September 25, 2012

Facing $3 Million Deficit, Ithaca Residents Talk Costs of Cornell, Ithaca Police Department

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Facing a $3-million budget deficit, Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 addressed residents’ and city officials’ concerns about the costs of monitoring crime in Collegetown and maintaining public spaces at a meeting Monday evening.

One resident voiced her concerns about the cost of maintaining the Ithaca SWAT Team, a division of the Ithaca Police Department.

Myrick, however, said that the city is carefully monitoring the cost of maintaining the police force, adding, “the SWAT team is mostly already paid for by grants.”

Myrick acknowledged the desire to “keep as many officers on the street to keep people safe,” saying, “we want to err on the side of safety but not overspend.”

The police department has tried to minimize its overtime — which adds to the city’s expenses — by closing its front desk during hours in which there is the smallest likelihood of crime, according to Myrick.

Besides expressing concern about the cost of monitoring crime in Collegetown, several residents complained about insufficient street cleaning in the city.

Another issue that arose during the meeting was the cost of maintaining the city’s Newman Municipal Golf Course, located near Cayuga Lake on Route 13.

While some residents urged the mayor to sell the golf course to relieve the city of the expenses required to maintain it, Alderperson Cynthia Brock (D-1st Ward) opposed the idea.

“Public spaces are a huge resource, and making them private or selling them to break even would be ignoring the population,” Brock said.

Myrick proposed a compromise: increase the number of members using the course and allow the staff to adjust the entry rates seasonally.

Brock asked if the taxes would be raised above the current tax cap, which Myrick denied.

“At this moment, we are not inclined to override the cap; it would do more harm than good,” Myrick said.

If the city raised property taxes to the maximum level permitted by the tax cap, it would raise approximately $500,000 — a significant amount, but not enough to close the $3 million deficit, Myrick noted.

Instead, Myrick said that a solution to the city’s budget impasse must be found through both tax increases and reduced spending. He noted that he has asked city departments to explore potentially reducing the size of their personnel staff, a reversal from previous years — in which the city sought to save money by trimming salaries.

Some residents at the meeting also reignited previous debates over Cornell’s role in fiscally supporting the city.

“What are your ideas for covering the $3 million dollar deficit, other than having Cornell pay?” asked Liz Field, an Ithaca resident.

Myrick acknowledged that part of the city’s budget woes stem from the fact that Cornell inhabits 89 percent of tax-exempt land in the city but pays relatively little to the city each year.

“They contribute $1.2 million to the city, nothing in property tax to the county and only $500 thousand to the school district,” Myrick said.

Though the University provides a significant number of jobs to Ithaca residents, Myrick maintained that “creating jobs is no excuse to avoid taxes, since we have to pay police to protect the business, building fees and inspections as well.”

Myrick said he will hold five more public meetings and will submit his budget plan to Common Council by the first week of October. By the first week of November, the council must vote on a final budget plan.

Original Author: Kevin Milian