ITHACA, NY – The question of whether or not Cornell pays its fair share is a well-worn one in Ithaca — but it’s less often that the same question comes up in regarding Ithaca College.

In recent years, the Town of Ithaca has been in talks with IC about paying a contribution to the town for fire protection services. According to Ithaca Town Supervisor Bill Goodman, calls to Ithaca College make up 20 to 25 percent of fire department calls in the town — and fire protection makes up around 50 percent of what taxpayers pay to the town as part of their property tax bill.

IC currently does not pay anything for fire protection for the main campus, though they do have a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) agreement on the College Circle apartments which provides some contribution, Goodman said.

Goodman said that in recent conversations with IC President Tom Rochon, it’s become clear that the college is unwilling to pay for fire protection services. So the town is now considering the possibility of removing the college from its fire protection district.

While College campuses paying their municipality for fire protection isn’t a certainty, it is not uncommon either. Goodman says that the reason that the city is pushing to get a contribution is the because fire protection takes up such a large part of the town’s taxable income. About 40 percent of the town’s property is tax exempt, with Ithaca College and the hospital being the biggest factors.

The town currently pays about $3,225,000 to the city for fire protection from Ithaca Fire Department, which is about one-third of the total tax money that goes to the fire department. Each Town of Ithaca taxpayer pays about $3.30 per $1,000 of their property’s assessed value toward this part of the tax levy.

It’s very early in the process and no decisions have been made yet. If the town does move forward, the change would require a public hearing and a public referendum vote.

If IC were removed from the town’s fire district, they would likely have to contract with the city’s fire department directly for coverage. Another possible, but unlikely scenario would be for the college to form its own department.

Ithaca College’s response

UPDATE: Ithaca College President Tom Rochon issued the following statement on the issue:

[su_note]It is important to note that Ithaca College pays taxes on properties that it owns that are not central to its educational mission. More significantly, the college already makes voluntary payments to the Town of Ithaca in lieu of taxes—and has been doing so for the past 13 years.

After Ithaca College took over the College Circle Apartments complex from a private developer in 2002, the college entered into a PILOT (Payment In Lieu of Taxes) agreement with the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency, so that Town of Ithaca, Tompkins County, and Ithaca City School District would continue to receive tax revenues.

Without these voluntary payments, College Circle would generate no property tax revenue. In Fiscal Year 2016, these voluntary payments totaled $296,567, which included $33,424 to the town. The annual amount paid to the town has doubled since the PILOT agreement was signed.

In addition, though not part of the PILOT agreement, Ithaca College has been voluntarily paying a Fire Tax Levy on College Circle Apartments. In Fiscal Year 2016, these payments totaled $113,109.38 to the Town of Ithaca. Once again, the annual amount paid has doubled since payments began.

To the best of our knowledge, no college or university—nor any other nonprofit institution—has ever been denied critical, safety-related governmental services as a result of their tax-exempt status, and there is no basis under New York State law for the Town of Ithaca to do so. Any threat by the town to refuse to provide fire protection for the thousands of students and employees who live and work on the Ithaca College campus would not only be an extraordinary departure from well-established state law, but also tragically misguided, and the college would vigorously challenge it in court.[/su_note]

Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.