October 7, 2013

EDITORIAL: Fair & Honest Debates Over MOUs

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Cornell and Ithaca have sparred over the University’s financial contribution to the City for nearly two decades, but the fight came to a head last week when discussions over the City’s 2014 budget led to a public skirmish between Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 and University officials. The appropriate financial relationship between non-profit colleges and cities across the U.S. is a debate worth having, and the University should seriously consider whether its current level of contribution under the Memorandum of Understanding is fair to the City. But we find fault with some of the mayor’s recent statements, in which he has seemed to vacillate between starkly different portrayals of Cornell’s expected role in bolstering the Ithaca economy.

Myrick’s characterization of the University’s financial support as “shameful” strikes us as antithetical to the shining praise of the Ithaca-Cornell relationship he sang to The New York Times this summer. The Aug. 4 article, “Colleges Help Ithaca Thrive in a Region of Struggles,” presented Ithaca as a paragon of town-gown relations, attributing the City’s supposed booming success to its universities pouring “hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy” and creating “thousands of jobs” for residents. Myrick told The Times that Ithaca has been successful “because our universities have partnered with our private industries” and suggested that the leaders of other Ivy League cities in the Northeast come and see how “we built in Ithaca the lowest unemployment rate in the state.”

Yet just last week, the mayor stood before his constituents at a public budget hearing and said, “[Cornell] is thriving and booming, and [the City is] struggling.” Which is it: Is the University making the City a thriving haven amid countywide economic hardship, or is it bleeding Ithaca dry of public services without paying for them through property taxes? The former is more compatible with Cornell’s contention that it provides invaluable support to the City economy through employment, consumerism and new business development. The latter seems to sweep under the rug the University’s additional contributions to services outside of the government operating budget, which are set to total more than $3.24 million this year, according to Cornell officials. We imagine the answer lies somewhere in between, but inconsistencies in Myrick’s statements lead us to question some of his most recent criticisms of the University.

In his scathing remarks, Myrick also compared Cornell to its peer institutions, citing Harvard and Yale in particular. Myrick contrasted Cornell’s $1.25 million expected contribution for 2014 with Harvard’s $2.1 million and Yale’s more than $8 million. What he failed to mention is that — compared to Ithaca’s expected budget of about $65 million for fiscal year 2014 — the cities of Cambridge, Mass., and New Haven, Conn., have approved budgets of about $500 million each. When measured as a percentage of the City’s total budget, Cornell’s contribution to Ithaca is equivalent or greater than Harvard’s and Yale’s to their respective hometowns. We believe Myrick’s evidence does not adequately support the argument that Cornell’s contribution is below the norm.

Nonetheless, the question of whether this national standard for contributions is fair is certainly up for debate. It may be argued that non-profit universities, which are exempt from property taxes and often benefit from significant fire and police support, are insufficiently supporting the cities that house them. This claim can be fairly used to pressure the Cornell administration to increase its contribution, and Myrick should certainly look out for his city’s best interests by continuing such negotiations. But we challenge the mayor’s contradictory assessments of Cornell’s impact on Ithaca’s economy and the assertion that University is lagging behind its peers.