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Even Connecticut College students couldn't rescue the budget

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published September 21. 2012 4:00AM   Updated September 21. 2012 9:20AM

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Should Connecticut College and other non-profits make higher payments in-lieu of taxes to the city of New London?
Yes, it's outrageous these institutions have the audacity to charge so much for tuition and give so little to the city.
51%
No, educational institutions are tax exempt for a reason. Let's move on to finding other revenue sources.
20%
I don't even care anymore. If we got the money, city officials would just mismanage it anyway.
29%
Number of votes: 1362

Once upon a time, the mayor of a struggling little city on the Connecticut shoreline decided to climb up to the college on the hill and enlist the assistance of students there to vote for his new budget, with its 7.5 percent tax increase.

And when the mayor started addressing an assembly of the student government, he told so many budget lies that his nose grew and grew. He then told the students they should walk across his big nose down the hill to the polls, to vote ''yes" on the budget referendum.

OK. So it didn't happen just like that.

When New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio recently went up to Connecticut College and asked students to vote "yes" in the city budget battle, his nose didn't really grow. And the students didn't need to ride the mayor's nose to the polls.

There was a shuttle bus available. Honest.

I don't buy into the argument about college voting that was swirling around town since before and after the budget sank like a stone Tuesday - the claim that the students have no right to vote.

Indeed, they have every legal right to register as residents here, where they spend most of the year, and to vote. Getting students involved in the community is great.

Still, what an odd constituency for the mayor to court in a referendum on how much people will pay in taxes, given that most of them live on a campus that isn't taxed.

But it wasn't the mayor's decision to try to enlist students in the budget wars that surprised me. What is alarming is that what he told them was so remarkably deceitful.

The city, the mayor told the students, is flat broke and on the "brink of bankruptcy," according to an account of his talk in The College Voice, the student newspaper.

Really? Bankruptcy?

Most cities on the edge of bankruptcy are there because of huge unfunded pension liabilities.

In New London, Mayor Finizio lobbied hard this year to increase the city's pension liability for firefighters, saying it would actually help the budget.

From my reading of the budget debate, the 7.5 percent increase in the tax rate was only meant to keep city services at their current level, not hold off bankruptcy.

Approve a budget with any less, the mayor had been saying all over town, and dire consequences would result, from closing the senior center to collecting garbage only every other week.

But since college students probably don't care much about the senior center or garbage collection, the mayor sharpened his rhetoric for the young campus audience.

If the city were to teeter into bankruptcy, he warned, inexplicably, the state would take over financial management of the city, mandating a minimum 32 percent tax increase, the student newspaper reported.

"This would crush the city of New London; most small businesses would fail, the downtown that I'm sure many of you enjoy going to would be sacrificed to correct this budget gap," the mayor was quoted as saying by the college paper.

My translation of the mayor's message to students: If you don't come vote "yes," all those downtown bars you know and love will fail and close.

No wonder The College Voice put this epochal headline on the story: "Could Conn Students Save New London?"

To the newspaper's credit, it updated its reporting on the mayor's talk by including comments from those on the other side of the budget debate. And comments from city residents were included on the newspaper's website.

So, how did it turn out?

I couldn't reach city registrars of voters Thursday to find out how many students may have registered recently.

But we do know they couldn't have had much impact, since the budget lost by such a lopsided vote.

We also know that just one day after the budget went down at the polls, city officials seemed to easily find another $800,000 toward reducing the tax increase to 5 percent, without, apparently, closing the senior center or the downtown bars.

The next time the mayor decides to go up the hill to solve city budget problems, I suggest he visit college President Leo I. Higdon instead of try to mislead the students.

Higdon agreed in 2007 to make voluntary payments to the city in lieu of taxes. The payments of $7,500 a year go up to $12,500 in 2013. That's not nearly enough.

This is the year that colleges all over New England are being asked to step up to the plate to help the struggling municipalities that host them.

Wesleyan already pays Middletown $250,000 a year. Hartford announced this year it will ask nonprofits such as Trinity College to make payments in lieu of taxes. Boston launched a similar program last year and took in most all of the $20 million it asked for.

Yale has increased its voluntary payments to New Haven and this year will pay more than $8 million.

Brown University agreed this spring to increase its annual contribution to Providence by another $3.9 million.

It's true that Connecticut College is no Yale or Brown. But a recent national survey said the New London college for 2010-11 charged the highest tuition, $43,990, among all U.S. private, nonprofit four-year schools.

That makes the paltry $7,500 a year the college is now giving the city an embarrassment.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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