During the public comments portion of Wednesday’s Common Council meeting, more than 15 individuals representing the Make Cornell Pay Coalition — launched by the Ithaca Democratic Socialists of America — asked the Common Council to pressure Cornell University into providing increased funding to the City of Ithaca and pushed for more transparency within the negotiation process between the University and the city.
The Ithaca DSA officially announced the coalition in Instagram and Facebook posts on July 25. The Make Cornell Pay Coalition is an expansion upon the FreeCAT campaign — another Ithaca DSA initiative that argued for increased financial contributions from Cornell to Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit and a fare-free model for the TCAT.
In an interview with The Sun prior to the Common Council meeting, Katie Sims ’20, a member of the Ithaca DSA and former city mayor candidate, described that the Ithaca DSA has worked on the Make Cornell Pay Campaign over the past year. Recently, they decided to transition the campaign into a coalition to allow other local residents and organizations to become members of the movement.
Sims also described how the Make Cornell Pay Campaign is a natural evolution of the FreeCAT campaign — regardless of the specific topic, the overarching push is to get Cornell to provide more funding for Ithaca’s public services.
Cornell currently owns an estimated 47 percent of the city’s property value but is largely property tax-exempt as an educational institution. Thus, residents disproportionally fund the city’s services and infrastructure, which are used by Cornellians and residents alike.
Under the City of Ithaca and Cornell’s current memorandum of understanding, Cornell provides a Payment in Lieu of Taxes of approximately $1.6 million annually into the city’s total general fund of about $71 million. However, Ithaca residents see an annual cumulative property tax of $30.5 million.
Cornell’s current PILOT payment represents approximately 0.03 percent of Cornell’s $5.26 billion annual operating budget expenses.
The MOU — which was initially established in 1995 and amended in 2003 — is set to expire in June 2024. This expiration has attracted renewed public interest with the city of Ithaca facing growing homelessness, increased housing prices, city staff shortages and decreased TCAT services.
Notably, Ben Nichols ’49, a former Ithaca Mayor, Cornell professor and Ithaca DSA member, secured the 1995 MOU by withholding building permits from Cornell until the University agreed to provide greater annual contributions to the city.
Many speakers, such as Wayles Browne, a retired Cornell professor, urged for the identities of the negotiators in discussions regarding Cornell’s financial contributions to be made public and for negotiations to involve public input.
“In determining the amount of the PILOT, we, the members of the public, might be able to offer some negotiating points that none of the negotiators themselves have thought of,” Browne said. “So I would like to know who they are and how I can influence them.”
Carolyn Headlam ’10, an Ithaca Tenants Union advocate, described that she has experienced housing instability in Ithaca amid the city’s income and resource inequality. Headlam connected the necessity for transparency in negotiations to the upcoming Aug. 6 Democracy Day — with the proclamation for the annual celebration being passed earlier in the meeting.
“I think it’s really important to make sure that our elected officials are held accountable to their constituents,” Headlam said. “And as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act this coming weekend, I implore [the] council to not disenfranchise the tens of thousands of Ithacans you all represent. While I understand that much of the economic and cultural vitality of this city is said to be driven by Cornell, really it is driven by the people who live and work here.”
Several speakers took umbrage with the announcement of Cornell’s recent $110 million decision to renovate the aging McGraw Hall, an academic building on the Arts Quad Historic District, vastly outstripping the amount of money paid to the City of Ithaca through the PILOT payments.
DSA member Deirdre Silverman pointed out that Cornell had raised $40 million for the McGraw Hall renovation prior to the public announcement of the planned renovation, and said if Cornell wanted, they could raise money through alumni donations in a similar manner.
“In the quiet phase of the fundraising campaign, they had already raised $40 million from alumni to pay for [the McGraw Hall renovation],” Silverman said. “Now, Cornell alumni spend years in Ithaca. For some of them, it’s the happiest years of their lives. If Cornell wanted to, they could ask alumni for money to help contribute to the city to help address the problems that we all know we have.”
Nathan Sitaraman, a postdoctoral associate at Cornell, organizer for Cornell Graduate Students United and former Third Ward Common Council candidate on the Solidarity Slate, underscored that many Cornell employees cannot afford comfortable lifestyles in the City of Ithaca with Cornell wages, due to the systemic inequality he said the University perpetuates.
“The work of generations of Ithacans — work that continues every day — is responsible for bringing in billions of dollars in tuition and donations [to Cornell] every year,” Sitaraman said. “Cornell was not made by administrators. And it was not made by the Board of Trustees. The people of Ithaca made Cornell, and the people of Ithaca can make Cornell pay. If you give us a voice, we can fight together and we can win.”
Pierre Saint-Perez, an Ithaca native, student at Cornell Law School and Third Ward Common Council candidate, noted that greater financial contributions from Cornell help all members of the community, including those affiliated with the University.
“This isn’t about extracting money from Cornell. This is about looking at the needs of our community as a whole and seeing what needs to be done,” Saint-Perez said. “We need a new balance between Cornell and the city — one that’s healthier for our whole human ecosystem.”
Common Council members George McGonigal of Ward 1 and Phoebe Brown of Ward 2 emphasized their agreement with the speakers’ sentiments and urged speakers to target Cornell’s public reputation.
“Cornell is not obligated legally to pay into the MOU. That is a problem we face,” McGonigal said. “However, Cornell is subject to public opinion and journalistic comparisons to other Ivy League institutions. And so if you’re asking us how to help, Cornell’s administration is in Day Hall, and you can visit.”
Jonathan Mong and Julia Senzon are reporters from the Cornell Daily Sun working on The Sun’s summer fellowship at the Ithaca Voice. This piece was originally published in the Ithaca Voice.