Redmond giddy about pot-bars’ promise for Enfield
by Robert Lynch, October 14, 2021
As Bob Dylan wrote nearly six decades ago, “The Times They Are a-Changin’.”
Who would have thought when Dylan released his album in 1964 that a Supervisor in rural Enfield would have said what Stephanie Redmond told her Town Board Wednesday night:
“I actually fully support marijuana being legal and utilized within Town limits. I would love to see those sorts of farms here as well as stores. And I hope that would help us reduce taxes in the future.”
Redmond’s remark came during the Town Board’s brief discussion Wednesday (Oct. 13th) of whether Enfield should access a provision of New York’s new marijuana legalization law and “opt-out” of permitting either marijuana dispensaries (stores) or on-site consumption (pot bars) within its community. The Town Board agreed to hold a public discussion of a possible opt-out law at its November 10th meeting, but went no farther toward adopting an opt-out law that would meet a State-set year-end deadline.
Indeed, a majority of the five-member Town Board expressed support for encouraging marijuana sales in Enfield, with Redmond its most enthusiastic cheerleader.
“We already have marijuana dispensaries in Enfield,” the Supervisor asserted. “We just aren’t getting taxes from them.” (Redmond may stand aware of local merchants that others do not.)
“I don’t have a dog in this fight,” Councilperson Robert Lynch (this writer) told the Board, stressing he remains undecided and open-minded regarding marijuana sales. Lynch introduced a Resolution—never voted on—that would have directed the Supervisor to draft an opt-out law, as other towns have done, in time to meet the State’s December 31st deadline for action. Redmond and others committed themselves to next month’s public discussion, but to nothing more.
“We do have a dog in this race,” Redmond said, countering Lynch’s canine equivocation. “Because of the kickbacks we would get financially from this,” she said, “I don’t feel like I can support this (an opt-out law).”
“We already have residents struggling to pay taxes,” added the Supervisor, “and I would do anything to remove that burden as much as possible.” And regarding the potential downside of local sales, “I don’t think this would be a negative impact to the Town at all,” she said.
Board members Virginia Bryant and James Ricks indicated they’d likely join Redmond in letting pot stores and pot bars open up in Enfield. Councilperson Jude Lemke, like Lynch, remained non-committal.
“These dispensaries greatly help the tax base of the Town,” said Bryant. “Prohibition did not work. We can’t prevent what’s happening with marijuana usage,” she added. “I don’t think we need to sit in a cave and pretend it’s not happening.”
“I know people smoke in Enfield whether there’s a dispensary here or not,” said Ricks. “A tax will be collected in a lot of places. Why not Enfield?”
As explained to the Board, a community that permits dispensaries would receive about four per cent of revenues from local marijuana sales. A town that opts out would have no dispensaries and would collect no money.
Under New York’s law, a Town that has not yet opted out of the program could only do so before year’s end. However, a Town opting out could later reverse course and opt back in. Whichever decision a community made, residents could also petition to challenge a Board’s decision through referendum.
An opt-out law would not bar adults from smoking marijuana. Nor, presumably, could it block marijuana cultivation.
“I don’t know if I’m going to support it,” Lynch said of any potential opt-out law. “What I don’t want,” he said, “is somebody to come back in January and say ‘We don’t want these dispensaries. Why did you let the deadline pass?’”
Redmond closed Wednesday’s discussion worrying that next month’s discussion could prove one-sided.
“My only concern is there’s been a bit of stigma around marijuana, and so I would be concerned that we would have a biased public viewpoint expressed,” Enfield’s Supervisor said. “But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe people are releasing their stigma around that.”
On another matter, the Enfield Town Board Wednesday (Oct. 13th) pounded the final nail of approval into the year-long application by Norbut Solar Farms to build its Applegate Road solar farm. The Board approved a “decommissioning agreement” with Norbut for the 15 Megawatt facility after being assured Enfield holds no legal leverage to squeeze from the firm a Host Community Agreement that would compensate the Town beyond what a County-authorized “PILOT” tax abatement plan provides.
“We do not have a leg to stand on,” Councilperson Lemke, an attorney, advised the Board after she’d conferred with another lawyer who’s an expert on the subject. There’s no law to require Norbut to provide host community compensation, nor one to permit Enfield to impose it, Lemke counseled her colleagues.
“I fear it’s going to be 30 years of regret for our taxpayers,” Lynch responded, “because that PILOT runs for 30 years, and we are getting a pittance out of it.”
“I will not use foul language,” Bryant interjected, referring to the downtown agency that rebuffed Enfield’s appeal for a Host Community Agreement, “but they really didn’t do us any service.”
Redmond’s “Equal Dislike” Budget
Round One: Board supports “gender justice” pay raise for Town Clerk
News Analysis by Robert Lynch; October 9, 2021
When it comes to Town budgeting, excuse Stephanie Redmond for mangling the advice of Dale Carnegie—presuming she ever read his book.
“So just to put it out there,” Enfield’s novice Supervisor told her Town Board at its initial budget meeting October 4th, “My goal is—it’s kind of awful— that I wanted everybody to dislike me evenly. And I thought that was to be the fairest thing.”
Equal-Dislike Budgeting, to Supervisor Redmond, appointed amid controversy just last January and unveiling her first-ever annual fiscal blueprint to four Councilpersons Monday, meant spreading the pain around; playing with a self-set, $70,000 allowable tax levy increase bridled only by an Albany-calculated tax cap that’s little more than meaningless mathematical make-believe. Enfield taxpayers suffer no penalty if the Town exceeds the tax cap and no longer reap any reward if the Town stays within it.
Yet politicians still respect the tax cap as a third-rail mandate. And Redmond, like her predecessor, Beth McGee, dared not cross its line.
“We only have room for a 70,000 increase before we go over our tax cap,” Redmond counseled her Board, describing how she balanced competing interests via calculator if not by need. “Basically, the residents aren’t going to like me because there’s a slight increase in their taxes. And all the department heads aren’t going to like me because they’re not getting everything that they want. And I’m just trying to be as fair as I can be and make everybody dislike me evenly.”
But the Town Board took a different approach on its first night’s budget facing; arguably greasing Enfield government’s squeakiest wheel.
Affirming a crusade championed long and loudly by former Town Clerk Ellen Woods, the Board tentatively increased next year’s Clerk’s salary by a full $8,000, bringing its compensation line to $30,000 next year. That’s up $6,000 from what Redmond had budgeted and a full 50 per cent above where it stood in 2020. (The Clerk also earns an extra $2,000 as tax collector.)
The Board also, with equal caution, raised the pay of Clerk Mary Cornell’s part-time deputy, Cornell’s sister, Laura Norman. Deputy’s pay would rise 20 per cent to $12,000. As such, deputy compensation would just barely top the current minimum wage.
“We shouldn’t be paying our Deputy Clerk less than McDonald’s pays to flip hamburgers,” Councilperson Robert Lynch (this writer) counseled his fellow Board members in pressing for the $12,000 figure.
But the Clerk’s pay issue remains far from settled. Salaries only become legally locked-in when the Town Board elevates Redmond’s Tentative Budget to a Preliminary Budget. After that, it goes to a Public Hearing, which needn’t be held until two days after Town elections.
The Board could have promoted the budget to preliminary status that first night. It didn’t. All members concluded the plan needed more tinkering. It could get added attention October 13th, when the Board faces a heavy agenda of regular business. Redmond has hinted at multiple meetings. “We could meet every day,” she joked at one point during Monday’s discussion.
But while the Town Clerk’s salary received a corrective boost that most Board members concluded was long overdue, the Highway Superintendent, Barry “Buddy” Rollins, has so far fallen short of his request. Rollins sought a fifth, full-time subordinate and two part-time seasonal workers, new hires that would restore positions that austerity-obsessed Supervisor McGee had slashed from Rollins’ payroll one year ago. Rather than honor Rollins’ submission, Redmond’s tentative budget awarded the Superintendent only the two part-timers, not the full-time employee. The difference, the Supervisor explained, is that a full-time addition would carry with it benefits. Part-timers would not.
Again, in trimming Buddy’s wish-list, Redmond fell back on that pesky little tax cap.
“With the full-time position and all of their benefits, we’re looking at a $60,000 increase,” Redmond told the Board. “So you know when I had a choice of keeping us under the tax cap and dealing with the fact that we are basing a lot of it under [an expected] $100,000 increase in our building fee, I felt nervous about putting in a whole $60,000 position that would carry into the future.”
That “building fee” is a one-time windfall the Town expects to receive from Norbut Solar Farms next year in permit charges to build its solar array off Applegate Road. Lynch questioned Redmond whether the figure stands accurate and the project remains firm. On both counts, Redmond assured Lynch it was.
Rollins strongly defended his need for the added staff, arguing that budgeting errors could provide his department more money than Redmond had first forecast and that a fifth full-timer would allow his men to resume mowing cemeteries and doing other seasonal work.
After some 90 minutes of budget review, the Town Board left the Highway Department’s staffing for another day. Instead, the significant—albeit tenuous—hike in the Town Clerk compensation offered the budget meeting’s most memorable exchanges.
“I think it is not a raise. To think it’s a raise is the wrong attitude to take. It is correction of a prior injustice,” Councilperson Lynch, the pay hike’s strongest advocate, told his fellow Board members.
“We all talk about systemic racism. And that’s bad. We know that, and it exists in society. But there’s also systemic sexism,” Lynch insisted.
Lynch contrasted the Clerk’s pay with the $64,000 that next year’s budget would award Highway Superintendent Rollins. “Now I know every job is unique and every job commands a certain salary,” Lynch said. “Nonetheless, there’s been a past Town Clerk (Woods) who’s talked about pink-collaring. And that is the subtle sexism that goes on in society when we figure that women who traditionally do women’s jobs are valued at less money.”
The Councilperson conceded the $30,000 Clerk’s salary still understates what the job deserves, but he said it was all the Town could afford this year. Nonetheless, it’s a start, he said. “I know people may criticize me as a spendaholic,” Lynch acknowledged. “I’m just trying to have gender justice here. And that’s my position.”
Councilperson Jude Lemke entered the debate with a lower initial increase, countering Lynch’s figure with a compromise at $26,000. Councilperson Virginia Bryant concurred, suggesting “26 or 27.” Redmond made clear she was not wedded to the lower number she’d first proposed. By consensus, not by a vote, the Board settled on Lynch’s upper number for now.
“I’m not sure how we’re getting there,” Lemke said hesitantly, as she expressed openness to the 30 Grand amount. “We need to see the whole thing, where the offsets are.”
Redmond’s approach to the Clerk’s raise may reflect the overpowering role the Town’s Finance Committee plays in budget drafting. A mix of elected leaders and unelected appointees, the committee recently made headlines when it met in seclusion September 27th, and Redmond expelled Lynch from the zoom session when he got wind of it. One could infer from the Supervisor’s Town Board remarks, that the Finance Committee—supposedly only an advisory sounding board—had pushed back hard on giving $30,000 to the Clerk and had prompted Redmond to timidly back down.
“There were some people on the Finance Committee that did not agree with that increase,” Redmond told the Town Board. “So I put [the increase] at 2,000. And I basically decided I would leave it up to the Town Board once we’ve gone through the budget to decide if they want to increase it further.”
The Town Board sought Town Clerk Cornell’s own opinion.
“The Town Clerk in Enfield has historically been underpaid,” concluded Cornell, who’s been in the office only since last spring. The Clerk and her deputies “have a lot of responsibility and do a lot for this Town,” she said. “I would like to see what is possible and what is feasible.”
Unshackled from her Finance Committee’s preferences, Supervisor Redmond then affirmed Mary Cornell’s efforts. “I tend to agree that she has shown her worth to us,” the Supervisor said. “She’s done a fabulous job since she’s been in office…. I really support bringing her salary up.”
The October 4th inaugural budget review answered two pressing questions; one of them expected; the other one a blindsided surprise.
Redmond explained why she’d slashed the $10,000 Deputy Supervisor’s salary in half. She confirmed that the current appointee, Isabel Castillo, wants to cut back her hours. “She’s a stay-at-home mom, and she was having a hard time fulfilling the full hours,” Redmond explained. With the 10-15 hours currently required each week, Redmond said, “she’s just been struggling to meet that need.”
The other question arose only when Councilperson Lynch stumbled into it. “Where’s our $12,000 a year bookkeeper?” Lynch asked as the Supervisor struggled through some enigmatic budget lines. Lynch wondered why bookkeeper Brian McIlroy wasn’t at the meeting to help.
Only then did Redmond reveal that she and McIlroy had a falling out, its circumstances still unexplained. She indicated that McIlroy, who serves at the Supervisor’s pleasure, no longer represents the Town. The next day, October 5th, Redmond announced she’d retained Newfield’s bookkeeper, Blixy Taetzsch, to replace him.
But as Supervisor Redmond made clear October 4th, the tax cap is king. State figures peg the cap at two percent for the year ahead, adjusted by a few fudge factors that only an accountant can untangle. (Remember, we just lost ours.) And the Supervisor bandies about the $70,000 allowable increase, even though it’s hard to figure out how she arrived at it. Yet remember, while the State talks a two percent ceiling, consumer prices rose 5.3 per cent in August.
“The tax cap is not a magic number. It’s an artificial figure that Albany concocts,” Councilperson Lynch insisted as Monday’s budget meeting walked into the weeds. “And I would have no problem going over it to give justice to the office of Town Clerk.”
We’ll see where it goes. “Even-dislike budgeting” may prevail as we kick through the leaves of October.
Fujitsu Study R.I.P.
County Legislature kills Fujitsu Broadband Study at midpoint
Posted by Robert Lynch, October 5, 2021
When it comes to stretching the reach of broadband Internet, Danby legislator Dan Klein thinks Tompkins County can walk and chew gum at the same time. But a majority on the County Legislature Tuesday night disagreed with him. And because they did, the so-called “Fujitsu Study,” heralded one year ago as the best way to find and fill broadband’s gaps in Tompkins County, is now dead.
By an 11-3 vote, with Klein among the dissenters, the County Legislature voted to repurpose more than $35,000 originally assigned to underwrite unfinished parts of the consultants’ study, an effort partnered with the Southern Tier Network (STN), a non-profit cable provider, and Fujitsu Corporation. Instead, the County will use part of that the money to fund a road-by-road “physical survey” of the entire county to learn for certain where fiber-based broadband exists and where it does not.
“We have two ideas on the table right now,” Klein said of the Fujitsu Study and the plan for a countywide survey. Let’s do both, he suggested. “Doing both is better.”
“I don’t know if either of these approaches to solving the broadband access problem will provide all of the answers,” the Danby rep advised his colleagues. “But don’t we owe it to our residents to at least try?”
The problem for Klein was that a majority of legislators had already soured on the Fujitsu approach, a strategy that focused on extending so-called “middle-mile” broadband trunk lines to link pockets of unserved residents. But the cables would never themselves stretch to individual homes, and there’d be no assurance private Internet providers would ever step up to extend the lines to reach those residences.
“Would we be building a bridge to nowhere?” Dryden legislator Martha Robertson asked, partly under her breath, at a key committee meeting earlier in day, one that handed forth the Resolution the full Legislature would later adopt. Robertson also then mentioned—and repeated to the full body—that the middle-mile plan, if undertaken, could cost County government more than $10 Million.
At Tuesday’s later session, Klein offered an amendment which would have kept the Fujitsu Study going to its conclusion but also would have funded the physical survey with an extra $20,000 tapped from either the County’s Contingency Fund or the federally-financed American Rescue Plan. Klein’s amendment lost five votes to nine.
The rural lawmaker had good reason to salvage Fujitsu’s effort. His Danby and Caroline constituents would be among those most benefited by those STN broadband cables. Indeed, as County planners revealed just recently, only those two towns, plus Newfield, would meet study standards as being sufficiently deprived of broadband to warrant added service. And because Newfield is part of the mix, Klein drew support at Tuesday’s meeting from Newfield Supervisor Michael Allinger, whose message he read at the meeting.
“I applaud the County for taking a leadership role in this project,” wrote Allinger. “I urge you to see the process through.”
But those preferring to ditch the Fujitsu approach focused on its flaws, most notably the woeful errors in its underlying database, a problem known for more than a decade, its approximations vastly overestimating broadband’s true reach and erroneously predicting that virtually every home in Enfield enjoys broadband access. As a result, Fujitsu’s study predicted only 200 to 400 homes countywide would benefit from STN’s cables. And it never got past the market assessment stage before County planners paused it.
What’s more, the study’s second weakness, namely its lack of “last-mile” home connectivity, drew ample criticism, including from some on an intermunicipal broadband committee that have pondered the study’s problems for months.
Middle-mile internet is like a long-distance phone carrier, Enfield Councilperson Robert Lynch (this writer), the Town’s Broadband Committee rep, said as he addressed the Legislature before Klein’s amendment had surfaced. “You can have the greatest long-distance carrier in the world, but that does no good if you don’t have phone service in your home or a cell tower nearby,” Lynch reminded lawmakers.
The Enfield Board member later told Klein he would have supported Klein’s two-pronged approach had he known of it when he spoke.
But County planners voiced caution about having both Fujitsu’s efforts and a county-wide survey on their plates at the same time.
“Doing them simultaneously presents some challenges,” Nick Helmholdt, the Planning Department’s point person on broadband, told the Legislature. “They’d have to be sequenced,” he predicted. And because the physical survey would then seek to encourage private providers to fill in the identified gaps, the two studies to an extent compete with each other for unserved market. Helmholdt predicted nine to 12 months to pursue both options.
What’s more, Helmholdt’s boss, Planning Commissioner Katie Borgella, cautioned that the acknowledged errors in the Fujitsu Study’s database, should the study continue, would carry forth to the final recommendation.
“The data is just no good,” Newfield-Enfield legislator Dave McKenna remarked as he voted against the Klein amendment, but in support of the road-by-road survey. Because he did, McKenna parted ways with his own Town’s Supervisor, Newfield’s Allinger, and also with Enfield’s other County Legislator, Anne Koreman, who would have preferred to have given the two-choice effort a try.
But underlying the concerns of some both on and off the County Legislature is a general distaste for private Internet providers, most notoriously Charter-Spectrum, the mega-monopoly that serves a majority of the county’s customers.
“I have no loyalty to Spectrum,” Legislator Shawna Black told the Housing and Economic Development Committee earlier in the day. “My service is continuously down,” she said. “My neighbor, who’s only been a client of theirs for a year and a half, pays half of what I pay. And once a year I call their office, and I’m put on hold for four hours.”
“They don’t care about our community,” Black said of Spectrum, “but they care about our money.”
And now the Fujitsu Study waits on its own (permanent) hold, and he County prepares to solicit a consultant to survey every road to ascertain true Internet needs.
Still, children need the web to learn. And Lansing’s Mike Sigler urged the commitee not to delay the process too long. “My child isn’t getting any younger,” he said.
Redmond’s First Budget
Enfield Supervisor releases 2022 Spending plan; modest pay raises; more Highway Dept. funding
Last year, there was a fight in Enfield at Budget Time. Supervisor Beth McGee, on her way out the door and in the midst of a pandemic, released her legally-demanded Tentative Budget at about three o’clock one afternoon. And before most of us had gone to bed, the Enfield Town Board, with lightning speed, had elevated McGee’s fiscal roadmap to Preliminary Budget status—a next-to-last rung on the path to final approval.
There was pushback, principally from Councilperson Robert Lynch, (this writer), who fought the hurried pace and also how McGee had sought to cut Highway Department staffing by more than 20 per cent. Similarly heated objections arose from Town Clerk Ellen Woods, who complained then—and still complains—about how little the Town Clerk gets paid.
But that was then, and this is now.
Thursday, September 30th, McGee’s chosen successor, Stephanie Redmond, controversially appointed Supervisor last January, handed up her first year’s attempt at an annual Town spending plan. Redmond’s tentative budget, in contrast to McGee’s 2021 draft, may itself stir little controversy, except perhaps at the margins. Redmond’s submission proposes combined General and Highway Fund spending of just under $2 Million, with a proposed General/Highway Fund tax levy of $1.56 Million, up 3.9 per cent from the year soon to end.
Though Redmond has not yet shared the commonly-offered Supervisor’s budget message to accompany her figures, review of data indicates the fiscal officer proposes to add back the fifth Highway staffer that Supervisor McGee had cut from the Department one year ago.
Indeed, the Highway Department spending line shows the biggest increase of any, much of it due to the expectation of a return flow of State Aid, so-called “CHIPS” money, that a fiscally-cautious McGee had zeroed out in the past. Although the statistic alone may overstate the impact—because of the pandemic panic that overshadowed the prior year’s budget cycle—Redmond’s tentative budget would hike Highway appropriations by nearly $359,000 or 36.7 per cent.
The Supervisor is expected to discuss her spending plan and the rationale behind it in her presentation to the full Town Board Monday, October 4th.
“It’s a decent starting point; much better than last year,” Councilperson Lynch said as he cast his first gaze upon the nine-page financial statement Saturday. “Yes, I have question marks penciled in the margins, about seven of them,” he said. “If we had a budget message, I might be able to find the answers. I guess we’ll just have to wait until Monday night.”
One of the strangest mysteries within the document concerns Redmond’s halving the salary for her assistant, the Deputy Supervisor. Isabel Castillo, appointed to the post in February, currently earns $10,000 a year as Redmond’s deputy. The Tentative Budget cuts Deputy Supervisor compensation to $5,000.
Since the position’s elevation from largely ceremonial to substantive status in April 2020, the Deputy Supervisor’s job—held initially by Redmond prior to her January promotion—has proven a flash point of controversy. Critics of former Supervisor McGee, most prominently Lynch, have argued the additional administrative post with its five-figure paycheck simply isn’t needed. Lynch was overruled by his colleagues when he initially opposed the job’s expansion last year and then, again, when he attempted this year to scale it back.
Neither Redmond nor Castillo has explained the pay reduction. But sources indicate Castillo—whose work even Lynch has found commendable—may want to curtail her working hours.
The Supervisor’s budget proposes modest raises for most other Enfield Town positions, including Redmond’s own. The Supervisor would raise her own annual salary from $24,000 to $25,000 (up 4.2 %). Each of the four Councilpersons would have salaries rise to $3,600, a $100 (2.9%) increase. The Highway Superintendent, Barry “Buddy” Rollins, uncontested in this fall’s elections, would see his pay go up from $61,500 to $64,000 (up 4.1%).
And perhaps (still) most controversial, the Town Clerk, currently Mary Cornell, would secure a $2,000 raise, her salary rising to $24,000. Accorded another $2,000 on a second budget line for her dual-service as tax collector, Cornell would earn slightly more—but not much more—than the Supervisor.
“All of the duties the Town Clerk position performs are legally required, that is why every single 3500 Town (sic) in NY recognizes this with a higher salary,” former Clerk Woods, who resigned last March, wrote in a blistering email to the Town Board Friday evening after reviewing Redmond’s submission.
Arguing in favor of a much-higher Clerk’s salary and maintaining an Enfield Town Clerk does full-time work, Woods continued, “If this is not remedied y’all are saying that Clerk time is worth 50% of Supervisor time and that is just so offensive on every level… but especially the levels of Class & Gender.”
According documents recently filed, Woods’ successor, Cornell, maintains she works about three-quarter time.
Setting a proper compensation for Town Clerk has prompted repeated discussions among Enfield Town officials during the past year. Former Town Councilperson Michael Miles, who served only two months on the Town Board after his appointment to fill a vacancy last November, had voiced particular support for raising the Clerk’s salary. Unless the Board raises Clerk’s compensation prior to the next step in its budget process, Redmond’s recommendation would leave the pay issue unresolved for yet another year.
But a second issue looms large as Enfield’s 2022 budget deliberations move into public view. It involves the secretive process by which Redmond’s proposal was written in the first place.
Monday, September 27th, Councilperson Lynch got wind that the Town’s Finance Committee, reconstituted last February with Supervisor Redmond, Councilperson Jude Lemke, several elected Town officers and two private citizens as its members, had met several times in recent weeks to guide Redmond’s budget drafting. Lynch sought to join Monday’s virtual session. But upon spotting his presence, Redmond repeatedly asked Lynch to leave, maintaining Lynch’s attendance elevated the discussion to an illegally-called Town Board meeting, with a Board quorum present.
Lynch refused to sign off, maintaining the State’s Open Meetings Law permitted his attendance. Redmond, in turn, ejected Lynch from the meeting, cutting his zoom link. Redmond then commenced an inquiry into how Lynch obtained his meeting link that day.
“This is just another example of the ‘Shadow Government’ Enfield residents have so come to hate,” Lynch posted on his website and on social media the day of the incident, the Councilperson repeating the words he’d used as the Supervisor booted him off. Under the post’s title, “Whose Town is this, anyway?” Lynch wrote, criticizing the Finance Committee’s newly-dictated secrecy, “This must change. Enfield’s Democracy will not survive unless it does.”
Meanwhile, the Enfield budget rolls forth toward further approval. The Town Board, following review and potential revision of Redmond’s submission, must first vote to make it the Town’s Preliminary Budget, and then schedule a Public Hearing. State law requires the Board adopt a budget by late-November.
Vaccine for nothin’ and the tests are free…
County funds testing prong of Enfield Vaxx Policy
by Robert Lynch, September 22, 2021
Had you not scoured the agenda, you might have missed it.
With all the heavy lifting done in committee the day before, the Tompkins County Legislature Tuesday (Sept. 21st) gave quick and unanimous approval to expansion of a County-funded—and likely federally reimbursed—COVID-19 surveillance testing program that will now cover local municipal employees. The expansion would permit the Town of Enfield’s workforce to obtain free weekly asymptomatic testing at Cayuga Health Systems’ mall-based sampling site should they opt-out of a vaccination mandate policy under consideration by the Enfield Town Board, but not yet adopted.
Buried within Tuesday’s “consent agenda,” a laundry list that contained multiple, routine actions, the testing policy’s expansion cleared the Legislature without discussion.
“I’m glad that the Committee has been receptive to this,” Enfield Councilperson Robert Lynch (this writer) told the Health and Human Services Committee one day prior to the Legislature’s vote. “There are still other issues in Enfield that we have to resolve with regards to the vaccination policy,” he cautioned the Committee. “They’re Enfield issues. I’m not asking you to solve them today. That’s for us to solve. But at least the financial aspect will be rectified by this Resolution.”
Tompkins County began funding free surveillance testing for the general public in September of last year after insurance companies began denying reimbursement for routinely testing those who failed to show COVID-19 symptoms. While the program funds the tests for most residents, it does not include those whose employers demand the samples. In those instances, the employer must pay the charge.
But with some municipalities now considering following County Government’s lead and requiring employees either vaccinate or get regular tests, municipal boards, including Enfield’s, have raised the expense factor as a potential obstacle to a mandate policy’s adoption.
When Councilperson Lynch initially introduced Enfield’s vaccination mandate this August, Supervisor Stephanie Redmond countered that the weekly testing cost for employees who chose not to vaccinate—even if only one or two—could break the Town’s budget. Tuesday’s action by the County Legislature would appear to remove the financial barrier.
Yet even with County funding an increasingly likely prospect, the Enfield Board rejected the vaccinate-or-test policy at its September 8th meeting. Councilperson Lynch, the policy’s lone supporter in the September vote, has pledged to resubmit a modified version of the mandate at the Board’s October meeting.
Following Supervisor Redmond’s raising her cost concerns in August, Lynch contacted several in County Government, including Health Committee Chair Shawna Black in search of a solution. Subsequent committee deliberations led to this week’s two-step legislative endorsement.
Tompkins County initially bankrolled its surveillance testing policy with hundreds of thousands of dollars from its Contingency Fund. But more recently, a federal agency (FEMA) has agreed to cover the cost fully. Deputy County Administrator Amie Hendrix informed both the Health Committee Monday, and then the full Legislature on Tuesday that FEMA reimbursement should also cover municipal employee tests.
As for the municipal collection and testing procedures, Hendrix cautioned the committee, “The logistics on that are not as simple and straightforward as maybe we had thought originally.”
Beginning next month, County Government, with its large workforce, will send around an employee to collect test samples from various worksite drop boxes and then take them to a hospital lab for analysis. Hendrix indicated the Town of Ithaca may do the same. But for smaller municipalities, like Enfield, employees would likely have to drive themselves to the testing site. There’d be no County pickup.
“We need to work with each municipality to look at how that program would look,” the deputy administrator told the committee.
But some governments, Hendrix advised the Legislature, want to go one step farther. She said the City of Ithaca may choose a more ambitious regimen, namely to surveillance test every employee regularly, whether vaccinated or not—a policy Redmond has also suggested Enfield do. Hendrix doubted Ithaca’s more aggressive strategy would qualify for FEMA’s blanket coverage. As a result, she told the committee the City may need to contract separately with Cayuga Health and seek separate FEMA reimbursement of its “more broadspread program.”
In other County Legislature business Tuesday:
- The Legislature unanimously appointed Tamara Scott as the County’s new Republican Elections Commissioner. Scott, endorsed by the local Republican Committee, has served as Interim Commissioner since the recent retirement of Commissioner Elizabeth Cree. Stephen Dewitt continues as the Democratic Commissioner.
- The Legislature paid tribute with a moment of silence to mark the passing of their former colleague, Peter Stein, who represented the Town of Ithaca. Stein died Friday, September 17th, at age 89. A retired Cornell physics professor, Stein had served on the Legislature from 2010 through 2017. Current legislators and staff took turns sharing their memories of Peter.
- And on a matter likely to enthrall only the most fervent of financial pencil-pushers, the Legislature updated its long-debated Fund Balance Policy, setting new guidelines for how much money the County should put aside in what amounts to its government savings account.
The proposed policy changes hobbled to the legislative floor after having been supported in one committee, but crippled by a split voter in another. The old policy had called for setting aside in the General Fund Balance moneys equal to only ten per cent of the County’s annual budget. (It had been just five per cent a few years back.) What emerged from the single committee that could reach agreement—the Budget and Capital Committee—was a set-aside of between 18 and 23 per cent of an annual budget. The Legislature Tuesday first rejected an amendment that would have chopped the top figure down to 20 per cent; then passed an amendment that eliminated the top figure altogether. The 18 per cent number—only a guideline; not a hard-and-fast constraint—still stands above the percentage financial experts recommend.
Having an upper limit could “guide and color the decisions of staff and the Legislature,” warned Dryden’s Martha Robertson in supporting a lower top limit. Robertson feared the upper number of the two would become the fund balance’s de facto target. We could “lose out on opportunities,” she said. By “opportunities,” she most likely meant added spending.
Her Dryden colleague, Mike Lane, however, supported keeping the higher number high. He even voted against the final Resolution. What an upper range does, said Lane, is alert us of when the balance creeps too high, perhaps signaling a need to cut taxes. Moreover, he said, the higher number underscores the importance that “we have a good amount in the bank for things that may come along.”
Speaking Up; Making a Difference
I’ve long known that if there’s something you want; something and need, you’d best ask for it.
When our Town Supervisor raised a plausible concern in August against my proposed Vaccine Mandate—namely that a weekly COVID-19 test for an asymptomatic Town employee who chose not to vaccinate might break the Town’s budget—I went to work. My path led me to contact Shawna Black, Chair of the County Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, on August 16th. I explained to her Enfield’s predicament and the political pushback given my well-intended vaccinate-or-test Resolution, one that mirrored newly-adopted Tompkins County policy. I wrote Legislator Black, in part:
“[H]as the County considered furthering public health by underwriting the costs of asymptomatic employee testing by participating municipalities? We, Tompkins County’s Towns, lack the financial resources of County Government. Funding testing at the mall-based Cayuga Health Systems testing site would help keep our municipal employees, and the publics they serve, safe.”
It brought action. The Health Committee and County staff wrote a Resolution that would expand the County-funded—and FEMA-reimbursed—surveillance testing at the Cayuga Health Systems’ drive through sampling site to cover municipal employees of Tompkins towns, villages, and the City of Ithaca. Each municipality—including our own—sets its preferred policy. The County Resolution, adopted by the County Legislature September 22nd, keeps employee testing from breaking our bank.
I expected the testing expansion Resolution would clear the Health and Human Services Committee Monday (Sept. 20th). It did. The full Legislature adopted it one night later. But to underscore Enfield’s encouragement—and our gratitude—I stated the following before Legislator Black’s committee:
Good Afternoon, Robert Lynch, 175 Gray Road, Town of Enfield. I’m here as a representative of the Enfield Town Board and of myself
I suppose the Resolution that I come to endorse, which is the Resolution to extend the contract with Cayuga Health Systems for COVID-19 testing , I suppose that Resolution has a thousand parents by now because it’s so popular in this county. I’d like to think I was one of the first back in the summer of 2020 when I talked with then-member Anna Kelles and other members of the Legislature and urged you to adopt it to allow asymptomatic testing for COVID-19 as an initial way to get our hands around this pandemic. And it’s been very successful and I urge that it be continued with the Resolution that you have before you today.
I also particularly want to endorse the fact that you have requested that it be extended to cover municipal employees in Tompkins County. And as a member of the Enfield Town Board, I feel a particular attachment to that.
As you know, we’ve had some discussion out in Enfield, on the Town Board, regarding a vaccination mandate policy for vaccination of employees with an opt-out option for weekly testing. And when we first brought this up in August, there was some concern by some Board members that the expense of weekly testing even for one employee, or two, would be a budget-breaker for us. And at that time, I came to the [Health and Human Services] Committee, talked to [Committee Chair] Shawna Black and others and urged that we consider it, County funding through the Cayuga Health Systems’ drive-through testing facility, for this kind of testing.
I’m glad that the Committee has been receptive to this. It’ll work out. There are still other issues in Enfield that we have to resolve with regards to the vaccination policy. They’re Enfield issues. I’m not asking you to solve them today. That’s for us to solve. But at least the financial aspect will be rectified by this Resolution. And I urge its recommendation and adoption by the Legislature tomorrow.
And yes, thank you Tompkins County. Now, Enfield, let’s act.
Slice and Dice
Competing Congressional Maps would bring us different political bedfellows
And one could bring to our District both Katko and Tenney
Posted by Robert Lynch, September 16, 2021; Updated September 17, 2021
If Democratic line-scribblers on New York’s party-divided Independent Redistricting Commission prevail, Tompkins County voters will be looking north—not to the south or west—to cement their Congressional loyalties during the next political decade.
Draft maps submitted Wednesday (Sept. 15th) by the Democratic partisans on New York State’s now fractured and visibly wrangling Redistricting Commission, would pull Tompkins County out of the hundreds-mile-long Southern Tier District where retiring Congressman Tom Reed currently holds sway. Instead, Democrats would put Tompkins County as the southern anchor of a slightly more compact district, one that would curl right from Ithaca up Cayuga Lake’s eastern shore, then through Syracuse and on to Utica. Curl right, perhaps; but likely lean politically left.
In fact, the Democrats’ plan—given the upper hand the way both Empire State politics and Commission rules are structured—would actually carve the Reed District into oblivion. The Southern Tier sprawl of counties, most bordering Pennsylvania from about Elmira heading west to Lake Erie, has long been a fixture in regional Congressional politics. Think Stan Lundine and Amo Houghton.
But on the other hand, if Commission Republicans can somehow wrest control, the Reed District would still survive. Indeed, it would expand. And it would remain with most of Tompkins County still within it, including Enfield and Newfield.
Perhaps by political design, the Democrats’ alternative, if adopted, would put two Republican Congressional incumbents, John Katko and Claudia Tenney, in the same District—ours. It would set the stage for a knock-down Republican Primary, its winner to face a Democratic challenger yet to emerge, yet a candidate likely to hold a voter registration edge.
At the same time as Congressional districts would get sliced and diced, the split Commission’s competing maps could spell changes down-ballot as well, namely in races for the State Legislature. Most notably, the Republican map—but not the Democratic one—would chop incumbent Democrat Anna Kelles’ home base of Tompkins County right down the center of Cayuga Lake. The Republican map, based on its grainy approximation, would lob off the Towns of Enfield, Newfield, and Ulysses from the rest of Tompkins County and merge those towns into a district that would include Seneca, Yates and Schuyler Counties, among others.
For the State Senate, the Democratic—and it appears also the Republican—maps would provide local Democrats something they’ve long sought for decades, namely a single district representing all of Tompkins County. But the similarity stops there. The Democratic Senate draft would tie Tompkins County to Binghamton and its western suburbs. The GOP alternative would link Tompkins with several northern Finger Lakes counties in Republican Pam Helming’s District. Helming already represents Lansing.
“What an embarrassment!” an old hand at local government and media texted this writer as we both concluded watching the Redistricting Commission’s brief half-hour Wednesday session, a meeting hyped for an unveiling of proposed maps, but instead consumed by posturing and preening among Commission members, most of them off microphone,
muffling through masks.
“I was negatively surprised when I saw the maps,” said member Charles Nesbitt, a former Assembly minority leader and one of the few members whose words could be understood, since he was talking remotely, unmasked. “Communities of interest were entirely ignored,” Republican Nesbitt complained. “I can see nothing but confusion …. I believe that a fair reading of the Constitution does not contemplate this process that we’re about to go forward on. So let’s do better.”
The handing forth of competing, partisan maps surely complicates the Redistricting Commission’s mission. The bipartisan entity, created by a constitutional amendment in 2014, was established supposedly to take partisanship out of line drawing. But the latest deadlock could thrust the process right back into the smoke-filled room, one in which majority Democrats hold the upper hand.
As Nicholas Fandos and Grace Ashford wrote in the New York Times:
“Under the New York Constitution, the redistricting commission leads the way in drawing maps. But if it fails to come to a consensus among itself or delivers lawmakers a map that they don’t like, the Legislature can overpower the body and establish almost any map it chooses, so long as the districts meet constitutional requirements and are roughly equal in size.”
And as the Times reporters observed, “Privately, the Republicans fear that Democratic commissioners have no intention of finding an agreement and would prefer to let the body fail so they can kick the process directly to the Legislature to draw more advantageous maps for their party.”
Local residents will get an opportunity to sound off about the redistricting plans—either in-person or virtually—at a series of Public Hearings, the nearest to be held in Binghamton October 25th and in Syracuse October 26th.
One of the more common themes voiced at the Commission’s August 9th Southern Tier Public Hearing was the need to preserve the elongated Southern Tier District, despite the geographic separation of its constituents and the impediments that confront candidates who seek to represent it.
The 23rd District’s breakup would be “detrimental to the region’s recovery,” Bill Mullaney, President of Corning Community College told the Hearing. There’s a “delicate ecosystem of the Southern Tier,” he said. Many commenters agreed. At times one gained the impression community leaders had been recruited to strike a common theme. They repeatedly said that Southern Tier rural counties hold a common “community of interest,” a key criterion in any redistricting.
The Democrats’ plan—but not the Republicans’—would render the Southern Tier District a thing of the past. The Democrats’ draft map would slice central and western New York districts with a series of vertical cuts, in two instances extending districts all the way from Lake Ontario to the Pennsylvania border. Binghamton would be swept into the district of Hudson Valley Democratic Congressman Antonio Delgado. With Reed retiring when his current term expires next year, the Reed seat, for some, seems ripe for the picking. Many of the political battles, some observers say, are to preserve—or endanger—Democratic incumbents, including Delgado, whose constituencies straddle the Hudson River from Albany to the outskirts of New York City.
But while the Congressional carving of Reed’s District might be predictable, the unexpected Republican slicing of Kelles’ home county of Tompkins becomes more of a surprise. The Kelles’ seat is seen as safe; well-suited for “packing” Democrats within its borders and leaving outlying rural areas more competitive. The Democratic plan would recognize that fact. The GOP’s submission does not.
Perhaps the Republicans hope to “crack” Kelles’ Tompkins County base; effectively to divide and conquer. Or maybe the division just fell as the byproduct of strategizing elsewhere. In any event, the Republican plan would give Kelles (or her challenger) new constituencies in Tioga and Broome Counties. The Democrats’ alternative, while keeping Tompkins in Kelles’ camp, would extend the Assembly District north along Cayuga Lake’s eastern shoreline and almost touch Syracuse.
Next: My statement to the Downtown Facilities Committee regarding the Center of Government land purchase.
The following were my comments September 9th to the Downtown Facilities Committee of the Tompkins County Legislature. You may hear these remarks on the Legislature’s You Tube channel during the first minutes of the meeting:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NDJHre5TreY
A full transcript of my remarks is posted below. I will have more to write on this subject later:
“Good afternoon. Robert Lynch, 175 Gray Road, Town of Enfield, a member of the Enfield Town Board. I’m speaking here as an individual today.
“You have on your agenda an item that would spend $3 Million out of Fund Balance to finance the purchase of the land next to the Courthouse, which would be used presumably, eventually as a new Center of Government, Downtown Office Building. I will probably talk to the Legislature as a whole at a later time about this in detail. But let me say briefly today I oppose this. I think it is unwise spending. I don’t think we need the land, and I don’t think we need the building.
“Two years ago, we bought a parcel of land just a block away. And we said at that time it was perfectly serviceable and should be used. I think we should stick with our original decision. There may be some buyer’s remorse today because a better piece of land came along. Well, most of us are not entitled to make those after-the-fact decisions. But County Government, that has an unlimited supply of money, is allowed to do that. I don’t think that we should.
“As everyone knows, I’m a candidate for County Legislature, seeking a seat on District 8. There are three candidates running. I know for a fact that two of the three candidates—maybe all three—oppose the idea of a new office building, and they oppose the idea of buying this land that we’re talking about today.
“All money is fungible, truly, and I know that we’re taking this money out of Fund Balance. However, I can’t escape the realization that we are helped in spending this money by the nearly $20 Million in American Rescue Plan funds that we are getting, and three-quarters of that put into Cash for Capital. That is cash. This is capital.
“I guess I think if we have “mad money,” why don’t we spend it a little differently. I know of a little parcel of land in Lansing [the NYSEG Bell Station site]. We’ve talked about it. In fact, we actually voted on it at the Legislature a couple nights ago. It’s up for sale. It’s about $2 Million. And you know what? The County could take that land by eminent domain. And it could use that $2 Million to help pay for it, and we’d have a County Park. And that might be a pretty good thing to have. And the people of this county might get far more benefit from that land in Lansing that we bought than a parcel of land only used for a building.
“That’s my opinion. Thank you.”
Note: that “little parcel of land in Lansing,” the expansive 470-acre Bell Station parcel, with more than 3,000 feet of undeveloped Cayuga Lake shoreline, is set for auction by its current owner, NYSEG. Joining thousands of online petitioners, the Tompkins County Legislature voted September 7th to urge NYSEG to halt the auction to permit the non-profit Finger Lakes Land Trust to tender a viable purchase offer. Purportedly, the parcel carries an assessed value of just under $2 Million.