When The Mayor of Ithaca Stood Up To Cornell

23 04 2012

So, this entry is a little delayed because I was at a conference doing what scientists do best, which is trying to explain their research and justify the grants that pay for it. Since my research (and by extension, my paycheck) takes priority, things got a little pushed back with the blog updates.

Anyway, I made a reference in the previous entry to how Cornell is both a blessing and curse for Ithaca; the blessing being the attention, the jobs and the steady economy, the curse is that Cornell pays a pittance towards the real value of their property in the city (as in, 4.5% of the assessed value). This is covered by the PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes) agreement. But how that agreement originally came to be is much more interesting as the situation it stems from.

Turn the clocks back about eighteen years to 1994. At the time, the mayor of Ithaca was avowed socialist Ben Nichols, who was a retired professor of electrical engineering from Cornell (he had also completed most of his education at Cornell).  Perhaps that makes this story all the more interesting; a David vs. Goliath, if Goliath had been supporting David’s career for forty years. Ben Nichols was first elected in 1989, and then again in 1991 and 1993 (two-year terms; these were increased to four-year terms shortly before he lost his fourth run for mayor in 1995).

In late fall of 1994, Ben Nichols, recognizing the dire situation of Ithaca’s budget, demanded for Cornell to pay a higher share for its use of city fire services and police patrols. Specifically, he wanted Cornell to pay an annual fee of $2.5 million, which he thought was adequate to cover dorms, fraternity houses, and the campus store, as they were not purely academic buildings. At the time, Cornell paid about $143,000 (this started around 1967, as a way to cover fire services and a PILOT for the ICSD), and perhaps in politer terms, Cornell told him to take a hike. What followed was a battle with jobs and laws as weapons.

After the rebuff, Mayor Nichols decided to fight back by denying Cornell construction permits, using a normally-unenforced zoning rule regarding the amount of parking spaces needed for a facility – Cornell had about 1/10th what was required for an enterprise of its size, a gross deficit of just under 9,000 spaces. So, no construction could be undertaken, nor renovations, unless those parking spaces were built. Mayor Nichols said that he had many meetings and pleasant conversations with the university, but no results.

To quote:

“Most universities say that they legally are not required to do this, and so the position that we took is, `OK, if you stick to every legal right that you have, we’ll do the same,” Nichols said. “And things like building permits and zoning law, we will adhere to every fine line of the law.’ ”

Cornell, of course, fought back using the hundreds of construction workers and tradesmen who suddenly found themselves without work; that May, they protested in front of city hall, demanding a lift of the ban. Furthermore, Cornell said they would consider paying only after the permits were granted. After the protest, Mayor Nichols relented, saying that the lifting of the ban had nothing to do with the protests, and everything to do with the belief that a discussion on an appropriate payment plan would take place at a “much more accelerated pace“.

In the interest of epilogues, eventually a revised and compromised PILOT agreement was hammered out later that year, which increased Cornell’s commitment (albeit still meager compared to assessed value). this was revised to be tied to inflation (Consumer Price Index) in 2003, and increased outright to a minimum contribution of least $1 million annually.

A Cornell supporter might look down on the mayor of the city for being petulant, but I am personally impressed that a Cornellian/faculty member stood up against the metaphorical 800-pound gorilla. Even if there is hardly a snowball’s chance in Hades I’d ever support a socialist candidate.



3 responses

23 04 2012

It’s “800 pound gorilla,” meaning a large, unstoppable organization. “Elephant in the room” means an obvious truth that is being ignored, and “gorilla in the room” is mixing metaphors.

23 04 2012
B. C.

Fixed. Thanks for the catch.

25 04 2012

great blog, btw.

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