Like kids on a playground, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and the head of Pittsburgh colleges and universities have emerged from a bruising fight to say they're all friends now and willing to work together in the future.
There doesn't seem to be too much more than that to the agreement that signaled the death of Mr. Ravenstahl's proposed 1 percent tax on tuition at colleges, universities and trade schools. It is a relief for students, their parents and school administrators that the levy on tuition, which would have been the first of its kind in the nation, has been shelved, but Pittsburgh still lacks a permanent revenue source to funnel an extra $15 million per year into its pension funds in order to meet obligations to its retirees and comply with state financial overseers.
The mayor says he has commitments from the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and Highmark Inc. for bigger donations than they've made previously, but he wouldn't say how much he expects or when. Councilman Ricky Burgess is correct in calling for transparency because, in the past, the public couldn't find out how much various nonprofits had contributed individually. What the city needs are long-term, iron-clad deals with these institutions that, as large employers, rely heavily on the city for police, fire and other vital services.
During the announcement of the end of the tuition tax, the mayor focused instead on the formation of a group of nonprofit and business leaders to be called the New Pittsburgh Collaborative. Its mission is to come up with a joint strategy for pursuing help from Harrisburg. A cohesive approach to state lawmakers is wise, but no one should assume that simply having more voices calling for help will result in getting any.
The city long has lobbied without success, for example, for the authority either to increase the annual tax on people who work in Pittsburgh from $52 to $144, and it tried to extend the payroll preparation tax to nonprofit organizations. Concocting a plan that will be acceptable to the local delegation will be tough, and convincing the entire Legislature even tougher.
Pittsburgh did manage to balance its 2010 budget without the $15 million, but that was accomplished by relying on some one-time revenue sources and some that are questionable even for the coming year. For instance, the city estimated it would reap $2 million from a new method of going after delinquent taxpayers, but that's not going to happen every year. The city transferred $4 million from a debt fund it created to help retire bonds that will come due in the future, but City Council has put new strings on the mayor's ability to use it and, over the long term, that switch is going to catch up with the city.
In the end, the city needs more than added lobbying muscle for changes in state law. It needs the very institutions that require a healthy home base -- a solvent and prosperous Pittsburgh -- to do their part financially to help the city.