Communities surrounding the Pittsburgh-area steel mill where President Barack Obama spoke Wednesday are struggling to adapt as a home-grown business is increasingly at the mercy of global pressures — and some locals said they fear that there’s little the president can actually do to help the steel industry.
A day after Obama promoted expanding U.S. manufacturing during the State of the Union speech, his visit to a U.S. Steel Corp. plant near Pittsburgh threw a spotlight on both challenges and opportunities.
At U.S. Steel’s Irvin plant, Obama signed a presidential memorandum to create the “myRA” program, which he told employees would go toward “making sure that after a lifetime of hard work you can retire with some dignity.”
But locals have a number of other concerns, too.
Last year U.S. Steel challenged local tax assessments in several communities where it has plants and won major reductions. Legal negotiations are ongoing, but for now some school boards and municipalities have had to cope with cuts in revenue.
“We’re happy they’re here and still producing,” said Brian Kamauf, West Mifflin Borough Manager, but he added that the reassessments are a “big challenge.”
Kamauf said two local U.S. Steel properties, including the Irvin Plant, had previously been assessed at about $39 million. Now, they’re down to about $9 million, and the decline has cost the borough and school district a total of about $900,000 a year.
U.S. Steel spokeswoman Courtney Boone says the company isn’t commenting about the assessment issue, but generally speaking innovation, workforce development and fair trade are critical issues for the industry.
Ira Weiss, a Pittsburgh attorney who has spent decades representing area school districts and municipalities on tax matters, said the U.S. Steel actions have had a “devastating impact” on the nearby Clairton school district. Weiss said he went through many appeals with the company in the 1970s and 80s, but things are different now.
“There’s a whole new group of decision-makers that in my view don’t appreciate the relationship between these host communities and these plants,” Weiss said. “The company has become a much more global company.”
At a barber shop not far from the steel plant, one man questioned whether Obama could do much to help either the industry or working people.
“He can’t do nothing,” said Roger Mount, who took over the Clairton business last September. Mount said he feared that inflation would eat away the impact of Obama’s proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, and blamed both Democrats and Republicans in Congress for putting their own interests ahead of what’s best for America.
Thomas J. Gibson, president and CEO of the American Iron and Steel Institute, said in a statement that he’s pleased that Obama is visiting the U.S. Steel plant.
“However, the devil will be in the details on how the Administration is going to achieve our shared manufacturing goals,” Gibson said. “For example, the President must couple his efforts to open up markets with actions to ensure strong enforcement of our trade laws by addressing the import surge we are facing in steel.”