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.

News Tidbits 4/12/12: Ithaca Plots to Get Rid of its Lots

13 04 2012


So, Ithaca has a lot of things going for it…and some things that aren’t. One of the unfortunate aspects of being a small city with a large university and a medium-sized college is that a lot of the local land is owned by said institutions, making it tax exempt. In fact, the proportion of tax exempt parcels in the city is right around 60.82 percent, 83.1 percent of which is owned by Cornell. So, this often results in a tight budget situation (Cornell, to its credit, has a Payment In Lieu Of Taxes (PILOT) agreement that pays the city $1.1 million annually, or about 4.5% of the tax value of its holdings; Ithaca College, at last check, pays jack squat). As one might imagine, this is a huge source of controversy, more than enough to merit discussion in a future entry. Anyway, this year, like many, Ithaca is looking at a deficit, to the tune of $3 million. To alleviate some of this burden, the city hopes to sell some of its unused property (at least $120,000 worth) to put it back on the tax roll and hope that someone redevelops it, for further benefit to the community and the city’s bottom line. This entry takes a look at the properties.

First off, the process on how to get rid of the properties has been, for lack of a better word, a clusterf**k. Two parcels have been cleared for sale, since there are no major environmental issues – 213-15 Spencer Street, and 321 Elmira Road.


213-15 Spencer Street is a 0.47 acre property with a value of $124,000. The property is planned to be transferred to the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency (IURA), which then sells the property for some value to an interested buyer, which in this case looks to be INHS, the local real estate development NPO. In sum, probably going to be developed for an INHS house.

321 Elmira Road is a 0.40 acre property with an assessed value of $189,000, probably because it’s in the middle of the rapidly developing big-box chain district in the southwestern part of the city. The sale of this property will be done via auction with sale to the highest bidder. At 0.40 acres (17,400 sq ft, not including zoning restrictions), don’t expect development here to me more than a small chain store of some variety…if anything at all, given drainage issues on the site.

Cherry Street parcel 100.-2-1.2 (i.e. 300 block). Is an 8.25 acre property in an industrial park with an assessed value of $825,000. This property is tied up in red tape due to some wetland on the south side of the property, but once those 2.25 acres have been subdivided off, the other 6 acres will be given to IURA, to be sold to an entity that will provide “commercial development”, if it gets redeveloped at all (some are calling for no sale due to the sensitive nature of the neighboring wetlands).

Given the tax rate, if all three were sold and assessed at current value (saying Cherry Street’s 6 acres are $600,000 for the sake of argument), you’d get about $32,000 in property tax, not to mention the one-time revenue of the sale itself. All in all, these sales aren’t really anything special, but it will be interesting to see what gets proposed for the Elmira Road and Cherry Street properties if the sales are ever completed.