ITHACA, N.Y.— Demonstrators crowded Cornell University’s Ho Plaza Monday night to demand the school further increase its yearly contribution to the city, days after the city and school announced a new 20-year deal outlining a $4 million voluntary payment from Cornell.
Approximately 150 students, professors, elected officials and residents gathered to urge members of the Common Council to reject the memorandum of understanding (MOU) and force negotiators back to the table as budget season approaches.
Cornell Professor Russell Rickford said the university has presented itself to Ithaca as a “benevolent and generous dad” in terms of what it calls “generous contributions to the community.”
He rejected that and said the relationship between Cornell, Ithaca and Tompkins County is more complex than that, and likened the university to a “deadbeat dad.”
“They could do far more,” Rickford said. “They must do far more. And if it’s going to happen, it’ll happen because of pressure from below.”
Demonstrators marched in the street, chanting and singing, towards a central point on campus just minutes from Ho Plaza and adjacent to the Cornell location of Ithaca Beer. Two Cornell Police Department vehicles monitored the crowd, with their emergency lights on, slowly following behind.
At this point, Common Council members Jorge DeFendini, a Cornell alumnus, and Tiffany Kumar, a student at Cornell, delivered impassioned speeches through a megaphone, while the remaining 50 or so demonstrators occupied the road, blocking traffic without a permit.
Police officers exited their vehicles about 20 minutes before demonstrators dispersed without confrontation or any arrests made for trespassing or blocking traffic.
Cornell Professor of 41 years, Risa Liberwitz, worked on the Cornell City Relations Study Commission where she was tasked with researching the university’s relationship with the City of Ithaca back in 1995, the year the first MOU was created.
“Cornell gets all the services from Ithaca, it benefits from being here in this beautiful place,” Professor Risa Lieberwitz said in her speech at the protest. “It’s a mutual relationship. And for mutuality to work, Cornell needs to pay its fair share.”
The Make Cornell Pay Coalition, the group responsible for formalizing the united front and leading organizing efforts for the protest, was formed by the Ithaca chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
Nathan Sitaraman, chair of the coalition and event organizer, told The Ithaca Voice the group wants members of the Common Council to vote against the proposed MOU and counteroffer with options that address “some of the more serious problems” with the proposed deal.
Coalition members, as Sitaraman explained, are not advocating for a full-scale renegotiation. They believe this approach is not in the city’s best interest when it comes to the Common Council’s ability to effectively discuss, create and approve the 2024 budget, where knowing Cornell’s contribution is crucial.
“We’re trying to strike that balance between wanting to iron out some of the rough points of this initial deal,” Sitaraman said. “But still expedite the process as much as possible to get the city the money it needs.”
Mayor Laura Lewis stressed the importance of having accurate figures from Cornell for the Common Council’s discussion, deliberation and final vote on the 2024 budget in early November in an interview with The Ithaca Voice.
She said all city departments have submitted their respective budgets for 2024 and in order to proceed, a deal had to be made.
“It would be very difficult to not know if we have $4 million that’s needed in the 2024 budget,” Lewis explained. “And that’s an understatement.”
Sitaraman also voiced concerns about the duration of the deal because the amount outlined in the MOU is “loosely based on Cornell’s economic footprint, like how much they [would be] paying in property taxes,” Sitaraman said.
“Cornell is going to grow in 20 years, in terms of property value,” he said. When the MOU was last amended back in 2003, “it was a good deal at first.” But after 20 years, in 2023, it was “universally considered a bad deal.”
Sitaraman predicted a similar situation would play out with the proposed MOU if the 21-year deal is approved.
Whether or not the new MOU gets approved by members of the Common Council this week, Sitaraman said the coalition intends to continue to push Cornell to increase its contributions to TCAT, the city’s bus system, and to the Ithaca City School District (ICSD).
“The TCAT budget shortages are directly making life very difficult for so many people across the city and it’s a huge source of frustration,” Sitaraman said.
The coalition had support from various student activist organizations including Cornell Progressives, Climate Justice Cornell and the People’s Organizing Collective. Students were tasked with outreach for the demonstration and spread the word among peers and professors.
Cornell Progressives’ Outreach Chair Kieran Adams told The Ithaca Voice in an interview that students recognize the importance of amplifying the voices of Ithacans.
“Even though we are residents for the time being, it’s important to listen to the long-term residents and what they feel is a fair deal,” he said. “And from what we gathered, Ithacans aren’t entirely happy with what Cornell is offering.”
Cornell’s tax-exempt status allows the university, and similar institutions, to avoid paying property tax on their real estate holdings. In Ithaca, this amounts to approximately $33 million in annual uncollected property taxes. PILOT agreements between educational institutions, notably Ivy League universities, and their host cities are commonly outlined in an MOU.
In 1995, Cornell entered into annual Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) agreements and collaborated with city officials to create the first MOU, which is set to expire in 2024.
The document was last amended in 2003, at which time Cornell agreed to the current arrangement to make one annual voluntary payment of $1.6 million to the city in mid-July, with 20% of those funds marked unrestricted.
The approaching expiration date of the current MOU prompted negotiations for a more contemporary agreement that accounts for inflation and changes in the economy.
This year, Lewis said, the institution has already paid the city its annual contribution of $1.6 million and agreed during negotiations to pay an additional $2.4 million for the 2023 budget.
A joint statement was released by the offices of Lewis and Cornell University President Martha Pollack Sept. 14 to announce an agreement had been reached.
It outlined Cornell’s deal with the city to voluntarily contribute $4 million, which is $2.4 million more than it pays now under the existing MOU set to expire in 2024. The amount will be adjusted on a yearly basis for inflation until the agreement expires in 21 years, in 2044.
Eighty percent of those funds are unrestricted, which gives city officials full rein to decide how it’s used. In the expiring MOU, 40% of Cornell’s contributions are unrestricted.
Lewis told The Ithaca Voice that Cornell’s willingness to increase the city’s unrestricted funds was “compelling” in the city’s negotiation team’s decision to agree to the compromise.
“It doubles the amount of a big sum of money the city has the opportunity to determine where it is used best,” she said.
The deal was met with a great deal of public scrutiny, with residents, activists and city leaders urging Cornell to increase its contributions to the community it benefits from. Individuals that oppose the agreement cite the contributions of other Ivy League institutions to their respective host cities, along with Cornell’s now $10 billion endowment fund.
Critics, as well as individuals who attended the demonstration, have criticized city negotiators for acting in secret and without the input of residents.
Lewis said the insinuation the deal was made in a “back room” is “very far from the truth.”
While she understands there are people who would prefer to see a higher number, she said she knows “there are also residents who see the increased voluntary contribution of $1.6 million to $4 million as a substantial increase, which is also my perspective.”
The deal is contingent on the approval of both the university’s board of trustees and the city’s Common Council, which is scheduled to vote on the new MOU at a meeting on Wednesday.
Payments from Cornell to the city will resume immediately if the new MOU gets approved by both entities, which would fill the existing $1.6 million gap in the 2024 budget the city will face if an MOU agreement is not met before it is forced to approve an incomplete budget.
The first round of discussions between the city negotiating committee and Cornell stalled over a $1.8 million gap in contribution offers according to previous reporting from The Ithaca Voice. according to a statement from Lewis’ office released Sept. 7.
Lewis released a statement Sept. 7, alleging that university negotiators walked away from the table after they would not offer to contribute more than $3.15 million, which is almost $2 million less than the city’s counter and almost $5 million less than its original proposal of $8 million.