Legislation quietly introduced Tuesday in Pittsburgh City Council gives the city’s nine lawmakers veto power over almost all new construction by big tax-exempt institutions — effective immediately. (P-G, Rich Lord)
This is a first step towards handling the non-profit conundrum the way cities like Boston handle it: “Contribute payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) to local governments in a significant amount, and on a long-term basis — or you don’t get to build, expand and play like you’re accustomed.”
“If approved, council will look at [construction plans] on a case-by-case basis,” said Councilman Ricky Burgess, author of the measures. “I view this as restoring the proper role of council.” (ibid)
If so, then we can assume this is not part of the game of “poker” that is being played regarding the Student Tax and the 2010 budget. If it’s the proper role then it’s the proper role — and it is the proper role.
My only concern is that we may go this route briefly and then quickly settle for the amount we happen to require right now, locked in over the next 50 years — rather than for an amount commensurate with what the nonprofits can afford and what their tax-exempt land is costing us. Of course, there is a data collection element to the
raft yacht of legislation introduced by Burgess yesterday, so maybe this danger already has been anticipated.
Timing-wise, this is interesting in about eight different ways. For one thing there is the current wrangling with the universities. For another thing there is the straight-up politics: as a move which significantly empowers Council — not the Planning Commission or the ZBA — this is not a move that would ordinarily overjoy our Mayor. For a third thing there is the small matter of a Council presidency vote coming up — Burgess has not been this active at legislating since his first four months in office, let alone legislating counter to the wishes of development interests. So he might be trying to reestablish some political individuality in the wake of having taken a few warranted hits over that.
Then again, it must be noted that Burgess ran on a platform of wishing to rescind or amend Act 55 outright in order to tax some of these non-profits, so this cannot completely be described as a shift. And it can’t be denied that other councilors have ratcheted up either the legislative or communicative activity in recent weeks, in line with their own brands.
On a related and I want to say less important note: Mayor Ravenstahl held a press conference today to demonstrate that he has the five votes in Council to pass the Student Tax by way of assembling those five individuals next to him. It’s clearly important to the Mayor to get that tax into the court system, but at the same time we can see it’s a big bit of posturing. Honestly I wouldn’t be surprised if, having established the right to that tax and prevailed upon the non-profits to pony up voluntarily, Ravenstahl rescinds the tax and looks like a hero. Then in response, Councilor Peduto released a brief press statement assailing the Mayor for “playing poker with people’s lives” and doing it badly. That’s an important distinction. I’m all for playing poker, especially if you find yourself in a poker game — but you don’t want to look at your cards, bug out your eyes, and go “Wow! I can’t loose with this hand! I bet $10,000! You better fold, man.”