For the second day in a row, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center has come under fire in the halls of local government. On Monday, County Controller Chelsa Wagner questioned if all of UPMC's property holdings should be exempt from property taxes. On Tuesday the Pittsburgh City Council held a special meeting to look not only at the property tax issue but also at the health care provider's pay scale.
At the request of Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak, council held a post agenda on the region's largest employer. UPMC CEO Jeffery Romoff was invited but the non-profit's government relations manager responded that UPMC would not be represented. However he said it would like to continue the conversation with council members in the future.
City Controller Michael Lamb did testify before the council and a standing-room-only audience. Lamb first noted that UPMC does provide thousands of jobs, its facilities tend to increase property values in the surrounding neighborhoods and it contributes as much as $10 million dollars a year to the college scholarship fund, the Pittsburgh Promise. He then quickly noted that UPMC does not pay any payroll preparation tax and no direct property taxes.
"They own Hundreds of parcels in the city of Pittsburgh," said Lamb, "one of their parcels, if we taxed that one parcel, is more money than they contribute to the Pittsburgh Promise."
Rudiak estimates that if UPMC were not tax exempt it would pay at least 93 million dollars in property taxes to the city. The number grows when school and county taxes are included.
About half of the city's property is tax exempt but Lamb pointed out that about half of it is owned by the city. Lamb also pointed out that UPMC pays property taxes through its rents in the Steel tower and other non-exempt buildings.
The meeting quickly turned from property taxes to wages. Some UPMC workers have been trying to unionize but their efforts have been so far unsuccessful. Their goal is to increase wages and benefits.
Steven Hertzenberg was at the post agenda representing the left-leaning Keystone Research Center. He said that effort must be supported.
"The unionization of UPMC employees would lead to better paying conditions for thousands of workers at UPMC but perhaps more importantly from council's point of view, and from the point of view of your tax base, it would set a good example for other employers to follow," said Hertzenberg.
Hertzenberg said the workers looking to unionize to not earn family sustaining wages. The Keystone Center's Lead Economist said pay for early steel workers was also poor but that changed when unions were introduced into the mills. He said that also quickly made Pittsburgh a high wage economy.
Hertzenberg said one in five private sector jobs in the region is in healthcare, which has replaced the steel industry of the early and mid 1900s.