A stinking carp along the Mon
By Joseph Sabino Mistick
Published: Saturday, April 13, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
When lame-duck Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl announced that the city was challenging the real estate tax exemptions of UPMC because it no longer meets the state Supreme Court's charity test, even his staunchest critics were pleasantly surprised.
“Luke, we hardly knew ye,” some said. It was the kind of bold move they once expected but had long ago given up on seeing, as the young politician formed “old boy” alliances and squandered his mayorship. Now, at the end of the line, he delivered.
The move was not celebrated in every camp, especially by other nonprofits that fear the same scrutiny. In a letter to Ravenstahl, the Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education cited the “adversarial environment” caused by Ravenstahl's UPMC challenge and refused to even talk about tax-exempt status with a special task force.
The council is composed of all the colleges and universities in Pittsburgh, the beloved alma maters of mostly everyone in these parts. We wear their rings, sing their songs and celebrate their victories. They enjoy considerable goodwill but they might want to reconsider this show of solidarity with UPMC, lest they be tainted by what the public sees as the excesses of the health care giant.
As a Tribune-Review poll showed last week, 76 percent of likely voters support the city's challenge and a mere 15 percent oppose it. And Ravenstahl, who has been traveling a rough patch of road lately, finally has something to trumpet.
“Since our decision to challenge UPMC's status as an institution of purely public charity, we have received overwhelming support from the community,” he said. “We are pleased that so many agree with our position to do what we feel is right.”
Three of the four candidates for mayor — Bill Peduto, Jack Wagner and A.J. Richardson — agree with the city's challenge. One, Jake Wheatley, prefers to negotiate with UPMC, but now that is impossible, as the nonprofits have “gone to the mattresses” in this fight.
While there is a lot of fat talk coming from UPMC about what this litigation will cost city residents and how futile it will be, the medical behemoth has a problem. If anything smells like a dead carp withering on the banks of the Mon, it is UPMC's decision to close Braddock Hospital and replace it with a sparkling new hospital in Monroeville.
Purely public charities are granted tax exemptions, a matter of public grace, with the expectation that they will continue to serve the poor even if it is not profitable. That is the social contract and Braddock will be Exhibit A.
Will any of our universities and colleges stake their good reputations to UPMC's abandonment of the poor? Can any of them say that the closure of Braddock Hospital in exchange for a new one in Monroeville was entirely free from private profit motive?
Sometimes those who stand too close to a stinking carp will pick up that smell.
Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill (SabinoMistick@aol.com).
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