October 22, 2018

VALDETARO | Cornell Doesn’t Care About Ithaca

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Nearly three weeks ago, on Wednesday, October 4th, Ithaca’s Mayor, and Cornell alum, Svante Myrick ’09, presented his proposal for Ithaca’s 2019 budget. Amongst discussion of a property tax decrease, the staffing of the police department and the creation of a new street crew dedicated to improving local road quality, the mayor had some choice words for the institution which he called home for four years.

In addition to pointing out that Cornell’s $2.1 billion of tax-exempt properties are equal in value to the value of all taxable properties in the entirety of Ithaca, Myrick stated that “We would be better off if any other Ivy League School were in Ithaca.”

Immediately following this comment, and in a later interview with the Sun, he specifically mentioned that Harvard — our rival in both hockey and use of colors that generally fit the description of ‘red’ — would be better for Ithaca than Cornell currently is. It might seem unfathomable that a Cornell alumnus should invoke the rest of the Ivies, and especially the Crimson, in a positive light. And yet, such is the relationship between Cornell and the city it calls home. More than 150 years after Cornell was founded far above Cayuga’s waters, one has to wonder whether or not Cornell cares about Ithaca.

In response to Myrick’s claims that Cornell is not a decent tenant of one of the hills that overlooks Downtown Ithaca, the University has pointed out how much it helps Ithaca and the surrounding areas. As noted in the Sun article written about the mayor’s comments, Cornell spent just less than $275 million in the Ithaca area in 2017, with $5.9 million going directly to local government through taxes and fees. The rest was spent through a combination of local initiatives, construction and the raising of venture capital through two organizations that the university plays a role in, Rev: Ithaca Startup Works and the McGovern Family Center. These expenditures included $1.3 million for the repair of Forest Home Drive near the intersection with East Ave, a cost taken on by the university on behalf of the city.

The simple dollars and cents of how much money Cornell spends also don’t capture the impact of thousands of students, staff and faculty who spend money in Ithaca, contributing to local businesses and taxes.. The numbers alone also can’t expound upon the trickle-down effects of Cornell’s outreach and education: the Cooperative Extensions, the Vet School, the Prison Education Program, among many others.

Despite the prevalence of this benevolence that might seem endless to the administrators sitting in Day Hall, though, there is still much need in Ithaca. Beyond the surface-level issue of potholes in our roads, Ithaca has an affordable housing crisis that has led to many residents living in a strip of land in between the railroad and the Wegmans. Yes, one of the main food sources for students, at one of the richest universities in the world, is right next to the closest thing to home that people in experiencing homelessness in our community have.

This is nothing to say of Tompkins County as a whole. The rates of poverty for permanent residents are 11.5 percent and 23 percent. Even more striking, 1 in 2 African American and 1 in 3 Hispanic residents of Tompkins live in poverty, 37 percent of single-mother homes in Tompkins are below the poverty line, and according to the Ithaca Voice, in 2016 every single home headed by a single mother with children only under age 5 in Ithaca and the Town of Groton were living below the poverty line.

This is not to say that Cornell bears any responsibility for these statistics or is the driving force behind them. And even though the university isn’t incorrect in stating that it has a positive impact, touting the repair of Forest Home Drive exemplifies why the current rift with the mayor exists.

Just because it footed the bill doesn’t mean it should get any special credit. It was in the University’s vested interest to undertake the repairs, yet they tout it as a generous act. That viewpoint speaks to a greater dilemma society has on how to treat people and institutions with economic power. Should the masses submit themselves to the will of those with financial might, expecting nothing from them and thanking them for even the smallest thing they do that isn’t only in their own interest? Or should society demand that they help those who fuel their success by providing them a space to grow, trying to lift all of us up?

I, for one, am of the latter persuasion. And that is not to say that I expect Cornell to fix all of the problems in Ithaca and Tompkins; simply that it can, should, and must, do more. If not for its own self-interest as another columnist described earlier in the semester, then for the good of the city that has made it great.

And with an expected net surplus of $13 million in its FY 2019 budget, Cornell could do a lot of good in a city with a budget of only $35 million. If the university just doubled its $1.3 million contribution, it would be able to increase the county’s Medicaid budget by two-thirds to provide better healthcare to the county’s poor population, or to more than triple the city’s bus operations budget to expand public transit into areas of the county where transit can be a formidable barrier to improving one’s economic standing.

The university doesn’t even need to contribute more money to the city either. Just next week, the Ithaca Rescue Mission, a provider of both emergency shelter and permanent affordable housing for the homeless, will close its doors. Given that the FY 2017 revenues of Rescue Mission Syracuse, a larger branch than the Ithaca one, were just over $21 million, Cornell could significantly increase the Rescue Missions budget if it donated only a half of its surplus. Whether it’s with such donations to private organizations, or an increased contribution to the city, it wouldn’t be too big of an ask for Cornell to help out the city it calls home just a little more. Far above Cayuga’s waters, the university can choose to be above Ithaca’s problems. It should no longer choose to be so.

Giancarlo Valdetaro is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. Setting the Temperature runs every other Tuesday this semester. He can be reached at gvaldetaro@cornellsun.com