Highmark headquarters, Downtown.

Will 2019 herald a new era of public-private partnership for Pittsburgh? We’ll find out by the end of this month.

In his annual budget address to City Council on Tuesday morning, Mayor William Peduto said that his office would soon release details on the OnePGH initiative, a new program in which the city will collaborate with local nonprofits and corporations to fund support for critical public needs.

The Mayor has been touting OnePGH for much of the past year, describing it as a way for partners outside the government to help fund upgrades to infrastructure and emergency services without raising taxes.

OnePGH began when the city was awarded a grant from 100 Resilient Cities, a Rockefeller Foundation program that helps cities prepare new strategies for physical, economic and environmental challenges. In addition to funding an action plan, the grant also provided for full-time staff to oversee the implementation.

The initial action plan, published last year, recommended that the city invest heavily in green design, job training and pre-K education programs. To fund these and other social services, the action plan called for increased collaborations between the city, corporations and local nonprofits, but did not provide specific recommendations.

The Mayor has offered more details over the past year of how he envisions raising the $3 billion needed for the ambitious undertaking. But his speech at City Council marked one of the first concrete attempts to turn those plans in policy.

While Peduto described the initiative on Tuesday as a historic undertaking that would outlast his own administration, key details (including which of the city’s nonprofits would join) remain unclear.

When asked if they would be participating in the initiative, representatives from UPMC stopped short of endorsing the idea.

“Mayor Peduto knows he has UPMC’s support and can count on our fullest possible participation in initiatives like OnePGH that is fair and equitable and includes the other large nonprofits,” said Paul Wood, UPMC’s chief communications officer.

Speaking to NEXTpittsburgh, Mayor’s Office Communications Director Tim McNulty declined to offer further specifics on the program, saying that full details would be coming before the end of the month.

When asked about similar examples of such partnerships in other cities, McNulty said “there is no model it is based on, but it has taken input from groups including the RAND [Corporation], Brookings Institution and the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative.”

The issue of how much Pittsburgh’s largest nonprofit organizations should contribute to city and regional funds has been a source of controversy for decades.

In particular, critics say it is unjust for Pittsburgh’s major “Eds and Meds” institutions, including the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, UPMC and Highmark, to avoid paying billions in property and payroll taxes while the rest of the city is under financial stress.

Advocates counter that the growth of Pittsburgh’s healthcare and education sectors have delivered a host of benefits to the rest of the city. Not least of all thousands of high-paying jobs that contribute significantly to the city’s overall economy.

They also point to the reputational benefits the city reaps by supporting the expansion of cutting-edge research institutions like CMU.

Hostilities between the two camps peaked in 2013, when then-Mayor Luke Ravenstahl sued UPMC in  Common Pleas Court, demanding six years in unpaid payroll taxes and a court order revoking the health conglomerate’s tax-exempt status.

If Peduto is now able to secure buy-in from Pitt, CMU, UPMC and Highmark, it would represent a significant success in one of his administration’s longest-held priorities. One of Peduto’s first acts after becoming mayor in 2014 was to drop Ravenstahl’s lawsuit and enter into negotiations with the healthcare giant over ways to partner with the city on shared priorities.

Stay tuned for more updates on the future of OnePGH.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.