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One percent college tuition tax in Pittsburgh likely to pass

| Thursday, Nov. 12, 2009

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl appears to have the City Council votes needed to enact his proposed 1 percent tax on college tuition, council members said Thursday.

"I have to stick with the mayor on this one, because you can't go after residents when others are using the services," said Councilwoman Darlene Harris, one of five members of the nine-member panel who said Wednesday they will support the plan. The others are Tonya Payne, Theresa Smith, Bruce Kraus and Jim Motznik.

"I believe the mayor's proposal will hold up to court challenges," Motznik said. "I don't think there will be more than a few members who vote against it. There's already more than a majority in favor of it."

Ravenstahl will need a simple majority of council members to approve the tax, which is proposed to fill a $15 million hole in his proposed $454 million budget. If the tuition tax is approved, students would pay between $27 and $400, depending on their school's tuition. Council is scheduled to meet for a series of votes on the budget beginning Dec. 7 with a final vote scheduled for Dec. 15.

"We're operating now on a shoestring," Smith said. "We've cut out of several different departments, but how much can you cut?"

Councilmen Doug Shields, Bill Peduto and Patrick Dowd said they won't support the tuition tax. They argue the city doesn't have the right to impose the tax and that it puts an unfair burden on college students rather than targeting large nonprofit institutions.

Cities generally are not permitted to impose taxes without the Legislature's approval. Ravenstahl wants to impose the tax under Act 511, known as the Local Tax Enabling Act, which spells out taxing powers of local governments, with the exception of Philadelphia.

"It's clear to me the postsecondary educational institutions will litigate the matter in the courts," Shields said. "The tax is advertised as everyone should pay their fair share. I've had people calling me telling me they'd be paying more than their fair share because they attend one of these schools and already pay property taxes."

Peduto said the city will be left with a $15 million hole in its budget when the tax fails to pass state muster.

"No municipality in the state of Pennsylvania, whether it's a borough, township or city, has the authority to create a new tax, and if we pass this there will be an injunction," he said.

Ravenstahl could not be reached.

The tax puts a burden on people who are working to improve themselves, Dowd said.

"This idea that a student whose education is paid for by Mom and Dad is not really what a student is anymore. Some are trying to eke out a living while trying to get an education," he said.

Dowd said he likely won't vote for the budget until questions are answered such a as how the city can justify taxing students when "the real target is the academic institution."

Councilman Ricky Burgess said he hasn't decided how he'll vote.

"We're between a rock and a hard place," Burgess said. "It seems to me this tax at least begins the discussion about how nonprofits should pay their fair share to Pittsburgh."

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