On March 1, Mayor Justin Elicker unveiled two possible budgets for the upcoming fiscal year, representing two vastly different visions for the future of New Haven and its relationship with Yale. One of Elicker’s proposals is a “Crisis Budget” that would raise taxes on the city’s residents and gut critical city services. The other — a “Forward Together” budget — would leave in place baseline funding for schools, libraries and public safety. Maintaining these crucial city social services is possible, but only if Yale finally steps up and respects New Haven.
Enabling Elicker’s “Forward Together” budget will require a combined increased contribution of $53 million to the city before the Board of Alders’ June 1st budget deadline.
Thankfully, there is some hope on the horizon. New Haven has been in talks with the Connecticut General Assembly to fund and rework the state’s Payment in Lieu of Taxes program — also known as PILOT, the system that reimburses Connecticut cities home to tax-exempt entities like Yale with a portion of the lost revenue. If the talks are successful, New Haven could see an estimated $49 million windfall, allowing the city to avoid the worst of the “Crisis Budget” cuts.
But if this is a partial solution to the budget crisis, it is one in spite of any corrective action on Yale’s part. Yale and the Yale New Haven Hospital own over half of the city’s tax-exempt property. Increased PILOT payments would be, in essence, a state of Connecticut solution to a Yale-caused problem. This is unacceptable. As New Haven residents have long pointed out, New Haven cannot afford to continue subsidizing Yale’s existence. Yale is able to bunker down and weather financial storms — the size of the endowment certainly allows for that — but the same is not true for the city. If the University is serious about challenging systemic injustice and inequality, it can start at home: Yale must dramatically increase its contribution to New Haven.
At the very least, this means ensuring that the Elm City can maintain its baseline level of services under the “Forward Together” budget — an increase potentially as small as $4 million if the PILOT program is fully funded. But the University’s parasitic relationship with New Haven long predates the current year’s budget crisis, and remedying Yale’s centuries of harm requires substantial and long-term investment.
Elicker has previously called for a $50 million annual contribution. Local organizers with New Haven Rising demand $157 million — the amount Yale would pay if fully taxed. The mayor and President Peter Salovey have both expressed optimism about their private negotiations, which is a positive step forward.
For his part, Salovey recognized in a February interview with the News that New Haven’s budget problems are “structural and deep.” But he missed the central point: The structural problem is Yale. When the University deigns to respond to community demands, it does not engage with their ideas. Instead, Yale uses the same canned statements and circumlocutions to defend itself from the pleas of the city. For example, the University enjoys parading the statistic of spending “over $700 million annually directly on New Haven.” What it conveniently slides to the back end of their statements is that “over $675 million” of this figure is direct compensation to New Haven residents for their labor. That is to say, Yale highly depends on local, essential labor — dining hall workers, custodians, office administrators, gardeners and more — but shows its gratitude by turning around and instrumentalizing this labor as a bargaining chip in debates with the city.
Take another example: Yale’s yearly “voluntary contribution” to New Haven is an important, smugly advertised part of the University’s public relations with the city. The amount paid itself, however, is not so unusual. While Yale likes to tout its payment as the largest of any university to its home city, Yale’s payment as a percentage of the home city’s budget — as others have pointed out — is much smaller than that of peer institutions like Dartmouth and Princeton. The more unusual part is the name — the phrase “voluntary contribution” brings to mind apparent generosity, charity and goodwill.
But New Haven does not need charity. The city is merely asking for their fair share. They’re asking for money for libraries, after-school programs, college counselors, parks and recreation, affordable housing. They ask for enough decency to recognize that Yale’s tax-exempt status is a legal shield, not an ethical one. And what does Yale give in return? Condescension. A lack of engagement. The “we do enough” response.
Yale cannot pack its bags, forward its mail, box up Sterling Library book by book, brick by brick, and relocate to another city. The University, like it or not, is in New Haven to stay. But it is also clear that the current trajectory is not a sustainable one. How much longer can Yale continue running huge operating surpluses while New Haven hemorrhages more money and more services each year? How much longer can we bury our heads in the sand instead of listening to those voices right at home and closest to us?
The budget debate is an opportunity for real change in Yale-New Haven relations. By increasing its contribution to the city, Yale could signal that it sees New Haven as more than a partner by chance, entities glued together only by history and circumstance. New Haven is and can be so much more to us. Let us make our relationship willful and intentional. Let us march on, forward together.