Students can't afford to fill Pittsburgh's budget gap, many of them told the City Council yesterday at a hearing that started with a request for a college president's salary, and turned into something of a contest for the title of least-well-off scholar.

The city's annual budget hearing focused on the 1 percent tuition tax that Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has proposed in an effort to find $15 million a year to bail out the city pension fund.

The proposed $453.8 million budget won't rely on the tax, and a tentative vote on the levy tomorrow would be just the beginning of a lengthy fight that could move to the courts and Harrisburg.

No sooner had the first speaker, Carlow University president Mary Hines, finished criticizing the tax than Councilman Jim Motznik asked for her salary.

"My salary at Carlow University is $210,000," she said.

After another speaker said private citizens' salaries were none of the council's business, Motznik defended his question. "If you are a president of a hospital or university that claims to be nonprofit, your salary is certainly our business," he said.

Motznik said the tuition tax debate was really "about the nonprofits in the city not standing up and doing what they should do" by contributing more to the city's coffers.

To many of the three dozen students who spoke before the council, it was about their own meager incomes.

Jacob Brown, a University of Pittsburgh student, said he had earned $3,500 this year washing cars.

"I barely scrape by," he said, adding that his out-of-state tuition is paid by scholarships and loans. The $233 he would have to pay if the tax were enacted "would be the better part of a month of rent," he said, or a big slice out of his bottom-of-the-barrel food bill.

Ashley Kunkle, a Carlow student, said the tax would cost her $217. That's close to one month's payment on the $3,000 a year she pays the school after financial aid. The tax would apply to the total tuition bill regardless of whether it was paid for with scholarships.

"I make approximately $3,500 working two jobs," she said. That "$217 means that I could abandon the city of Pittsburgh to study at other fine institutions where there is no tuition tax."

Charles Shull, president of Pitt's student government board, said he made "negative-$12,000 a year" because he takes out student loans that far exceed what he earns. "I pay rent. I pay property taxes. I pay wage taxes," he said.

About 150 students attended the hearing, bringing antitax petitions that they said contained 10,150 signatures.

City Chief of Staff Yarone Zober pointed out that many Pittsburghers - not just students - are struggling to get by. "Everybody has to pay their fair share toward the cost of running government and providing city services," he said.

Crediting students for other taxes they pay to the city, or basing payments on student income, would violate state law, he said.

Universities have threatened to sue to invalidate the tuition tax, the state-picked Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority has forced the city to remove its expected revenue from the 2010 budget, and State Rep. Paul Costa (D., Allegheny) has said he will introduce legislation to preempt it. Nonetheless, five of nine council members have said they will vote for it.