ITHACA, N.Y. –– The City of Ithaca Common Council passed the final 2021 budget last Wednesday night, and with that defunded six Ithaca Police Department positions and raised the tax rate for city residents among other things.

Read the full 2021 budget here

The $79,267,663 adopted spending plan Wednesday night is overall lower than the budget for 2020, as financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic continues to plague the local economy. In turn, the Common Council reached an agreement over the months-long budget negoation process to slightly increase property taxes, while thinning out department budgets across the board.

The $79 million budget for 2021 sets the city tax rate at $11.85 per $1,000 of taxable valuation, an 8 cent increase from 2020. The increase passed 10-1 during the meeting with all alderpersons voting in favor, and only Mayor Svante Myrick voting against.

“I voted in opposition because I believe we’re raising the tax rate too high,” Myrick said. “It’s too unsettled a time and there’s too many Ithacans who are unsure what 2021 is going to look like for them, and we’re waiting for that federal aid that we need.”

So what does that mean for the residents of Ithaca? In 2019, the median price for a home in the City of Ithaca was $235,000 according to the Tompkins County Department of Assessment which means a person whose home is valued at the median will see a little over $18 increase in their property tax bill.

2020 saw a growth in home values in the city, and with that the overall tax levy – or revenue brought in by property taxes – has also grown this year bringing the total revenue for the upcoming calendar year to $26,384,571, an almost $2 million increase.

Most major amendments to the 2021 budget were hammered out during previous meetings, but the last contentious piece to figure out Wednesday was how many, if any, of the eight Ithaca Police Department positions defunded in the the mayor’s proposed budget were going to be reinstated.

Police, defunded

The eight positions on the chopping block are vacancies that have gone unfilled for the entirety of 2020, due to hiring difficulties and lack of qualified candidates. The issue of whether to reintroduce funding into the budget in order to keep those positions available was one that saw a split in the council, as alderpersons had difficulty deciding how effective additional officers would be as public outrage continues to fester regarding racial injustice and policing.

At the last budget meeting on Oct. 29, no decision was reached on where the police budget stood and the public comment period kicking off the meeting was rife with anger coming from citizens demanding the police be defunded.

“I don’t know why the City of Ithaca would want to clench so hard onto the status quo when we could be at the forefront of leaning into transformative justice,” resident Veronica Pillar said. “We could really change our approach to crime.”

Pillar was just one of nine people who echoed the same message.

During Wednesday night’s public comment, Tammy Baker from Family and Children’s Services added to the conversation, outlining how IPD in it’s current form has made her job more difficult, and asked that council consider funding new hires.

“As a street outreach worker I can’t enforce rules, ordinance or law,” she said. “Law enforcement are the only ones that can enforce the rules –– the fewer officers available, less enforcement is possible. To have a safe vibrant community, we need to have police officers who aren’t burned out, feel supported and can show up for the community.”

Deb Mohlenhoff, the 5th Ward alderperson and chair for the budget proceedings, implored her colleagues on Wednesday to hear the needs of social workers such as Baker.

“If some of these organizations are coming forward and they’re telling us its been increasingly difficult for them to do that one piece of the job that we said is crucial to this reform, then I think we need to figure out how to find some sort of middle ground and support both sides of that equation until we work through the reform,” she said.

Ultimately after a back and forth discussion spanning two budget proceedings, council came to the resolution to add back two police officers of the eight at stake to the budget, meaning that at least in part, the police department was defunded. The resolution was proposed by Alderperson Laura Lewis and passed 8-2.

The resolution passed with Cynthia Brock, 1st Ward, George McGonigal, 1st Ward, Seph Murtagh, 2nd Ward, Donna Fleming, 3rd Ward, Rob Gearhart, 3rd Ward, Graham Kerslick, 4th Ward, Lewis, 5th Ward and Deb Mohlenhoff, 5th Ward voting for and only Ducson Nguyen, 2nd Ward, and Stephen Smith, 4th Ward, voting against.

Other personnel cuts

The Department of Public Works had layoffs this year –– an executive assistant and the DPW manager of fiscal operations were cut as part of the 2021 budget.

The department also lost unoccupied positions for Building & Grounds Maintenance Worker, Working Supervisor for Sign Shop, Maintainer, two Light Equipment Operators, two Laborers and a Motor Equipment Mechanic.

Moreover, the Ithaca Fire Department had some of their vacant positions defunded in this year’s budget. IFD saw two firefighter positions and a deputy chief position cut as part of the city’s effort to save money. The deputy chief position was cut only one year after council fought to have the position added.

Community programs see funding bump

As part of the Mayor’s approved budget that was granted final approval was a bump in funding for Southside Community Center. In 2020 SSCC was awarded $151,789 from the City of Ithaca, and in 2021 will be receiving a tidy sum of $200,000 to support their programming, including socially-distanced childcare through Black Hands Universal.

Council, in their negotiations, strayed from the Mayor’s proposed budget in favor of giving a funding boost to the Greater Ithaca Activities Center. GIAC, as part of the 2021 budget, has been allocated money to add a part-time position. 

Other city budgets

To end the meeting, the Ithaca Area Wastewater Treatment Plant Budget was approved as well as the Sidewalk Improvement District Assessments, Budget and Schedule of Work for 2021.

Common Council is set to meet again on Wednesday, Dec. 2 at 6 p.m. via Zoom.

Anna Lamb

Anna Lamb is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at alamb@ithacavoice.com