengwin, spokesman for the Pittsburgh Public Service Fund, a group of some 100 hospitals, educational institutions, foundations and arts organizations. (Sept. 22, 2007)

That begins to erase a big question mark from Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s fiscal plan, which counts on $4.3 million in contributions from the organizations next year and $4.1 million annually after that. Still uncertain, though, is how much they’ll end up paying. (Oct. 2, 2007)

“I’ve always been someone who’s been cooperative” with non profits, Mr. Ravenstahl said, gesturing at Mr. DeSantis, “rather than confrontational.” (Oct. 10, 2007)

Mr. Ravenstahl said he is confident that city nonprofits will voluntarily pay up to $4.2 million in each of the next three years to help the city’s bottom line… (Oct. 26, 2007)

Mr. Ferlo said that if the ICA is still warranted, it should go to the state with recommended changes in laws governing pension aid and contributions from tax-exempt groups to cities. Mr. Pippy said he will hold hearings on municipal contributions by nonprofit groups, and he believes there will be serious discussion in Harrisburg on pension aid. (Nov. 8, 2007)

Act II: UPMC shifts around

The Price is Right, Game Show Utopia

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s pledge of $100 million to fund college tuitions would supplant the healthcare giant’s $1.5 million-a-year contributions to city of Pittsburgh coffers, its top lawyer said today. That could mean other nonprofit entities, on whom the city relies for $4.2 million a year, or 1 percent of its budget, could choose to contribute to the Pittsburgh Promise and not the city, too. (Dec. 18, 2007; see also Dec. 19)

City Chief of Staff Yarone Zober said Tuesday that the city is talking with tax-exempt groups about ongoing contributions. (Dec. 24, 2007)

In another bit of good news, UPMC also said it would still contribute $1.5 million next year to the Pittsburgh Public Service Fund, a 3-year-old voluntary fund through which nonprofits have helped the city balance its budget. (Dec. 29, 2007)

The Pittsburgh Public Service Fund, which assembled contributions from some 100 organizations during the city’s fiscal crisis, made its last agreed-upon payment Feb. 21, bringing its total contribution to $13.98 million [over 3 yrs = $4.7 million per yr for 2005-2007]. The Rev. Ron Lengwin, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh and for the fund, said the pledge was for $13.57 million, so the fund exceeded expectations by $411,000…

Father Lengwin could not predict how much the fund would give to the city over a subsequent three years, saying that depends on member groups’ finances. The city’s long-term plan counts on $4.2 million a year in contributions from tax-exempt entities. One complicating factor is the role of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which has said it will contribute to the city for one more year but is shifting its focus to the Pittsburgh Promise of college aid to graduates of Pittsburgh Public Schools. (Mar. 1, 2008)

He said the administration is entering into negotiations with the Pittsburgh Public Service Fund, a consortium of nonprofit groups, to reach a voluntary donation agreement to replace one that ended last year. (May 2, 2008)

And then comes a long pause with little news or apparent progress.

Act III: The Tuition Tax boner *

Growing Pains c/o makintosh

A consortium of tax-exempt groups, including the universities, hospital groups and nonprofit insurers, paid the city $14 million from 2005 through 2007, and offered $5.5 million for 2008 through 2010. Council hasn’t acted to accept the current offer.

Mr. Peduto and Mr. Lamb said they’ve had conversations with leaders of large tax-exempt institutions, including universities, who may be willing to make further voluntary contributions. The Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education announced in a news release that the colleges and universities would “discuss our continuing activities in support of the entire Pittsburgh community.”

But Mr. Ravenstahl said that without the “threat” of a tuition tax, they’ll feel that $5.5 million over three years is enough. “There’s nothing that compels them to do anything more, so they’re able to get away with that.” (Nov. 18, 2009)

Mr. Ravenstahl again aimed for $6 million a year. He said he had “one-on-one discussions, and individual commitments were made. … It was difficult to get all of the people in the room and say, ‘We need $6 million.’ ” (Dec. 9, 2009a superior article, due to widespread frustrations over issue at that moment)

Pittsburgh’s universities told Mayor Luke Ravenstahl yesterday they won’t agree to his call for them to contribute $5 million to city coffers to avoid a tax on tuition paid by students. (Dec. 12, 2009)

“One does not negotiate with an ax hanging over your head,” said Chatham University President Esther Barazzone, while joining her peers in calling for “a big-tent coalition to help to lead the city to a different future.” (Dec. 15, 2009)

On Tuesday night, Councilwomen Theresa Smith and Tonya Payne got the sense that their efforts at diplomacy between the city and university leaders might bear fruit. (Dec. 17, 2009)

University officials are complaining behind the scenes about Mayor Ravenstahl’s “bullying” on the tax, which includes his promise Dec. 10 that he would not pull the proposal without a commitment of at least $5 million annually from the schools. (Dec. 20, 2009)

An as-yet-undefined group called the New Pittsburgh Collaborative “will sit down in the early part of 2010 and come up with a strategy, and a goal, if you will, on what it is we will ask Harrisburg for,” Mr. Ravenstahl said at a news conference in his office…

“We’re not pledging a contribution in order to get rid of the tax,” said CMU President Jared Cohon. “We are prepared to pledge a contribution as the tax is gotten rid of…”

Mr. Ravenstahl said that UPMC is not “out of the equation,” but he has considered excusing them in light of their $10 million annual pledge to the Pittsburgh Promise of college aid to public school graduates. (Dec. 22, 2009)

Act IV: Making do with less…than 6 years ago
Infinity Loop
“There has been no ‘agreement’ established between the city and the other member institutions,” she said. “Even the statement made today by the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University identified ‘handshake agreements,’ not finalized until the tax was actually removed from consideration.” (Dec. 22, 2009)

The five-year plan included $20 million in revenue from big nonprofits, such as the city’s universities. Mr. Ravenstahl’s office said it believed the contributions had been solicited by Councilman Bill Peduto.

However, Mr. Peduto accused Mr. Ravenstahl of being misleading about the matter.

He said he has talked to nonprofits about contributing $20 million to a pension bailout plan. However, he has announced no commitments and said he never intended for the contributions to be used for general operating expenses anyway.

Last week, Mr. Peduto sent the ICA a letter calling the $20 million “phantom revenues” and urging ICA to reject the budget and five-year plan. (Nov. 15, 2010)

At a brief meeting Wednesday, ICA unanimously approved a $451 million budget and five-year plan that did away with the $20 million… (Dec. 9, 2010)

The budget lists about $3.2 million in revenue from nonprofits this year, but the city’s agreement with the Pittsburgh Public Service Fund — a coalition of nonprofit groups that has made payments in lieu of taxes to the city in some years — expired Dec. 31.

“At this time, there have been no formal discussions regarding a new agreement,” G. Reynolds Clark, a fund representative and University of Pittsburgh vice chancellor, said in an email relayed through the university’s media relations office. (Jan. 16, 2012)

Overseers and Mr. Ravenstahl’s aides met Friday to work through their differences. The same day, Mr. Ravenstahl sent authority Chairwoman Barbara McNees a letter noting that legislation to establish the trust fund had been introduced in council Jan. 17 and that efforts to secure nonprofit contributions were under way. (Jan. 25, 2012)

This year, the city anticipates about $2.6 million from the fund, a consortium of nonprofits that identifies its members but doesn’t say how much each contributes. (Today)

14 thoughts on “Promises, Promises: Political tribulation has hampered City’s quest for nonprofit support

  1. Mysterious Greenfield Guy

    Nothing to do with the post, I know, but the PG story today about a proposed Bob O'Connor statue in Schenley Park (with significant public funding promised by Luke, please note)has me wondering, as I often do:

    What the heck did Bob O'Connor do to warrant so much public reverence? Ten years on city council (2.5 terms) with not a whole lot of accomplishment to point to, except perhaps for running against Murphy twice and leading the council opposition to him. Then 8 months in the mayor's office, which didn't give him any time to put his mark on the city, compared to say three-term mayor and governor Lawrence, three-term mayor Murphy, or nearly three-term mayor Caligiuri.

    Yes, Bob was a nice guy to most people and came to a regrettable, perhaps mildly Shakespearean end. Have we come to the point as a middling American city that that's all it takes to achieve local deification?

    1. tim lange

      We all identified with Bob. We knew he was one of us and wouldnt sell us out, which he didn’t do. Maybe we like him for what he didn’t do. He was a hardworking guy. very grateful and he finally achieved his dream job and it was taken from him. Some of the kind Of love JFK has. Its not logical but its heartfelt.

  2. Bram Reichbaum


    I'd say it's a very human response towards a newly elected leader and “nice guy” who came to an abrupt end, there are probably very, very few cities that would consider themselves too vast and consequential to succumb to it.

    The public money rankles but again, we are only human. I ain't turning myself into a Nonyinzer over this. It's bad enough I think the Pittsburgh Promise is a bunch of misdirected, cynical malarkey — if I turn on Bob too, I think Pittsburghers would be legally obligated to do me harm.

  3. Anonymous

    I can't believe that you wasted all of that time on all of those links. Get a job. And this time one that isn't with Councilwoman Smith. That turned out to be a complete waste, didn't it?

  4. Helen Gerhardt

    @October 18, 2012 9:23 PM

    The Comet is a job, even if not one red cent is made off the blog. Takes a hell of a lot of work to research and clearly present the primary sources that clearly show that certain of our elected leaders have been eating up UPMC words and they're pretty much empty air. I'm glad that someone is showing just how we're the ones who are paying for those empty promises.

  5. MH

    If you didn't have a life, you could spend longer than three hours in the strip club.

    The Pittsburgh Promise tax dodging of UPMC really bothers. They're taking money spent on advertising and using it to say “We pay taxes.”

    1. tim lange

      and what the hell on you on here all the time for monitoring when hes here. The guy is rticulate, verifis what he says and some assclown like you criticizes him. This a great blog and hes a main reason now stfu about how much work he does here and say thank you.

  6. MGG

    What a difference nearly a decade, and an untimely death make, eh Bram?

    “I tell you, when O'Conner's face contorted into the sarcastic, bemused mask that those italics suggest, it told me something important. He doesn't understand the fact that young people must run and play, and we crave the development of our health, our competitive spirit, our sportsmanship, and our discipline. But WORSE than not understanding, he revealed that he mocks things he doesn't understand. He revealed arrogance, and glib arrogance at that.”

  7. Bram Reichbaum

    Dag MGG, kudos! This is what happens when you take too long. I had totally forgotten that, and hadn't come across it in all the times I did research on myself… I'm on my cell now but I shiver to think what else is in my frisbee file.

    We regarded Dan Onorato highly back then for getting a large-scale soccer-fields initiative going on some identified western county land I think I think that never panned out… and intervening in soccer clubs to work us in for permitted space in North Park.

  8. MH

    Didn't Pitt win something in ultimate frisbee this year. I couldn't have been prouder if they had won a championship in an actual sport.


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