It used to be there was only one thing in the world that would drive me to shoot tequila at noon on a weekday — being ten or more days past my column due date for Pittsburgh Magazine. I write better when I’ve got a bit of tequila in me.
Today, I learned there is one other thing that will have me frantically opening the liquor cabinet and taking a swig straight from the tequila bottle: Luke Ravenstahl announcing he’s formally and legally challenging UPMC’s questionable non-profit status.
That’s right. Today at a press conference, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl announced that the city would be mounting a legal challenge to UPMC’s claim that they are operating as a non-profit, exempt from taxes, including millions of dollars in property taxes that they should have started paying years ago when it became very clear they were as close to a nonprofit as Enron ever was.
Now, I really want you to understand, Pittsburgh, why I believe this matters. Why it’s important. What doesn’t matter and why. And why the hell Luke suddenly found his inner Chuck Norris and went [roundhouse kick] on the most powerful entity in all of Pittsburgh.
1. Since a few months after he took the mayorship, Luke Ravenstahl has hung his legacy hat on the coatrack of The Pittsburgh Promise. Sure the pieces of that machine were moving long before Luke ever took office, but he got the credit for a landmark program that was designed to bring more families to the city. Luke’s partner in that legacy-building program has long been UPMC — the largest donor to the fund. Luke and UPMC have been like THIS since then. We cannot know what arrangements were in place. We cannot know if UPMC bought Luke in the vein of, “We’ll fund the Promise if you leave us alone on the tax issue.” We can have our suspicions, as I have mine, but what matters is Luke and UPMC were definitely french-kissing and heavy-petting if they weren’t fully in bed together. And that meant UPMC was protected, despite it being very very obvious to every person in the city that UPMC was no longer a nonprofit. What nonprofit do you know of in America that spent $800,000 to put their name on the side of a skyscraper? What nonprofit do you know of that earned annually half a billion dollars in “excess margin” or … well … PROFIT?
2. It matters that UPMC hasn’t been paying property taxes and has been permitted to take advantage of hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks, because by not doing so, they’ve been robbing the city and the Pittsburgh Public Schools of precious, greatly needed income.
3. It matters that UPMC, despite incredible revenues and the claim of being a charity, has only given 2% of revenues to helping the poor and has been notoriously stingy in paying employees. In fact, instead of increasing wages, they had the nerve to open a FOOD BANK for employees.
4. It matters that Luke Ravenstahl has, for all intents and purposes, stopped giving a single shit. Out from under the oppressive thumb of the powers that held his reelection chances in their hands, out from under UPMC and the unions and the good ole boys, Lukey has decided to finally be a real mayor. He has decided that The Pittsburgh Promise won’t be his legacy; taking on King Kong will. Going down in a blaze of glory and not caring one flip who he takes with him. This is a man who has been joined at the hip to UPMC for years and now he’s gone Brutus on them in spectacular, mouth-gaping “Et tu?” fashion. He’s biting the hand that probably fed him caviar, and shooting the engine of the jet that probably flew him privately to New Orleans. I can honestly say that if you told me last month he would do this, I would have laughed in your face and then told you to shut your whore mouth. It is stunning.
5. It doesn’t matter what his motive is. It really honestly doesn’t. Is he doing it to grasp at the fleeting thread of a lasting legacy other than “questionable ethics?” Possibly. Is he doing it to drag our attention away from the FBI investigation into the slush fund? Maybe. Is he doing too little, too late? Probably. Has he been promised a high-paying job at Highmark? We’ll find out soon enough.
But it doesn’t matter. The WHY of it doesn’t matter. What matters is he has legally set in motion something that should have been done long ago. He manned up and formally brought to the forefront what has been merely talked about casually before. He has shined a light on the elephant in the previously dark room, acknowledged it, pointed right at it and said, “I’m not going to pretend it’s not there anymore. It’s a freaking elephant. It’s there. Look at it. It stinks.” He has started something big.
6. It doesn’t matter if you’re a UPMC employee who loves your job. Good! It doesn’t matter if I’ve spent three years raising money for the sick kids at Children’s Hospital, a UPMC hospital. Those kids still need those games and those distractions. Your job is important to you. UPMC is made up of people. It’s not all evil. But their insistence on maintaining nonprofit status when they clearly are not a nonprofit is HURTING the city. It’s hurting the schools. It’s got to be fixed.
7. It matters how UPMC will retaliate. Keep an eye on it. Will they threaten layoffs or wage freezes? Will they threaten to pull their funding from The Pittsburgh Promise? Will they take a look at their billions of dollars in revenue and hundreds of millions of dollars in profits and take their lumps knowing they got away with it for a long time? Let’s see if pettiness rears its ugly head here. Let’s see how they interpret the word “charity.”
8. It matters what happens now. Luke has until the end of his term to see this thing through, at which time it becomes the responsibility of the new mayor. Now is the time for the candidates to let us know where they stand on this. Do they agree? Can they be bought? Will they be bought? Will they stand up and say, “I WILL NOT BE BOUGHT BY UPMC. I will see this thing through. I will make it right, because it’s not about what’s best for me and my political aspirations; it’s about what’s best for Pittsburgh’s bottom line?” Make a note as to which candidates make that promise, and then hold them to it.
Because when it all is said and done, that’s what’s going to matter the most — not that it started, but that it was finished.
Buckle up, Pittsburgh.
It’s about to get good.