$8.5 million. That’s how much the healthcare giant UPMC could be sending to Pittsburgh Public schools if it were to agree to a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) plan. It already does this for the South Fayette school district here in Allegheny County, as well as a school district up in Erie, PA. [See the Post-Gazette’s special report, “UPMC: Forging a Giant Footprint,” September 2012].
I’ve been asked to testify before County Council later today about the impact of UPMC’s massive stock of tax-exempt property on our schools. UPMC is actually the largest landholder in Allegheny County. Its tax-exemptions are a privilege that we grant to institutions serving the public good and we here in the community must hold UPMC up to its responsibility as a public charity. Either UPMC needs to behave like a charity and support the community through PILOTs, or operate as a for-profit corporation and pay taxes. Here is what I will be telling our County representatives:
Good evening ladies and gentlemen of our County Council. My name is Jessie Ramey and I am the mother of two Pittsburgh Public school students. I also teach history at the University of Pittsburgh and write about public education policy at Yinzercation, which is the on-line home of a large grassroots movement here in Southwest Pennsylvania fighting for our public schools. We are the ones behind the amazing Manchester Miracle you might have heard about – filling that school with library books – as well as the Pittsburgh Opera protest back in May.
We are all volunteer parents, students, teachers, and concerned community members. And we’ve been forced to buy library books and fight for arts education precisely because our public schools are not getting the resources they need.
UPMC calls itself a public charity and exempts itself from paying property taxes – the very taxes our schools depend on to survive. Yet UPMC gobbles up property all over Allegheny County, opens branches all over the world, and behaves like a big-money global corporation. Meanwhile, the 42 school districts in our county are struggling like never before. Our children have lost hundreds and hundreds of teachers, tutoring programs, summer school, music, art, languages, gifted and special education. Schools have been forced to slash textbook budgets, custodians, transportation, sports, and even early childhood education programs.
Our kids can’t afford UPMC’s tax breaks. The Post-Gazette’s recent special report estimated that UPMC could be paying $8.5 million to the Pittsburgh Public Schools alone if it were to pay its fair share on all its property in the city. UPMC has already entered into an agreement with the South Fayette School District here in the county. $8.5 million would let us hire back the teachers my kids lost this year…and restore our after school tutoring program…and put a full time librarian in every school.
Now I just want to say, I appreciate UPMC’s pledge to the Pittsburgh Promise program. But those dollars do not go to the school district. Also, they only benefit those living in the city of Pittsburgh. And it’s not the same as regular, sustainable, and predictable income for our schools.
School districts in this state are particularly vulnerable to tax-exempt property. That’s because Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom ten out of all fifty states in this country in the proportion of school funding provided at the state level: that pushes responsibility for schools down on our local communities, which have no choice except to raise property taxes. When you have a giant charity, acting as a corporation, coming in and taking more and more of that property off the tax roles, our kids wind up paying the ultimate cost.
This community is coming together right now and demanding that we hold UPMC accountable as a public charity. Public charities must exist for the public good. For the sake of our children and public education, it’s time for UPMC to pay its fair share.