Update (6:20 p.m.): Ithaca Mayor Laura Lewis announced during her opening statement at Common Council Wednesday that council members will not vote on the Memorandum of Understanding between Cornell University and the city until October.
If the tabling is approved, a special meeting of Common Council will be held Oct. 11 to discuss the MOU further and vote whether to approve or reject it.
“This will allow a window of opportunity for continued public input and for Common Council members to communicate with constituents,” Lewis said.
Alderperson Robert Cantelmo will move to table the matter after the discussion is held Wednesday, instead of moving for a vote, Lewis said.
Wednesday’s meeting will also include a discussion of the significant changes to the proposed homeless encampment policy. The meeting can be watched here.
Original story (4:32 p.m.):
ITHACA, N.Y.—Members of Ithaca’s Common Council are divided heading into a potentially momentous Wednesday meeting to discuss the future of Cornell University’s financial relationship with the city, outlined in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).
Statements gathered from council members by The Ithaca Voice reflect two main points of concern: the 21-year length of the proposed MOU, and the $4 million annual contribution from Cornell.
Although the city’s negotiating team and Cornell reached an agreement on Sept. 14, the MOU is contingent on approval from the Common Council and Cornell’s Board of Trustees.
The deal makes it so 80% of the university’s contributions are unrestricted, which gives city administrators full control over the use of $3.2 million of the $4 million.
If the details of the proposed MOU are rejected by members of Common Council, the city will be faced with the challenge of creating a budget for 2024 without any contribution from Cornell.
The budget is set to be discussed during regularly scheduled budget meetings throughout October, and typically, is approved by a vote held early in November at the Common Council meeting.
In response to a request for comment sent to each council member, several said they would not support the MOU unless it was significantly restructured, with most focusing on the currently proposed length of the deal. Others said the city’s need for money is too great to turn down Cornell’s offer as budget season approaches.
Alderperson Cynthia Brock was the first elected to publicly voice her opposition to the deal using the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, to explain her reasoning.
“I have informed the mayor that I am not supporting this deal based on the proposed terms,” Brock wrote. “I would like to see a shorter duration of 5-7 years, a higher contribution, and an index of inflation plus 2% at the least.”
Like Brock, Alderperson George McGonigal said he thinks the deal should expire sooner than 2044 to allow for renegotiation. But if his colleagues disagree, he maintained he would still consider supporting the agreement at its current length because of the city’s financial needs.
“The city’s hungry for money. Cornell offered us soup, and we turned it down. Now they’re offering soup and a sandwich,” McGonigal said. “Some people want a Friday fish fry, with two sides and a drink. But this is about the short-term.”
Alderperson Donna Fleming voiced similar sentiments, and said in an email provided by The Ithaca Voice, she would be supporting the proposal.
She acknowledged that, ideally, she would also like a shorter time frame for negotiations and more money annually from the university. But Fleming also mentioned that in conversations with Cornell representatives, she has been told that this is the “best offer that Cornell will make.”
“The City, the Town, the County and the school district have no leverage, except to appeal to moral and social duty and to the fact that it is in Cornell’s best interest to support safe, effective, and attractive services and facilities in order to attract a strong faculty and administrators,” Fleming said.
Both council members Jorge DeFendini and Tiffany Kumar have remained adamant on their distaste for the agreement since MOU discussions began, citing that the university has the ability to contribute more financially to the city.
They attended and spoke at a demonstration at Cornell’s Ho Plaza earlier this week, which was organized by the Make Cornell Pay Coalition and the Ithaca chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
“I won’t be voting for this deal,” DeFendini told The Ithaca Voice. “Frankly, I think we can get more of a financial commitment from them.”
Without an agreement, members of the Common Council will have to address how to “square away the budget “ this year without a financial commitment from Cornell.
“I won’t sugar coat it, it’s really tough,” DeFendini said. “The alternative, though, is a commitment I feel locks us in place and sets us up for sustained financial hardship over the next 19 to 20 years.”
DeFendini, like Brock and McGonigal, is critical of the duration of the agreement, along with Alderperson Kris Haines-Sharp.
“A solution is staring us in the face,” DeFendini said. “A greater financial commitment from the university, one that doesn’t take two decades to renegotiate.”
Alderperson Ducson Nguyen said he understands why some have been critical of the deal, citing built-up feelings of “frustration” over the university’s financial contributions to the city over the last 20 years.
“I don’t enjoy defending Cornell, but I think the deal is pretty good and finally brings the Ithaca-Cornell relationship closer in line with other Ivies and their municipalities,” Nguyen said. “I’m not personally willing to blow a massive hole in the budget because of the assumption that any deal Cornell agrees to must in principle be bad.”
Nguyen said he felt the deal came together because of the city’s press release earlier this month that applied pressure to negotiations and reignited some of the community’s “outrage toward Cornell’s previously pitiful contribution.”
Haines-Sharp said she believes the matter requires more input from the public before it is sent to a vote. She said that tabling the issue until October is the best course of action, in her mind.
Alderperson Phoebe Brown said she has yet to decide how she will vote and Alderperson Rob Gearhart did not respond to a request for comment. The Ithaca Voice reached out to each member of Cornell’s Board of Trustees leadership, including chair Kraig Kayser and co-vice chairs Katrina James, Gary Davis and Peggy Koenig but received no responses.