In October of 2007, former Cornell University President David Skorton announced that Cornell would commit $20 million to Tompkins County in addition to the small annual payments it makes in lieu of taxes. Several months later, Cornell had already backtracked a bit on their offer by stating the purpose of the $20 million was to aid the Cornell community who lived off campus, not the general community. Still, the plan was to spend $2 million per year for the following 10 years; around half the money would go towards affordable housing and around half would go towards transportation. 

Cornell has not carried out its commitment to affordable housing. It has contributed a bit to the Community Housing Development Fund which was developed in 2009 as a joint venture between the City of Ithaca, Cornell University and Tompkins County. The fund gives grants to housing developments so that they can create affordable housing. So far this housing fund has awarded $3.7 million total over 8 years, with Cornell only paying about $1.5 million. To be clear, this is $1 million+ in total over 8 years, not the $1 million per year they committed to. Cornell’s contributions toward transportation have been more impressive. It has upped its contributions to TCAT, mostly in the form of subsidized bus passes for Cornell community members, and it offers subsidized Ithaca Carshare memberships to Cornell community members. Perhaps a logical next step would be contributing to the local roads Cornell community members drive on. 

In 2014, Cornell’s excuse for not contributing enough to this $20 million was the financial crisis. In 2018, is that still their excuse? Or are they waiting for the next financial crisis in order to have a new excuse?

Cornell has only been able to amass its wealth because it is largely tax exempt. Wealthy people contribute money and property to the school and write these donations off of their taxes, essentially pulling money away from where it may be more needed. Cornell’s current endowment is higher than it has ever been at $6.8 billion dollars (Sept 2017) and it does not have to pay taxes on the profit it makes from that endowment. The value of Cornell’s endowment is small compared to the value of its real estate in New York, the United States, and around the world. Cornell does not have to pay property taxes on the majority of its property. If it had to pay taxes based on its local untaxed property value, it would be paying around $70 million annually (combined city, county, and school district taxes) instead of the $2+ million in voluntary contributions it does pay. I am not arguing Cornell should pay $70 million annually; it is a public good, and it takes care of itself to some degree. But it should pay considerably more than it does.  

On at least one list, Ithaca was ranked one of the most expensive places to live in the country. This is unfortunate, to put it mildly, for the people in the area who wdo not have high incomes (and there are many people working for Cornell at very low hourly rates who fall into this category). Cornell contributes to this high cost of living in at least three ways: It does not contribute enough to the tax base; property owners are forced to pay higher taxes and these expenses are pushed onto renters.  It creates supply and demand issues when the student population does not match with available housing supply. Cornell’s student population has been rapidly expanding over the past 10 years. It artificially inflates the costs of its own student housing, which influences the rental market. (Ithaca College, of course, similarly contributes toward the high cost of living, but it is a fraction of Cornell’s size)

In a time of increasing homelessness and even rising death from homelessness during our harsh Ithaca winters, I find it unacceptable Cornell has not honored its agreement to contribute more to affordable housing in some way. In 2007, Cornell chose to make this $20 million contribution instead of simply increasing the small annual payments it was making in lieu of taxes. Cornell refuses to pay this small unallocated fee increase because it does not feel this is a good enough PR move for the University. Cornell’s annual operating budget is 2.3 billion (2017-2018), which is over 30 times the size of the City of Ithaca’s budget. Cornell, of course, never has to do anything, and does not like to be told how to spend its money. But it can be held accountable for its economic impact in the area, both the good and the bad.

Caroline Byrne


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