Mayor Ed Gainey is approaching the halfway point of his first term leading Pittsburgh and preparing to deliver his second budget proposal to City Council in two weeks. Two years in, stabilizing and reforming the police force and reaping more revenue from major nonprofits remain high on his agenda.
Both areas have bedeviled Pittsburgh mayors for decades, and both are issues Gainey claimed he would master during his 2021 campaign. An initial draft of his 2024 budget shows how he is trying to reshape city government — but also illustrates how far he has yet to go on two signature campaign promises.
His budget calls for fewer positions in the Bureau of Police — an open acknowledgment that police staffing continues to lag the administration’s stated goal of 900 uniformed officers, and that they don’t expect to hit that goal anytime soon.
On the revenue side, the budget also lacks significant payments in lieu of taxes [PILOTs] from major nonprofits, such as UPMC, the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and Allegheny Health Network [AHN]. This is not unusual — mayors have struggled for decades to extract more money from major owners of tax-exempt property — and it’s still uncertain whether the administration’s strategy to reap more revenue from tax-exempt properties will yield big results.
UPMC: playing fair?
Gainey campaigned passionately on getting UPMC to pay its “fair share” to the city in 2021. In an hour-long Oct. 17 interview with PublicSource in his office suite, he reiterated that goal while acknowledging an impasse with the nonprofit’s leadership.
“Let’s talk about the fact that you can’t have a city that’s for all, or a quality city, if you have nonprofits that own so much real estate and not pay taxes,” Gainey said. “Let’s talk about the fact that through decades and decades and decades of building an empire on those tax subsidies that you got to help you build your empire, don’t you think it’s time to give back without raising taxes on the residents?
“I can’t understand why billions can’t pay a little bit.”
Paul Wood, UPMC’s chief communications officer, wrote in an email to PublicSource that Gainey is “aware of UPMC’s ongoing support of various initiatives and can count on our full participation in programs that are fair and equitable and include the region’s other major nonprofits.”
He listed numerous community investments from UPMC, including funding the Pittsburgh Promise, providing medical care at a Downtown homeless shelter and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of charity care.
Jared Stonesifer, a University of Pittsburgh spokesperson, said in an email that the university contributes “an estimated $70 million in volunteerism each year” and that the university “fulfills its nonprofit mission.”
An AHN spokesperson said the organization goes “above and beyond tax obligations to benefit and strengthen” the community and referenced $1.4 billion spent helping communities navigate the COVID pandemic.
Officials at Carnegie Mellon University did not respond to requests for comment.
Gainey said he thinks the groups’ charity is not a substitute for direct payments to the city.
“We appreciate what you do from a charitable situation,” he said. “There’s nothing to do about paying your fair share.”
Gainey held a series of meetings with leaders of UPMC and Highmark (which controls AHN) that he said did not yield any results. He announced early this year that his team would review every tax-exempt property in the city to challenge parcels that might fall short of exemption criteria, raising the possibility that the city could pursue and win taxation of now-exempt properties rather than seeking PILOT agreements.
That effort has been slow, though. The city released an initial list of 26 challenges, which city officials said has so far yielded about $130,000 in annual revenue — about 0.01% of the city’s projected 2024 revenue.
Gainey told PublicSource his team will announce a potentially larger slate of exemption challenges early next year but declined to give details.
Even while his law department attempts to take a big bite out of local nonprofits’ tax exemptions, Gainey said he extends an “olive branch” to nonprofit leaders and would be open to coming to an agreement.
“I’ve never told them I wouldn’t talk,” he said. “I don’t know where that came from.”
Police: defunding or defending?
Gainey launched his campaign in early 2021 when calls for police reform ran hot from the 2020 protests of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police. He made police reform — though not defunding — a key campaign issue. This month, he said he’s often misunderstood on the subject as Pittsburgh’s first Black mayor.
“You know, I’m supposed to be the Black mayor that’s going to defund the police,” Gainey said.
On the contrary, Gainey has affirmed time and again that he wants the bureau to maintain its long-held officer quota of 900. This summer, when a staffing study he commissioned suggested removing numerous officers from patrol beats, he sided with his police chief and disregarded the idea, angering some police reform advocates.
But against that backdrop, the bureau has not added officers to active duty since Gainey took office, and he has fired a handful for cause. Gainey’s 2024 budget includes money for 850 police officers, and his deputy mayor said they don’t expect to achieve 900 again until 2027.
A hiring freeze instituted during the pandemic by former Mayor Bill Peduto carried into Gainey’s term, and Gainey didn’t announce a new class of police recruits until Aug. 31, 2022 — nine months after he took office. Recruits take almost a year to be trained and ready for active duty.
Robert Swartzwelder, the president of the police officers’ union, said the city won’t be able to hire enough officers with current pay levels, which he said are uncompetitive with nearby municipalities.
A newly ratified contract between the union and the city gave officers significant raises, including a 30% bump for first-year officers.
“I know this administration has bragged about the raise that [officers have] received,” Swartzwelder said. “We were eating table scraps and now somebody said, ‘Hey, here’s a hamburger and some vegetables.’”
Another Peduto-era event — the death of Jim Rogers following an encounter with city cops in late 2021 — weighed heavily on Gainey’s first year. Gainey ended up firing five officers for their involvement in Rogers’ death. He said in the interview he also fired seven other officers in his first year, though details of some of those terminations are not publicly available while arbitration is ongoing.
Swartzwelder said two officers have returned to the force after settlements and five are currently in litigation or arbitration trying to get their jobs back.
Gainey acknowledged that some of the officers he fired will return.
“At the end of the day, we sent the message of what we will tolerate and what we won’t tolerate,” the mayor said.
“My first year I fired 12 cops, because we had to set a tempo … We did what we had to do to send a message early that it wasn’t about being tough, it was about being fair.”
Swartzwelder said in response that if firing officers is “what he finds as a hallmark of his mayoral administration, I think that’s appalling. That’s not something to be proud of considering you spent a lot of money training them and equipping them and supervising them.”
Gainey held up a new disciplinary matrix, which is included in the contract the city agreed to with the police union in March, as a top achievement on policing to date.
“A police contract with a disciplinary matrix is the beginning of everything,” he said, because it “gives us the ability to fire with cause. We didn’t have that before.”
Swartzwelder, too, saw the new matrix as a positive, saying that it is helpful for all parties to be “on the same page” when it comes to infractions and disciplinary measures.
Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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