Ithaca, N.Y. – Despite repeated attempts, Ithaca officials have failed to get Cornell to increase its voluntary contribution to the city. Cornell has said it is stretched too thin to give Ithaca more money.

On Wednesday, Common Council passed a stormwater policy that it said would raise $800,000 — about $130,000 of which is estimated to come from Cornell.

Mayor Svante Myrick said in an interview after the 8-2 vote that he did not expect Cornell to respond to its new $130,000 payment by decreasing the amount it chooses to allocate to the city.

Cornell currently gives Ithaca $1.2 million through its Memorandum of Understanding, so the new stormwater policy — though not directly related — would translate into a roughly 10 percent increase in the MOU.

Myrick said that the stormwater policy does not target Cornell unfairly — though school officials disagree with this characterization — and that the university would therefore have no reason to retaliate.

“We feel like because this fee is the same formula for everyone throughout the city, it doesn’t constitute unfair treatment of Cornell,” Myrick said.

“I think they would have no legal basis” for cutting back the MOU, he said.

A reporter pointed out that the university would not need a legal justification to change its voluntary payment to the city.

“But they would need, in my mind anyway, at least an ethical basis,” Myrick said. “And there is none.”

It’s unclear if the university would agree with him. Cornell has opposed the policy approved by Common Council Wednesday night that creates a new system for managing and paying for the damage done by stormwater.

One of its major purposes is to provide incentives for Ithacans to reduce their runoff. The resolution agreed upon last night noted that climate change is causing a significant increase in precipitation in the U.S. Northeast.

The plan, which will not be implemented for several months, charges single-family homes $48 a year and charges bigger housing complexes and commercial property for their runoff based on a complicated formula. Tax credits are available for those who reduce their runoff and its effect on surrounding properties.

Though $48 will be tacked onto homeowners’ bills, city officials behind the plan hope that the stormwater plan will reduce most families’ overall tax burden. That’s in part because tax-exempt properties, which don’t contribute to the city’s tax base, will be responsible for paying into the stormwater budget.

The resolution passed last night explains this well.

Before last night’s policy was passed, Ithaca paid for its stormwater collection “primarily from taxes, thus omitting tax-exempt properties from participation in the funding of the stormwater programming and infrastructure needed to handle runoff generated by such properties,” the approved resolution stated.

Cornell, which is the largest of these tax-exempt properties, has expressed strong reservations about the policy.

The university has told Ithaca repeatedly that it does not agree with the way the system is set up.

In an Ithaca Times article titled, “Cornell Balks at Ithaca Stormwater Charge,” Cornell’s Water and Wastewater Manager Chris Bordlemay was quoted as criticizing the charges and fees proposed under the stormwater policy.

Similarly, The Ithaca Journal reported that Cornell’s Vice President for Facilities Services asked the city to “slow down consideration” of the stormwater plan.

The official, KyuJung Whang, told council that Cornell “has an extensive runoff-management system that ensures only 15 percent of stormwater from campus ends up in city pipes,” according to The Journal.

The mayor, however, stood by the new policy. Myrick said that because rainwater from Cornell rolls into the city’s domain, thereby straining the city budget, “we’ve decided instead of paying for that through taxes, the people who produce more stormwater should pay more.”

“They’re only going to pay more because they generate more stormwater,” Myrick said of Cornell.

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.