The mayor of Pittsburgh calls it the "Fair Share Tax." But to officials at the city’s 10 colleges and universities and many of their 100,000 students, it is anything but.
On Wednesday, the City Council is expected to give preliminary approval to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s proposal for a 1 percent tuition tax on students attending college in Pittsburgh, which he says will raise $16.2 million in annual revenue that is needed to pay pensions for retired city employees. Final Council action will be on Monday.
The tax would be the first of its kind in the nation, and other cities are watching closely as they try to find ways to close their own budget gaps.
Students and college officials argue that the tax will drive students away and place an unfair burden on institutions that already contribute substantially to the city. They add that the measure comes at an especially difficult time for colleges, as endowment values have fallen and requests for financial aid have risen.
The tax, which will most likely end up in the courts, represents a turning point for Pittsburgh, which has remade itself after the steel mills shut down, becoming a hub for nonprofit hospitals and universities. Yet it has been unable to draw significant revenue from its new identity.
"It’s really a disappointment that we’re in this situation," Mayor Ravenstahl said. “Our colleges and universities are giving less and less while they increase tuition and executive pay and expand their campuses, removing high-value land from the tax rolls. The cost to provide public safety and public works services continues to increase, but our revenue continues to decrease.”
The tax, which would take effect as early as July, would range from about $20 a year for students at cheaper schools like the Community College of Allegheny County to just over $400 for students at the city’s priciest university, Carnegie Mellon.
As a town-gown clash, the issue pits local taxpayers against mostly out-of-state students. But it is also a struggle between the old Pittsburgh and the new, as the mayor tries to force the city’s youngest residents to support some of its oldest.
Other cities have considered going this route. This spring, for example, Mayor David N. Cicilline of Providence, R.I., proposed a $150-per-semester tax on students at the city’s four private colleges. The State Legislature, however, did not take it up.
And in Boston, Mayor Thomas M. Menino created a task force in January to explore increasing voluntary payments from the city’s universities and hospitals.
“City officials see this as an untapped revenue source, and if Pittsburgh succeeds, I think you will see a lot of other cities immediately move to do the same,” said Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education, a lobbying group for universities. He added that if the Pittsburgh City Council approves the mayor’s proposal, the matter will surely go to the courts.
Students and university officials are not pleased.
The added cost “could prevent prospective students from coming to Carnegie Mellon, and Pittsburgh would be missing out on some of the best talent from around the world,” said an editorial published this month in The Tartan, the student newspaper at Carnegie Mellon.
Officials at the University of Pittsburgh said they would “vigorously oppose any attempt to impose a service or privilege fee on our undergraduate and graduate students.”
But Mr. Ravenstahl said he was left with no other option.
He said that he asked the universities and other tax-exempt nonprofits to pay $5 million annually to the city, and that in lieu of the tax he would find the other $10 million by dipping into reserves, cutting services and getting Harrisburg to increase the commuter tax rate.
Mr. Ravenstahl said the city currently forgoes about $50 million in real estate taxes from nonprofit institutions.
he universities rejected his request last week.
In a four-page letter, the Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education said it refused to consider payments as long as the mayor continued the threat of a tax that it called divisive, illegal and unenforceable.
The council added that the city’s colleges and universities pay $23 million annually in taxes to the city for payroll, parking, business privileges and any real estate not directly related to their educational missions.
Politically, Mr. Ravenstahl risks few votes in leaning on universities for revenue because college students rarely vote in local elections. And many of the constituencies that supported Mr. Ravenstahl’s re-election in November have been vocally supportive of his tax plan.
“This is a turning point for us,” said Joe King, president of the Pittsburgh firefighters’ union. He said that after Miami-Dade County in Florida, Allegheny County has the second largest number of seniors of any county in the United States and that in his union alone he has 900 retirees and 450 surviving spouses whose pensions need to be financed.
“Without the tax, the fate of those pensions could be in trouble,” he said. “We are not asking young people to carry more than their due. We’re just asking them to pay for what they use.”
But students say they already do.
“We have jobs in Pittsburgh so we pay taxes on that income, we rent apartments so we pay taxes on that, we have cars here, which provide parking taxes,” said David Gau, an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, adding that he resented the portrayal of students as freeloaders. “We go to a variety of events like symphony, sports games, plays, concerts, and there are amusement taxes on those that produce even more revenue from us.”
“Why try to divert new people from coming here with a college tax?” added Mr. Gau, 21, who is from Kennett Square, Pa. “It’s the furthest thing from fair.”
Chad Ellis, 28, a graduate student in chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University and a Pittsburgh homeowner, agreed.
“Holding students hostage in negotiations with nonprofits to come up with money to pay for bloated city pension plans is divisive,” he said.