Cameron Pollack / Sun File Photo

Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick '09 criticized the University during the budgeting process for not paying enough to the city.

November 13, 2018

City Budget Increases Stormwater Fees to Compensate for Cornell’s Low Tax Contribution

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The Ithaca Common Council voted 9-1 Wednesday night to approve the $76,419,721 2019 City budget, increasing spending on infrastructure and gleaning more revenue from Cornell and other major commercial property owners through stormwater fees.

The Council spent the past several weeks taking input from city departments and the public to iron out the final budget, but ultimately did not grant funding requests from the police and fire departments for additional officers.

Under the new budget, property taxes will see a 44 cent decrease per $1,000 of assessed value, down to $10.60 from $11.04 in 2018. The loss will be offset by a 2.91 percent increase in the overall tax levy, according to The Ithaca Voice.

The budget includes approximately $1 million for the Department of Public Works for a new water and sewer crew and the seven-person street repair crew touted by Mayor Svante Myrick ’09, according to The Voice.

During the budget process, Myrick issued the latest iteration of the frequent criticism that Cornell does not pay enough to the city, The Sun previously reported.

“Ithaca would be a better place to live if Harvard were here instead of Cornell … the streets would be better paved, we’d have more police officers and the taxes would be lower,” Myrick said in an interview with The Sun after an October budget meeting with the fire and police departments.

Cornell held an estimated 59 percent of the county’s untaxed property in 2015, substantially reducing the tax revenue available to the city, according to the Democrat & Chronicle.

President Martha E. Pollack contested the idea that Cornell doesn’t pay its fair share in an interview with The Sun on Monday.

“I think it’s very important to take a holistic look at the way we contribute to the city. In addition to our payment in lieu of taxes, we have a number of buildings that are on the tax roll,” she said. Cornell is the third largest property tax payer in the county, according to Pollack.

Pollack cited other contributions as well, including money given to the public school system and nearly $4 million per year towards the TCAT bus system.

“I just think it’s unfair to look at one narrow number,” she continued.

Joel M. Malina, vice president for University relations, said that the mayor has said the “same line” in previous years in an interview with The Sun. “For some reason, this year, it got a bit more attention,” he said.

“The mayor has a constituency… there’s a political need to cater to those constituent needs,” Malina continued.

One lever the city used to glean more revenue from the University through the budget was an increase in stormwater fees, which act as a tax on impervious surfaces that cause runoff.

Until this year, all property owners paid $48 annually per Equivalent Resident Unit — a measure of impervious surface area — but in 2019 rates will increase to $57 annually for residential lots and $87 per unit area for non-residential lots, according to The Voice.

Alderperson Ducson Nguyen (D-2nd Ward) noted that the stormwater fee increases, which apply to taxed and untaxed property, could wrest lost revenue from the University.

“I like the fee because it’s a way of extracting value from Cornell, which otherwise doesn’t pay taxes to the city but benefits from our stormwater management infrastructure,” Nguyen said, according to The Journal.   

Cynthia Brock (D-1st Ward), the only council member to vote against the budget, hung her reservations on stormwater fees, and noted that the fee restructuring would especially hit commercial properties in her ward, according to The Ithaca Voice.

“I’m probably the strongest advocate for stormwater work among the group of us … which is why I want to ensure that stormwater funds go to stormwater work not just under this council, but for a future council in five or 10 years,” Brock said, according to The Voice. 

An additional $5,000 to the Community Outreach Worker program was the only other item added to the budget the night of the vote, bringing the city’s total contribution to the program to $45,000, according to the Voice. The program funds a non-police peace officer to assist citizens in distress and de-escalate conflicts.   

Other sources of revenue include a 75 cent increase in fees for trash tags — required for each bag or bin placed on the curb — and a 94 cent per 100 cubic foot combined increase for storm and water fees, according to The Voice.