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UPMC hit with barrage of criticism at hearing on tax-exempt status

| Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, 12:28 a.m.

About 200 people packed an Allegheny County Council hearing room on Wednesday and sounded off against UPMC on everything from its nonprofit status to the wages it pays the housekeeping staff.

More than 90 people signed up to speak during the hearing initially approved to get public input about UPMC's tax-exempt status on several of its properties. Some speakers talked about that issue, while others focused on union organizing efforts and how much the hospital system pays.

“UPMC seems to forget how important housekeepers are. We clean the toilets and take out the trash, but many of the workers are on public assistance. I can't afford their benefits at $10.17 an hour,” said Oliver Miller, 52, of East Liberty, who works at UPMC Shadyside. “Despite working at one of the largest employers in the region, we are kept in a state of poverty. We need good, living wages.”

Several council members expressed concern that council was getting involved in a labor dispute between the hospital system and its workers while losing sight of the issue of UPMC's tax-exempt status on many of its properties. The Service Employees International Union is attempting to organize workers at UPMC facilities.

“We should not be involved in labor-management disputes,” said Councilwoman Heather Heidelbaugh, R-Mt. Lebanon. “I'm not there to judge if an employer should or should not have a union.”

Councilman John DeFazio, D-Shaler, who pushed for the hearing, said he was not going to limit what people had to say.

“We're going to let everyone speak like we always do at public hearings,” said DeFazio, who works for the United Steelworkers of America as its District 10 director and is a member of the union's International Executive Board.

Heidelbaugh is a private attorney and represents UPMC as outside counsel.

Tom McGough, chief legal counsel for UPMC, was one of several speakers UPMC sent to the meeting. He said arguments that UPMC is using municipal services without paying misses an important point.

“The reason a nonprofit organization is granted an exemption in the first place is because it voluntarily relieves the government of part of its burden by providing services that the government otherwise would have to provide,” McGough said.

UPMC has said it pays taxes on 49 percent of the 1,100 acres it owns in the county.

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.He can be reached at 412-320-7886 and bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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