October 17, 2013

MOU’s History Filled With Tension Between Cornell, City of Ithaca

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Although the recent spat between the City of Ithaca and Cornell over the University’s contributions to the city may seem like a very public demonstration of the tensions between the neighboring institutions, this is not the first time a public official has asked the University to increase its contributions to the city.

Since the inception of the Memorandum of Understanding — which dictates the amount Cornell contributes annually to the city — in 1995, three Ithaca mayors have asked Cornell to increase its contributions to the city.

Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 is not the sole mayor with a Cornell connection to spar with the City. The mayor under which the MOU was instituted — Prof. Emeritus Ben Nichols ’49, electrical and chemical engineering — was an alumnus and a former professor, and the husband of former mayor Carolyn Peterson, who served from 2004 to 2011, works at the University.

Nichols, the mayor under which the MOU was instituted, had an even more public altercation with the University — one that caught national media attention. In 1994, Nichols wanted the University to contribute $2.5 million to the city’s budget, up from Cornell’s $143,000 contribution for that year, The Sun reported in May 1995.

Nichols — who served as mayor from 1989 to 1995 and was a member of the Democratic Socialists of America — began to deny requests for building permits from the University in response to the University’s unwillingness to contribute more money, The Sun previously reported. He argued that under the City’s zoning laws, Cornell would need to build 15,000 parking spaces in order to comply with codes.

Hundreds of construction workers who were affected by the lack of building projects at Cornell marched to City Hall on May 1, 1995 protesting Nichols’ decision to deny building permits, The Sun reported on May 2, 1995.

“I’m trying as hard as I can. [Cornell] is not trying at all,” Nichols said to protestors about negotiations between the City and the University.

Later, the mayor conceded and lifted the ban, although he said the decision was not in response to the demonstration. Five months later, the Ithaca Common Council and the University Board of Trustees approved the MOU, which increased Cornell’s budgetary contributions to $250,000 for that year.

University President Hunter R. Rawlings III saw the agreement as a victory.

“I see this new understanding as a ‘win-win’ situation for both the city and the University,” Rawlings said in a University press release in October 1995. “I am extremely pleased that Mayor Nichols and I are signing a document that lays out a long-term plan for a productive and mutually supportive future for both the city and University.”

However, less than a decade later, Mayor Alan Cohen ’81 worked with the University to increase payments to the city and was successful in creating an amendment to the memorandum.

“We at the time felt that the payment was not sufficient enough,” he said. “We were able to make our case to the administration at the time and they agreed.”

Under the amendment, the MOU would remain in effect until 2024 in order to provide both parties with a stable agreement and the CPI escalator — a measurement of the change in the costs to an average consumer of goods and services— was added, according to Cohen.

After Cohen’s tenure as mayor, Carolyn Peterson — who served from 2004 to 2011 as the City’s first female mayor — was faced with budget constraints after the 2008 economic crash.

“It was during possibly one of the hardest times because of the economic crash that occurred in 2008. So we had to face a very difficult time with the economic collapse happening across the country,” Peterson said, adding that increases in pension and healthcare costs also contributed to the City’s tight budget.

As a result, Peterson reduced city jobs, started a hiring freeze program which prevented the hiring of new employees in the city government and raised taxes, she said. In addition, she asked the University for an increased contribution to the City budget in late 2011, The Sun previously reported.

Peterson said in an interview with The Sun that it is important for a mayor to employ a variety of resources and be involved in ongoing discussions regarding relations between the City and the University. She argued, however, that the state should help communities with large amounts of tax-exempt land with more state aid.

“We are really looking toward the same thing, and it is getting tough to do day-to-day activities in the state of New York,” she said. “You just can’t do everything you want to do in your community.”

Building on the City of Ithaca mayoral trend, two weeks ago Myrick described the University’s lack of contributions to the city’s budget as being “shameful.” In response, Cornell criticized Myrick for the manner in which he asked for the increased funding and called for cooperation between the two parties, The Sun previously reported.

Currently under the MOU, The University will contribute $1.25 million to the city from 2013 and 2014, in addition to other contributions Cornell makes to the city, such as to the Ithaca City School District and the Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Service, The Sun reported. These additional contributions are expected to total to more than $3.24 million this year.