This year’s citywide municipal election sparks conversations about the Colleges and its their position in Geneva between stakeholders, constituents, residents and even college students.
Hobart and William Smith Colleges play a vital role in the City of Geneva and impact the lives of all residents, especially amid a crucial election cycle that may dictate the future of this learning community and rest of the city.
Conversations surrounding the Colleges and its students have circulated throughout Ward 1, where the campus resides.
The City of Geneva is segmented into six wards that represent the entire city. Each ward selects one city councilor.
Ward 1 encompasses from as south as Snell Road past Houghton House, northward to Hamilton Street and all of Pulteney Street and South Main Street respectively.
Recently, Jim Meaney of the Geneva Believer noted that the Colleges possess 13 properties from 577 to 775 S. Main St. that overlook Seneca Lake and are collectively valuated at an estimated $7,309,000.
If such properties were not designated under nonprofit status, the city could collect more than $316,000 in taxes, with roughly $125,000 returning back to Geneva.
As a nonprofit entity, the Colleges are exempt from paying property taxes and instead offer a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes).
Although the institution is not required to issue a PILOT, former President Mark D. Gearan negotiated a deal starting in 2012 with the City of Geneva as part of a 10-year, $1.7 million commitment that was established to help balance the city’s budget.
An estimated PILOT that ranges from $170,000 to $200,000 is paid annually from the Colleges to the City of Geneva.
A new agreement will need to be renegotiated and signed sometime before 2021 by those elected to office, particularly the mayor.
Despite the Colleges’ contribution of the annual PILOT and expansion of economic growth throughout the city, candidates during this election are still calling out the Colleges to carry more financial weight and ease the burden for taxpayers.
CANDIDATES AND THE COLLEGES
One of those candidates is Mark Salvatore Pitifer ’82 who graduated from Hobart College and seeks the top seat as mayor on behalf of the Republican Party.
Although he has been endorsed by the Republican Party, Pitifer is registered as an independent and seeks to bring balance and unity to Geneva if elected to office.
Pitifer is running against Steve Valentino, the current Ward 3 city counselor who contends to become Geneva’s next mayor on behalf of the Democratic Party. As longtime friends, Pitifer and Valentino are interconnected through the city and remain close. Both wished to run a respectful race without slander.
In a recent conversation as a part of the Geneva Candidate Snapshot series produced by FingerLakes1.com, Pitifer explained that his transition from attending classes at the Colleges to paying taxes in Geneva was a humbling experience that presented alternative perspectives to him.
“Our taxes are sky high and one of the big reasons is because Hobart and William Smith Colleges owns all this property that cannot be taxed,” Pitifer said.
As mayor, Pitifer hopes that the Colleges will continue sharing their generosity toward Geneva while remaining cognizant of the heightened tax burden that affects the city’s middle and lower-middle class.
Despite his charge for the Colleges to consider the struggles of the working class, Pitifer is still filled with the most pride when reminiscing about his memories at Hobart College.
After graduating 223rd out of 260 at Geneva High School, Pitifer attended Finger Lakes Community College and traveled to the Colleges’ campus to run on their track. That was when he encountered the famed Coach David J. Urick, who inspired him to eventually attend Hobart as a student athlete.
“If I can do this, you can do this; and my journey to Hobart College is nothing short of miraculous,” Pitifer stated.
Antonio Gomez, the Republican candidate for Ward 1, shares similar sentiments with Pitifer about the Colleges’ responsibility in bearing a greater financial burden for the community.
In contrast, on the same program, Ken Camera ’72 firmly backs his alma mater despite its vast control of tax-exempt land.
“I believe the Colleges are paying their way,” he stated.
Camera doubles down on not asking the Colleges to cover more costs for the city’s budget.
“I do believe that the problem can be solved but not by asking the Colleges for more money; it’s by asking people who don’t pay anything to pay something, and one of them is the town of Geneva,” he continued.
Gomez’s opposition during this election, Ward 1 Democratic candidate Tom Burrall, also discusses the Colleges and its students on the Geneva Candidate Snapshot series.
Burrall was quick to share that the key issue in his ward seems to be the presence of Hobart and William Smith college students.
“The key issues in my ward from standing on a lot of porches is what are (we) going to do about those darn college kids,” Burrall said.
Despite many residents informing Burrall about the nuisances that college students pose to Ward 1 residents, he also mentions that he can simply walk across the street and find that they are not bothersome for others.
“I think it should be because there are some noisemakers, both residents and on the other side with the students and I think they can be addressed with not a whole lot of effort, but we just have to be involved in the process,” Burrall said.
While campaigning, Burrall has learned that Vice President of Campus Life Robert Flowers has contributed in establishing better neighborhood and community relations.
One of the steps taken to ensure that the Colleges remain friendly, especially with its Ward 1 neighbors, has been mandating a meeting in the fall for all students that live off campus.
“I didn’t realize until a couple of taxpayers advised me that there is a mandatory meeting in the fall for all students who are living off campus,” Burrall stated.
As previously mentioned, Meaney of the Geneva Believer indicated that the Colleges own 13 properties along Seneca Lake on South Main Street that are collectively evaluated at an estimated $7,309,000. Burrall was asked whether the Colleges are obligated to financially contribute more to the city through additional taxes or an increase of the PILOT.
“The college is a business. The municipality is also a business. The college knows the income that it needs to generate their services. The municipality also knows the income or taxes that they need to provide the services to run our community. If an exempt institution can help us achieve those goals, then the municipality can also help the exempt institution in achieving their goals,” Burrall responded.
Although Burrall considers the annual PILOT allocation as a starting point, he expresses that it “needs to be continued” but also balances his comments by considering how the Colleges contribute beyond offering a payment in lieu of taxes.
“People do not realize that. Oh, the college is getting away with murder. Oh, they don’t pay taxes; and of course, that’s not true because they also pay property tax right now on some properties that they own in addition to what they’re giving the community in the form of the $200,000,” he added.
Burrall was also not shy in dismantling all of South Main Street’s parking problems.
“The South Main Street crosswalks are horrible, of course. The signage is not proper. It is inconsistent as far as the amount of space between the crosswalk and first parked car. They’re not lit. Night is partly dangerous, especially when there is parking on both sides,” he said.
Aside from criticizing the infrastructural faults of South Main Street, Burrall ponders how college students may contribute and accentuate the conflict more broadly.
“Perhaps the school is giving out more parking permits for students. I don’t know how many students are allowed to own a car and to keep that car on campus but perhaps that’s something that should be looked at,” Burrall stated.
Although conversations about the Colleges exist as constant talking points for Ward 1 candidates Gomez and Burrall, slates of other candidates, both Democrats and Republicans, have disclosed their own opinions about how the Colleges should be more culpable for the community’s future success.
The Candidates of Consequence
Amid politically charged conversations about the Colleges and their role in the City of Geneva as a tax contributor and potential neighborhood disruptor, a crucial election cycle continues, where at most one incumbent candidate shall be reelected to office across an open field of nine positions.
Camera, a Democrat, is the sole candidate seeking re-election as the Ward 4 City Councilor incumbent. He is running against Evelyn Naragon Buisch, the Ward 4 Republican-endorsed candidate, who does not have as much experience as Camera but is eager to learn if elected.
After graduating from Hobart College in 1972, Camera continued participating in community activism and local politics.
“I was always interested in what city government was doing,” Camera said.
Camera ran for a few city council races, once as a write-in candidate and a second time under the Republican Party until he won his first election eight years ago as a Democrat.
Jacqueline Augustine, a William Smith College ’99 graduate, columnist for the Finger Lakes Times and former city councilor shared her observations with The Herald about this upcoming election in relation to her fellow alumni.
Augustine explains that she was also involved downtown like Camera in the community but illuminates differences between their stories.
“While I accept that we all have attendance at HWS in common, I do think the routes to local government are different,” Augustine said.
Like Camera, Augustine was drawn to local politics as an undergraduate at the Colleges and ran and won as a candidate along her own party line.
“I was participating in meetings during my senior year and ran after graduation, after being drafted to run by members of the community. Because my views were not directly aligned with either party, I ran and won on a line of my own creation, not one of the two main parties,” she said.
Augustine believes that the Colleges’ campus environment helped spark an “independent spirit” for people like Camera and her, which allowed them both to rise above party affiliations early on during their respective political careers.
“Ken Camera took a similar route when he created the ‘Lake Party’ and used that as a way to get into local politics. I think that’s the kind of independent spirit that the Colleges foster,” Augustine added.
As for Pitifer, Augustine candidly shares that while she likes him and they are even related, she believes that he has not been honest about being a self-described “no party” candidate.
“I like Mark, and in full disclosure he’s my cousin, but as my recent column in the Finger Lakes Times on this subject pointed out, when he portrays himself as a ‘no party’ candidate, that is not something that rings true,” Augustine said.
Affiliations and loyalties in local politics are important to Augustine, as she took them seriously while serving in office; but she sees Pitifer as someone who cannot be characterized as an independent, despite saying otherwise.
“A ‘no party’ candidate would run independently, would not endorse and be endorsed by Republicans, and would be able to point out areas of disagreement with each party platform instead of taking on one group’s ideas,” she continued.
Ultimately, Augustine admits that while that she, Camera and Pitifer all walked along the same halls and sidewalks on campus, their respective presences on the city’s political scene starkly differs between Camera and Augustine versus Pitifer.
“So, I think the paths are similar in their origins but diverge in the methods and timeline of entering local politics. Both Ken and I attended lots of meetings and came to the podium to suggest and address policy issues prior to running, and not within the context of any campaign. We demonstrated interest in the workings of local government with concerns about social justice and the environment long before it occurred to us to put our hats in the ring to run. I still attend meetings, even though my time on Council is thankfully over, and I have yet to see Mark at one of them,” Augustine stated.
Regardless of affinities to her alma mater, Augustine admits that her allegiance remains true to the City of Geneva and premises that anyone who wishes to serve their community must prioritize principled and issue-oriented public service before anything else.
“At the end of the day, my allegiance is to this city, and I stand ready to help any and all candidates who get elected to make Geneva as successful as it can be and as responsive to the residents, but I really believe that a commitment to public service, particularly government service, has to be issue-oriented and must be a principled commitment to policy, regardless of whether or not the work is in service to one’s own political aspirations. I have no doubt that Mark loves Geneva, too, but his path and mine have been very different,” Augustine concluded.