ZELINSKY: Soaking Yale

This summer, New Haven saw its own version of a troubling national trend: soak the rich, in order to balance a broken budget. Facing a municipal piggy bank emptied by years of reckless spending, the Board of Aldermen proposed revisiting a 1990 agreement between the city and Yale, one that closed parts of High and Wall streets to cars.

Twenty years ago, the University paid over $1 million in cash and another $50 million in local development fees in exchange for desperately needed pedestrian walkways in the heart of campus. Now, aldermen want to force Yale to fork over more money by exploiting a provision in the agreement that allows New Haven and Yale to reopen the streets if both parties agree to such reopening in a fair and “mutually acceptable manner.” It’s a bald threat: pay up, or we’ll open up Yale’s most important walkways to traffic.

The Board of Aldermen’s current plan is meant to extort “rich” Yale for more money by unilaterally revising the agreement, a power the city does not have. This takes serious chutzpah: The University already makes voluntary payments to the city in lieu of taxes, polices its campus, and recently underwrote New Haven Promise to massive expense.

To his credit, Mayor DeStefano has acknowledged that soaking Yale holds little legal and practical merit. No reasonable reading of the 1990 agreement gives the city the power to change the deal without Yale’s consent. And, if even DeStefano — the duke of poor economic policy, who wants a local option sales tax — thinks that this tactic is a recipe for disaster, the Board of Aldermen has sunk to a new low.

When the city’s lawyers refused to endorse the Board, New Haven aldermen started the search for more pliant lawyers who would. So much for accountability and transparency.

The real solutions to the city’s fiscal problems are simple, but politically unpalatable to the Board: we must lower property taxes, cut bloated public employee pensions and use tax incentives to bring employers into New Haven. Local unions started this soaking scheme to wring cash from the University. Their aim is to obscure and distract from the real problem: Their stubborn refusal to make the concessions necessary to put the city back in the black. The unions have now captured the aldermen, most of whom rely on union-support in elections.

“But it’s just a few million,” some might say. When we have an endowment of $16 billion, what’s a little more or less among friends? After all, it’s not as if Yale is making massive cuts in departments’ funding, freezing new course offerings, and increasing the self-help portion for those on financial aid. Oh.

Every extra, umpteenth dollar Yale donates to New Haven means less to accomplish Yale’s core mission: educating students. By undermining the University’s raison d’etre, the aldermen undercut Yale’s academic community that attracts world-renowned businesses, providing much needed economic vibrancy to the city. This counterproductive proposal and the faux-populist trend it represents will only hurt New Haven in the long run.

Yale students deserve to know what Mike Jones ’11, our alderman, and his possible successors, Vinay Nayak ’14 and Sarah Eidelson ’12, will do to fight on the University’s behalf. Will they call the Board’s tactic what it is: illegal hand-waving and economic idiocy? Or will they continue the pattern Mr. Jones established with his wage-hike bill — an economic naïveté that will further set this city back?

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