ICSD Board scratches its head to soothe the budget bite

by Robert Lynch; April 11, 2024

“We want to be the best school district in America.”

Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown, to the Ithaca School Board’s Finance Ctte. April 9.

“There’s a pain there that people are legitimately feeling.” Garrick Blalock (c), with Eldred Harris and Karen Yearwood at the Ithaca Board of Education’s Finance Committee meeting , April 9.

Maybe the big story emerging from this week’s meeting of the Ithaca Board of Education’s Finance Committee wasn’t what happened, but rather what never did.  Six of the School Board’s nine members, conferring together, couldn’t come to terms on how to cut a 12.1 per cent increase in the projected tax levy a proposed 2024-25 school district budget would impose on residents. 

No resolutions were offered or voted on by the committee at its April 9th meeting. And one must wonder whether the entire Board will come up with a compromise in time to meet a self-set goal of finalizing the budget just seven days later, on Tuesday, April 16th.

“The good news is we’re not voting tonight,” Finance Committee Chair Eldred Harris told Board members. Yet Harris also interjected, “Where are our math teachers?  Do we have any math teachers here?”

Given how indecisive the six who must later vote on that budget were despite an hour and 20 minutes of discussion, it’s quite likely the Board will hold off a final budget decision until a potential special meeting later in the month.  An administrator stated that New York State demands a Board decision by April 25th.

Ithaca district residents will themselves get to vote on the budget May 21.

On March 26th, Ithaca City School District (ICSD) Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown presented the Board his proposed nearly $171 Million next year’s spending plan.  It would hike spending by 7.79 per cent from the current year’s budget, but elevate the tax levy on property owners by a much-larger 12.14 per cent figure. 

Board members and district officials made it clear this past Tuesday they’d heard from nervous, even angry, taxpayers.  But they also agonized between conflicting objectives: keeping tax bills from spiraling out of control, but also meeting their goal of providing Ithaca’s students a world-class education.

“We are living in a high-tax area and our assessment values are skyrocketing, and its falling on the backs of homeowners,” Superintendent Brown acknowledged.  “Trust me, I go to Wegmans often and I hear it, and I feel it as a community member.”

“We know that,” Brown said.  And then he pivoted.  “And I also know that the kind of shift that we would have to make of not having our $170 Million fund request would be uncomfortable for this community as well.”

“We want to be inclusive.  It costs.  We want to be equitable.  It costs.  We want to be the best school district in America.  It is expensive,” Brown said.

We want to be inclusive… equitable… and “the best school district in America.” And it costs; Superintendent Luvelle Brown, with Chief Operating Officer Amanda Verba.

And to some disgruntled Ithaca taxpayers, Dr. Brown’s words only confirm and validate what they’ve suspected all along: namely that the Ithaca City School District spends beyond its community’s means, seeking instructional excellence at an unaffordable price.  Whether true or not, the notion has a way of resonating when local property assessments are rising annually by an average 20 per cent.

“I think what many people are asking for is that we want to trust you,” Board member Jill Tripp said she senses constituents telling the Board and administration.  “We’ve trusted you for years.  But we feel like there’s some things in the district that could be looked at more carefully.  There’s probably some positions that could be cut.  There may even be some programs that could be cut back,” Tripp inferred taxpayers are thinking.

Tripp continued, “We’re abdicating our responsibility as a Board for us to just say, ‘take it or leave it,’ when many, many well-meaning people are saying we can’t just take that; we have to know that you’re doing your best.”

Committee Chair Harris acknowledged Tripp’s concerns.  And colleague Garrick Blalock agreed that “there’s a pain there that people are legitimately feeling.”  Yet Tripp was the only Board member that day to get specific with her suggestions.  She urged administrators identify ways to cut $2 Million from the budget Superintendent Brown had proposed.

Blalock, meanwhile, urged reconsideration of a revenue-raiser briefly floated, then quickly dropped amid public outcry a few years ago, namely the ICSD imposing a tax on utilities, such as on cell phones, electric bills, and the like.

“Utilities tend to be a fairly stable thing to tax,” Blalock reasoned, though perhaps conveniently forgetting how rapidly NYSEG bills escalate.  There’s a second benefit, he said.  “It also has the feature of asking residents who aren’t single-family homeowners to chip in a little bit.”

Blalock conceded that a utility tax “was not a winner the last time it was discussed.”  Administrators cautioned that imposing such a tax takes time and would not be available in this current budget cycle.

Amanda Verba, ICSD’s Chief Operating Officer, had laid out for Board members that night several budget-cutting options, choices not yet posted on the School District’s website.  One option would slash-and-burn with a 20 per cent spending reduction.  Tripp called that choice “a straw man.” Said Tripp, “Nobody’s looking at that.”  On her calculator, Verba projected were 20 per cent cuts to come solely from instructional staff, 618 Ithaca teachers would lose their jobs.

School Board member Jill Tripp: “For us to just say ‘take it or leave it,’… we’re abdicating our responsibility.

A mid-range option, one holding greater promise, though never fleshed-out with specifics, would strike some middle ground between the current year’s $158.9 Million ICSD budget and the $170.9 Million in next year’s spending Dr. Brown has proposed.  It would reduce the levy increase down to 7.1 per cent.  And it would cut proposed spending by $3.4 Million.

“Three-point-four Million is not insignificant,” Brown said.  He estimated it could idle 60 or more employees.  “We will start with administration,” he promised.  “We would do that first.”  But then, Brown said, close to $3 Million more in added savings would need to be found.  “And that’s real programs,” he warned.

Verba cautioned that budgeting to a number, rather than to a need is something foreign to where she works.  “That is not the way that we do the budget in the Ithaca City School District,” Verba told the Board.  “However, if that is something that we want to begin in fiscal year ’25 and pick a number and then drive to our values and our principles and our vision and our mission and our goals and our priorities, that will be something that we will retrain our brains to do.”

But training kids rather than retraining themselves to budget backwards is what most on the Ithaca Board of Education find the higher priority.  And teaching to the taxpayers’ test for them won’t come easy.

Onward and upward; the spending climb proposed for Ithaca Schools

“If we’re looking for any deep dive, it’s personnel that usually goes first, and are we willing to do that?” Board member Karen Yearwood asked.  She then promptly answered her own question.  “And I know we’re not,” she said, “so we have to be honest about it.”

Someone—committee chair Harris didn’t say whom—had proffered that the ICSD set a tax levy increase equivalent to the Consumer Price Index, or about four per cent.  That’s “very astute, but not exactly correct,” Harris cautioned. He employed a household analogy.

“If milk and sugar and bread and the cost of furniture has risen by four per cent because of inflation, we’re carrying those costs,” Harris explained. “If the cost of mowing the lawn and cleaning the windows and cleaning the pool and all the other staff considerations that we have to commit to outside of that inflationary increase rise also, you can see that an additional amount would be necessary on top of the inflationary amount that is baked into everybody’s budget.”

Eldred Harris is a lawyer, not an economist, so forgive him.  An Ithaca School budget—past, present, and also future—covers labor cost as well as that of things a school district buys.  Unless one embraces Dr. Brown’s stated, lofty goal of raising staff salaries a full 20 per cent over the next three years, a percentage increase of four per cent would cover everything, people as well as stuff.

Again, Ithaca School Board members are far away from nailing down a budget.  They’ve got the month of April to do it.  Their next bite of the budget apple happens on the 16th.

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Funding Fears and Fighting Dogs

The unsettled future of Tompkins EMS Cost-Sharing

Reporting and analysis by Robert Lynch, April 5, 2024

Those among us old enough can recall how military hawks in the 1960’s employed the “Domino Theory” to justify the Vietnam War.  If you don’t stop communists there, they argued, Chairman Mao would soon be landing his troops on the coast of California.

Ready to go wherever for whatever. Tompkins County EMS officials show off one of their Rapid Medical Response vehicles prior to its inaugural use (Credit: Tompkins County).

Of course, that never happened.  And we all know how the Vietnam War turned out.  But some could argue that the same fear about tumbling dominoes is playing out in real time this month in the chambers of the Tompkins County Legislature.  And those who worry may be advancing scenarios equally as flawed.

On Tuesday, April second, Tompkins County launched its Rapid Medical Response (RMR) service.  The program’s modest start-up employs three, white SUV’s and pickups, cast-offs from the Tompkins County motor pool.  County Government hired a handful of Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT’s) to drive them.  Strategically placed about the county, the RMR EMS units answer medical emergency calls during daytimes and on weekdays only.  They do so—at least in theory—only when a rural volunteer rescue squad cannot respond itself.

No one opposes the service.  The only question involves who will pay for it.  A surprisingly generous state grant has covered this year’s initial cost.  It’s the two-year pilot program’s second-year funding that’s divided opinions among legislators and municipal leaders.

“I think that the municipalities need to have a dog in this fight,” Dryden representative Mike Lane told his colleagues on the Tompkins County Legislature Tuesday night.  “They need to be working partners with it,” Lane asserted.  “I don’t think that the County should just automatically take this on.”

Mike Lane on funding: “I think the municipalities need to have a dog in this fight.”

Lane’s comment fell five days after town and village board members, convened as the Tompkins County Council of Governments (TCCOG) March 28th, voted unanimously to endorse full Tompkins County funding of the program’s second year, a $510,000 expense.  Rordan Hart, Mayor of Trumansburg, has become the driving force behind letting Tompkins County pay the full cost.  Anne Koreman, Trumansburg’s (and northern Enfield’s) representative, has become Hart’s most vocal advocate within the Legislature.

“This is a service that encompasses all municipalities, and I don’t see how we can parse it up,” Koreman told the Legislature at its meeting. 

The Enfield Town Board—at this Councilperson’s urging—unanimously endorsed Mayor Hart’s position by passing its own Resolution of support March 13th.

Yet a small, albeit persistent cadre of legislators, one that includes Dryden’s Lane and also the City of Ithaca’s Rich John, have for months sought municipal contribution to the RMR.  They’ve floated various options.  The currently-favored plan would have Tompkins County underwrite two-thirds of the 2025 expenses ($351,000), and have ten local municipalities divvy up the remaining burden.  The cost-sharing model advanced at a meeting in late-February would draw $10,000 from next year’s Enfield Town budget.

But the argument is more than just about money.  Tompkins County has plenty of cash.  It’s about underlying fears of those elusive tumbling dominoes that drive key legislators to demand the towns contribute at least something toward the RMR service. 

Most importantly, it’s a worry that when County Government steps in to help, town rescue squads will conveniently and predictably step back; they’ll withdraw from the effort and shirk their traditional, time-honored responsibilities.  Arguably, it’s a worry nowhere founded in fact.  But for Groton’s Lee Shurtleff Tuesday night, doomsday scenarios pervaded his remarks.  They extended beyond a fire company’s EMT assignments to the ranks of firefighters themselves.

“Have we set a precedent that we’re going to step forward?” an animated Shurtleff asked fellow legislators that night.  Could 12-hour–a-day EMT service, he said, grow to 24?

Shurtleff reached farther.  “The next step is also going to be in the fire service, who has traditionally provided that first response.  The fire service is unable to provide levels of support beyond basic fire services…. We’re going to see fire departments begin to shut down.  Is the county going to be expected to step into that role?”

Shurtleff: What if the towns, the fire departments step back and say, we can’t do it anymore; Tompkins County, you do it?

“We need to be looking ahead and not be expected to take on these things without some corresponding commitment and corresponding level of support from those who have traditionally raised the taxes to provide these services,” the wound-up Groton legislator, former Director of Tompkins County’s Department of Emergency Response, continued.  “I could care less in many ways about how much the towns contribute back.  What I care about is that there be an acknowledgement that these have traditionally been their services and that we’re going to work together to continue to provide these services.”

Lee Shurtleff’s Parade of Horribles about fire departments shutting down may not find a welcome reception in Enfield.  Our taxpayers just invested more than $1 Million in principal and interest to buy a new fire truck.  And our fire station stands nowhere near locking its doors.  True, our EVFC always needs more volunteers.  But what’s on the table now is merely how to pay for a trio of wannabe-flycars and the people who drive them, EMT’s at-the-ready sometimes and other times not.

Whoever hurt his or her hip at 9:20 AM, Tuesday, April second, made himself or herself an anonymous celebrity.  That person became the first patient served by Tompkins County’s Rapid Medical Response system.  Its EMT arrived at the scene seven minutes after the call came in.  The transport ambulance, simultaneously dispatched, took a full 22 minutes.

“The take-away from this first call was that without this service, this person would have been alone on the ground in their house with a hip injury for 22 minutes until the transport unit arrived,” County Administrator Lisa Holmes informed the Tompkins County Legislature in her report that night.  “So out of the gate, or at least with this example, it appears that the program is doing what it’s designed to do.”

Administrator Holmes: “Out of the gate… the program is doing what it’s designed to do.

Moments after Holmes said those words, the Enfield Board of Fire Commissioners convened its own meeting at the Enfield Fire Station.  And at that session, leaders made it clear that aside from the new help gladly appreciated from Tompkins County, nothing has really changed.

“This program doesn’t mean our rescue squad is out of business,” Enfield Volunteer Fire Company President Dennis Hubbell told Fire Commissioners.  “We will communicate that to members Thursday (training night),” Hubbell stressed.

Commissioners Chair Greg Stevenson agreed.  “This does not supplant anything that’s in place.”

Tuesday morning’s inaugural call—the hip injury—was an “Alpha” call, second-to-the-bottom on a six-tiered hierarchy of medical emergencies.  Enfield’s rescue squad doesn’t even answer “Alpha” calls.  Few others in Tompkins County do either.  So what Administrator Holmes talked about that night never idled a single community volunteer.  Rather, it provided a heightened level of care.  It didn’t relax any municipal burden.

In fact, Enfield Fire Chief Jamie Stevens recognized that by answering low-level, Alpha-type calls, the RMR could stretch itself thin.  That white SUV could be attending a broken leg in southern Newfield while a more serious incident simultaneously calls out the Enfield rescue squad closer to home.

Stevenson told Chief Stevens that while he welcomes the new service, he also recognizes its limitations.

Tompkins County municipal leaders and Administrator Holmes will reconvene April 11th to discuss cost-sharing further.

Chairman Stevenson to Enfield Fire Commissioners: “This does not supplant anything that’s in place.”

“I prefer we don’t have another meeting,” legislator Koreman said, sensing no need to discuss cost-sharing any further.  Nonetheless, the mid-April session will still be held.  Koreman has argued that Tompkins County should regard the RMR service like the Sheriff’s Office; there for all regardless of need, regardless of a municipality’s ability to pay.

“I really do think the example of the Sheriff’s Office and how we fund that is really spot-on,” Caroline Supervisor Mark Witmer told TCCOG March 28th.  Witmer spoke before TCCOG’s members unanimously adopted Mayor Rordan Hart’s resolution to back total County funding of the Rapid Medical Response service.  “I think trying to designate how each community will benefit or differ—in the end, it will hurt us; it will create a vulnerability in the program.”

This Enfield Councilperson, Robert Lynch, agreed:  “If somebody backs out, and another one backs out, and a third one backs out, that’s going to lead to a lot of animosity and rivalry among the municipalities that remain.”  This writer reported hesitancy by City of Ithaca representatives at County Administration’s late-February meeting to participate fully in cost-sharing or to recognize participation’s benefits.

Under the cost-sharing model advanced at that February meeting, the City would pay-in more than any other municipality, $32,000, or one-fifth of the predicted $159,000 combined municipal share.

County legislators have credited their Chairman, Dan Klein for authoring the compromise cost-sharing model now under review.  Because it seeks City participation, it would cost rural towns less than had previous formulas.  In municipalities having their own paid ambulance services—including Ithaca—the plan would assess local governments at one dollar per resident.  Non-ambulance towns, like Enfield, would pay $3.00 per head.

Conceding TCCOG was headed toward endorsing Mayor Hart’s proposal that day, Klein futilely defended his alternative.  “The cost-sharing was going to distribute the costs a little more equitably among the people who aren’t already paying as much for emergency medical services,” Klein said.

“Your budgets are going to look a little better; Tompkins County’s budget is going to look a little worse,” the Legislature’s chair conceded, should County Government pay the full expense.  But if that happens, he cautioned municipal leaders, “You, the towns, are hiding some of the costs from your constituents.”

Klein cited Ulysses as an example.  Ulysses already contracts with Trumansburg Ambulance for emergency coverage.  Its rejection of cost-sharing, Klein predicted, could impose a $2.00 per person burden on each of its taxpayers.  Ulysses Supervisor Katelin Olson held a ready answer.

“I will tell property owners when they learn about this, if they do have concerns about paying more than their fair share, I will say that our ambulance system that we pay into with the Village of Trumansburg will be healthier because our neighbors are going to be healthier.”  Olson specifically cited potential beneficiaries in Enfield.

“We often talk about in storm water that water doesn’t respect municipal boundaries.  Well, in the EMS world, health emergencies don’t respect municipal boundaries as well,” Olson said.   And embracing the Sheriff’s Department analogy, she added, “We all benefit by having healthy law enforcement.  We will all benefit by having healthier EMS services.”

Trumansburg’s Mayor Hart, whose Resolution won TCCOG unanimous municipal support that day, commended Dan Klein’s cost-sharing comprise as “quite elegant,” qualifying his words, “as cost-sharing models go.”  But the mayor stressed he’s looking beyond the immediate.  “I’m really trying to look at this from the perspective of how do we bullet-proof this program for the long-term,” Hart told TCCOG. 

Emergency response, Hart argued, is today an “intertwined network” and “not a local rescue matter.”  And, he added, “Having the County fully fund it as a County program does better than any type of attempt to share the cost.”

To an extent, Rordan Hart and Lee Shurtleff are moving toward the same destination.  They’d just each reach it by a different path.  Hart would place this newly-evolving 21st Century rescue service, intertwined as it is, under Tompkins County’s full fiscal umbrella.  Lee Shurtleff would keep base funding where it’s traditionally been, mostly within individual town fire service budgets.

Koreman: The program’s message to volunteers: “We have their back.”

“This conversation is important,” Shurtleff told those at the Legislature, “and it can’t just stop with one vote by one group that thinks the County should take it on 100 per cent,” a not-so-veiled reference to TCCOG’s recommendation.

“As far as a dog in the fight,” Shurtleff said, recalling colleague Mike Lane’s earlier remark, “all the dogs in the fight up until today were theirs, were the towns’ were the villages’, were the fire districts.”

To Shurtleff, dominoes may stand teetering, poised to fall, with burdens readying to shift in multiple ways from our town governments to those downtown. 

A couple chairs down the table, Anne Koreman thought differently that night.  The Ulysses representative expressed little concern about newly-shouldered long-term commitments or the setting of dangerous precedents.  Instead, she kept it simple.  Koreman narrowed the focus to just those three little white vehicles plying the roads of Tompkins County to attend to dislocated hips and whatever else may prompt a 911 call.

Of volunteer rescue ranks, Koreman said, “They’re really scared out there, to not be able to get to people in time.  So this helps them, they said, to be able to sleep at night, to know that the County kind of—what they said to me—we have their back.”

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Posted Previously:

“Cranes in the Sky” or letters in your mailbox

ICSD proposes levy hike 4x the Tax Cap

by Robert Lynch, March 30, 2024

Jay Franklin, Tompkins County’s Director of Assessment, gave members of the Tompkins County Council of Governments (TCCOG) Thursday, March 28th a tutorial on how his office’s revaluation of properties meshes with local government’s imposition of property taxes.  Franklin defended his preferred practice of reassessing properties every year.  He argued it prevents valuations from getting stale; assessments either under-valuing or over-valuing properties that have changed in selling price over time.

To that, this Councilperson, Enfield’s representative on TCCOG, raised a counter-argument Franklin acknowledged:  Less-frequent reassessments may, in fact, serve a purpose.

“It does make the most logical sense,” I said, endorsing annual reassessment.  “The problem is, it ignores human nature, and that is the human nature of the political class.”

I used the Ithaca City School District (ICSD) as the best example.  Its budgeting policy has been on the record and in the news. School Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown recently boasted of his budget holding the tax rate steady.  And school board member Eldred Harris has cited “cranes in the sky” to credit Dr. Brown’s stunning achievement to all that downtown construction.

Figures don’t lie… but. Two problems with this ICSD budget graph: #1) Tax rates alone fail to account for rising assessments; #2) This graph’s base line isn’t zero.

“What it fails to take into consideration,” I told Franklin, “is the fact that assessments are going up from individual properties, and so what it allows is it allows a lot of mischief to be made by the political class.”

Call it “mischief” or call it just wise salesmanship.  But when Dr. Brown presented his nearly $171 Million next year’s budget proposal to the Board of Education March 26th, he bragged more about tax rates than tax levies.  The tax levy represents the true taxpayer cost of educating an Ithaca kid.  The tax rate, in its simplest construction, is merely a mathematical derivative.

“This budget that we’re proposing will enable us to stabilize the tax rate and keep it low,” the Superintendent said.

But it’s the tax levy that New York regulators use to determine whether a school district complies with or goes above the state’s now penalty-free “Tax Cap.”  ICSD administrators estimate the new  tax cap at three per cent.  Dr. Brown’s proposed 2024-25 budget would raise the tax levy by 12.14 per cent.  Do the math.  The levy increase would be more than four times the cap.  And nobody at Tuesday’s School Board meeting talked seriously about staying within it.

“Keeping our tax levy at a three per cent increase, then we’re talking about a $9 Million reduction to what we’re proposing this evening,” Brown said.  “That’s programs.  That’s people.  That’s a significant shift, and that’s not keeping up with even our contractual obligations.”

Ithaca School Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown (at a December 2023 School Board meeting.)

New York State once rewarded a school district’s frugality by providing taxpayers a rebate if a district stayed within the tax cap.  Those days are gone.  And schools pay no price should their budgets exceed Albany’s magic number.  Taxing above the cap only requires that at least 60 per cent of voters approve a school budget in their May referendum.

One may recall that two years ago Newfield’s first-round rejected budget got into that super-majority bind.  But Ithaca’s school electorate has consistently proven more obliging.  Last year, the Ithaca budget passed with 73 per cent support.

Superintendent Brown and the school district’s Chief Operating Officer, Amanda Verba spent more than an hour last Tuesday outlining the proposed budget to Ithaca School Board members.  A few voiced concerns about the increase, yet no one expressed outright opposition.  And clearly the Administration put programs first, economies somewhere down the list.

“We are an excellent school district,” Brown insisted.  “And we have asked for that, and we are getting it, and we are paying for it in an ongoing way.”

“I remind folks, nobody’s asking us to stop doing anything.  They’re asking us to do more.”

“We have seen the most significant compensation increases in the school district’s history over the last decade,” Brown continued.  “Now that’s taken a lot of work…. This budget will allow us to meet those contractual obligations… and I’m looking to do even more.”

At an earlier meeting, January 30th, Brown proposed leveraging Ithaca’s ever-growing assessments to provide a 20 per cent pay increase for all employees over the next three years. It was at that meeting when Eldred Harris made his “cranes in the sky” remark.

“So there are contractual agreements that the School District has entered into with bargaining units, and those are guaranteed to the folks,” Amanda Verba cautioned.  “They have to receive the increases.”

In terms of raw spending, the District Administration’s $170.9 Million budget would rise by 7.79 per cent from this year’s budget of $158.58 Million.  It’s a bigger percentage rise than a year ago, and an even bigger increase than the year before that.

Of the $170.9 Million in spending, nearly $120.8 Million would come through the tax levy.  While the levy would climb by double-digits, the tax rate would remain same as the current year.

The more meaningful metric; the Ithaca School District historic rise in the tax levy.

Part of the disproportionate 12.14 per cent rise in the projected levy comes from stagnant state aid, Albany assistance that could actually drop next year depending on ongoing state budget deliberations.  Dr. Brown would also rather not draw down the school district’s fund balance, it’s year-to-year savings account.  New York rules limit the fund balance set-asides to no more than four per cent of the schools’ budget.  Verba said the current balance stands close to that limit right now, though Albany does little more than wag its finger should a district exceed it.

“If the Board determines that this is the year we want to use that (the fund balance) to balance the budget, just know that if we spend it, it will not be there for next year,” Verba warned.  “You will have a double-problem then,” Verba said.

School Board member Adam Krantweiss, up for re-election this year, said he’s heard from taxpayers.  And he relayed their concerns to colleagues that night.

“They’re wondering and hoping that there might be a way to have that eight per cent (total increase) reduced even if was by a few percent,” Krantweiss said.  “And there are some ‘want’ items that could come out of the budget.  I think a lot of people would appreciate that relief.”

“Most organization’s budgets are increasing,” Krantweiss acknowledged, “although this does seem like a larger than average increase.”

“I’ve heard those concerns, and I’ve shared those concerns and frustrations each year I’ve been here,” Superintendent Brown acknowledged.  Yet he continued, “Our community wants some things.  We are at an important time.  We’re at an inflection point.  I see this budget setting the community up for the next generation of learners.”

“There are some areas where we can make some adjustments,” Brown conceded, suggesting fund balances and future compensation increases as targets for trimming.  “I propose something I think is fair, I think is something that will set us up,” he said, “but I’m open to the direction of the Board to what we do to adjust.”

The School Board’s Finance Committee will likely address the budget April 9th.  The full Board next meets April 16th.  Expect the Board to vote on the budget then.

Real spending: The Ithaca School District’s projected budget rise.

When Ithaca School District voters go to the polls May 21st, they’ll not only vote on the budget, but also on the purchase of new high-efficiency buses and an ambitious $125 Million capital program, the heftiest capital request in the District’s recent history.  Ithaca School District voters seldom reject such spending initiatives.  Turnout for its elections is usually anemic.  Therefore, the parents, teachers, and staff who do vote hold power to tip the scales in favor of their special interests.

And that “needs before, burdens” approach continued to invade the Superintendent’s remarks throughout his presentation, conveying an impression that a homeowner’s assessment increase is his or her own problem, not the School District’s.

“Our school district is not responsible for tax assessment increases,” Luvelle Brown stated candidly.  “And even if we were to plan for what folks got in the mail this week or last week, that may shift.  So it’s inappropriate for us to plan a budget based on individual property—even a large swath of property tax assessment increases, period.”

Once again, reliance turned to a stabilized tax rate.  Let the impact of your individual tax bill fly where the Assessment Department takes it.

Assuming assessments increase to where Dr. Brown predicts they’ll be, the 2024-25 Ithaca School District tax rate would stabilize at $16.22 per thousand, the same rate as paid in bills last fall.  By comparison, this year’s Enfield Town tax rate was less than half that level, or at about $7.20 per thousand.  Tompkins County’s tax rate is lower still.

“Over 75 per cent of our budget comes from the tax levy,” Verba advised the school board.  And it appears that for reasons not explained at Tuesday’s meeting, the Ithaca School District stands more tax-dependent than most others do.

“For some of our neighboring districts,” Superintendent Brown reported, “it’s almost a direct inverse.”  For them, he said, “75 per cent is coming from federal and state dollars, 25 per cent is coming from the local tax levy….  It depends on community by community.”

But why is that?  Yes, it might result from New York State funding formulas that often make no sense.  But could it also be, as the Superintendent acknowledged that night, that the Ithaca District, and its voters who vote, demand educational excellence beyond what others provide and stand willing to have us all pay for it.

“There’s no new dollars coming from federal or state governments,” Dr. Brown told the Board.  Other small-city districts, he cautioned, are reducing programs, increasing class sizes and closing schools.  “I’m proposing a budget that won’t have us engage in that conversation,” he said, “because we’re going to absorb the loss of significant federal and state aid.”

But the taxpayer, of course, becomes Dr. Brown’s fiscal sponge.  And when the tax bill arrives next October, Ithaca District voters may all-too-readily redirect their anger wrongly to the Assessment Director.

Talk of the tax rate, “that’s really hiding the tax levy.” Tompkins County Director of Assessment Jay Franklin.

“When I hear discussions about the tax rate, that’s really hiding the tax levy,” Jay Franklin told TCCOG Thursday.  “When we say we’re going to freeze tax rate increases, you kind of get into a hidden tax levy increase scenario.”

When adopting its budget, the Enfield Town Board seldom discusses the tax rate, only the levy.  Enfield’s rate fell a bit for 2024, yet its Town tax levy rose by seven percent.  The levy, not the rate, got the headlines.  The Tompkins County Legislature seldom talks about the tax rate, either.  The County’s rate tends to tumble like a stone, though the levy this year rose by two per cent.  The levy typically becomes the driving force in most places except, most notably, at the Ithaca Schools.

Constant revaluation gives the ICSD a crutch, one it welcomes, and one it leans on.  But if, for example, yearly reassessments were moved to a triennial cycle, the crutch could be leaned on only once every three years.  And taking it away could bring with it a whole lot more transparency and fiscal discipline.

“We realize there are some unintended consequences that happen sometimes,” Franklin told municipal officials at TCCOG.  “It’s hard to know whether it’s the best to change our system, or it’s best to educate school boards and town boards that may not be aware.”

Right now, education must suffice.  The Ithaca City School District holds its budget hearing May 14th; its budget vote one week later.  Get educated.

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Posted previously:

Gas wells, jobs, and chicken coops

The fracking ban’s expansion hits the NYS Senate

by Robert Lynch; March 24, 2024

State Senator Lea Webb, our representative, and sponsor of the Senate’s expansion of the NY fracking ban.

For Democrats, like our own State Senator, Lea Webb, it was all about safety.  For Republicans, it was a probe for ulterior motives. 

Following more than a half-hour’s debate packed with pointed exchanges last Wednesday, New York’s upper house gave final legislative approval and sent to Governor Kathy Hochul an expansion of the state’s decade-long ban on hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas.  The revision would expand the existing prohibition to cover the use of carbon dioxide—in addition to water-based substances—as the propellant that cracks the shale, extracts the gas—and yes, creates high-paying jobs in the process.

Binghamton’s Webb sponsored the expanded fracking ban in the Senate.  Ithaca’s Anna Kelles had done so in the Assembly.  The Senate on March 20th endorsed Webb’s measure, 46 votes to 16.  The Assembly granted Kelles’ identical bill passage, 98 votes to 50, eight days earlier.  Governor Hochul has yet to sign or veto the legislation.

“It is important that we close the loophole with respect to this proposed practice before further issues ensue,” Webb insisted.  

“As a representative of the Southern Tier, but more importantly, as a concerned citizen, I refuse to have my district, or quite frankly, any resident in the State of New York to be a guinea pig for a practice to have a ‘pilot,’ that we know that CO2 mining is quite simply hydrofracking, but just called by a different name,” Webb said, explaining her vote just before she cast it.

“This isn’t about energy,” Downstate Democrat Liz Krueger told the Senate about CO2 fracking.  “This is a model that if it’s allowed to go forward would be killing people, destroying land, killing agriculture… I’m quite sure the Governor will sign this bill.”

For a dozen minutes Wednesday, Senator Webb faced grilling on the floor about her bill from a Republican Senator from the western Southern Tier, George Borello.

Borello’s central argument held that New York has lost countless jobs to frack-friendly Pennsylvania in the near-decade since former Governor Andrew Cuomo imposed a statewide hydrofracking ban and the State Legislature later affirmed it. His argument: We lose while Pennsylvania wins.

Sen. Tom O’Mara, Borello’s ally: “Natural gas is going to be part of our life… like it or not.”

“The Southern Tier runs along the border of the State of Pennsylvania,” Borello stated.  “The State of Pennsylvania has actually been hydrofracking for years.  It has been an economic boon that the State of New York has not been able to participate in because of the ban.”

Borello continued, “We talk about negative health impacts.  But it’s really been done literally feet from New York State, in some cases literally on the border of New York State, and yet we haven’t seen those health impacts… But yet, if there were any negative impacts, we would be suffering those impacts without any of the economic benefits of that fracking.”

All Senate Democrats supported Webb’s legislation.  All opposing votes came from Republicans, including the three who once represented Tompkins County; Senators O’Mara, Oberacker, and Helming.  Four from the GOP crossed-over to support Webb’s bill.

Back in 2015, former Governor Andrew Cuomo blocked hydrofracking by executive order.  His action followed by several years the imposition of local bans by the Town of Enfield and others.  The State Legislature strengthened Cuomo’s executive order by making it state law in 2020.

But in recent months, a Texas firm, Southern Tier CO2 to Clean Energy Solutions (Southern Tier Solutions) has sought to circumvent the New York ban, critics say.  It proposes use of an experimental process that would replace treated water with “super-critical carbon dioxide.” This super-CO2 would be sent down pipes as a propellant to crack the shale and release the natural gas.  Southern Tier Solutions has reportedly approached numerous New York landowners and offered them leases to permit the drilling.

Sen. Krueger: This would destroy land; kill people and agriculture.

On March 12th, when Republicans in the Assembly had placed Ithaca’s Anna Kelles on the hot seat, Dr. Kelles offered explanations—and often encouraged questions—that were wonkish and technical, much in line with the scientist that the Ithaca Assemblymember is.  By contrast, the Senate’s questions of Lea Webb proved more generalized. They focused on foreclosed economic opportunities, and on whether the expanded ban served as merely a smokescreen to obscure Democrats’ less transparent objective: namely a Green New Deal ban on fossil fuels altogether.

Contemplative, or instead, maybe unsure of herself, Senator Webb—at least, when replayed from the Senate’s session archives—often hesitated to answer when Borello fielded questions at her during Wednesday’s debate.  One pregnant pause lasted 41 seconds.  The camera caught legislative clerks idle and impatient, rapping their fingers, awaiting her response.

“As I read the bill, essentially this is about extracting natural gas to be burned in power plants,” Borello questioned Webb.   “You’re opposed to that as a part of this ban, is that correct? Are you opposed to using natural gas as a form of fuel in New York State?”

Lea Webb answered quickly in this instance, yet chose her words with economy.  She dared not wander beyond the matter at hand.

“This bill only pertains to the proposal for CO2 hydrofracking,” Webb answered concisely.

Lea Webb was coy.  But her downstate counterpart, Brad Hoylman-Sigal, was more up-front.

“Today, there’s been some evidence of climate change denialism,” Hoylman-Sigal, a Democrat from Manhattan, remarked.  The Senator claimed a Department of Environmental Conservation study has estimated a potential 13-inch rise in his district’s sea levels by the 2030’s. 

“Thirteen inches will mean that parts of my district will disappear,” Hoylman-Sigal warned with alarm.  “So we must do everything in our power to combat the use of fossil fuels.”  Hoylman-Sigal clearly saw Webb’s fracking ban as a means to achieve a much broader goal.

When Hoylman-Sigal heard “climate change denialism” that day, he probably saw the face of George Borello.  Not only was the Chautauqua County Senator the only one to square off directly with Lea Webb in debate.  He also freely countered Democrats’ health and environmental arguments with his own slights against the supposed saviors of the climate crisis: solar panels and wind farms.

Senator Borello on turbines: Arkwright was told the streets would be paved with gold; but now the “jets” never land and the chickens won’t lay.

Of turbines:  “They’re killing off endangered species,” Borello alleged.  “We’re actually allowing American Bald Eagles to be beheaded by the thousands across this country because we’re saving the planet with renewable energy.”

The Town of Arkwright, Borello alleged, was “sold a bill of goods.”  Concerning leaders of that obscure, rural town near Fredonia, he said, “They said the streets are going to be paved with gold because of all the money they’re going to make off of wind turbines.  And now they tell me that 24/7 it sounds like a jet that never lands over their house constantly.”

“They can’t sleep at night; people have had issues with sleeping,” Senator Borello said of the sad souls of Arkwright.  “I’ve had farmers tell me that their chickens are not laying eggs anymore because of the infrasound.”

“It’s hypocritical to say we’re going to ban something that we know no idea about and not willing to admit there are problems  with industrial turbines and solar panels,” Borello concluded.

Senator Borello’s arguments may have cut the widest contrarian path that day, but Tompkins County’s former State Senator, Tom O’Mara, weighed in as well.  O’Mara’s contrasted the wide-eyed idealism of the environmental Left with what he saw as the hard, cold reality of the moment.

“Natural gas is going to be a part of our life, of our energy, of our manufacturing in this country for the rest of our life, like it or not,” O’Mara proclaimed. 

“Farmers, landowners in the Northern Tier of Pennsylvania have obtained immense wealth from the recovery of natural gas,” the Big Flats Republican submitted.  “Our farmers, our landowners in the Southern Tier (of New York) have been denied that time and time again.  Now we have another opportunity here.”

Senator Borello would have one believe that the carbon dioxide injected down a gas well is the same as what makes your Pepsi fizz at the soda fountain.  Senator Michelle Hinchey, a Webb ally, countered that fracking gas CO2 is a much different substance.  Lea Webb described the “super-critical” form of the gas as “a volatile substance” and “corrosive.”

Sen. Hoylman-Sigal: a 13-inch sea rise in my district is why I support this ban.

In the Assembly debate, Anna Kelles had cited an incident down south where the carbon dioxide had corroded a pipeline, leaked into the atmosphere, stalled emergency vehicles, and made people sick.

“In my opinion, there is no dollar sign or no amount of money that can cover the cost of long-term health care implications for these type of practices,” Webb said during final remarks.

Most acknowledge that the science Southern Tier Solutions relies upon remains untested at present.  It may work.  It may not.  It may harm people and places.  It may prove innocuous and do no damage.  Those like Senator Webb and all of her fellow Senate Democrats would give caution the benefit of the doubt.  Others, like Senator Borello, would grant the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) the opportunity to evaluate potential impacts before legislators arbitrarily outlaw the practice.

“This is not hydrofracking.  This is a completely different process,” Republican Daniel Stec, a chemical engineer, told the Senate Wednesday.  “This bill is about turning our nose up at natural gas, period.  This bill is not about safety of the process or environmental impact,” Stec maintained.  “To deny DEC the opportunity to review this and come up with a permitting process because we don’t like natural gas is arrogant and short-sighted.”

But Democrats have the Senate majority—indeed, a super-majority.  For reasons that may vary Senator to Senator, that super-majority chooses to ban the innovative end-run around New York’s—and maybe also Enfield’s—fracking ban without giving DEC scientists a first look-see.  Economic growth versus Green-favored environmentalism:  It was the fracking argument’s divide a decade ago.  It remains so today.

Fracking with carbon dioxide is an “extremely, extremely dangerous process that one has no business allowing in any part of New York,” Democrat Liz Kruger insisted.

Sen May: “Fracking is a quality of life nightmare.”

“Fracking is not just an environmental nightmare, but it is a quality of life nightmare,” the Syracuse area’s Rachel May declared.  May said she’s been to Pennsylvania.  Senator May saw the fracking trucks clog bridges and transform communities that were “rural, bucolic, and quiet places” into something far different.

Tom O’Mara would see prosperity where Rachel May sees blight.  “This is just one more block to doing things better because we want to get the perfect,” western Tompkins County’s former State Senator told allies and opponents.  “Well,” he added, “this utopian approach is a train wreck coming down the track.  It’s going to crush New York State.  It’s going to crush communities across New York State economically; devastating.”

O’Mara faulted those across the aisle for practicing beyond their pay grade.  “You’re all now the experts on whether this is feasible, safe or not,” he said.  “This is just so short-sighted and so emblematic of the whole energy plan that this state thinks they have.” 

###

Fire Board bonds costly pumper at 4.6%

by Robert Lynch; March 20, 2024

In a sense, eight months of preparation, public voting, calculation and on-and-off controversy concerning Enfield’s fire-future came down to a string of votes during a two-and-a-half-hour meeting Tuesday night at the Enfield Fire House.

Enfield’s Board of Fire Commissioners, meeting March 19th.

A shiny new, expensive piece of Enfield fire apparatus—a pumper engine that cost-conscious critics had once suggested be sent back to the factory—secured its final commitment from the local district’s Board of Fire Commissioners as the Board unanimously authorized the $825,000 engine’s ten-year bonding at an interest rate of just over 4.6 per cent.

The bonding authorization came as one of five significant votes taken by the Board of Commissioners Tuesday, decisions that solidified the transfer of power and assets from both the Town of Enfield and the non-profit Enfield Volunteer Fire Company (EVFC) to the recently-formed Enfield Fire District, a transfer directed by the Town Board last June.

“We made good progress tonight,” Fire Commissioners’ Chairman Greg Stevenson remarked after the meeting.  He commended the Board’s five members for reaching decisions without disagreement.

In addition to bonding the pumper, the Board authorized the uncompensated transfer of fire apparatus from the EVFC to the Fire District.  It approved a one-year’s lease of the fire house from the Fire Company.  And Commissioners authorized a second lease that continues EVFC’s ownership of a tanker truck until its low-interest loan is paid off.

Stevenson expects to sign bonding documents March 26th at the Town Hall.  They’ll then be sent to the Bank of Greene County in time to close on the bonding by April first.  Bond financing will then continue through 2034. 

The prize baby; Unit 602, Enfield’s $825,000 Pumper

An amortization schedule, shared at Tuesday’s meeting, put the truck’s total ten-year interest charges at $210,363.50, raising the pumper’s overall cost to $1,040,363.50, principal plus interest.  Add to that nearly $37,000 in bank interest charges incurred between when the EVFC bought the truck last year and the April bonding date.

Two weeks earlier, Stevenson, on the advice of Fire District counsel Mark Butler, had delayed the bonding decision in hopes the interest rate might fall.  It did not.  But, said Stevenson, to console the Board, “It didn’t go up, either.”

The Bank of Greene County, with headquarters south of Albany, has become a favorite for local fire apparatus bonding.  It’s where the EVFC financed with traditional bank loans the initial purchase of the pumper.  It also borrowed there for the less-expensive tanker truck, bought in 2020.

The Bank of Greene County has established the fire service as a “niche market,” Stevenson explained after the meeting.  The District’s lawyer, Mark Butler, assuredly “shopped around, but couldn’t find a better rate,” the Board Chairman reported.

After the Enfield Town Board created the Enfield Fire District last June and transferred fire service oversight to it last August first, an appointed interim Board of Commissioners began laying plans for apparatus transfer and the financing for the newly-bought pumper, as well as for the three-year-old tanker, whose bank loan had yet another three years to run. 

In a hastily-called, and hence, controversial referendum last October, the appointed Board put to voters a proposition to bond both trucks, the pumper for up to 20 years.  Voters narrowly approved both bonding resolutions.  But when the newly-elected Board took over from the appointed Board in January, it scrapped plans to bond the tanker, and made clear that a 20-year term was too long to bond the pumper.

At their meeting January 23rd, Board members were torn between bonding the more expensive truck for ten years or for as few as seven.  They gave the 10-year plan a slight preference.  The decade-long duration was never given the official OK until Tuesday’s meeting.

A 20-year time frame was “too long, too much, and doesn’t work,” Stevenson had informed the Board in January, based on his conversation with attorney Butler. 

By contrast, the two-decade-long term was the preference of one or more of the earlier-appointed Commissioners, persons no longer on the Board.  And it was also the preference of the District’s former lawyer, Brad Pinsky, whom the current Board wasted no time to replace this January.

The 10-year serial bonds now to be purchased work much differently than does a typical auto loan.  Unlike an auto loan, where monthly payments stay constant, bond payments are front-loaded and vary year-to-year.  The bonds will repay one-tenth of the truck’s principal annually ($83,000/year).  Accordingly, yearly payments are higher at the start.  $118,482 would be paid next year; $87,399 in 2034. The computed 4.6082% interest rate is an average, of sorts.

At its last meeting, March 5th, Fire Commissioners had encountered a snag.  In crafting last October’s bonding proposition, approved in a referendum, former attorney Pinsky had underestimated the transitional interest to have been incurred between EVFC’s purchase of the pumper and when the bank loan would be exchanged for the bond this April.  By law, bonding could go no higher than the $830,000 voters had authorized.  But the truck’s purchase price, plus accrued interest, was now calculated to grow to more than $866,000 by the bonding date.  The dilemma left Commissioners with a nearly $37,000 gap to fill.

With an interest rate too good to beat; the Unit 622 Tanker.

Tuesday, Commissioners found a way to fill it.  First, they tapped $27,506 from a bonding line in their current budget, money that won’t be needed right now because bond payments won’t begin until next year.  They then filled the $9,455 remainder by cutting back the $50,000 in legal fees that Pinsky had advised the prior Board to set aside for him.

Pinsky’s successor, Mark Butler, expects to charge the Fire District less money than Pinsky had estimated for himself.

To take care of the second truck, the tanker, the one not bonded, the Board Tuesday approved a lease agreement with the EVFC, one whereby the Fire Company will pay three remaining $72,449 annual bank payments, and the Fire District will reimburse it.  It’s a pass-through.  EVFC will make no profit on the deal.

The Board will lease, rather than bond, the tanker because its current bank interest—negotiated years ago, when rates were far lower—is only 3.74 per cent.  A bond right now could never beat it.

“It doesn’t do the taxpayer’s pocketbook any good” to hold to the original bonding plans, Stevenson said.

Quickly decided, after successful negotiations with the EVFC’s leadership, Fire Commissioners Tuesday approved a one-year lease for the Enfield Fire House, still owned by the Fire Company.  For a variety of reasons, neither current nor former commissioners had ever seriously considered wresting fire station ownership from the EVFC.  This year, the Fire District will pay $72,000 to lease the building.  Terms will be renegotiated annually.

And in its final of five unanimous actions Tuesday, Fire Commissioners approved the voluntary transfer to the Fire District—without consideration—of an exhaustive inventory of EVFC apparatus.  The transfer included ten other fire vehicles, apart from the new pumper and the partially-paid tanker.  It also included hoses, radios, boots, turnout gear, and just about anything else volunteers use to fight a fire or save a life.

This writer tapped the folding table the Board had just used to hold its meeting, one that arguably had seen better days.  “Is this included?” I asked Stevenson.

“Not yet,” he answered.

###

Enfield to Hochul: Save Our CHIPS!

Town Board presses to erase proposed cut in state highway aid

by Robert Lynch, March 17, 2024

Town roads don’t fix themselves.  There’s no magic.  Repairs cost money, often more money than cash-strapped towns like Enfield can afford by themselves.  That’s where Albany comes in.  And for municipalities and county governments, the Consolidated Local Street and Highway Improvement Program, better known as “CHIPS,” has in recent years supplied the greatest assistance.

Rockwell Road at Porter Hill. Both Enfield roads are due for renovation this year, CHIPS willing.

But some now warn that CHIPS is on the chopping black.  And the Enfield Town Board wants to keep the ax from falling. 

Prompted by warnings primarily from Republican state lawmakers, the Town Board March 13th unanimously adopted a Resolution urging Governor Kathy Hochul to restore a reported $60 Million statewide cut in the CHIPS program that she’d included in her proposed 2024-25 Executive Budget.  The Resolution also asks that New York State bolster the underlying “base funding” for CHIPS so as to reflect the ever-increasing cost of getting local roads built.

“CHIPS is very important to our Highway Budget,” this writer, Councilperson, Robert Lynch, told the Enfield Board Wednesday as he introduced a Resolution urging restoration of the feared program cuts.  “If the CHIPS money is cut substantially, we’re going to be in budget binds,” he said.

“We can take all the state aid that they will give us,” this Councilperson added.  “And I hope they give us the same this year as last year.”

The CHIPS preservation initiative was one of three lobbying-type resolutions the Enfield Board adopted that night.  Two will go to Albany; a third to the Tompkins County Legislature.

CHIPS provided the Town of Enfield $153,641 during 2023.  That was road repair money Enfield taxpayers didn’t have to come up with themselves.  Combined with three other, lower-funded state programs, CHIPS supplied more than 15 per cent of the Enfield Highway Department’s revenues last year, according to December figures compiled by the Town’s bookkeeper.

And for road repairs alone, the four programs supplied over 56 per cent of the amount Highway Superintendent Barry “Buddy” Rollins proposed to the Town Board, and the Board approved, in his revised, so-called “284” funding agreement of last July.  Those Enfield repairs and improvements cost $434,000 last year.  The Town Board has similarly authorized Rollins to spend $421,000 during the current year.  Porter Hill and Rockwell Roads stand as prime candidates for resurfacing during 2024.

Big Flats State Senator Tom O’Mara, who until the 2022 redistricting represented Enfield, was among the first to sound the alarm bell about the proposed Hochul cuts to CHIPS.

Rallying for CHIPS: Center O’Mara (c) flanked by two Assembly members, with Highway Superintendents looking on, at the Big Flats Highway Garage.

“Unexpectedly, Governor Kathy Hochul has placed the future of state investment in local roads, bridges, and culverts in the crosshairs this year by calling for, as part of her proposed 2024-25 state budget, significant cuts to the state’s investment,” Senator O’Mara wrote in his weekly column to constituents February 26th, a message entitled, “Local Roads are Essential.”

“Most egregiously, the governor is calling for a $60 million cut for the Consolidated Local Street and Highway Improvement Program (CHIPS), the state’s primary source of funding for local roads, bridges, and culverts,” O’Mara wrote.  “Simply put, her proposal cannot move forward.”

O’Mara stands as one of more than 50 New York legislators who’ve pressed hard for the CHIPS funding restoration.  Most are Republicans.  But of course, Republicans don’t control the New York State Legislature.  Democrats hold supermajorities in both houses.

Nonetheless, the majority party has since offered signs of hope.  In her constituent newsletter of Friday, March 15th, our district’s current State Senator, Democrat Lea Webb, detailed the Senate’s “One House Budget,” with its negotiating starting-point scripted by Webb’s fellow Democrats.

Among the many initiatives included in the Senate’s “One-House Budget,” Webb reported leadership has proposed “$160 million in additional support for (CHIPS), for a total of $698.1 Million.”

“By allocating resources to support local governments, the state not only invests in the vitality of individual communities but also strengthens the entire fabric of New York,” Senator Webb stated in her message.

Sen. Lea Webb: Maybe some upper-house support in saving CHIPS.

If the Senate Democrats’ negotiating starting point holds up, it would erase the $60 Million in reported Hochul cuts to CHIPS, and also get base funding at least part way to what O’Mara and other Republicans want.  Republicans want the funding base to rise by $200 Million this year to place its total at $798.1 Million.  According to Webb, Democrats would take it to just under $700M.

The Enfield Town Board’s adopted Resolution, while urging restoration of the Governor’s reported $60 Million cutback, kept total program funding open-ended.

“The Enfield Town Board respectfully requests Governor Hochul and legislative leaders to restore the $60 Million in proposed funding reductions to the CHIPS program in the 2024-2025 New York State Budget and additionally to consider substantial increases in base funding for CHIPS, increases consistent with the recommendations of Senator O’Mara and his legislative colleagues,” the adopted Resolution, introduced by this Town Councilperson, stated.

New York’s final State Budget is due by April first, though often misses the deadline.  Typically, the Governor and legislative leaders of the Senate and Assembly resolve their differences by huddling in closed-door discussions at the Eleventh Hour.  Legislators often adopt funding packages without really knowing all that is in them.

The CHIPS funding initiative wasn’t the only request the Enfield Town Board sent to Albany Wednesday night. By a similarly unanimous vote, the Town Board removed from the table and adopted without much debate a request that the New York Legislature clarify election procedures that confounded—and indeed, angered—many Enfield Fire District voters last fall when they for the first time filled all five seats on the newly-established Board of Fire Commissioners.  Because of statutory ambiguities, the Fire District’s attorney had determined that each voter could cast only one vote in that election, even though five Commissioners positions had to be filled.

Councilperson Jude Lemke, whose reservations about the proposal’s language had delayed its adoption for a month, said linguistic revisions this Councilman had made subsequent to February’s meeting had satisfied her concerns.

“In first-ever Fire District elections, you would be able to cast five votes, but for five different people,” this writer explained concerning his rewritten draft, “so it wouldn’t get into the area of cumulative voting, where you could essentially stuff the ballot box by voting five votes for one of the candidates.”

Enfield will never again navigate the perplexing legal labyrinth that last December left some Enfield Fire District voters feeling that their franchise had been denied.  The ambiguous section of law Enfield encountered only occurs the first time a fire district is formed.  But the Enfield Board chose to prod the Legislature to clarify the law in hopes that others in newly-formed districts would not face confusion similar to what its voters had encountered.

The current Enfield Board of Fire Commissioners’ first meeting, January 9th.

The Enfield Town Board’s third adopted action affects matters closer to home.  The Board passed an endorsement of Trumansburg Mayor Rordan Hart’s letter that requested Tompkins County Government fully fund the Rapid Medical Response (RMR) service.  RMR is the service that will position County vehicles and Emergency Medical Technicians at three points around Tompkins County to answer emergency calls during daytime hours weekdays when rescue squad volunteers might be unavailable.

Grant money will mostly fund the RMR this year.  But County officials have asked municipalities to share in the program’s cost for 2025.  Most recently, they’ve suggested municipalities contribute one-third of the expense.  For Enfield, they estimate the yearly cost at $10,000.

“This Town Board agrees with Mayor Hart’s rationale for full County funding as it would provide ‘the best possible solution’ to assure the RMR service’s long-term viability,” the Enfield Resolution, written by this Councilperson, stated in part.  The Resolution noted that the Board’s latest action reiterated much of the same position the Board had taken last December.

Obligating municipalities to share the cost “would be a grave mistake and would risk the viability of the program,” Mayor Hart wrote fellow town and village leaders.  “Sooner or later, likely sooner, one or more municipalities which already support their own EMS/ambulance services, or pay another agency to provide the service, will decline to contribute to the RMR Program,” the mayor continued.  Then, he warned, burdens could shift to those communities that cannot afford the service, yet desperately need it.

The Enfield Board authorized Supervisor Stephanie Redmond to sign Mayor Hart’s letter on its behalf.  Cost-sharing options will likely arise at a second County-sponsored meeting on the topic, April 11th.

In other business at the Town Board’s March 13th meeting:

  • The Town Board unanimously authorized Highway Superintendent Rollins to pursue purchase of two used dump trucks from the Town of Oswego, trucks to replace older units in his fleet that are wearing out.  Together with a planned pick-up truck purchase, Rollins’ request could draw as much as $180,000 from the Highway Reserve fund.  The Board’s majority saw the potential deal as a good bargain, though this writer, Councilperson Lynch, while favoring the transfer, voiced concerns over the draw-down of reserves, and of the request’s sudden timing.
  • Daniel Woodring, supporter of a proposed SkateGarden skateboard park on Trumansburg’s GrassRoots facilities, presented his request for Enfield to construct a skate park of its own on Town property.  The Town Board took no action, but members will investigate possible locations, including near the park-and-ride lot across from the Town Hall.
  • And Town Clerk Mary Cornell announced that scheduled renovations to the Clerk’s office will force a four-week relocation of her office beginning in early-mid April.  The Town Board voted to cordon-off a portion of the Town Board’s meeting room as a temporary Clerk’s office for the duration of the construction. Cornell also announced that her deputy, her sister, Laura Norman, will resign, effective April first, to return to full-time employment at the Tompkins County Board of Elections.

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Green New Dismay

Plethora of problems idle all TCAT Electric Buses

by Robert Lynch; March 16, 2024

Poor old 103; RIP. (I once rode it.) A decommissioned diesel bus in the “TCAT Cemetery,” Teets & Son Scrap Yard, Enfield.

The electric transit bus may be an innovation whose time has not yet arrived, providing that time will ever come. Judging from this years’ experience at TCAT, that suspicion has quickly become local reality.  What’s come off the assembly line simply hasn’t passed the “smoke test” of day-to-day use.  And what’s just happened underscores the point.

Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT) has seven electric buses in its fleet.  All are relatively new.  Each was manufactured by the now-bankrupt firm, Proterra.  And since the night of March 13th, all seven of those buses have been out-of-service, kept idled at the TCAT garage due to problems ranging from failed batteries to worries about structural safety. 

“On Wednesday evening, March 13, staff noticed a serious issue affecting the frame on one of the Proterra buses,” Patty Poist, TCAT’s Manager of Communications and Marketing, stated in a Friday evening email, her statement made in response to this writer’s inquiry. 

Poist continued, “Acting General Manager Matthew Rosenbloom-Jones made the immediate decision to remove all seven Proterra buses from service until further notice. We do not yet know if this is a structural issue that may cause similar problems with the other six buses, but safety is paramount.”

“TCAT will not bring these vehicles back into service until we have been provided a definitive fix from Proterra that fully satisfies TCAT staff as well as our regulatory partners at NYSDOT,” Acting GM Rosenbloom-Jones” was quoted by Poist.

TCAT’s new Acting GM; Matthew Rosenbloom-Jones

What’s happened since Rosenbloom-Jones assumed his interim leadership post at the local transit agency earlier this month bears sharp contrast to the pro-electric futuristic enthusiasm that dominated TCAT’s public statements during the tenure of TCAT’s former General Manager, Scot Vanderpool. TCAT’s leadership was talking then about a total conversion to electrified vehicles, though it would take more than a decade to accomplish.  Green-friendly, plugged-in buses were seen as the future TCAT wanted to take the lead to embrace. 

But the new reality—even before the frame-safety issue arose this week—tempered the comments of Vanderpool’s interim successor at a Monday meeting of the TCAT Riders Advisory and Accessibility Committee.

TCAT will maintain “a mix of electric and diesel (buses) for the indefinite future,” Rosenbloom-Jones told the advisory committee.  In his opinion, as to electrics, “the technology is just not there yet.”

At the time of the March 11th meeting, only two of the seven Proterra buses were then in service.  And one of them was on its electrified last legs.  Rosenbloom-Jones said one of the pair then still on the road may soon be removed “because one of the batteries is beginning to fail.”

In August of last year, Proterra filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.  News reports then quoted the California company’s officials as stating that the company “intends to continue to operate in the ordinary course of business.”  But of course, that kind of statement from a financially-crippled company goes only as far as it goes.

Electric buses are not cheap.  Each of the seven Proterra units, placed on the road beginning in 2021, cost about $1 Million, when the cost of its charger is added in.

TCAT had Uncle Sam’s help in buying those first seven.  According to reports, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded the local transit agency $2.3 Million in 2018 to help enable the seven-bus acquisition.  The grant came as part of an $84 Million nationwide appropriation under the federal government’s Low-or No-Emission Grant Program. 

According to personnel at Enfield-based Teets and Son Scrap Metal Recycling, where many an old TCAT bus goes to die, Transportation Department rules required each bus diesel bus de-commissioned under the grant program to be cut-up carefully and dismembered to ensure it would never again be on the road.

“Electric buses are the way to go,” Vanderpool said as recently as last July 10th at an Advisory Committee session.  He then said TCAT still hoped to adhere to its plans to totally electrify by 2035. 

When fully maintained—and bus maintenance has become a chronic problem at the agency—TCAT operates approximately 50 buses in its fleet.

By a November 2023 meeting of the Advisory Committee, Vanderpool began expressing frustration with electric bus maintenance. “It’s been a tough row with parts for these (electric) buses,” the former General Manager admitted.  Vanderpool reported that on one day last summer, State Department of Transportation representatives took five buses out of service because their air conditioning systems were not working.

Scot Vanderpool retired as TCAT’s General Manager March first after more than six years with the transit agency and 40 years serving the transit industry.  Rosenbloom-Jones was appointed acting GM in late February.  He comes to the agency most recently from a transit service in Wisconsin.  Since this January, he had been TCAT’s service development manager.

Happier days for plug-ins: The Earth Day, 2021 electric bus rollout (photo courtesy, Anna Lamb, The Ithaca Voice).

At his first Riders Advisory Committee meeting as Acting GM March 11th, Rosenbloom-Jones referred to electric bus technology as in the “teething” stage.  And when asked if Proterra’s bankruptcy stood as the central problem to electric bus maintenance, the Acting GM said manufacturer Proterra’s difficulties are only part of the problem. 

“Electric buses are more maintenance-prone,” Rosenbloom-Jones told the committee, TCAT’s new hire echoing his predecessor’s admission of last year.   The principal concern?  “There’s a battery life problem,” he said.

Not only that, Rosenbloom-Jones acknowledged.  There’d been an air-compressor failure on one bus.  There have been door problems; sensor problems.  In effect, electric buses are maintenance babies.  “They’re more problems than with traditional buses,” he said.

And as for the chargers needed to keep those green vehicles running, “Sometimes they work; sometimes they don’t,” Rosenbloom-Jones conceded.

As for the electric bus’s future locally, those earlier-lauded timetables are on hold for now.  Full electrification may happen by 2035; but then again, it may not.

“In the wake of our issues with our current fleet and Proterra’s bankruptcy status, we are examining all options on what types of buses we will be purchasing in the future,” Poist stated Friday.  “We will keep the community updated when we do make those decisions.”

###

Posted Previously:

State May Snarl Downtown Demo

by Robert Lynch; March 12, 2024

“Why does this whole process take this long?” Guess what? New York State may have it take even longer. Deborah Dawson, with County Facilities Direct Arel LeMaro, at the Downtown Facilities Committee, March 12th

Back in January, the Tompkins County Legislature passed a policy that gave it legal clout to override City of Ithaca concerns and move quickly to demolish buildings on the site of its planned Center of Government.  But while pre-emption may work with City Hall, it doesn’t work so well with New York State.  Albany pulls rank.  And that’s the problem County Government now faces.

“Do we still have the issue of the City in some way requiring us to have a more fleshed-out plan for a building before they’re happy with us tearing these down?” Lansing’s Deborah Dawson asked as the County Legislature’s Downtown Facilities Special Committee convened Tuesday morning, all expecting it to recommend deconstruction of the former Key Bank and Wiggins’ Law Office buildings that stand on the Center of Government site.  And that it did.

But what also occurred was a discussion that many on the committee had not expected.  A state agency, rather than the City of Ithaca, has emerged as the primary obstacle to a quick tear-down.  And it’s all because the two doomed buildings, though relatively new, stand in the DeWitt Park Historic District.

“While these buildings aren’t ‘contributing structures’ in the Historic District, we are in the Historic District, so there are certain rules and regulations that we need to follow as we remove these buildings,” County Administrator Lisa Holmes Tuesday advised the committee.  “So we just want to make sure that we leave ourselves enough time to gather that input and make sure we’re proceeding correctly.”

“These buildings aren’t ‘contributing structures,’ but we are in the Historic District.” Administrator Lisa Holmes

What Holmes knew—but what many legislators did not—was that within the past month the preservation group Historic Ithaca convened a meeting with representatives of the New York State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO; nicknamed “Shippo”), an arm of the State Department of Parks and Recreation.  County Planning Department officials attended the discussion.  And at that meeting, we were told, SHPO’s Regional Director politely laid down the law.  SHPO said that should Tompkins County proceed precipitously with deconstruction, even of these two seemingly non-historic structures, Albany regulators could bring Tompkins County lots of grief.

“They (SHPO) explained to us that they have a role in any kind of funding requests that might go through Congressional earmarks or other types of funding,” Katie Borgella, Tompkins County’s Director of Planning and Sustainability, told the committee.  “Any kind of federal or state permit requirements they need to sign off on,” Borgella continued.  “And they explained that if the buildings were taken down before we understood the nature of those requirements, they wouldn’t be able to commit, which would result in not getting any funding or permitting.”

The Center of Government will cost $40 Million or more.  But it would be built mostly, if not exclusively, with local money, not state or federal aid.  So legislators pressed Borgella as to what true leverage Albany regulators hold.

“Historic” or just a “blackboard for graffiti?” The wall of the former law office.

Borgella said there’d need to be stormwater runoff permits issued for the new building.  And if the County proceeds with plans to build a geothermal system to heat and cool the structure, state agency assistance could help build it.  “Apparently all of these agencies have a form that SHPO has to sign off on, and if they don’t sign off on it, it can mean that the funding or the approvals don’t happen,” the Planning Director explained.

Critics of the Center of Government and of the heavy-handed tactics the County Legislature has used of late might say Tompkins County is getting a taste of its own medicine. 

At its meeting January 16th, the Legislature adopted the so-called “Monroe Balancing Test” in an attempt to provide it pre-emptive power over the City of Ithaca in pressing forward with deconstruction. 

Named after an obscure 1988 New York Court of Appeals decision, the Monroe Balancing Test would, if upheld in this instance, override an Ithaca City requirement that before buildings in an historic district come down, the City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission must review design plans for what would replace them.  Designs for a Center of Government are months, if not a year away.  Tompkins County hasn’t even chosen an architect.

Regulatory concerns aside, the Downtown Facilities Committee Tuesday unanimously recommended the removal of both the former Key Bank and Wiggins Office buildings.  And by a vote of five-to-three, committee members accelerated the deconstruction timetable.  They added language calling for building removal “commencing now with all deliberate speed to be completed by February 2025.”

Both of Enfield’s legislators, Randy Brown and Anne Koreman, voted for deconstruction, but declined to support the speedier timetable.

At previous meetings, the Downtown Facilities Committee had discussed moving deconstruction at a slower pace, one that could have left both buildings standing until almost a year from now.

“We can spend money trying to keep these buildings safe and going and nothing more than a blackboard for graffiti for the next year or so, or we can proceed the way we planned to,” legislator Mike Lane, a long-supporter of speedy demolition, told the meeting.  “We need to get these down.”

“We need to get these (buildings) down.” Mike Lane

Baffling to some, including to those on the committee, is the rationale underlying SHPO’s purported hesitancy.  Both the bank building and the law office were built in the 1960’s, not the 1800’s.  True, they stand within the same block as does DeWitt Park.  Yet they’re hardly “historic” as most people see them.

“Although the buildings are not considered contributing to the local Historic District, that district is defined with a period of time of significance, and that doesn’t mean that the buildings can’t be significant in a different way,” Planning Department staffer Megan McDonald, one of those who attended the meeting with SHPO’s Director, explained.  “And that’s what the State Historic Preservation Office is getting at.”

Some in Ithaca’s preservationist community felt snubbed by Tompkins County’s recent pre-emptive actions.  And the ongoing, underlying tension led legislator Greg Mezey to question Historic Ithaca’s possible ulterior motives in convening the recent session with SHPO.

“Is Historic Ithaca trying to assist us in the process of these, like be a true partner, or be more of a roadblock in the process?” Mezey asked.

Borgella hedged, but leaned toward collegiality.

“I honestly felt like more of a true partner, to me,” the planner answered Mezey.  “But they’re concerned that we don’t fully understand the ramifications of this in terms of funding and permitting.”

Outsiders entering our buildings and telling us what to do? ” I struggle with that.” Committee Chair, Newfield’s Randy Brown

“Katie, if we’ve already taken down the two buildings, do you think SHPO will retaliate against us?” Mike Lane asked, questioning SHPO’s power should Tompkins County simply plow ahead.

“What they said is if we take down the buildings and we don’t need permits or money to do it, but then we do need permits or money to build the new building, that would be considered ‘segmentation,’ and they then wouldn’t be able to sign off on the new building funding or permits,” Borgella replied.

 “Sounds like segmentation to me means retaliation,” Lane quipped.

“I really think we need to have some full and frank conversations with New York State to find out what’s their intent here,” Ithaca legislator Rich John told the committee. “These buildings are ready to go,” he said of the two targeted for deconstruction.  “There is no great historic value here.  I believe in historic preservation.  This isn’t it.  This is just delay.”

“There’s a long history of these state agencies doing nothing for very long periods of time,” John warned.  “And if we’re looking out for the taxpayers here, every year of delay costs a lot of money.”

Delay was not only on Rich John’s mind Tuesday.  It was on Deborah Dawson’s mind as well, and not just because of SHPO’s new-found reservations.  Dawson said she found it hard to believe when County Facilities Director Arel LeMaro presented a time line that stated the soonest a 55,000-square foot Center of Government might be finished would be four years from now.

Rich John: “We need to have some full and frank conversations with New York State. What’s their intent here?”

“Why does this whole process take so long?’ Dawson asked LeMaro.  “I’ve never obviously been involved building anything,” she conceded.  “But 2028?”

“We’re not building a pole barn.  We’re building a four- or five-story building,” Lane commented.

“We can expedite,” the Facilities Director assured Dawson.  But he noted that legislators have demanded “community input,” and that negotiating with various departments about the space they’d occupy also takes time.

And now, apparently, those community conversations will expand to include Historic Ithaca and New York State.

In fact, Albany’s regulators may not even allow deconstruction staff to take interior contents out of the two, hardly-historic structures until they can first investigate and “document its historic nature.”  Truly, SHPO’s bureaucrats don’t see those buildings the way most locals do.  What kind of an heirloom is a 1970’s-era teller’s station?

“I don’t think we can make a blanket assumption that the interior wouldn’t be considered important,” Borgella cautioned.

“We should have known about this a while ago,” Rich John told the committee.  “This is pretty relevant.  And having seen New York State sit on their hands on projects for years, we could be completely thrown off by this.” 

Yes, Deborah Dawson could be looking beyond 2028.

“I struggle with having an outside entity in those buildings telling us what to do with the stuff,” committee chair Randy Brown said.  “I don’t see how another government entity can tell us we can’t do something inside our own buildings.  I struggle with that.”

###

Posted Previously:

Ithaca to Gaza: “Have Peace Like Us”

Common Council backs Mideast Cease-Fire during heated, chaotic session

The final vote after three long hours: Nine to two. Council did what Tompkins County couldn’t.

Reporting and Analysis by Robert Lynch, March 7, 2024

Ithaca Common Council gave pro-Palestinian activists most of what they’d asked for Wednesday night.  But it did so in the most turbulent of ways.  And by the time its three-hour meeting had ended, many, including the secretary, were comparing notes to make sure they knew exactly what Council had just done.

City Hall’s undersized meeting chambers were packed to nearly the Fire Marshall’s limit. Even before discussions began, one Alderperson folded his computer and temporarily walked out in anger because of a banner attendees had unfurled.  More than two dozen public commenters spoke.  But far more partisans populated the room, perhaps 60-70 people in all.  Unrestrained, sometimes rude, those in attendance spoke freely and loudly and often out of turn when a Council member’s statement registered the gallery’s approval or displeasure.  Manners were few.  Passions ran high.  Council that night had free-range guests.

Draft language came and went during that night. Wording was amended ad hoc on the floor.  The “weaponized” term of “terrorism” was struck; the word “genocide” plunked back in.  In this reporter’s 54 on-and-off years of covering these types of things, Wednesday’s meeting of Council stood as among the most chaotic.  Maybe it’s what happens when a youthful cadre of idealistic liberals takes the reigns of municipal government a bit too soon and grinds political sausage with the best of intentions.  It wasn’t pretty.

“These children in Palestine will never know what it’s like to play on a playground, to have fun, to swing, to swim, ‘cause they’re always ducking and hiding,” Alderperson Phoebe Brown, Council’s most passionate supporter of the Cease-Fire Resolution, stated near the close of the never-ending debate.  “So I want us to do something to let the world know that Ithaca feels them… Ithaca wants them to have peace like us.”

The Hamas battle cry, some say. It didn’t rest well with one member of Council.

In the end, what passed was a cobbled-together, tempered, six-point Resolution that expressed Common Council’s “statement of support for the U.S. Government to do everything in its power to influence the parties” to achieve “a permanent negotiated bilateral cease-fire” to the Israel-Hamas war.  The Resolution also urged the parties to “codify the right to self-determination of both the Israeli and Palestinian people,” and to “release all civilian hostages held by Hamas.”

Additionally included were calls for work toward a “strong and enduring” Middle East peace, the end of Israel’s indefinite detention of Palestinians held without charge, and the unrestricted access of humanitarian aid into Gaza.

Inserted during the final minutes of debate as a crucial seventh provision was this:  The end to U.S. military funding to the State of Israel.

Council’s much-amended Cease-Fire Resolution passed nine votes to two.  Alderperson David Shapiro (the man who’d walked out) voted against it.  So did Pierre Saint-Perez.  He would have referred the matter to a committee or working group to give it a well-rested and level-headed rewrite.  Who could blame him?

Drama came early, even before the many had trooped to the mics.  As City Hall honored Ithaca’s Youth Council, and as a couple of County legislators tried to explain assessments, demonstrators all the while held up a quilt-sized banner emblazoned with the Hamas battle cry, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free.”

“Excuse me, I’d like to jump in here,” Alderperson David Shapiro interrupted.  “I find that sign to be very anti-Semitic.”

As Mayor Robert Cantelmo tried to rule him out of order, but without success, the Third Ward Alderperson plowed forth.

“We have people taking up space here with racist signs,” Shapiro continued, noting the packed room’s fire hazard.  “These are racist signs.  We would not be allowing racist signs (critical) of other religions, of other cultures.  We would not be allowing other people to stand here with ‘All Lives Matter’ signs.  We would not be allowing people to do that here.”

“I find that sign to be anti-Semitic.” Alderperson David Shapiro (before he walked out.)

“We object to things that are hateful,” Shapiro went on.  And to attendees, he alleged, “You’re probably learning from some of these professors in town who are saying all these hateful things to our kids…. We should not be conducting business in here with these racist things being placed in front of us.”

The banner remained.  But for a time, Shapiro did not.  After his 90-second outburst, the Council member quietly folded his laptop and exited the room.  He returned about 30-minutes later, cooler, but with the banner and Palestinian flag still where they were before.

Those who addressed Common Council Wednesday were many of the same who’d pleaded unsuccessfully to the Tompkins County Legislature at a trio of meetings in January and February to adopt cease-fire supportive resolutions which at their four corners were much the same as what Council considered.  Though the County’s Resolution obtained plurality support from members attending the Legislature February 6th, it fell one member short of an eight-vote majority.  It has never since gained reconsideration.

As at the Legislature, those speaking to Common Council Wednesday represented a largely-unbridged generational divide.  Most were either very young or very gray, with few in-between.

Freshman Alderperson Kayla Matos had lured Wednesday’s standing-room-only crowd to Council Chambers.  She’d filed her cease-fire Resolution the previous Friday.  Matos and First Ward ally Phoebe Brown hail from the “Solidarity” wing of progressive Democrats, and they two-teamed what was first put onto the floor. 

Kayla Matos reading her Resolution into the record. It would later be gutted by amendment.

Matos’ Resolution was the only version on the night’s agenda.  Its 16-paragraph justification of a cease-fire skewed critical to Israel and friendly to Palestine. It accused President Biden of remaining “supportive of (Israel’s) strategy of warfare and besiegement” in Gaza and alleged that Israel “has bombed Palestinian civilians and infrastructure indiscriminately.”  It spoke of Israeli “genocide,” but offered next to nothing critical of Hamas.  It carried strong language.  Most of Matos’ Resolution did not survive the night.

“I feel a little bit dissuaded,” Cornell-student Alderperson Patrick Kuehl spoke up after Matos moved her Resolution and Brown had seconded it. At the last Council session, Kuehl maintained, members had agreed to work together on a cease-fire Resolution “that spoke from Ithaca to its core,” he said. And “that wasn’t really accomplished” by what Matos had offered.

What Kuehl did next was to offer an “amendment,” in truth, a substitute Resolution, crafted behind the scenes during the previous 24-48 hours.  It stripped away all that Matos and Brown had offered, and exchanged it for a crisper version, one that discarded many of the original accusations of specific Israeli misdeeds and bent over backwards to commend President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris for their efforts to bring peace to the conflict.

After arduous debate and a slew of additional amendments Kuehl’s substitute passed  9:2 and replaced Matos’ original. 

Among the two dozen who offered their views. Alderperson Shapiro (back in the session) looks on.

Far more neutral in its assessment, the Kuehl draft, while acknowledging the “catastrophic loss of life” in Gaza and the deaths of more than 30,000 in the territory, also took note of Hamas’ October 7th attack on Israel and the 1,139 deaths it had caused.  Moreover, Kuehl devoted three paragraphs to commending President Biden for having “condemned the Netanyahu government’s response” to the Hamas attacks, and for Vice President Harris’ call for “an immediate ceasefire” and for her appeal for the Netanyahu government to do more to increase the flow of humanitarian aid.

The audience did not greet praise for the Biden Administration kindly.  And neither did Alderpersons Brown or Matos.

“Harris and Biden did not ask for a cease-fire,” Brown asserted, “so to even use that language here  is very deceiving.”

The Administration’s call was for only a temporary cease-fire, not a permanent one, Matos clarified. “It is extremely watered-down,” Matos said of Kuehl’s substitute.  “This does not reflect the tragedies that the people are going through.”

Only Matos and Brown opposed replacing Matos’ version with Kuehl’s facially-neutral compromise.  Members would go on to retain Matos’ original title, rather than Kuehl’s more Biden-deferential compromise.  And on Alderperson Tiffany Kumar’s initiative, passed 7:4, Council deleted all references to “terrorist” in the final adopted version.

Alderperson Saint-Perez questioned the need for linguistic change as applied to Hamas, an “internationally recognized” terrorist group, he said.

“I think we can call it wrong.  I think we can call it terrible,” Kumar responded. “But I think that the use of the word ‘terrorist,’ regardless of what it technically means, the dictionary definition of it is, has been weaponized against all brown people, including people who look like me and my family.”  Kumar is Asian.

The only remaining substantive change, moved by Matos and adopted narrowly, added back the original Resolution’s seemingly out-of-place clause that referenced South Africa’s allegation before the International Court of Justice at the Hague that “acts and omissions by Israel… are genocidal in character.”

Amending a document “ad-hoc” in the middle of a meeting “is a terrible way to craft policy,” Saint-Perez observed.  “This is a messy process that I believe will lead us to a final product that doesn’t reflect the needs and beliefs of our community… and just is not coherent at achieving the goals that we wanted to achieve.” He called the night’s legislating “dysfunctional.”

Tiffany Kumar” The word “terrorist” has been weaponized.

Saint-Perez would have preferred delay and committee review, as well as a broader approach that draws in other world conflicts, not just Gaza.  His argument lost.  The majority craved action… and action that night.

“As we sit here this very night, there are children starving; there are grandmothers dying,” Brown reminded colleagues, pleading passionately for a prompt vote.  “So if we sit here and discuss this all night long—‘cause I’ll be up ‘til four in the morning; it’s fine with me, because this is a serious matter.”

“We’re all going to get up from here’ go home to our comfy house; kiss our cat, kiss our dog; whatever we do when we get home,” Brown, wound up and animated, continued.  “We are going to leave here all right, tonight; not those babies, not those hostages.  So whatever we do tonight, let’s make a stand for them all.”

Council didn’t stay up until Four AM.  It just sometimes felt that way.  In the end, Council accomplished what the Tompkins County Legislature could not do.  A Cease-Fire Resolution, no matter how strong, no matter how weak, is on the City of Ithaca’s record and is on its way to Washington, the first known municipal resolution of its kind locally.  Others may follow, but Ithaca went first… for whatever good it does.  Maybe none at all.

But we who took notes Wednesday night had a workout.  We watched the new Common Council grind meat its own way.

###

Wild River or Benign Brook?

Regulators prod Enfield to face a flood that may never come

A supposed flood hazard looms just beyond the dead end; Lilly Drive at Enfield Creek, Sandy Creek Mobile Home Park

by Robert Lynch; March 3, 2024

Over 1,500 communities in New York State participate in the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), Enfield Town Board members were told at their February meeting.  Enfield is among only nine that do not.  But presumably, not for much longer.  State Government won’t allow our town to remain a lonely outlier, an NFIP non-participant, as it has been for decades, even though flood risks here arguably remain minimal.

“This is a voluntary program at the federal level, but in New York State participation isn’t exactly voluntary,” Brienna Wirley, a regional representative for the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Flood Plain Management Program, advised the Town Board February 14th.  Environmental Conservation Law “actually designates and requires that local communities that have identified flood risk are required to participate in the (NFIP),” she said.

No, Enfield Creek hasn’t changed.  Nor have regulators altered the law.  The only thing that’s different now is Uncle Sam’s eyesight. 

“You never had maps before.  You have maps now,” Thomas Song of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) told the February Town Board meeting.  “Regardless of whether you join the NFIP or not, the Town of Enfield was mapped-in.”

Song: “You never had maps before. You have maps now.”

For the first time, FEMA has included the Town of Enfield in its flood plain mapping program.  And with the new maps come new requirements, although they’ll only impact a few.   FEMA mandates that people who live in the newly-identified Enfield Creek flood plain and who have federally-backed mortgages buy flood insurance.  And to join the NFIP so that residents can purchase the insurance at federally-subsidized rates, the Town of Enfield must enact new laws to tighten development in flood-prone places.

Only about 20 homes stand in the Enfield Creek’s flood plain, as newly-mapped by FEMA. The agency’s preliminary maps show many of those homes as single-wide trailers lined up side-by-side at the western ends of Lilly and Heron Drives in the Sandy Creek Mobile Home Park.  Flood maps also include homes east of Enfield Creek where Enfield Center Road crosses it.

FEMA’s preliminary Flood Map at Sandy Creek Park, Miller’s Corners and south. (The “Flood Hazard Area” is in blue; the “Floodway” is striped.)

Wirley said the DEC hasn’t the money to notify the affected residents itself.  So the Town of Enfield will do so instead.  Board members in recent days authorized letters go out to affected residents, informing them of a further Town Board discussion of the flood maps at its next meeting, March 13th. 

From what was told the Town Board in February, federal officials had never thought of Enfield as having a serious enough flood risk to warrant mapping.  When federal authorities last compiled maps in the 1980’s, Enfield got overlooked.  But when the agency switched to mapping on a countywide basis, Enfield got roped in.  Now the Town and its handful of impacted residents must address the flood risk problem.

“If they have a mortgage, and that mortgage has any kind of federal backing, their lender will come to them and require that they buy flood insurance,” Song cautioned the Town Board. 

And as for the Town, Song advised, “If you are not a participant in the NFIP, federally-backed insurance will not be made available to those folks.” 

Flood insurance would still be available from other providers, Song acknowledged.  But he implied that policies not backed by federal subsidies carry higher premiums and are harder to obtain.

Yet, according to the state conservation representative attending that night, Enfield’s opting-out of NFIP really isn’t an option, nor is ignoring the tougher flood plain management practices that the DEC dictates.

“Even if a community was choosing not to participate, you would still be obligated to enforce the building code within your community which has all of these requirements for structures included,” Wirley said.  “The community is required to regulate all development within the FEMA-identified flood hazard areas, otherwise known as the 100-year flood plain.”

One of those at risk of a 100-year flood (they say); 584 Enfield Center Road E.

The construction mandates, outlined in Section R322 of the New York State Building Code, set strict limitations on how anything new or a “substantial improvement” to an existing structure can be built in a flood plain.  A home could be built on “posts, piles, or piers,” Wirley said.  A first-floor foundation could be laid up, but then used for parking only.  State regs prohibit below-ground basements in flood zones.  Crawl spaces strike a fine line on which the rules sometimes conflict.  The ground floor of any livable space would need to rise at least two feet above any “100-year” flood line.

And in the most-restrictive area, the “floodway,” you likely couldn’t build much of anything, absent securing what Wirley described as a “no-rise or encroachment review,” signed-off by a state engineer.

And once a town adopts its more restrictive ordinance,” Wirley said, it needs to enforce it.

“Isn’t this essentially back-handed zoning?” this Councilperson, Robert Lynch, asked Song and Wirley after more than half-an-hour of back and forth.

“I don’t how to answer that question,” a seemingly blindsided Thomas Song replied.  “The federal government has no jurisdiction over local land use decisions, so we’re not part of your zoning process,” he explained.  (Of course, Enfield has no zoning.)  “What we’re showing is where your flood hazards are, and there are requirements, so I guess you could be right.”

“To put a basement in an area that would be inundated with water would just be asking for trouble,” the FEMA representative insisted.  “It would create an unsafe living environment for the inhabitants.”

How dangerous does it look? Enfield Creek near Enfield Center Road E.

At times during the meeting, the flood insurance team of two sounded like they hadn’t gotten onto the same page beforehand.  The DEC’s Wirley stated the law demanded Enfield join the NFIP, then discussed community consequences should it not do so, consequences like the additional expense of repairing or rebuilding flooded structures and the costs and risks imposed upon first responders performing flood rescues.  Does Enfield really have a choice but to comply?  It arguably remains a gray area.

Section 36-105 of Environmental Conservation Law provides a bit of clarity.  It states that a government like Enfield, newly-notified as being flood-prone, “shall promptly, within the time frames required by the national flood insurance program, apply for and complete all requirements for participation in the (NFIP).”

But what about penalties?  Section 36-109 of the same law states only that a jurisdiction’s failure to participate may bring to it sanctions limited to its ineligibility for federal flood disaster aid, ineligibility for “federally provided loans or federally-guaranteed financing,” and that its residents would be denied NFIP insurance.  No mention is made of the town being fined or its Board members hauled off to jail.

Nothing resulting from the new FEMA maps requires those living outside Enfield’s limited flood zone to buy flood insurance nor mandates that those living within the zone buy policies if they don’t have a mortgage.  State law considers a “federally-backed” mortgage broadly, including a mortgage written by any institution backed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).  So just about any mortgage held by any bank would trigger the flood insurance mandate.

But stepping back serves a purpose here.  Thomas Song and Brienna Wirley talked mostly like the Susquehanna River was slithering through Enfield, rather than a country stream that where it sidles past the trailers at Sandy Creek Park carries little more water than a farmer’s ditch.  Is everyone making much ado about nothing—or at least, about very little?

The flood plain of Enfield Creek is narrow.  True, at one point, the “100-year” flood plain would cover much of the field northeast of Miller’s Corners.  But interestingly—and for New York State, conveniently—the flood study downstream terminates before Enfield Creek reaches Robert Treman State Park.

Moreover, as this Councilperson brought to everyone’s attention, FEMA considered only Enfield Creek; not “Five Mile Creek” that flows under NY-79 at the bridge west of Millers Corners, nor the creek that passes under Route 327 near the Trumbulls Corners Road  intersection.  Fish Creek escapes attention.  So does the stream that flooded a decade ago and washed out the Bostwick Road culvert at the “School House Dip” east of Cole Grove.

“Is it too restrictive, or is this not restrictive enough?” this Councilperson asked Thomas Song, observing the arbitrariness in what had been presented us.  As to the “School House Dip” flood, I remarked, “The culvert had to be replaced, and there is a house right in the area, and I saw water going right across that lawn.”

“I saw water going right across that lawn.” The creek at “School House Dip” that washed out the culvert in 2013, yet now escapes FEMA’s attention.

Thomas Song hedged.  He said creeks were chosen based on conversations maybe five years ago with Town officials, leaders presumably long gone.

Song said the Bostwick creek may have been too small to consider.  But he added, “If this area is known for flooding. I think it would behoove the community to make sure that any permits for development in this particular area would meet a higher standard.”

Song did assure the Board that if Enfield joined the NFIP, any property owner, and not just those in a designated flood zone, could purchase federally-backed flood insurance and receive benefits in the event of a flood.

And, then again, there’s the issue of a 100-year flood

“We’re talking once in 100 years,” this Councilperson told the FEMA and DEC invitees, eager himself to put the flood fears that at times approached apocalyptic proportions into proper perspective.

“No sir; and the terminology is terrible,” Thomas Song answered this writer, in what one could argue skewed statistics to promote a desired outcome.

“The one per cent or the 100-year flood, it does not have to be a single event,” Song sought to qualify.  “It’s like having a bag of 100 marbles; 99 of them are white, one of them is red.  And every time you have a storm, you stick your hand in and you pull a marble out, and you have a one per cent chance of getting that red marble.  But if you did, you still throw it back in the bag, and that next storm you can pull it out again.”

Mind you, the U.S. Geological Survey doesn’t define a “100-year flood” quite that way.  If that one-per cent chance occurred every time it rained, a flood of once-per-century magnitude would demand redefinition to a status of far greater frequency.  Brienna Wirley put the percentage more accurately.

“If you have a 30-year mortgage on your house, there’s a 26 per cent chance of that structure flooding during that 30-year period,” Wirley clarified.

Yes, but also a 74 per cent chance that it won’t flood.  Once knowing the numbers, is the risk really worth the bother and expense of building a creekside home on stilts?  Maybe to those with the money, it is.  Just remember, we’re talking flood insurance here.  And insurance companies love to err on caution’s side.

The flood maps Thomas Song presented Enfield’s Town Board February 14th are not yet final, though there’s little doubt FEMA will adopt them largely as they now stand, probably this summer.  Once the maps get approved, individual property owners can raise specific objections.  A 90-day comment period that began in late-January is primarily to invite municipal input, if any.

Enfield Creek north of the Enfield Center Road bridge.

And although this Councilperson urged Enfield to brace for its compulsory inclusion in the NFIP and to encourage its Planning Board to start work on draft regulations, the FEMA and DEC representatives attending that night urged the Town to hold off adopting a specific ordinance until the maps become final, as boundaries might yet change, and if they did, the ordinance’s particulars would need to change too.

But “thinking like a banker,” I interjected, might lenders demand that those in the preliminarily-charted flood zone purchase flood insurance now, insurance Enfield’s lack of enabling legislation doesn’t allow them to buy?

“I can’t speak on behalf of the lenders,” Song qualified, “I don’t know if they have standing to do that?”

“But the banker has standing to say ‘no loan,” I rebutted.

And with that remark, Town Supervisor Stephanie Redmond hustled us off to the agenda’s next topic.  We’ll revisit flood insurance March 13th.

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