This story was produced and co-published in collaboration with The Pitt News.
When she lived in the University of Pittsburgh’s Litchfield Towers, student resident Emily James witnessed city EMS workers tend to a student who was found by a resident assistant slurring her words and vomiting.
Former resident Manoj Kuppusamy saw EMS workers carry an unconscious student out of the dorm last fall and city police detain a person in the building’s lobby in the spring.
Gabe Wilson, who has lived in the three-dorm complex often referred to as “Towers” for two years, said city police and paramedics are a familiar presence there, for what often seem like fairly minor reasons.
The City of Pittsburgh, which supplies the services, gets a lot less in return than it would if the same incidents occurred in a typical apartment building.
Pitt and other major nonprofits use city services, but unlike residents, they largely do not pay the property taxes that are crucial to funding them. And 911 calls to the towers, the largest cluster of dorms on Pitt’s main campus, exemplify this dynamic.
Between May 2021 and the end of April 2022, there were 146 calls to the Allegheny County 911 Center regarding incidents at 3990 Fifth Ave., the location of the towers, according to public records obtained by PublicSource and The Pitt News. The incidents — sometimes more than five a day — were mostly medical issues including those characterized as overdoses, abnormal breathing and unconsciousness, but included fire alarms, welfare checks and elevator rescues.
The towers, which house more than 1,800 students across three buildings, are tax-exempt. The property is currently assessed at about $45 million and would bring about $363,000 to the city each year if the address was taxable.
The city has a responsibility to provide municipal services regardless of a property owner’s tax status. But it has also faced a growing, largely tax-exempt nonprofit presence and has relied on federal pandemic relief to balance its budget. Now, some public safety bureaus — and taxpayers, as local officials would argue — are feeling the effects of the financial constraints.
“Quite simply, the cost of city government falls too heavily on our residents,” City Controller Lamb said in an Aug. 19 statement calling for greater contributions from the major nonprofits. “While ‘eds & meds’ undoubtedly provide a benefit to the region, they rely heavily on city resources: public safety, infrastructure, and sanitation, among other essential services.”
Jonathan Atkinson, a Pittsburgh paramedic and the leader of the paramedics’ union, said the heavy volume of calls involving university residence halls can stretch EMS thin and impact the entire city’s coverage. He said during some shifts for units covering Oakland and nearby areas, the majority of calls are alcohol-related.
“This has a ripple effect throughout the city because if a unit is taking a drunk kid to the hospital when they get another call, another unit from another district has to come in to take that call,” Atkinson said. “And they’re coming in from farther away, so it’s a longer response time. And then another unit may have to cover for that unit, so there’s a snowball effect.”
The Pitt Police and campus security respond to all 911 calls where authorities notify the university, and though city police, EMS and fire may assist, not all calls result in city services being used, a spokesperson for Pitt wrote in an email. Campus police, residence life staff and security guards monitor and respond to incidents on campus, including at Towers.
“The University works with the city, Oakland residents, and local partners to support a safe environment, and is committed to the safety of the campus community,” the spokesperson said.
Equipment needs and budget constraints
The fire and EMS bureaus in particular have grappled with equipment needs as the city tries to wrangle funds from its tax-exempt giants.
Both bureaus have aging emergency vehicle fleets, and as of February, the EMS bureau needed nine new ambulances for 2023, according to a report on city government commissioned by The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments*. The bureau typically receives three new ambulances a year, but none were ordered in 2021 or 2022 due to budget constraints.
“By not receiving any new [Advanced Life Support] units for two years and no adjunct vehicles, it increases the need and cost into the next year,” EMS Chief Ronald Romano wrote in an email to the report’s consultants. “Frontline fleet continues to age and increase in mileage, and the spare trucks age also, causing breakdowns and prolonged out-of-service time while switching.”
Fire Chief Darryl Jones said in late 2021 that five of the bureau’s frontline fleet of fire trucks are more than 11 years old, while the bureau prefers to have frontline trucks be 10 years old or newer. Pittsburgh’s 2022 budget set aside funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act to pay for two new pumper trucks for the fire bureau.
The city’s fire chief, EMS chief and public safety director all declined to be interviewed for this story. PublicSource asked the Department of Public Safety to allow firefighters at Station 14, near Pitt’s campus, to talk about the types of incidents they respond to at the towers and the needs of their station, but instead the department provided a statement regarding how the fire and EMS bureaus respond to incidents at nonprofits.
“Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire and Pittsburgh EMS respond to all nonprofits such as the University of Pittsburgh, as well as churches and other [tax-exempt] entities in the city in the same manner they respond to all emergencies — without hesitation — when called,” Public Safety Director Lee Schmidt wrote in the emailed statement.
Legit calls or unneeded ‘snowball effect?’
James, a Pitt student who previously lived in the towers, said the city’s EMS team arrived quickly after the RA found the student vomiting and slurring her words last fall. They were on the scene for about 15 to 20 minutes, she said, and they asked the student questions and determined whether she needed to go to the hospital. In the end, the medical team decided the student did not need further medical attention and did not take her to the hospital.
While she believes the university needs to rely on emergency services to ensure the health and safety of its students, she thinks it’s only fair for Pitt to pay taxes for the emergency services that it uses from the city.
“They’re definitely aware that they’re going to need to use those resources, so I think they should be paying the taxes that contribute to keeping those resources available for them if they’re going to use them,” James said. “When you have as many students and staff as [Pitt] does, I think it’s fair to pay taxes.”
Kuppusamy does not consider it unfair for Pitt to avoid paying property taxes despite its use of city services, especially because the university operates its own police force and insurance companies reimburse EMS for transports. (The city receives about $13 million annually for EMS services, but spends double that amount to operate the bureau).
“As a Pitt student, I think that it’s fine,” Kuppusamy said. “I think that the level that we’re using the resources isn’t a lot, and we do have Pitt Police.”
The Pitt Police are the third-largest police force in the county, and officers often support city police off campus and serve as first responders to emergency calls in Oakland, the Pitt spokesperson said.
Students differ on whether their peers have overused city services.
Kuppusamy hasn’t seen students recklessly or needlessly bringing emergency services to the building.
Wilson, though, said he has seen the fire department and EMS respond to multiple incidents that did not appear to be emergencies.
He recalled that public safety personnel were called after a student forgot to add water to their microwaveable mac and cheese and said firefighters and the police showed up after he smelled smoke in the building and texted his RA.
“I just remember, I was sitting there and studying and then realized it smelled like smoke so I was opening my window, but it didn’t seem to be coming from outside and I was very confused,” Wilson said. “Later on, the firefighters, the cops, and I’m not sure about EMS, I remember they showed up and had to search the rooms.”
PILOTS or payments for services?
As students settle back into the towers, Pittsburgh’s fiscal watchdog is calling on Pitt and the city’s other major nonprofits to make greater financial contributions through payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreements, or PILOTs. If the five largest nonprofits entered a PILOT for 25% of their property tax liability, the city would receive an extra $8.6 million a year.
“Unfortunately, none of the ‘Big Five’ institutions have adequate PILOT agreements in place. This is unacceptable,” Lamb said in the statement, calling out UPMC specifically but also referring to Pitt, Carnegie Mellon University, Duquesne University and Highmark/Allegheny Health Network. “City residents should not be expected to bear the financial burden of city operations when the region’s largest employers pay next to nothing.”
In a May report, Lamb and former Acting County Controller Tracy Royston recommended that the city and county negotiate PILOTs based on the value of city services the nonprofits use.
Lamb also noted in an interview that PILOT agreements should discount the services and community benefits that nonprofits like Pitt provide.
“We talked about how many times police respond to a call in Oakland. The fact of the matter is the University of Pittsburgh has a police force, and they’re helping us deal with a lot of those kinds of issues. So those kinds of things have to be discounted,” Lamb said of potential PILOT agreements.
Mayor Ed Gainey, who ran in 2021 on the promise of getting major nonprofits to contribute more to the city, said this year he has conducted private talks with leaders of UPMC and AHN. He and his spokesperson have repeatedly declined to comment on the substance of the talks or how long they will continue, and did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Gainey announced in July that the city will fully remove itself from the OnePGH Fund, which was former Mayor Bill Peduto’s plan to get nonprofits to contribute to city projects through a third-party nonprofit.
In the meantime, a new crop of Pitt students has settled into the towers as the academic year begins, likely bringing with it renewed demand for city services.
Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @chwolfson.
Alexandra Ross is a student journalist studying at the University of Pittsburgh and a senior staff writer at The Pitt News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Punya Bhasin is a freelance journalist in Pittsburgh and the news editor for The Pitt News. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This story was fact-checked by Abigail Nemec-Merwede.