November 9, 2007

Council Approves Tax Hike

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The Common Council voted Wednesday to approve the 2008 budget for the City of Ithaca. As a result of this vote, property taxes will be raised by 3.85 percent from their current level to meet the deficit between the City’s expenditures for next year and its revenue. This percentage is a compromise between the 3.75 percent increase recommended in Mayor Carolyn Peterson’s original budget proposal and the 4.04 percent increase sought by the Common Council in a budgetary vote conducted at their meeting last Wednesday.
Alderperson Gayraud Townsend ’05 (D-4th Ward) characterized the budget as a “bare bones” plan. “We’ve done all that we can do to find an equilibrium between projects we have to appropriate funds for and keeping the tax rate down,” he said.
The tax burden on Ithaca residents has been a frequent point of contention in public discussions, including the public comment section of yesterday’s Common Council meeting, because Cornell University’s tax exempt status compels the remaining 30 percent of Ithaca’s landowners to support the City’s budget. A combined 70 percent of Ithaca is property tax-exempt, and the University owns 97 percent of that tax-exempt property.
Alderperson David Gelinas ’07 (D-4th ward) responded to these criticisms, saying that “there’s been a lot of general misunderstanding. A common view of students across demographics that I’ve spoken to is: ‘If Cornell weren’t here, Ithaca wouldn’t exist.’ It seems to be only in recent years that Cornell and the City are communicating at all. But I think the University administration is slowly realizing the role it plays. We’re making incremental progress with Cornell’s $20 million donation and going forward.”
Townsend was not as complimentary toward the $20 million Cornell has pledged to contribute over the next 10 years.
“If Cornell were to pay property taxes, it would be astronomically more than the million or so it volunteers. I challenge President Skorton to come down to look at the City. The housing conditions in Collegetown are deplorable,” said Townsend.
The Common Council also voted to increase the salaries of its members and the Mayor from $7,000 to $9,641 and $51,750 to $53,561, respectively. Townsend said he believes the pay raises are necessary because salaries have stayed stagnant for the past 10 years.
“All of the Common Council races were uncontested this year. Paying a better salary for the number of hours of work we do would help to improve the lack of interest in these positions,” said Townsend.
Other public services that will receive increased amounts of funding next year are the Greater Ithaca Activities Center, Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and TCAT. The SPCA’s budget will be doubled from $43,000 to $86,000 after the Common Council was informed late into the budgetary process that it required extra funding to avoid bankruptcy.
“The decision to increase the SPCA budget was an odd situation. The state government mandates that we have an SPCA, and they have a new manager this year. Otherwise, the Council would view this kind of tactic differently,” said Townsend.
According to the Ithaca Journal, part of the GIAC’s budget will be provided for by Information Technologies director Duane Twardokus’s offer to cut $18,000 from his own department.
“Duane’s decision is really courageous, but it’s sad that our departments need to sacrifice their own funding so we can have an Activities Center,” said Townsend.
The 2008 budget also will increase funding for public safety and infrastructure, such as instituting a maintenance crew for the City’s bridges.
“The bridge collapse that happened in Minnesota demonstrated just how important of an issue this was,” said Townsend.