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The Ithaca DSA rally urged Cornell to increase its financial contributions to the City of Ithaca.

September 18, 2023

Make Cornell Pay Campaign Rallies for Higher Cornell Contribution to City

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The Ithaca Democratic Socialists of America held a rally and march on Monday, Sept. 18 calling on Cornell to contribute higher payments in lieu of taxes to the City of Ithaca, following an informal agreement reached between Ithaca Mayor Laura Lewis and Cornell President Martha Pollack on Thursday for Cornell to pay $4 million annually to the City.

“Only a week after leaving the negotiation tables, Cornell came back with an increased offer — which means our organizing is working,” said Kayla Matos, the Democratic candidate for Ithaca’s 1st Ward, in a speech at the rally. “Cornell needs [to pay more to] the City that we all, including them, call home. We need to see more than the $4 million they are currently offering, and we need to see shorter-term contracts. Our city needs to be able to revisit these contracts more frequently and work as partners with Cornell University to uplift our city and support our residents.”

Signed in 1995, Cornell has a Memorandum of Understanding with the City of Ithaca to pay $1.6 million annually in PILOT contributions. With this agreement expiring in June 2024, the City and Cornell had four negotiation sessions from April to August to discuss a future MOU. On Sept. 7, Lewis released a statement condemning the University for stalling the negotiation process after offering the City $3.15 million annually.

“Despite a good faith effort to negotiate an amount compatible with the City’s needs, Cornell ultimately failed to offer a financial commitment reflective of its leading role in the community,” Lewis wrote in the statement. “This is a lost opportunity for Cornell to invest in and garner the support of its community.”

However, on Sept. 14 Lewis and Pollack released a joint statement expressing they reached an agreement of $4 million annually over 21 years, contingent on approval from the Ithaca Common Council and Cornell Board of Trustees. Just a week later, Lewis expressed gratitude for the City’s offer.

“This new agreement will further strengthen our critical relationship and partnership for the long-term, for the benefit of the people of the City,” Lewis and Pollack wrote.

But the agreement was not viewed favorably by everyone. The Ithaca DSA is calling on the Common Council to table or reject the current deal in favor of a larger financial commitment of $8 million from the University with a shorter contract time.

“[Cornell] needs to pay substantially more, and they need to agree to a shorter contract length because we’re partners — the City of Ithaca and Cornell University,” said Alderperson Jorge DeFendini ’22 in an interview with The Sun. “You don’t tell your partner: ‘Talk to me again in 20 years.’ You talk about what you can do right now. And right now they are telling us to go away.”

With around 70 students, faculty and community members in attendance, the rally included chants for the University to provide “Big Red Bucks,” a reference to Cornell’s debit dining dollars, for City priorities such as the bus system and potholes. Ralliers also chanted, “Martha, Martha, this ain’t fair, time for you to pay your share.”

After circling Ho Plaza, the organizers proceeded to College Avenue where they stopped at the entrance to the University, blocking traffic. Multiple organizers​​ delivered speeches criticizing the University and calling for the Common Council to reject the current deal at Wednesday’s meeting. 

Alderperson Tiffany Kumar ’24 spoke to The Sun about the upcoming Common Council meeting and said the deal does not have enough votes to pass. She feels the Common Council was not given proper time to review the memorandum because they are discussing a new initiative to manage homeless encampments on city property that comes after months of negotiations. 

“I am pretty confident that even if we don’t have a vote to say no [on Cornell’s proposed PILOT contributions], we definitely have the votes to table it,” Kumar said, “Everybody on council is pretty confused as to why we only have five days before the vote from when we heard about the deal.”

Wednesday’s Common Council meeting will prove consequential as to whether negotiations stall again. Despite Mayor Lewis’ support, multiple alderpersons expressed intentions to vote against the agreement. 

“Cornell needs to pay up,” said Nick Wilson ’26, a student organizer who occupied Day Hall over Cornell’s partnership with Starbucks in May. “Cornell’s great because Ithaca’s supplies a wonderful community and a neighborhood for us to exist in, and we’re responsible to hold up our end of that bargain.”

Henry Fernandez ’27 and Marisa Aratingi ’27 contributed reporting.