Imagine facing a $3-million budget deficit three years after graduating from college.
That was just one challenge that Svante Myrick ’09 confronted in his first year as mayor of the city of Ithaca. The process of closing the city’s budget deficit, he said, required him to make “impossible choices.”
“With multimillion dollar deficits occurring each year, pain could only be deferred for so long,” he said.
In order to narrow the budget deficit, Myrick said he drew upon his experiences growing up with a single mother who worked multiple jobs to raise him and his three siblings.
“When you grow up in a household without enough money to make ends meet, you have to make difficult, and, within the family, unpopular decisions,” Myrick said. “My mom would … actually show us her paychecks every week and show us the bills every week, and we’d do the math together … I never expected that experience to be useful, outside of my personal life, outside of balancing my own checkbook, but it gave me a tolerance for making tough decisions.”
The ability to make difficult decisions characterized Myrick’s approach to balancing the city budget. His controversial proposal included decreasing the number of the Ithaca’s police and fire staff. It was passed in November over the objections of the Ithaca Police and Fire Departments, which said the cuts would jeopardize public safety.
Myrick said none of the changes implemented in his budget were particularly innovative; they have been used by other cities and even by the University to solve fiscal problems. Still, he said, the changes did require him to stand firm in the face of opposition.
”What it took was a fair amount of willpower,” Myrick said. “Changes of this kind, you get a lot of pushback … But it was my job to explain that remaining the same wasn’t an option ... The way things were going [was] going to lead us to bankruptcy.”
Myrick –– who keeps an Ithaca College flag in his office –– said he has worked to balance his commitments to the city with his status as a Cornell alumnus.
“Everybody knows I’m a Cornell grad,” Myrick said. “I’m just trying to send a signal to our friends on South Hill. Although I may have gone, in their eyes, to the wrong institution, I still have their best interests in mind.”
Myrick said he hopes to encourage collboration between Cornell and the city.
“I was elected to look out for the best interests of the city, and I actually think the best interests of the city and the best interests of the University collide quite a bit,” Myrick said. “Now, convincing the University of that fact has been a bit tougher.”
As the city struggled to close the budget deficit, many Ithacans, including Myrick, suggested that Cornell — which, as a tax-exempt non-profit institution, does not pay city taxes on its land — increase its contribution to the city budget.
Under an agreement with the city, the University will contribute about $1.225 million to the city budget this year, according to Simeon Moss ’73, deputy University spokesperson.
Still, Myrick said he hopes this amount will increase in subsequent years.
“I don’t think it’s enough and I think the city needs more,” Myrick said. “And I actually don’t think that’s me being tough on the University.”
Looking forward, Myrick said he will use his second year in office to make sure the reforms of his first year “do what they were intended to do, which is improve our performance, make us more efficient, and save us money.”
Common Council member Jennifer Dotson (G-1st Ward) –– who was the acting mayor in 2012, filling in for Myrick when he was out of town or otherwise unable to complete his duties –– praised Myrick’s work ethic.
“I’m impressed by what he’s accomplishing,” Dotson said.
Still, Dotson said, she remains critical of some of Myrick’s decisions.
“He has really ambitious goals regarding changing the structure of city government and of certain departments, which is painful for some people,” she said.
Dotson and fellow Common Council member Ellen McCollister (D-3rd Ward) praised Myrick’s efficiency and ambitions for the city –– as well as his sense of humor. McCollister said Myrick has done an excellent job increasing communication with the public through his social media presence, acquiring more than 3,000 Twitter followers.
While McCollister commended Myrick’s abilities, she also expressed hope that Myrick would incorporate a broader spectrum of voices into his policy decisions.
“Going forward, I’d like to see him appoint people of more diverse viewpoints and experience to our various city boards,” McCollister said. “Administratively, I also think he has opportunities to take fuller advantage of the expertise of senior City Hall staff."
Dotson agreed, noted that Myrick’s young age — he is 26 years old — contributes to some of his bold decisions.
“He’s taking us in a new direction. We’re going to make some mistakes ... It’s not realistic to expect you’re not going to make any,” Dotson said.
Myrick –– who is both biracial and the youngest mayor in city history –– said his youth took a humorous turn when the 15-year-old black son of a staff member was mistaken for Myrick in the elevator of the mayor’s office.
“Someone turned to him and said ‘Are you the mayor?’” Myrick said. “[His mom] told me the story … She said, ‘No, you don’t understand. He came home and he was so excited.’ Because to be that age, to be a young black man in America, you get confused for a lot of things … People assume a lot of things about you … He had never had someone before … mistake him for a figure of authority and respect. And she said she saw in him that day something change in the way he thought about himself.”