This is part one of a series about Mayor Svante Myrick’s first three years in office.
Why I shop downtown — Carmen
[fvplayer src=”https://vimeo.com/114801195″ loop=”true” mobile=”https://vimeo.com/114801195″]
Ithaca, N.Y. — Mayor Svante Myrick said he has led a “complete revolution” of Ithaca’s government over the last three years that has both transformed the city for the better and triggered an occasionally fierce backlash.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Voice on Tuesday, Myrick outlined his plans for 2015; addressed whether he plans to run for reelection (short answer: it’s too soon to say); and said that Ithaca is thriving under his administration.
“The last three years have been transformational. We couldn’t just slowly evolve — we needed to have a complete revolution in the way we did business here. And we did,” Myrick said.
Myrick, 27, said he has pushed forward a wide-reaching swath of disruptive policy changes — from zoning codes to Commons construction to trash collection — that have generated heightened attention around the office of Ithaca mayor.
Myrick said much of the backlash is the natural reaction to the extent and scale of his initiatives.
“Revolutions are tumultuous. They are bumpy,” he said.
“You want to do one thing that’s completely different from the way business has been done, it’s going to be tricky,” Myrick said. “You want to do 15 things that are different, it’s going to be hard to pull off. And that’s what’s happened in the last three years.”
Asked which changes he was referring to, Myrick said he didn’t just have one in mind. “Pick your poison,” he said.
What is the Myrick-led “transformation” of Ithaca?
Here are how the mayor defines the primary components of the city government’s “transformation”:
1 — Growing the city’s tax base by encouraging development with new zoning
Since Myrick was elected, the city has approved two major overhauls of its zoning policy: one in Collegetown and one for downtown Ithaca.
Though controversial for various reasons (more on this later), both changes have led to well-documented surges in building and construction activity.
2 — New fees for big landlords, universities
Ithaca has implemented two major new fees that have altered the structure of the city’s budget: the stormwater fee and the sidewalk fee.
Shepherded through council by Myrick, these new policies allow the city to get an increasing share of its budget from the big box stores and from the universities, like Cornell, that would otherwise contribute far less to the overall budget. Homeowners, by contrast, are now paying less, according to Myrick.
“It’s more fair, more appropriate,” Myrick said of the new system.
3 — Streamlining Ithaca government to avoid big cuts to personnel
Ithaca reduced the size of its government mostly through retirements by about 8 percent in 2012. Myrick has touted streamlining initiatives, including the merger of the planning and building departments — though this move has been criticized by some in City Hall — and of the chamberlain and controller’s office.
These initiatives have prevented the city from more painful personnel cuts, Myrick said.
A small but telling example of streamlining, Myrick said, can be found in the city’s trash collection. “We were picking up trash and heading to the dumps half-full,” Myrick said, so the city shifted from collecting trash five days a week to doing so four days a week.
“Something like that saves you money, saves you time,” Myrick said — even if it engendered some negative reactions.
4 — New level of aggressiveness with state and federal grants
Myrick said he has pursued state and federal grants with more avidity and success than previous administrations.
Overall, more than $20 million has gone to city agencies from Albany or Washington, D.C., under his administration.
Myrick’s role in pushing through changes
Alderperson Seph Murtagh, who supports the effort to encourage growth in the city’s urban core, said that Myrick did not single-handedly implement the policies mentioned above.
But the mayor did play an instrumental role as a “facilitator” in getting the policies in place, Murtagh said.
“There were a lot of people involved in these changes,” Murtagh says, “but the mayor has definitely provided a vision.”
Have the policies been successful?
First consider what we’ll call Data Set Number 1:
Tompkins County has the lowest unemployment rate in the state. The Ithaca’s Business Index (which measures local economic signs like home sales and building permits) is at an all-time high. The city budget for 2015 lowered the tax rate for the first time in years.
Now consider what we’ll call Data Set Number 2:
Poverty in Tompkins County remains above 17 percent, according to federal statistics. Local food pantries have reported increases in demand. The cost of housing has only continued its upward climb under the mayor’s tenure.
In the interview with The Voice, Myrick pointed to the first set of numbers. He noted that when he took office the city was looking at a major $3 million budget shortfall, and that growing the pie enabled City Hall to pass the decreased tax rate even while increasing spending on services.
“We’ve been successful in a lot of ways,” Myrick said.
“We bounced back up while bringing the tax rate lower, which is great for families who own homes in the city.”
Republican critic on Mayor Myrick
Others, however, look to the second set of numbers. Henry Kramer, vice-chair of the Tompkins County Republicans, said Myrick had failed Ithaca on a number of fronts and derided the notion that Myrick would take a measure of credit for the city’s unemployment rate.
The universities are the overriding factor in local growth, Kramer said. “If you live here you know that’s the way the economy is driven in this town,” he said.
Kramer said the mayor’s emphasis on encouraging tourism and hotel construction will only lead to low-paying jobs. A volunteer at the food bank in Brooktondale twice a month, Kramer said he is tired of seeing hard-working, gainfully employed people in Tompkins County rely on donations to make ends meet.
Myrick, however, said a spike in requests for food stamps began in 2010 and predates his administration. He pointed to his extensive work with the food bank to help poor residents in Tompkins County, and said the census data showed artificially high poverty rates for Ithaca because students are listed as having incomes of $0.
(Myrick also called the ongoing problem of poverty a reason for more implementation of progressive policies.)
Also in response to Kramer, Myrick cited his support for the Cornell Business and Technology Park and the Rev incubator downtown in downtown Ithaca as examples of his support for local business.
Gary Ferguson, of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, spoke highly of the mayor’s support for growth in Ithaca. Additionally, Tom Schryver, the executive director of the Center for Regional Economic Advancement at Cornell, said that Myrick had been “very supportive” and helpful in the creation of Rev.
As for the continued increase in rental prices, Myrick promised that time will vindicate his policies.
“What happens in the market right now is a product of what was built or not built years ago,” he said.
Myrick said the increase in housing prices under his administration is the result of a slowdown in building caused by previous policy.
“The zoning that we passed this year affects what’s built next year … which will come on the market the year after that,” he said. “And that’s what shifts supply and demand.”
With the recent zoning changes approved by his administration, Myrick said he has “no doubt” that new student housing in Collegetown will soak up demand.
“Rental prices for the rest of us will go down,” he said.
Others, however, are not so sure.
Coming next on IthacaVoice.com: The blowback to Mayor Myrick’s ‘transformation’ of Ithaca