Confirm Judge LaSalle

Dems, call off your hunt for the next Liberal Lion

Cool under withering Democratic attack; Judge Hector LaSalle at his confirmation hearing, January 18.

Analysis and commentary by Robert Lynch, January 24, 2023

I will be blunt.  I will state the words that few, if any, New York Democrats have the courage to say as Governor Kathy Hochul’s nomination of Judge Hector LaSalle to become Chief Judge of New York’s Highest Court languishes; as it heads toward its uncertain,  albeit likely and ignoble, death. 

My words are these:  Andrea Stewart-Cousins, you’ve become Albany’s Mitch McConnell.

In 2016, Kentucky’s McConnell stood in the path of Merrick Garland and for more than nine months blocked his elevation to the U.S. Supreme Court after President Obama had nominated the federal appellate judge to replace the late Antonin Scalia.  And on January 18th, Stewart-Cousins, New York’s Senate Majority Leader, refused to schedule a Senate floor vote on LaSalle’s nomination to the Court of Appeals after the Senate Judiciary Committee narrowly refused to endorse him or to advance his nomination further.

You can argue the legislative distinctions on the margins, but only there.  LaSalle’s nomination reached committee.  Garland’s did not.  But to variegate the circumstances ignores the common thread.  Each nominee, arguably, was (or now is) a judicial moderate.  Each nominee knows the law.  Each has a measured temperament.  Each nominee would have served us well.  That should suffice.

Yet in each instance, raw, rough-hewn partisan politics triumphed—or at least appears to have triumphed—over thoughtful, open-minded deliberation.  Democracy took a hit last week in the New York State Legislature.  New York Senate Democrats—including our own district’s Lea Webb—should be ashamed.  Sadly, they won’t be.  They’ll congratulate themselves.  They’ll high-five.  They’ll gloat.  That’s politics.  That’s New York.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (from her official website)

“The nomination was lost,” Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins said following the January 18th rejection of LaSalle in a quick, raise-of-hands vote that capped a grueling five-hour hearing during which the Brooklyn-based judge never lost his cool.  “And I’m hoping that we can move forward and really work to find the chief judge that is reflective of the majority of what the conference, what New Yorkers, expect in a chief judge,” Stewart-Cousins continued, giving the signal that LaSalle just didn’t have the activist bona fides that liberals like she—and Senator Lea Webb—demand.

Ideological intransigence and political gamesmanship:  Sounds a little like McConnell, doesn’t it? 

And Stewart-Cousins’ admonition underscores what this Albany battle is all about.  New York legislative Democrats demand a Liberal Lion to steer their progressive ship; to lead their High Court, rather than some precedent-respectful, intellectually-balanced centrist.   Plainly stated, Hector LaSalle’s only sin is that he is not a left-wing absolutist.  He’s not the kind of judge who—implausible and legally-infirm as the argument may go—has the guts to take on the likes of Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas and spit them both in the eye.

For nearly a week, Governor Hochul has been weighing her options.  She could always concede defeat, withdraw LaSalle’s nomination, and settle on somebody else.  Or she could pick a fight.  It becomes increasingly likely she will do just that.  And she should.

Some scholars believe New York’s Constitution requires a Governor’s judicial nomination to reach the Senate floor regardless of how it fares in committee.  If courts were to affirm that reading, the LaSalle nomination would go before all 63 Senators despite the committee’s rejection.  And if it were to do so, minority Republicans could join moderate-leaning Democrats and provide Hochul’s nominee the 32 affirmative votes, the edge, which he needs.

“While this was a thorough hearing, it was not a fair one, because the outcome was predetermined,” Hochul said following the Judiciary Committee’s ten-to-nine vote that denied LaSalle further consideration.  “While the Committee plays a role, we believe the Constitution requires action by the full Senate,” the Governor said.

Among the Judiciary Committee’s Democratic majority, only two that day supported Hector LaSalle’s nomination.  A majority, all Democrats, opposed it.  Seven Senators, six Republicans and one Democrat, would have advanced the nomination without recommendation.

And “kids tables” down in front. The overpacked Senate Judiciary Committee, Jan. 18.

Perhaps what incensed Hochul most was how Senate leadership stacked the deck against her nominee last-minute.  Leadership expanded Judiciary Committee membership by four prior to the hearing.  Three of the four new appointees are Democrats, each of them already on-the-record as opposing LaSalle.  Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins defended her suspected committee-packing on grounds that in the wake of last year’s sweeping U.S. Supreme Court decisions, her members were clamoring for committee assignments so as to  “change the trajectory” of New York’s Highest Court.  Certainly, for Senate leadership, the timing proved convenient.  And indeed, so far, it’s worked.

“You’d have to question why there was unexpectedly four more votes added to that committee,” Hochul said last Thursday.  “I think if you look at the original composition of that committee before it was changed, there were enough votes to go forward.”

A count of legislative noses would confirm Hochul’s suspicion.  And at the hearing, the committee’s last-minute expansion proved almost comical.  Too few seats existed at the panel’s dais. As many as six members had to sit at a couple of improvised “kid tables” sandwiched between the podium and the press gallery.

Stay tuned as to Kathy Hochul’s next move.  For now, she remains coy.

“You’re jumping ahead in your own analysis,” Hochul told reporters Tuesday in Albany after an unrelated event, according to Politico.  “You will all know everything you need to know in due process and due time.”

****

If Brad Hoylman-Sigal dislikes you, he shows it.  He contorts his face into a grotesque grimace, and he almost snarls his words at you.  Hoylman-Sigal does not like Hector LaSalle.  And during the 15 minutes he allotted to himself at the confirmation hearing last week, the Chair of the State Senate Judiciary Committee turned his questioning of LaSalle into an inquisition.

“Do you know the Conservative Party’s agenda?” Chief Interrogator, Sen. Brad Hoylman- Sigal.

You could ask a potential chief judge many weighty legal questions.  But should you consume precious time faulting the nominee, a Democrat, for years ago accepting cross-endorsement from the New York Conservative Party?  For Brad Hoylman-Sigal, it mattered.  It mattered a lot.

 “Do you know about the Conservative Party’s agenda?” Hoylman-Sigal questioned La Salle, the chairman rattling off the Conservative Party’s alleged stands against reproductive rights, gay rights, and gun regulation.  “Do you consider those to be main stream values?” Hoylman-Sigal asked.

“Main stream values?  Those are values of the Conservative Party,” Judge LaSalle politely replied.  “But I run as a judge….  And I make decisions based on the law and apply the law the same to everyone regardless of political party, regardless of ideology.”

That response did not satisfy the chairman.  During the questioning’s second round, Hoylman-Sigal picked up where hours earlier he’d left off:

“I’m heartsick to hear that you continue to state that you would be honored to run on all the party lines that you have run on,” the chairman lamented.  “As an LGBTQ person, the Conservative Party stands for everything I’m against; against my right to marry, against my ability to have kids, against transgender youth…. It’s hurtful.”

He wasn’t through:  “I think, frankly, candidates should know what parties stand for.”  The chairman pondered whether “willful ignorance” had led LaSalle to accept the Conservatives’ endorsement.  “So frankly, I don’t know what you stand for given that party line that you took,” Hoylman-Sigal concluded.

“Senator… every statement you just made that you assigned me to the Conservative Party, I repudiate,” LaSalle responded.  “I do not agree with any statement that treats you or any of your rights any different than anyone else’s.  So I share your concerns for those positions.”

Compare the questioner to the respondent.  Who’s the voice of reason here?  And who’s just constructing a phantom platform to rationalize rejection? Who should be confirmed Court of Appeals Chief Judge?  And who should the voters dispatch to the political dustbin in the next Senate election—if only they had the courage to do so?  Pardon me, Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal, but the New York Conservative Party is not the KKK.  Its members are not the Proud Boys.  And no, Hector LaSalle is not Robert Bork.

Mind you that back in 2008, one of two times he’d accepted both the Democratic and Conservative endorsements, Hector LaSalle also secured support from the Working Families Party, the same liberal partisans who also endorse Hoylman-Sigal.  Republican Senator Jack Martins alleged at the hearing that the Working Families Party wants to legalize heroin, opioids and prostitution. 

“You’re a Democrat.  I’m a Republican.  You are politically to the left of where I sit and certainly wouldn’t be a choice I would make to the Court of Appeals,” Martins told LaSalle.  Despite that reluctance, Republican Martins voted to advance LaSalle’s nomination to the Senate floor, albeit without recommendation.  Democrat Hoylman-Sigal did not.

Republican Martins: You “certainly wouldn’t be a choice I would make,” but I’ll send your name to the Senate floor.

For a Democratic Party that professes tolerance, Hoylman-Sigal’s line of questioning, his efforts to establish guilt by cross-endorsement, leave a lingering aftertaste among the few of us—the very few of us—who watched the five-hour hearing.  Senate Democrats realize that most New Yorkers never saw the partisan grilling that Hector LaSalle received.  They did not see a political attack machine in high gear. Nor did they witness the nominee’s grace under pressure. The bumper-sticker propaganda will resonate.  The truth will be lost to the ether of apathy and inattention.

Hector LaSalle’s critics will assert that he’s anti-union, anti-choice, and unsympathetic to criminally-accused minorities.  They place their accusations on the slimmest of reeds; case-specific, majority opinions to which the judge joined others on his mid-level appeals court; cases decided on the most intricate of procedural grounds, and parsing technicalities that tell us next to nothing about how LaSalle would rule as a Chief Judge.  To amass their ammunition, opponents scoured the record for issues designed to play best in the only court that really matters; the court of public opinion.

The much-discussed Evergreen case (Evergreen Association Inc. v. Schneiderman), did not deal with a woman’s right to have an abortion, but rather with an attorney general’s power to subpoena a Christian-run crisis pregnancy center that had the audacity to rent space in a medical office building.  And LaSalle’s alleged anti-union Cablevision decision (Cablevision Systems Corp. v. Communications Workers of America Dist. 1) involved a defamation suit granted appellate review during only its most infantile stage; before trial, even before deposition.

Partisans have assailed Judge LaSalle for his failing to dissent in Cablevision, for his not blocking a cable company from pressing suit against union activists for what they may have said as private citizens during an online town hall.  This was a ruling not on the case’s merits, but on procedure alone. Moreover, while Senate Democrats are quick to fault LaSalle for his acquiescence, they care too little about the problem itself to enact legislation to cure it.

As Zack Fink of Spectrum News reported Monday, “not a single Democratic state Senator has put up a bill to remedy that decision or counter the court’s ruling—even though it happened nearly eight years ago.”

Yes, Hector LaSalle’s detractors want only the issue to wave in his face.  Its solution disinterests them.

But what may trouble Senate Democrats most is Judge LaSalle’s refusal to defy precedent, to right society’s wrongs to the point of rewriting statute; to chart the progressive course after no one else steps in first.  It may not be what judges are supposed to do.  But it may be what Senate liberals want them to do.

OSHA’s “Duty of Care:” Judge, should you have extended it farther? Senator Jessica Ramos.

Jessica Ramos, Chair of the Senate’s Labor Committee, zeroed in on an employer liability case, Campanelli v. Long Island Lighting Company, a case where a father’s lead dust contamination may have injured an unborn child while maybe still in the womb.  LaSalle’s court held that the federal OSHA law’s “duty of care” did not extend to a worker’s family members.  Ramos wondered why not.

“So would it be safe to say that you don’t consider a broader reading of statutes that are designed to protect people, like OSHA?” Ramos quizzed LaSalle.

“I read statutes as they’re written,” the nominee answered.  “And there’s nothing in that statute that I remember… that indicated that the child would be protected under OSHA.”

LaSalle went on to say that he’d welcome a more expansive state or federal law to protect workers’ children.  But this was not a hearing aimed at crafting legislation.  This was a hearing choreographed to derail a judge.

Yes, a Liberal Lion is what New York Democrats truly seek.  They also seek a rock star.  And the search they take reaches far beyond the State Senate’s traditional role of advise and consent.

“How do you see the Court of Appeals improve its reputation?” Toby Ann Stavisky asked, the Queens Democrat recalling the memorable tenure of Benjamin Cardozo, the legendary jurist who served a century ago, first as Court of Appeals Chief Judge, and later on the U.S. Supreme Court.  “How do we return to those days where people looked at the Court of Appeals, and said, Wow?”

“I think the way we do that,” Judge LaSalle replied, “is by making it accessible.”  The nominee referred to his own trial-by-fire as a prime example.

Perhaps the ghost in the hearing room. Former Chief Judge Janet DiFiore.

“I think in time with hard work, with scholarship, and with decision-making that everyday New Yorkers can appreciate and understand, we will have the Court that you will expect to have,” LaSalle replied.

This reply from the aspirant to the Cardozo throne may not have satisfied Senator Stavisky sufficiently.  She, like most other Democrats, recommended against LaSalle’s confirmation. Or then, of course, it may not have mattered.  Likely the latter.

And that reaches the final point.  Hanging over the January 18th confirmation proceedings was the ghost of the Chief Judge that Hector LaSalle would most immediately replace, Janet DiFiore, an Andrew Cuomo nominee, who joined the Court as Chief Judge in 2016 and resigned last summer.

Many, including Brad Hoylman-Sigal, saw Judge DiFiore, a former prosecutor, as too conservative.  And with LaSalle, another former prosecutor, the chairman viewed the current nomination as a course correction lost.

“I and many of my colleagues want this Court to go in a different direction,” Hoylman-Sigal remarked early in the hearing.  “But your alliance with the former Chief Judge raises some questions.”

Hoylman-Sigal asked LaSalle whether he considered DiFiore a “professional mentor.”  The nominee said only that DiFiore was “a colleague and someone that I worked with.”

“Justice and fairness must go hand in hand,” Hector LaSalle told Senators at his confirmation hearing.  “Our society must do better, and if I have the honor to serve in the role of Chief Judge, I will do what I can to help lead that effort, to ensure that the arc of our law bends toward greater justice.”

Hector LaSalle’s calmly-spoken, fervently-felt words should be those remembered from his confirmation hearing.  Sadly, other, more strident voices will drown those words out.

****

So Hector LaSalle’s nomination is stalled.  Governor Hochul may attempt to jump over the legislative barrier Majority Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins has thrown in front of her.  Hochul’s reportedly retained outside counsel, Caitlin Halligan, a former New York solicitor general, now in private practice, according to Peter Sterne of City & State

The same publication reports Stewart-Cousins is digging in her heels, and that Hoylman-Sigal is describing the prospect of a Hochul-launched lawsuit as “ludicrous.”

“How does the Court of Appeals even decide the case, when several of them applied for the job?” Hoylman-Sigal told the publication.  “How does the Court of Appeals even seek enforcement? What, we’re going to have state troopers with bayonets forcing us into the chamber? I mean, the whole thing on the surface seems absurd!”

Absurd, perhaps.  New York, yes.  Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Lea Webb, please call off your lion hunt.  And please, don’t make “Moscow Mitch” your role model.

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Posted Previously:

Talking the (Downtown) Talk

by Robert Lynch, Posted January 17, 2023

Chair Shawna Black, in her “State of the County” Address to the Tompkins County Legislature Tuesday, January 17:

“I am honored to report that the State of Tompkins County is strong…. We’re addressing our community’s most pressing challenges: mental health, homelessness, food insecurity, climate change, and housing, while maintaining efforts critical to our central service delivery.”

Black to Legislators: Food Insecurity is a “most pressing challenge.” But her vote?

All right, Madam Chair, let’s look real closely at that third-listed priority:  Food Insecurity.  And let’s check the record; the official record: 

On November 15, 2022, Shawna Black joined three of her legislative colleagues as a committee rejected, two votes to four, Enfield Food Distribution’s (EFD’s) first-round consideration of even the minimum amount of support it had sought under Tompkins County’s Community Recovery Fund.  EFD’s $1.2 Million request would have built a new, modern, innovative  Enfield Food Pantry.  EFD’s application, more than any other, would have addressed this (supposed) “most pressing challenge” that the Legislature’s Chair Tuesday night took such careful pains to showcase.

Only two members of the County Legislature supported the Food Pantry’s funding that mid-November day.  (Legislator Anne Koreman was one of them.) And once rejected during the Advisory Committee’s first round, the Enfield Food Pantry’s plea never got a second look, either by the committee, or later, by the full County Legislature in late-December.

Now, let’s return to the Legislature Chair’s “State of the County” speech:

“A monumental achievement in 2022 was the Legislature’s final agreement on $6.5 Million in grant funds through the Community Recovery Fund,” Shawna Black crowed to her fellow lawmakers.  “The applications to the fund showed us gaps and opportunities across the county,” she said.

Black continued.  And when she did, the leader of County Government acknowledged a painful truth: 

“It’s also clear,” Black said, “that so many people and organizations are still trying to recover from the impacts of the pandemic.  I believe the $6.5 Million in investments will truly be transformative.  But we’ve also heard loud and clear that certain areas continue to need funding, and our constituents are quick to remind us that they feel the County should be doing more.”

Yes, they should.  But while the $6.5 Million in grant awards may be “transformative” for some, in Enfield, they truly are not.  Not a single one of Enfield’s home-grown applicants—including the Food Pantry—received any support from the Community Recovery Fund last month.

And yes, Shawna Black, people are speaking out “loud and clear.”  And many in our corner of the county are speaking with an angry voice.  Let’s start with Newfield’s District-8 rep, Randy Brown, who told his fellow legislators at a meeting in early-January, “Enfield got nothing.  It’s my failure.  It’s our failure.”

Food Insecurity: Shawna’s (supposed) Priority Three as we assess the “State of our County.”  I believe that priority is well-placed.  It’s real.  And here’s proof. 

During a mere four hours on a single day, last Monday, we at the Enfield Food Pantry saw as many as 184 hungry families pass through our door and squeeze through the claustrophobic maze that our cramped distribution aisles have become. Patrons’ overloaded carts can barely pass between the tables of meat and the pallets of donated produce—lettuce and oranges and what-not tossed willy-nilly into bins and boxes that we, an army of unpaid pantry volunteers, must sort out… so as to give out.  It’s a place where volunteer dedication attempts as best it can to overcome the handicaps a woeful lack of workable space inflicts upon us. 

I know.  I was there that Monday.  We give our all.  We smile as best we can.  We try to do the greater good.  Yet we could do so much more, if only… if only.   If only those downtown who so readily pay us lip service, but nevertheless still cast their votes to our detriment, could see what our rabbit warren of a pantry looks like at distribution “rush hour.”   If only they could feel the yoke of burden under which our volunteers must labor.  And if only they could look into the appreciative eyes of those we serve every week of the year—and could serve so much better with the resources we desperately need.

Food Insecurity:  I’m glad it made top-three on Shawna Black’s list of local challenges.  There’s just one problem.  It did so in a place far removed from where that challenge is most conspicuously felt; in a place downtown where talk is amazingly cheap.

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More from the County Legislature:

Town Assessment Boards Axed

County switches to phone-based complaints

“Talk to me, but not about your assessment.” Legislator Dawson (left) with Amanda Champion.

by Robert Lynch,  January 18, 2023

Thanks to legislative action Tuesday, the soonest you may be able to look an assessor eyeball to eyeball is on Grievance Day. That is, not until late-May.

Securing the bare minimum of eight votes needed, the Tompkins County Legislature Tuesday indefinitely suspended the half-century-long practice of convening Town-based Local Boards of Assessment Review, tribunals that allowed residents to complain to local officials at their Town Halls prior to Grievance Day’s final assessment decision. 

“We believe it’s not the best use of time and money,” Government Operations Committee Chair Amanda Champion explained Tuesday.  Her committee had recommended the indefinite suspension.

But that’s only half of the story.   At Tuesday’s Legislature meeting, Director of Assessment Jay Franklin revealed for the first time that the “Informal Review Meetings” he’s promoted to replace complaints before the Local Boards will take place this year only by telephone, and no longer in person.  As yet, County Assessment has not made provision for zoom conferences.  

Franklin advised legislators that the typical “Informal Assessment Review” takes only 5-10 minutes.  And to him, it becomes a matter of crowd control.

“Just by handling the amount of people who are coming in and almost cycling through our office, we just don’t have that space,” Franklin told the Legislature. 

But mind you, only moments earlier, Franklin had said these words:  “We hold Informal Assessment Review meetings each year….  That’s really where we want people to come and talk to us…. People just need to reach out to us and ask us if there’s really any question.” 

So assessors want to hear from you.  They just don’t want to meet you at the office.  Assessors may define “meeting” a little differently than the rest of us do.

This year, Tompkins County may find itself swamped with assessment grievances.  Because of skyrocketing property values in many neighborhoods, the Department of Assessment plans to reassess every parcel in the county.  In many instances, assessors will “trend” values upward on the basis of sampling.  “We will send out 25,000 change notices on February 10th,” Franklin told the Legislature.

All three Republican legislators plus Dryden Democrat Mike Lane voted Tuesday to keep the Local Boards in place.  Mike Sigler was among those who would retain the Local Boards.

“These are one of the few times, I think, that we give the public an opportunity outside of this actual building, and outside of downtown, to come and talk with us,” Sigler said. “I see people re-engaging.”  

“Another point of engagement.” Mike Sigler urging the Local Boards’ retention.

Sigler observed he sees people finally emerging from their self-spun, post-pandemic cocoons.

“I think this is an opportunity for people to come and visit us in their local Town Halls and say, ‘Listen, this is the problem I have with my assessment,’” Sigler said in praise of the Local Boards.  “It’s another point of engagement.”

But legislator Deborah Dawson would take a pass on engaging over the price of a home. “I don’t see these meetings as an optimal point of engagement between our constituents and us as elected representatives,” Dawson countered.  In her opinion, a constituent’s “time is probably more productively used if they go directly to Jay’s office.”

Dawson conceded personal frustration over her inability to connect with those she represents through newsletters or other means.  Nevertheless, when it comes to property valuations, she’d leave adjustments to the Assessment Department professionals.

”If you’re out there, talk to me, but not about your assessment,” Dawson remarked.

Dryden’s Greg Mezey agreed with Dawson.  In Mezey’s opinion, the time spent by local tribunals that lack any power is time simply wasted.  “It doesn’t do anything,” he said.

Local Boards of Assessment Review first convened in Tompkins County more than 50 years ago, beginning when Tompkins transitioned to its unique, centralized, County-administered assessment.  For decades, Local Boards provided a degree of deference to hometown oversight. 

Each Board, staffed by a Tompkins County legislator, several appointed local residents, and attended by Assessment Department staff, may only recommend assessment changes.  By contrast, in late-May, on Grievance Day, the County’s Board of Assessment Review holds actual power to adjust property values in response to an aggrieved owner’s complaint.

After a three-year hiatus, Tompkins County revived the Local Boards during 2022.   Officials last year found the Town-based sessions poorly attended.  Only 47 properties were grieved countywide during last year’s hearings.   Just two people attended Enfield’s session.

Nonetheless, the Enfield Town Board in October recommended the Legislature continue the local Advisory Boards.  And during a mid-January Town Board meeting, discussion raised the prospect of Enfield this year assembling a local review panel of its own.

The suspension adopted Tuesday leaves undetermined whether Tompkins County will ever revive the Local Boards.  The measure adopted would continue the suspension until either the Department of Assessment or “the appropriate standing committee of the Legislature” determines Boards should return. 

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Posted Previously:

Maybe Death by Delay

Newfield Advances Moratorium to Block Second Wind

by Robert Lynch, January 13, 2023

Carmen Guidi’s dream of building more than two dozen cabins for the homeless behind his Route 13 collision shop plays far better in the chambers of the Tompkins County Legislature than it does at the Newfield Town Hall, a fact proven again Thursday night.

“Safety, warmth, friendship, and community.” Dave Shapiro pleads Second Wind’s attributes to the Newfield Town Board.

In late-December, a majority of the Tompkins County Legislature refused to drop Guidi’s proposed Second Wind Campsites from a list of local agencies targeted to receive millions from the County’s Community Recovery Fund.  The Legislature’s 8-5 vote kept Second Wind in the running to snag $510,000 for its project.

But Thursday night in Newfield, the Town Board showed little support for Guidi’s efforts.  Clearly taking the temperature of its community, the Board scheduled an early-February Public Hearing on a local law that would impose a one-year moratorium on “campsites.”  The lengthy, lawyer-crafted document, read aloud at the meeting, directly targets Second Wind’s proposal to build its 25 cabins for the unhoused.  And because the moratorium, if adopted, would stall any campsite construction until at least spring 2024, the moratorium could make future County funding a moot issue.

The federal moneys that back the Community Recovery Fund are time-sensitive, Tompkins County legislator Randy Brown explained near the end of Thursday’s meeting.  Moneys have to be allocated by a set date, he said.  And “a moratorium would make it difficult to do,” Brown maintained.

“I don’t feel comfortable in my home anymore,” an online participant who identified herself on her zoom tile as “Pam” told the Town Board during what turned into nearly a half-hour of public comment.  “I’m against this,” she said of Second Wind’s expansion.  “Nothing would (have) me leave my home faster.”

Pam was among a majority of commenters who addressed the Newfield Board in opposition to the homeless shelters.  Three persons spoke in the project’s favor, too.  Yet two of them were campsite officials, including Carmen Guidi himself.

Guidi spoke of his humanitarian efforts to help provide the unhoused a second chance at life.  He related the story of “Danny,” a homeless man he once befriended in Ithaca’s makeshift encampment, the so-called “Jungle.”  Later, Guidi said, he found Danny hanging from a tree, a suicide.  Guidi emotionally explained that such tragedies have guided him to provide the homeless a better existence, and do so on his property, right behind his shop.

A second supportive voice:  The proposed Second Wind campsites would provide the homeless “safety, warmth, friendship and community,” Dave Shapiro, executive director of Second Wind, told the Town Board.  Those already residing at Second Wind’s existing 18 “cottages,” the small, permanent, tiny houses that wrap around the collision shop, “find living in Newfield to be a beautiful thing,” Shapiro said.  And the homeless, he added, “do better when they’re brought to nature,” in places like Newfield.

“I want to keep them dry, keep them warm.” Carmen Guidi, addressing the Tompkins County Legislature, January 3rd.

But Shapiro’s was a minority position.  Newfield’s critics fear Guidi’s generosity would only export a hefty slice of Ithaca’s crime- and addiction-plagued homelessness problem to their rural community, a hamlet lacking the police presence, the anti-addiction services, or the emergency response times needed to protect both Second Wind’s new inhabitants and Newfield’s permanent residents.

“I sympathize with Carmen,” one Second Wind critic told the Town Board.  “His heart is in the right place…. But I’m concerned of a criminal element released into the community,” including pedophiles.  “We don’t have services for these people,” the commenter said.

Most disturbing to many are Second Wind’s plans to accommodate at the cabins “low barrier” homeless populations, persons with drug and criminal histories, including past sex crimes.

Anecdotal stories punctuated Thursday’s meeting; complaints alleging that crime spawned by Ithaca’s “Jungle” behind Walmart has spilled into Ithaca’s West End neighborhood.  One commenter talked of overdoses and problem patrons reaching as far as the Ithaca Agway.  Another alleged he can’t even pay for his gasoline after-hours at Elmira Road’s Byrne Dairy because the store must keep its doors locked for safety. Of the eight who addressed the Board, five urged the Town Board block Second Wind.

And indeed the Board will likely do that.  As read at the meeting, and then slated for the February Public Hearing, the lengthy, heavily-lawyered proposed local law would place a temporary one-year, town-wide moratorium on the “review or applications for campsites,” as well as the housing they would include and the facilities built to support campsite residents.  Violation would carry a $10,000 per day fine.

The local law grounds its moratorium on the “significant concerns of the Town Board” on “health and safety” issues, on  maintaining the “rural nature of the Town,” and on “lack of services and long response times.”

The language states a moratorium would allow Newfield an opportunity up update its Comprehensive Plan to address the concerns about projects like Second Wind, and it would allow the Board to enact controls currently unavailable in un-zoned Newfield.

But perhaps most important, the one-year moratorium is strategic.  Once it expires, whether or not a new law governing campsites is on the books, the Tompkins County money that many supporters see as essential to expand Second Wind might have evaporated.  Some, like legislator Brown, would like to have Second Wind’s $510,000 diverted to other Recovery Fund applications that failed to win an advisory committee’s support.  Some of those also-ran applicants find their home in Enfield.

Hand in hand with its move forward toward a moratorium, the Newfield Town Board also Thursday exercised its option to pre-empt the town’s Planning Board from passing final judgment on Second Wind’s site plan.  By unanimous vote, the Town Board voted to “take on site plan review” for Guidi’s proposed cabins.  The Board had previously also opted to become lead agency on Second Wind’s required environmental review.

The 18 Second Wind “cottages” as they look today.

A “transplanted tree-hugger community” now populates the Planning Board, one of Thursday’s publicly-commenting critics of Second Wind bluntly alleged. 

Newfield Town Supervisor Michael Allinger and his four Town Councilpersons are low-key, never flamboyant, legislators.  Like Town Board members of an earlier era, they conspicuously avoided interjecting themselves Thursday into their community’s a thorny debate.  They listened.  They then acted.  They offered little comment that begged for quotation.

“I think it’s going to take time,” Councilperson Casey Powers remarked at one point in forecasting a huge turnout for the February 9th hearing.  “My feeling is it’s going to take hours.”

Another Board member questioned whether the Board would need to hold a second hearing should it modify the moratorium’s language after the first hearing had ended.

Attorney for the Town Thomas Smith said unless there’s “drastic change,” a second hearing won’t be needed.  What’s “drastic,” he was asked.  “You know it when you see it,” Smith replied.

Nonetheless, the Town Board may not be able to adopt the moratorium targeting Second Wind immediately after the hearing concludes.  By law, the Tompkins County Planning Department must weigh-in.  A 40-day comment window was mentioned, its starting date never clearly defined Thursday.  And legislator Brown at a recent meeting openly feared that County staff might attempt to paper-over Second Wind’s blemishes in deference to the downtown lawmakers who support the project.

But the Town Board could still override any County Planning criticism by a super-majority vote, four votes out of five.  Judging from Board sentiment Thursday, the bar would not prove difficult to overcome.  Not a single one of the five elected to the Newfield Town Board appeared eager that night to have those 25 cabins for the homeless come anywhere near to them or their neighbors.  Many in Newfield see homelessness as mainly Ithaca’s problem, not theirs.  And yes, it’s also an election year.

###

Our Enfield Town Board:

Here We Go Again?

State Job will limit Redmond’s Enfield role

by Robert Lynch; January 11, 2023; additional reporting January 12, 2023

At worst, she’d have to resign.  At best, she’ll need to recuse herself on certain votes.  But Enfield Supervisor Stephanie Redmond’s acceptance of a job with New York Assemblymember Anna Kelles will tie her hands at times in handling her Town duties from now on, Redmond revealed to her Town Board Wednesday.

“We’ll see what they’re going to allow,” Redmond said of the State Ethics Commission’s investigation of her dual role and the potential conflicts of interest it might identify.

With son when she first took office in 2020; then-Councilperson Stephanie Redmond.

Involvement of the State Ethics Commission sounds worse than it really is.  It’s actually standard procedure and ensures that the second-term Supervisor is following rules by the book.  The commission will weigh whether actions Redmond takes—especially her votes—could taint her neutrality and objectivity as a legislative employee.  The Supervisor cautioned the Town Board Wednesday that the bright-line of separation would almost certainly prevent her from voting on matters that seek to influence state legislation or other action by Albany leaders.

This month, Redmond assumed a part-time position as a legislative aide of Assemblymember Kelles, specializing in matters of environmental policy.  Smiling and enthusiastic about her new position Wednesday at the Enfield Board’s first meeting of the year, Redmond said she won’t know until month’s end what ground rules State ethics regulators will place on her local service.  Redmond conceded, worst case, they’d force her to choose one job or the other.  If that becomes the case, the Supervisor on meeting night did not state which job she’d give up.

It’s been exactly two years since Stephanie Redmond officially took the reins of Enfield Government.  Elected Councilperson in 2019, the North Applegate Road wife and mother, best known for her environmental activism, was promoted to Supervisor by her Town Board colleagues in January 2021 during a contentious Board meeting at which two other members threatened to resign—and thereby cost the Board its legal quorum—if the third seated member, Councilperson Robert Lynch (this writer) did not also support Redmond’s appointment.

Faced with the prospect of placing Enfield “dead in the water,” as he then termed it, Lynch agreed to the appointment.  Collegiality has grown among Board members since that testy meeting.  Voters elected Redmond to a full, two-year term in November 2021, the Democratic appointee then outpolling a write-in challenger.  The Supervisor’s current term expires at year’s end.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Lynch advised Redmond to announce her ethics-imposed limitations as soon as she learns of them, and if possible, not wait until the Board’s February 8th meeting.  The Town Board has scheduled two rather mundane business meetings between now and then; the first on Friday (Jan. 13), and the second on January 23rd.

Should the Supervisor need (or choose) to resign, the procedures used for Redmond’s own appointment could be employed again.  A majority of the four remaining members on the Town Board could appoint a new Supervisor—either one of their own or an outsider—to handle administrative tasks through year’s end.  Or the Board could leave the Supervisor’s position vacant either until the November General Election or until a Special Election called for some time before then.  In the interim, Deputy Supervisor Isabel Castillo, an appointee, would preside at meetings.

****

With machine-gun rapidity, the Enfield Town Board raced through as many as 27 annual organizational resolutions Wednesday; actions appointing deputies for the Supervisor, Town Clerk and Highway Superintendent, renewing Blixy Taetzsch’s appointment as Town Bookkeeper, and setting dates, times and rules for monthly meetings.  The Board, by necessity, again designated The Ithaca Journal as its official newspaper for legal notices, that despite this Board member’s complaint that the Gannett daily never covers Enfield news.  

Repeating his annual—and always unsuccessful—appeal, Councilperson Lynch moved to reinstate the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of every meeting, removing its status from recitation by request-only.  The Board’s majority had removed the Pledge from the regular meeting order in January 2020.   Again, as at the past two organizational meetings, Lynch’s reinstatement motion failed for lack of a seconding vote.

With similar lack of a second, Lynch also failed to attach to a list of annual Advisory Committee appointments a requirement that all committee meetings be open to the public and properly noticed.  To answer concerns previously voiced by Supervisor Redmond, Lynch’s motion would have permitted Town Board members not appointed to those committees to attend only as members of the general public and not allowed them to participate except during public privileges of the floor.  Lack of action on Lynch’s motion keeps Advisory Committee meetings closed for another year.

Completing perhaps its most substantive organization ritual, the Town Board, following a discussion with Highway Superintendent Barry “Buddy” Rollins, ratified—and members signed—the so-called “284 Agreement,” the yearly financial authorization allowing Rollins to undertake the road repairs he proposes.

This year, Rollins would give a major make-over to the one-mile, uphill stretch of Bostwick Road, from Route 327 to South Applegate Road, at a cost of $240,000.  The approved agreement allots another $85,130 for road repairs Townwide.

Lynch pulled out a five-year road maintenance schedule, last updated in the Town’s late-2019 Capital Plan, and asked Rollins to compare it with work already done.  The Superintendent said that some roads, including Griffin, Colegrove and Black Oak, were completed years ahead of schedule.  Harvey Hill Road, which the Capital Plan had not set for repaving until 2024, was attacked last year, two years early.  The 2019 schedule puts the just-authorized Bostwick Road project one year late.  And Rockwell Road, which the plan had called for repaving in 2020, still remains undone.  Rollins said he checks Rockwell annually, and that in his opinion, it’s still not too bad.

###

Solar Farms vs. “Farm-Farms”

Enfield Board tightens Solar Law; more changes may lie ahead

Logs along the road, shavings on the hilltop, and weeds everywhere; the idled Norbut Solar site off Applegate Road.

by Robert Lynch; January 3, 2023

In one pithy phrase during the Enfield Town Board’s final meeting of 2022, this Councilperson (who wrote this story) summed up public perception of solar farms in the Town of Enfield:  “People don’t like what they see.”

And during that post-Christmas session, convened explicitly to adopt revisions to the Town’s 2019 Solar Law, collective concern quickly shifted away from the 16-page document that the Board voted to adopt.  Instead, it pivoted toward further revision, potential changes that would limit how invasively solar panels may intrude onto agricultural land, or perhaps in the extreme, whether maybe Enfield should ban new industrial solar farms altogether.

The Town Board’s December 27th unanimous vote put an end to a year-long Enfield moratorium it had imposed to suspend the permitting of new, large-scale commercial solar installations in the town.

The Board’s earlier action was rooted in experience.  In 2021, the Town Planning Board authorized Enfield’s largest proposed solar farm to date, the 15 Megawatt Norbut Solar Farm across from Johnny’s Wholesale on South Applegate Road.  For the past year, however, Norbut Solar has delayed construction, developers citing supply chain problems.  As the Town Board amended the law that Tuesday night, it did not state whether the adopted changes could be applied to Norbut retroactively.

Yet the Norbut shadow hung over the Board’s half-hour of deliberations prior to its vote.  After Norbut had secured its Planning Board permit, the firm quickly called in a logger to strip the site of nearly all its trees.  It left logs by the roadside for more than a year.  Woodsmen abandoned the site with wood shavings in cone-like mounds on the hilltop. In ways, it resembled the lunar surface. And whereas the prior owner had once farmed much of the land, Norbut allowed the field to grow to weeds throughout 2022.

“I’m sorry,” Councilperson Robert Lynch told the Town Board.   “That operator came to us, and he expressed good intentions.  He indicated he was going to be a good neighbor.  And since we gave him the permit, in my opinion, he has not been a good neighbor.”

Lynch continued, “I called last winter to say, please, remove those logs that you’ve got near the road right-of-way.  They took some away.  They didn’t take them all.  There’re some still there.  And there are piles of wood shavings up on the hill.  They could have done right.  They can’t get the solar panels this year.  That’s a supply chain problem.  But they could have at least hired somebody to come in and mow down the goldenrod, take away the logs, and make it look respectable.  And they did not.”

Largely because of those concerns—and his stated perception that many in Enfield have now soured on large-scale solar—this writer, Councilperson Lynch, resubmitted a retooled proposed further amendment to the revised solar law. 

Scripted in an attempt to impose pinpointed land-use regulation within un-zoned Enfield, the amendment would have sought to prevent a solar operator from wasting away the 40 per cent of a solar farm’s site that Enfield’s 2019 law demands a developer keep free from solar panels.  The new amendment would have demanded that the 40 per cent “residual acreage” remain in agricultural use or be kept mowed annually as undeveloped green-space.  A solar operator would need to document compliance.

Farmed and bucolic. The Norbut solar site as it looked in October 2020.

After discussion that dominated most of the half-hour devoted to the Solar Law, Lynch withdrew his amendment, but only after colleagues assured him that the Board would consider his tightened controls later.

“I don’t want us to put this Solar Law on the shelf and forget about it for another two or three years,” the Councilperson said.  “I want us to actively work on that because that is becoming a concern for the community about the handling of residual acreage.”

Despite the year-long moratorium’s impact in preventing new commercial operators from approaching the Planning Board for approval, the moratorium has not delayed smaller, residential solar construction. 

In December 2021, the Enfield Town Board, with little controversy, imposed an initial six-month halt to accepting applications for new commercial solar farms.  The Board tacked on another six months to the moratorium last June. 

The Town Board acted after the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency (TCIDA) in the summer of 2021 granted Norbut Solar Farms tax abatement, a so-called PILOT Agreement, that permitted Norbut to pay less property tax than its assessed valuation would otherwise have demanded during the PILOT’s 30-year life.  At the same time, the TCIDA refused Enfield’s request to impose upon Norbut a “Host Community Agreement,” a separate provision that would have demanded Norbut also compensate the Town over and above its PILOT payments.  The TCIDA divides PILOT revenues three ways, of which Enfield was told it would get about 28 percent.  Many in Enfield Government thought 28 per cent was too little.

But the Solar Law revisions adopted last month by the Town Board would affirm the Town of Enfield’s right to demand from any solar operator Host Community compensation.

“As a condition to the issuance of a Solar Permit, the applicant shall enter into a Host Community Agreement that is mutually agreed upon between the applicant and the Town Board,” the Solar Law’s newly-emplaced paragraph F-B-9 clearly-states.

“The Town Board shall retain the right to enter into said agreements with the applicant so long as they remain consistent with NY State law, notwithstanding the actions of any other governmental agencies or authorities,” another section specifies.  Its language restricts the TCIDA’s potential veto power.

Other deeply weed-wandering changes in the Solar Law would expand public and governmental oversight should a solar farm operator cease or deeply curtail power production, and the Town then saw fit to dismantle the site.

The revisions scripted for adoption December 27th brought little discussion.  Instead, Board members looked beyond what they’d drafted; they focused on how solar farms may have degraded—or will likely degrade—the “rural character” of Enfield that the Town’s  Comprehensive Plan, adopted in 2020, had sought to protect.

Supervisor Stephanie Redmond said she’d go so far as to propose an all-out ban on new commercial solar farm permits until the Town exhausts just about every other solar generating opportunity.

“I honestly think we should take it further,” Redmond said, “to actually stop these large industrial solar farms from coming to our town until we have absolutely distributed energy on every single house, on every single building and every single parking lot, brownfield, things like that, and don’t allow them to take over our farms.”

“I don’t know if you ever talked to the environmental lawyer if that’s even legal for us to consider, to stop these industrial farms from coming in here,” Redmond inquired of other Board members.

Councilperson Jude Lemke chairs the Town’s Renewable Energy Advisory Committee.  The committee has for the past year crafted the Solar Law’s revised language at meetings closed both to the public and to most other Town Board members.  Lemke’s worked closest with the environmental lawyer, Dan Spitzer, whom the Town Board retained in October.  And based on her discussions, Lemke, herself an attorney, questioned the legality of either the amendments Lynch proposed or the more sweeping prohibition Redmond hinted she might someday seek.

“I’m not a land use lawyer by any stretch of the imagination,” Lemke qualified.  “But you can regulate where things can go in the Town.  You can’t, in general, prohibit activities in the Town.”

“There are times when there are health and safety issues where you can—you know maybe the fracking—where you can do that,” Lemke added, addressing Redmond’s suggested ban.  “But really you can’t just say we don’t want this in our town, and you can’t build this in our town.  You can say we don’t want this in this part of our town. And you can build it here, but you can’t build it there.”

And Lemke also questioned Lynch’s more tempered proposal to mandate either farming or green-space maintenance on a solar farmer’s panel-free acreage.

“We don’t have zoning,” Lemke observed.  “And there’s nothing that says we can prevent people from letting their land, you know, grow over with weeds or whatever they want.”  

“We don’t have a law that allows us to tell someone you can’t just let this vacant land grow wild,” Lemke continued.

“You can’t prevent people from letting their land grow over with weeds.” Councilperson Jude Lemke (pictured at a prior meeting.)

“I have a hard time wrapping my arms around that,” Lynch reacted to Lemke’s reservations. To Lynch, the “solar farm” should rightly include not only the land a farmer might lease to the solar operator to develop, but also the “residual” 40 per cent that Enfield’s innovative 2019 Solar Law requires be kept undeveloped.  Lynch maintained Enfield’s Planning Board should hold power to regulate use of the residual land whether it’s within the solar operator’s leased area or retained by the landlord-farmer.

“As I see it, to make that 60 percent coverage rule have any teeth in it whatsoever, you’ve got to consider both the solar area and the residual area in the permitting process,” Lynch responded.  “And if the law isn’t written that way, maybe we should redraft the law to encompass that.”

Lynch drew the comparison between unregulated agricultural or residential property owners in Enfield and farmers that rent to solar companies.

“It’s not the same thing as Doug Gunning’s farm up on Harvey Hill Road, where you don’t have to tell him to mow his field because there’s no permitting process needed for a farm,” Lynch argued.   “There’s no permitting process needed for Stephanie Redmond and her husband’s house, so you don’t have to tell them that they have to mow their yard every week,” he continued.   “But this is different.  This is a solar farm that includes 60 percent coverage maximum with solar panels and 40 per cent something else.  And why can’t the Planning Board regulate that something else?”

Unlike solar laws in many other towns, Enfield’s 2019 Solar Law imposes what’s called a “lot coverage” requirement. 

The Enfield law states that: “The enclosed or fenced in area of a Large-Scale Solar Energy System shall not exceed 60% of the lot on which it is installed.” However, neither before nor after its latest revision does the law explicitly define what constitutes “the lot on which it is installed.”  Redefinition could prove key in implementing any tighter controls for the undeveloped acreage.

Nonetheless, in Norbut’s case, the Rochester-based developer has chosen to own its entire site; that both on which it would place its solar panels and set-aside its residual acreage.  In securing Planning Board approval, Norbut hop-scotched its panels about its holding so as to skirt identified wetlands.  Norbut officials have never stated specifically how they’ll use their remaining acreage.  They’ve hinted at times they might use the land’s road frontage for housing, or maybe even a food scrap processing facility.

At a mid-December Public Hearing on the Solar Law’s current amendments, one Enfield resident told the Town Board she opposes residential or commercial development on the 40 per cent of land a solar farmer must set aside.  The resident, who lives near one existing solar farm and also close to fields off Podunk Road that may become a future solar farm , said she’d prefer only forests or fields, not buildings, on residual land.  After that hearing, Councilperson Lynch redrafted his proposal to answer that resident’s call for open space.

“I remember when people like Beth Magee and Mimi Mehaffey were talking—and Jude Lemke were talking—about these laws back in 2019,” Lynch recalled.  “There was this concern; we want to make sure that we keep the rural character of Enfield consistent with our Town Comprehensive Plan.  And this is what this is trying to do,” Lynch reminded the Board.

“I don’t disagree with the concern that everyone is raising,” Lemke acknowledged. “I do think maybe we need to put together some sort of committee to take a harder look at all this, and not just the Planning Board, but broader than the Planning Board.” 

“But I don’t think this language works,” Lemke spoke to the amendment Lynch had advanced.

Lemke’s broader observation could, of course, expand the scope of land use regulation far beyond only solar farms.  It could lead to Enfield’s adopting its first zoning law.  Both Supervisor Redmond and Lemke have talked of increased land use control in recent months.  Yet no one on the Town Board has come out in favor of zoning, a highly-volatile topic in Enfield.

“I think we should adopt this as it is and keep working,” Redmond said of the solar revisions the Board had on its late-December table.  She rejected Lynch’s short-lived proposal that the Board extend the moratorium still further to allow members to attack the broader issues.  Yet the Supervisor added, “I really do want to think how we can have land use management policies that are reflected in our Comprehensive Plan.”

So, the Solar Law stands amended.  The year-long moratorium is over.  But expect more discussion—and possible further amendments—in the months to come.

“We’re going to continue to work on this idea for the residual acreage and how we can manage it so that we don’t have more wasteland in this town,” Lynch promised, as he readied to cast his affirmative vote on the revised Solar Law.  “Townspeople, we hear ‘ya.”

###

Troubling Times at TCAT

Spring Schedule brings more cuts; rider frustration

by Robert Lynch, January 9, 2023

If you thought things couldn’t get worse for driver- and bus-deprived Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT), think again.  They will.

The local transit agency’s late-January through May Spring Schedule got its first public airing Monday to TCAT’s Riders Advisory and Accessibility Committee.  And what transit officials did most often during that hour-long online session with the agency’s ridership sounding board was to apologize.

Ridership dropping by 30% annually; the top line is 2019; the dark blue is 2021; the black line is ’22. (Pandemic-plagued 2020 is the anomaly at the bottom.)

“This is the best we can do,” Erik Amos, TCAT’s Manager of Service Development and Planning, told committee members, concerning the schedule.

“We hope we can work through this.  It’s a very, very tough time,” Patty Poist, Manager of Communications and Marketing, said at another point in the meeting.

The problem facing TCAT is not necessarily declining demand; it’s a supply-side crisis.  People may want to ride the bus.  Their problem comes in finding one to ride; one that both works and has someone at the steering wheel.

Figures shown the committee Monday reported local ridership is dropping by as much as 30 per cent a year.  While some of the decline may arise artificially due to problemsome, error-prone fare boxes that don’t report every passenger, the primary cause is likely TCAT’s ever-deeper, necessity-driven service cuts. When it comes to the TCAT bus, “people are not riding it as much,” Amos admitted.

While the deepest cuts will impact many routes close to the Ithaca City hub, TCAT’s rural routes will suffer relatively less this spring.  Route 20 to Enfield, which TCAT trimmed last fall, including the elimination of its Sunday service, will not face further cuts this spring… at least not for the moment.

“(Cutting) rural route cuts don’t really save us a lot,” the Service Development Director said.

The springtime schedule will eliminate two Cornell-centric routes (83 and 92), and the Route 53 run linking downtown and Cornell with Varna and Ellis Hollow.  But nearly a score of other routes this spring will face service reductions or at least timing changes.

And expect big changes after dark.  Amos reported that service on “most routes”—yet not all—will end at 8 PM.  A few routes will run later.  Some will cease at 7:15 – 7:20, he said.  The popular Route 10 circulator between the Commons and Cornell will see its last trip at 4:10.

“We’re trying to save buses and drivers and make it more efficient,” Amos said about the service’s short-term downsizing.  “We had to cut where we needed to cut, and that means elimination of two Cornell routes,” he stated.

While Poist reported that TCAT is “down 20 drivers” at present, the biggest gremlin that’s snarling the service is bus breakdown.  TCAT either lacks the mechanics to fix its fleet, or it simply can’t procure spare parts amidst the post-pandemic supply chain logjam.

During October alone, the most recent month with complete figures available, TCAT tallied 705 missed trips assigned to bus shortages.  Another 26 cancellations were blamed on driver shortages.  And 44 missed trips were because both driver and bus were unavailable.

“Find me a bus that ain’t broke.” The dark blue line shows bus shortages through October.

“We’re fighting this on all fronts,” Poist told the committee.  “It’s slow and it’s agonizing.  We apologize.”

At least one Advisory Committee member voiced skepticism.  Suzanne Burnham questioned whether the “priorities of the two colleges are taking precedence over the concerns of workers and commuters.”

TCAT officials waved off the suggestion, though Poist acknowledged reality.  “Cornell is the biggest employer, so it’s a balancing act,” she said.

“We’re trying to service where the riders are and where the need is,” Amos added.

TCAT had planned to vet its spring schedule in a January 5th public hearing.  But agency officials canceled the hearing in late-December saying the “uncontrollable circumstances” facing the agency tied their hands and, in effect, made the hearing a waste of time. 

“We apologize with the full understanding that the tough decisions we have been making over the past year and now into the New Year create more disruptions and inconvenience to our riders,” TCAT General Manager Scot Vanderpool said as he first rolled out the spring reductions just before January first. “But our main task is to create and publish schedules that they (the riders) can rely upon.”

Advisory Committee member Blaine Friedlander lamented Monday that local transit cutbacks come at the same time the needed broader goal should be to curtail automobile traffic and get people onto mass transit to rescue the environment.  TCAT may have too few buses and drivers at the moment, Friedlander conceded, yet “we’re not making any accommodation for real situations,” he complained.

The spring TCAT schedule will begin January 22 and run through May 27.

###

To the Enfield Planning Board:

Into the Weeds with Breezy Meadows’ Review

by Robert Lynch, January 7, 2023

The shock wave may have passed.  But now the heavy lifting begins.

The New Year’s first meeting of the Enfield Town Planning Board Wednesday brought with it far less surprise than did its last meeting of 2022, the session when neighbors grabbed nearly every seat in the room to learn more—and voice concern—about the suddenly-sprung subdivision that alarmed them; Land & Lakes Development’s proposed “Breezy Meadows Farm” 33-large lot subdivide of a nearly 340-acre tract between Halseyville and Podunk Roads.  Anonymously-circulated flyers placed in mailboxes in early-December had first warned neighbors of the developer’s plans. 

Once upon a time, it was Babcock’s main driveway; the overgrown west entrance to “Breezy Meadows,” Podunk Road.

But now, one month later, the dust of controversy has settled a bit, as Enfield planners launched their laborious, multi-meeting review of developers’ plans that remain very much in the incubation stage.

And maybe “incubation” is an apt term of art.  The Breezy Meadows tract would include the long-abandoned Babcock Hatchery poultry barns east of Podunk Road.  The barns were subsequently, briefly used to raise swine.  But all are now vacant.  A few have junk in them, and others are simply falling in.

“This is a big project, and it’s going to be important to the people of the Town for many, many years,” Enfield Planning Board member Mike Carpenter told fellow planners at the January 4th “sketch plan conference” with Land & Lakes’ officials. 

The conference became the Planning Board’s earliest round of detailed review.  Planners raised questions for nearly an hour and a half.  Land & Lakes Project Manager Alan Lord provided the answers.  Fittingly, they were sketchy as well.  Lord must still survey the lots.  The Planning Board expects to review a “preliminary plat” of the development in March.  The Board’s timetable would delay a Public Hearing on Breezy Meadows until April at the earliest.

Whether neighbors preferred to bide their time, or simply lacked knowledge of Wednesday’s meeting, few turned out for the Breezy Meadows’ discussion this time.  Only about a half-dozen attended.  A few asked questions, yet they stopped short of voicing outright opposition.

So Board members took the lead.  For some, Tucker Road became a concern.  A lightly-traveled gravel crossway that would slice through the development, Tucker has only a handful of houses bordering it now.  But Breezy Meadows, as it’s now sketched, would front nearly two dozen lots on the road.

“There’s issues with the road,” Planning Board Chair Dan Walker said, relaying a recent appraisal by Enfield Highway Superintendent Barry “Buddy” Rollins, who did not attend Wednesday’s meeting.  “It’s not a very stable road when it’s wet,” Walker quoted Rollins as saying.  Walker agreed.  “There’s going to be impact on the road, ” the Board Chair said.

The Breezy Meadows sketch map stuck in mailboxes a month ago had depicted lot lines quite precisely chopping up the former farm, now owned by the John William Kenney Revocable Trust.  Expect those initial boundaries to remain quite the same as first drawn, even after surveyors complete their work.

“There’s not a real good way to move the subdivision around,” Alan Lord told Enfield planners.  Lord has tried to keep lot lines traveling existing hedgerows as much as possible, though the attempt limits flexibility.  The current layout would place the largest lots on the development’s west side, where the former Babcock barns stand.  Lot sizes throughout would range from three acres to as large as 32.

“We will be investigating the buildings,” the project manager assured the Planning Board concerning the Babcock barns. “I hope somebody would use those.”

Yet, in some instances, future use could prove a problem.  Walking through the brushy, overgrown site last month (before its owners’ representatives evicted him), this writer observed roofs had fallen in on several structures, and many barns stood in a decades-long state of disrepair.

It’s possible Planning Board approval might hinge on barn demolition.  And there could be further demands that allow only the right kinds of animals be raised in the barns that survive.

They could be used for “raising chickens again,” Walker recommended to the Board.  “I don’t think we want anybody raising pork again.”

****

But by far, the majority of Planning Board discussion Wednesday centered about a model deed covenant that Land & Lakes purportedly would attach to every property it sells.  And the ensuing discussion charted a circumlocutory path toward a new breed of land use control in un-zoned Enfield.

“You are potentially zoning the Town of Enfield in the lots you’ve sold,” Board member Carpenter observed as he viewed the proposed covenants.  It’s “zoning through the back door.”

Nonetheless, Carpenter cautioned, “I’m a little iffy about doing partial zoning in the Town of Enfield.”

Roughed-In. The initial Breezy Meadows’ subdivision sketch.

And Dan Walker then offered his own opinion.  “I don’t think a majority of those in the Town of Enfield want zoning,” he said.

Alan Lord admitted that the proposed deed restrictions he shared with Enfield Planners were cut-and-pasted from a Dryden tract his firm recently subdivided, a 42-lot, 900-acre project, still largely unsold, but situated in a more tightly-regulated community.

The proposed Breezy Meadows covenant adapted from Dryden would, among its 18 restrictive paragraphs, prohibit “single wide manufactured homes.” It would bar purchasers from further subdividing their lots, restrict camping trailers to a 90-day stay, and require the buyer to maintain the purchased lot “in a good and sanitary condition.”

One of the Dryden project’s more intrusive rules would keep outdoor lighting “to a minimum,” and where necessary, direct light to the ground.  Lord said those in Dryden wanted “to protect the night sky.”

Rules are good, planners acknowledged.  But who enforces them once they’re written?  And can the Town of Enfield, itself, undertake enforcement?

Apparently, it cannot.  In an advisory opinion Town Supervisor Stephanie Redmond promptly secured from legal counsel, the attorney advised Enfield officials that while private parties can enforce deed covenants in court, governments generally lack the authority to do so.

“We want to protect values and our reputations,” Alan Lord told the Planning Board, indicating that Land & Lakes might enforce its own covenants, though its Managing Partner, Bob Lesperence, also attending Wednesday’s meeting, said enforcement generally comes through informal contact, not court action.

And while New York State, Land & Lakes, or another subdivision purchaser could initiate litigation, a “neighbor across the street” could not, Board members were told.

Mike Carpenter generally liked the covenant-based restrictions Land & Lakes put forth.  Yet Carpenter wondered whether Lord’s firm could reach beyond what it’s written.

What about an energy efficiency clause, Carpenter suggested; one that would set an efficiency standard one step beyond the state’s building code?  “I’d like to encourage better housing to be built,” Carpenter explained.  

Expect more discussions about Breezy Meadows in March.

###

Next, to the County Legislature:

Freshman Fervor: Randy Brown makes his mark defending hometown interests

Reporting and Analysis by Robert Lynch, January 4, 2023

Republican Randy Brown beat me in the 2021 race for the Tompkins County Legislature.  He also beat Democratic nominee Vanessa Greenlee.  Strange as it may seem, in both instances, even in my own, I’m glad Brown won.  What I’ll write next will tell you why.

I feel the County had not really considered Newfield and Enfield.” A frustrated and disheartened Randy Brown.

As much as I, myself, might have been—and most assuredly, he’s been so far more tactfully—Randy Brown has become a maverick; the County Legislature’s fiercest defender of the needs and desires of the specific corner of Tompkins County that he represents.  In Randy’s case, it’s the towns of Enfield and Newfield.  In the role he’s chosen for himself, Randy Brown stands apart.  True, he runs the risk of becoming an outcast.  And some have derided his approach as being too “parochial.”  But no doubt, if asked, Randy Brown would double-down on his conviction.  He’d tell you he’s only doing what he was elected to do.  And I agree.  

At the County Legislature’s first meeting of 2023, the one this past Tuesday night, an organizational session at which leaders are anointed but little else gets done, Randy Brown made it clear he had not forgotten December 20th; the night of the Legislature’s previous meeting.  It was the meeting during which every other County lawmaker voted in favor of parceling out more than six million dollars of federal pass-through moneys to more than four dozen commercial, governmental, and non-profit applicants.  Yet not a single dollar of that Community Recovery Fund went to any applicant from Enfield.  Randy Brown has a problem with that.

“Ultimately, I represent the people in my district, in Newfield-Enfield, and I really struggle with; why am I here?” Brown asked rhetorically as he exercised his privilege-of-the-floor opportunity Tuesday.  “It’s a complete failure on my part that they got nothing,” Brown said.  “Enfield got nothing.  It’s my failure.  It’s our failure.”

Then Brown pivoted to the plight of his home community of Newfield, for which the Recovery Fund Advisory Committee—and subsequently the full Legislature—denied Newfield’s biggest municipal reach, $250,000 to underwrite a Town and school district collaborative for “Creating Community Spaces,” upgrading recreation facilities.

“Newfield, in their mind, got kicked in the teeth in the process,” Brown said.

What’s more, the only big money application the Advisory Committee targeted to fund in Newfield was one that many community leaders have strongly opposed.  It’s the half-Million dollar request by Second Wind Cottages to build campsites for the homeless in a field behind Guidi’s Collision Shop.  The project’s still pending.  And many in Newfield fear it will only serve to transport Ithaca’s homelessness problem to their own, ill-equipped hamlet.

Several advocates spoke before the County Legislature Tuesday in favor of Second Wind’s yet-to-be-decided application.  But before the Legislature provides it funding, Second Wind must survive a grueling environmental review, one in which Newfield’s own leaders may take the lead.  The review could spell deep trouble for Second Wind.

Enfield applicants that have so far been snubbed by the Advisory Committee, and subsequently by the full Legislature, include the Enfield Community Council, whose $206,000 request slipped just five notches below the committee’s cut.  The Enfield Volunteer Fire Company also sought money, as did the Enfield Food Pantry, whose $1.66 Million maximum ask became the Recovery Fund’s most expensive item.  The pantry never got beyond first-round committee review.

The Democratic nominee Brown Beat in ’21; Vanessa Greenlee.

“I’m going to look at legislators differently that voted against Newfield,” Brown cautioned colleagues Tuesday.  He put anti-Enfield sentiment in that same, always-be-skeptical category.

And though some may have overlooked it, Brown had already put his words into action that night.  When the name of Recovery Fund Advisory Committee Chair Dan Klein was placed in nomination to become Vice-Chair of the Legislature, Brown quietly raised his hand in opposition to Klein’s promotion.   Brown was the only legislator shown to object, though he spoke nothing about his vote, nor did he offer an alternative candidate before he voted.  Clearly between the two lawmakers, bad blood flows.

During Tuesday’s floor privileges, Randy Brown repeated his argument that the six-legislator Advisory Committee held too much power when it apportioned Recovery Fund moneys.  And he believes that the entire County Legislature accorded the committee too much deference in ratifying its recommendations last month without a single change.

“I received over 25 emails and phone calls since the vote on the 20th,” Brown said, “and none of them were good.” (Full disclosure: this writer-Councilperson was among those who emailed legislator Brown.) 

“People are so disappointed,” Brown continued.  “And some of them feel they were disregarded completely.”  Then the District-8 GOP freshman legislator took his grievance one step further:

“And that really goes to this history of how Enfield-Newfield feels,” Brown observed.  “This isn’t just this ARPA thing,” referencing the federal funding pot from which Community Recovery funds are drawn.  “No, they feel and I feel that the County has not really considered Newfield and Enfield.  And maybe other people feel that way as well.”

Randy Brown’s status as his district’s front-line defender did not go unchallenged Tuesday.  And the strongest counterpoint came from the Advisory Committee chair he’d voted against, Danby’s Dan Klein.

“We did not take geography into account,” Klein insisted regarding his committee’s selection of winning Recovery Fund applicants.  In terms of Enfield and Newfield, he said, “We do not ignore these towns (or) any towns.  We represent the entire county, and serve the entire county, and we look for opportunities to do things in any community that needs assistance, needs some services, and that falls within the parameters of what we can do.”

Klein reiterated his previous claim that not only did Enfield lose out on funding; but so did Groton and his home turf of Danby.  Of course a critic might point the blame for those towns’ losses at their own representatives, like Klein, who failed to patch local potholes first.

The Advisory Committee Chair also claimed that approximately 40 per cent of Recovery funds went to agencies that lacked a geographic base.  He rattled off as many as seven such grant recipients, ranging from Suicide Prevention to TC3.  But in all but two instances when Klein pointed out that the agencies still serve Newfield, he failed to mention that they serve Enfield as well.

Before he had ended his rebuttal, and with a discernable bite in his voice, Dan Klein took his argument directly to Brown.  He specifically cited a 2021 decision that had earmarked countywide money to fund a broadband extension in Newfield, a subsidy that brought high-speed Internet to 175 homes.

“If you’re going to say that the Town of Newfield is disregarded,” Klein needled Brown, “can you at least subtract 175 households, please.”

“Randy, if you think Newfield’ is ‘disregarded,’ please subtract those 175 households.” Danby’s Dan Klein

Clearly, though the two men’s districts touch each other, there’s no love lost between Randy Brown and Dan Klein.

And the “county interests come first” argument, advanced by Klein, resonated with others.

“I wanted to commend Dan for pointing out that a lot of the grants that we gave while they’re not specifically targeted towards particular towns and villages, they do serve the entire county,” Lansing’s Deborah Dawson, who sat with Klein on the Advisory Committee, stated in affirmation. 

“And I want to caution my colleagues not to be tremendously parochial in their voting,” Dawson warned. She claimed that the villages she represents, Cayuga Heights and Lansing, received no awards from the Community Recovery Fund, either.

Yet understand the difference:  Dawson’s two villages, according to the U.S. Census, lie within the Ithaca Urbanized Area.  The Towns of Enfield and Newfield do not.

“Randy, I hear you,” the Ithaca City’s Rich John acknowledged, “and I understand you’re reflecting the views of people in your community, and you’re supposed to do that.”  Yet John joined Klein and Dawson in stressing the need for a county-wide vision.

“I represent a City district,” John stated.  “But I’m here because we are one county.  And it’s always important to look at your district, but you also have to look at the whole county.”

Rich John pointed to the Legislature’s inclusion in the 2023 budget of more than $100,000 to lay the groundwork for an EMS “flycar” service, one whose beneficiaries are primarily rural.

“It hurts me to hear the message that people think that the rural areas are totally ignored,” Rich John told Brown.  “I really think that we need to look at things as a whole community, a whole county.”

Legislatow Dawson: Don’t be “tremendously parochial.”

The Town of Enfield’s second County legislator, Anne Koreman, was among those who sat on the Advisory Committee.  Though she initially supported many of Enfield’s applications, she later endorsed the committee’s final recommendation both in the committee and on the Legislature’s floor.  Koreman has voiced greater support for the final funding decisions than has Brown.  And she opposed nearly all efforts on December 20th to amend the recommendations and cut funding to other programs so as to potentially enable an Enfield applicant to slip-in under the wire.

“We did the best we could,” Koreman reflected Tuesday regarding the committee’s past deliberations, a task she described as “challenging.” 

“We could go back and second-guess a lot of different things,” Koreman acknowledged.  “And could we do more in the community?  Sure, there’s always more to do.”

But for the moment, the Ulysses Democrat said it’s best to leave the funding decisions where they stand, identify “some gaps,” that need filling, and fill those gaps from other funding sources.

When Republican Randy Brown campaigned for County Legislature in 2021, legislators Klein, Koreman, and Dawson were among a group of five who banded together and endorsed Democrat Vanessa Greenlee for the seat, first in the Democratic Primary against me; and later, in November, against Brown.  Had Greenlee won the General Election, one can imagine a much different personality in the District 8 seat, and a less confrontational response to the funding disappointments that Enfield and Newfield have now suffered.  Party loyalty and personal camaraderie would likely have dissuaded Greenlee from raising the pointed complaints that Randy Brown now feels free to field.  She would have deferred to the friendly faces who’d endorsed her.  She would have gone along to get along.  My assumption alone; no one else’s.

Election outcomes do matter.  And in Randy Brown’s case, it has.

###

Now, What I said about the Community Recovery Fund before the Enfield Town Board:

“It was not a pleasant meeting”

Enfield Councilperson Robert Lynch, addressing the Enfield Town Board during Privilege of the Floor Comments, December 27th, discussing an earlier meeting of the Tompkins County Legislature and its decisions on distribution of Tompkins County’s Community Recovery Fund:

“I just wanted to take a couple minutes to talk about nothing that happened at this Board, but something that happened about six or seven miles away to the east.  And that was a week ago, downtown at the Tompkins County Legislature.  They had a decision to make, and they made it.  They appropriated nearly $6 Million in money under the Community Recovery Program.  The Town of Enfield and its agencies that applied didn’t get a thin dime of that.

“And I could sit here and pontificate for three minutes about what that means for Enfield and what that means for what some people in Tompkins County Government and their consultants think of the Town of Enfield.  But I’ll just put the words of our—one of our elected County legislators, Randy Brown, on the record.  Because he spoke up in favor of Enfield and his own Town of Newfield that also got slighted in many respects

“He (Brown) said at that meeting, I quote, ‘Enfield is completely ignored by the County; Newfield, completely ignored by the County,’ In terms of government funding.  He continued, ‘Nothing happens there.’

“Brown told colleagues that in Enfield, quote, ‘They’re pinching pennies every day; the poorest district in the county.  They’re buying used equipment ‘cause that’s all they can afford.  And yet nothing got funded.  In recognition of all the problems in the county, you didn’t even think about Enfield and Newfield in my mind.’

“He went on in that meeting, quote, ‘I respect what the committee did,’ —that is, the Advisory Committee that made its recommendations and did not  recommend Enfield be funded—He said, ‘I respect what the committee did, and this is definitely water that’s never been paddled through before,’ Brown told legislators moments before he cast his lone dissenting vote.  And he continued, ‘But I feel that the committee didn’t even understand the transformative processes that Newfield and Enfield attempted to do.’

“’Enfield is feeling the exact same way,’ as Newfield is, Brown said.  ‘They’re on their own,’ end of quote.

“There may be opportunities for some applicants, probably most likely the Enfield Community Council, to get something, because there’s one big project in Newfield which would draw about $500,000 in Community Recovery funds.  It’s the Second Wind Cottages proposal.  It’s become controversial down in Newfield.  The Newfield Town Board has resolved against funding that particular proposal.  I’m not going to get into Second Wind tonight.  That’s really not the purpose of what I said.  But if there is money left over, if Second Wind is taken out, of if the County Legislature decides later, next year, to put more money in the pot to fund agencies, we may get some funding—for ECC, maybe the Fire Company, and maybe even the Food Pantry.  We’ll see.

“That’s all I have to say on this.  But it was not a pleasant meeting one week ago.  I attended it.  And Randy Brown spoke up.  And he was about the only one.  And I’ll leave it there.”

****

Now, about the Legislature’s meeting itself:

We Might Eat Leftovers

Second Wind’s Fate Could Impact Enfield’s Funding Future

The Award Meeting’s Expanded Story

Applauding a job (supposedly) well done. Legislature Chair Shawna Black marking the Community Recovery Fund $6 Million vote.

by Robert Lynch, December 23, 2022

Tompkins County’s legislators Tuesday night approved more than $6 Million to spend on 53 applicants’ pet projects under Tompkins County’s Community Recovery Fund.  They then applauded themselves.  Newfield’s Randy Brown did not clap.  Instead, he looked down at his papers.  Randy Brown had voted no.  Randy Brown was disappointed.  And Randy Brown was angry.  His constituents had just been left in the dust.

“Enfield is completely ignored by the County; Newfield, completely ignored by the County,” Brown said.  In terms of government funding, “Nothing happens there.”

Brown told colleagues that in Enfield, “They’re pinching pennies every day; the poorest district in the county.  They’re buying used equipment ‘cause that’s all they can afford.  And yet nothing got funded.  In recognition of all the problems in the county, you didn’t even think about Enfield and Newfield in my mind.”

“Enfield is completely ignored by the County.” Randy Brown

For all the millions spent elsewhere, Enfield and its community servants that night hadn’t received a single penny.  And most likely, they won’t.  Yet one or two glimmers of hope remain.  That is what this story is about.  You won’t read about it elsewhere.

Bringing to fruition a year-long promise and culminating a three-month process of submission and review, the County Legislature December 20th endorsed the funding recommendations of a six-person Advisory Committee of its members.  The six committee members—who because of a legislative vacancy held effective veto power over the majority—showed amazing resilience for holding together to block attempted amendments.  And those who sat beside them showed little initiative to buck momentum. 

A dozen or so proposed amendments that would have altered the committee’s choices were, one by one, beaten back, a couple of them without even earning a seconding vote.  In first one, and then a second round of its earlier review, the committee had chosen to shut out the Town of Enfield, its Food Pantry, its Fire Company, and its Community Council from the worthy requests they’d individually submitted.  And Brown’s home town of Newfield hadn’t fared much better.

“I respect what the committee did, and this is definitely water that’s never been paddled through before,” Brown told legislators moments before he cast his lone dissenting vote.  “But I feel that the committee didn’t even understand the transformative processes that Newfield-Enfield attempted to do.”

First, Brown slammed the committee for snubbing during its initial round the Quarter-Million Dollar joint collaborative between Newfield’s Town, its school, and its library to upgrade recreation facilities.  Then he turned to Enfield:

“Enfield is feeling the exact same way,” Brown said.  “They’re on their own.”

From the flip side of the funding debate, Recovery Fund Committee Chair Dan Klein offered up his own memorable quote. 

“I think this may be one of those instances where since no one seems happy that means we did a good job,” Klein stated, the Danby Democrat taking pride in his committee’s hard work, but assuredly relieved its job had now ended. 

Sorry, Dan, it may not have.

A “Tale of Two Tompkins Counties” became the take-away any careful observer could have drawn from the evening’s dueling narratives.  And freshman Republican legislator Brown made sure you’d remember his own narrative his way.

Nobody’s happy; maybe that means we did good.” Recovery Fund Committee Chair Klein.

Cayuga Medical Center (CMC) had won the biggest prize of the night; $1.5 Million in Recovery funds to establish a “Crisis Stabilization Center” for mental health treatment inside the Shops at Ithaca Mall.  The committee’s other most controversial handout, $510,000 to finance Second Wind Cottages’ building of 25 campsites for the homeless in Newfield, hadn’t yet ripened for a vote.  It couldn’t be included in the evening’s funding package.  But because the Legislature also rejected Brown’s efforts to explicitly defund Second Wind, you can expect body shop owner Carmen Guidi’s homeless-housing brainchild to get the money it wants, providing, of course, that procedural hurdles get tossed aside first.

Be advised, they might not.

Brown had led the fight against both Cayuga Medical and Second Wind.  But while Cayuga Medical’s funding is now a done deal, Second Wind’s is not.  Its half-Million dollar appropriation couldn’t be decided Tuesday because a so-called “SEQR” environmental review remains unfinished.  And a SEQR review, if done right, could rope in a lot of ancillary issues, not the least of which is Newfield community and Town Board opposition to the project. 

Second Wind‘s proposal would build 25 new cabins  to complement the 18 slightly-larger structures that already encircle Guidi Collision’s shop off Newfield’s Route 13 north of the hamlet.  The campsites would admit “low-barrier” unhoused men.  And what worries community leaders most is that the new arrivals would be plunked down in a place that lacks both the emergency resources to protect those vulnerable residents, and the police presence to, if needed, protect community residents from them.

On a snowy day; Carmen Guidi’s existing Second Wind Cottages, Newfield

“Would there be drugs?  Yes.  Would there be alcoholism?  Yes,” Brown reported Second Wind’s leadership as having acknowledged when he’d met with them. The campsite’s “low barrier” admission standards would constitute a change from the present, Brown said.  What’s more, some worry Second Wind could become a dumping ground for convicted sex offenders as well as for other supposed undesirables now subsisting in Ithaca’s homeless encampment better known as “The Jungle.”

Randy Brown advanced a Resolution on meeting night that would have removed the Second Wind grant from consideration for Community Recovery funds.  He would have spread the money to other applicants.  Brown’s measure lost five votes to eight.  If the eight objectors continue to hold tight, they’d make a majority in favor of Second Wind should it survive SEQR scrutiny and head to a vote.

“This is not healthy for Newfield,” Brown warned the Legislature of Second Wind.  He reported that of 43 Newfield constituents he’d talked to about the project, only two had said they support it.  

Debate over Brown’s defunding Resolution engulfed some 40 minutes of a four-and-a-half-hour marathon meeting.  And during the debate, the legislator warned that what’s normally a perfunctory SEQR review could, instead, bring Newfield’s defenders to their battle stations.

“They’ll get an attorney in there.  They’re going to fight this,” Brown warned.  “I’m telling you right now, they’re not going to go for this.  They’re not going to roll over.”

The Newfield legislator worried aloud that some County Planning staff might attempt to paper-over community objections if they were to usurp the SEQR process from the Town.  Brown later apologized after Legislature Chair Shawna Black cautioned him not to criticize those on the County’s payroll.

But, at its core, Brown saw the Second Wind initiative as filling a void left by others’ irresponsibility; the Guidi group’s seeking to “grab” an opportunity to remedy a homelessness problem whose solution the City of Ithaca is all-too-willing to abdicate and to offload.

“The City has done nothing,” Brown told legislators.  “They’ve just let it sit.  And here’s the Legislature going, ‘Oh boy, we’re going to fix the problem.  Let’s send it to Newfield!’”

“As a matter of comity, I do not want to be funding a project or enabling a project that the host municipality is so much opposed to,” Budget Chair Deborah Dawson, an Advisory Committee member, said in support of Brown’s resolution.  Back on December 8th, the Newfield Town Board had unanimously voted to oppose Second Wind.

Yet, Dryden’s Greg Mezey came to the fragile encampment’s defense.

“But these are people,” Mezey spoke of those who would newly-populate Second Wind.  “And these are opportunities for people to have shelter and some structure and some programming.  And maybe this will do them a world of good.”

“Maybe taking a few people out of downtown Ithaca and putting them in Newfield, they’ll get to experience what you love so much about living in Newfield,” Mezey told Brown.  “We owe it to 25 residents of Tompkins County to try to give them a better quality of life,” Mezey said.  “It’s unfortunate that Newfield doesn’t want to be part of that solution.”

“I take offense at Newfield not wanting to be part of the solution,” Brown rebutted, observing that his town has already welcomed Guidi’s existing 18 cottages and would be willing to do more were the same kind of housing to be built.

 “I don’t think putting this in Newfield is the best use of our public money,” Democrat Rich John added to the debate.

“If I were to pick a spot, that just wouldn’t be the site I’d pick,” Lansing Republican Mike Sigler chimed in.  “It’s close to nothing.”  Brown had reported the encampment even lacks a bus stop on its own side of the highway.

The site works only “to further isolate people who are already isolated,” Sigler said.

Yet Legislature Chair Shawna Black took Greg Mezey’s side.

“It makes me sad hearing this City versus County scenario,” Black said.  She called Second Wind “one of many solutions,” and a “multi-pronged way for us to address homelessness.”  She voted against Brown’s resolution.  And she would likely support Second Wind for funding should it eventually come to a vote.

Whenever—and by whomever—the Second Wind environmental study gets completed, both the environmental report and Second Wind’s funding would then head back to the County Legislature for a pivotal vote.  But should Second Wind falter, either on the legislative floor or before it reaches there, the $510,000 saved could be parceled out to others, namely to the many currently denied funds. Of course, no guarantee exists that Enfield applicants would claim any of those moneys.  But they could.

Of the Enfield agencies that filed for Recovery Fund support, but didn’t make the cut, the Enfield Community Council (ECC) scored highest.  And if Second Wind were to drop out, ECC would likely be the first of Enfield’s aspirants to drop in.  But its inclusion stands far from certain.  Positioned above ECC in the Advisory Committee’s complex prioritization spreadsheet sits Khuba International, a cooperative farming effort geared toward people of color.  Khuba asked for One Million Dollars.  As many as five people spoke in Khuba’s favor at the start of Tuesday’s meeting. 

Bullish on CMC, but skeptical of Second Wind; legislator Rich John.

There’s another big-ticket applicant, Unity House, standing in front of ECC in the funding queue.  Of course, nothing requires the Legislature to follow the rank-order laid down by the Advisory Committee and its highly-paid consultant.  Perhaps what may become more significant is how much Randy Brown can bring shame to his colleagues about how Enfield has been slighted and whether anyone’s face might be saved by throwing the county’s poorest town a crumb or two.

There’s yet a second funding route for Enfield applicants.  But it’s a path far more precarious.

When the Community Recovery Fund was first conceived in mid-2021, the current funding pot, originally a clean $7 Million, was thought to have been only the first of three.  Community Recovery Funds, directly or indirectly—plans changed over time—were considered a pass-through from the federally-financed American Rescue Plan, ARPA. Tompkins County got $19.8 Million in ARPA money.  At a September 2021 meeting, a prior committee had proposed spending as much as $15 Million in a multi-year, multi-round give-away, with $5 Million, and then $3 Million, spent successively in years two and three.

But budget-wary legislators balked.  The more ambitious giveaway was never suggested again.  Instead, the ARPA money not set aside in this year’s Recovery Fund round was diverted toward various operational expenses, up to three quarters of it for capital projects.  And County Administrator Lisa Holmes told this writer after Tuesday’s meeting that she doubts it could be clawed back out.

Back last year, Tompkins County had actually intended to use its massive fund balance, and not its ARPA gift, to finance the Recovery Fund.  But more litigious minds later prevailed.  They cast their eyes to New York’s strict “anti-gifting” rules and urged use of ARPA, and not fund balance, to underwrite what legislators spent Tuesday night.

Nonetheless, some suggested Tuesday that tapping the fund balance could still be justified for agency funding on a case-by-case base.  And if it were to pass legal muster, County coffers might be reopened for Enfield applicants and others currently left out of luck by Tuesday’s vote.

“Do we want to add something more to fund some of these issues?” Rich John asked after all amendments had been dispatched and the Recovery Fund package had headed towards its vote.  John suggested considering the supplemental appropriation maybe as soon as February.  Others cautioned they’d best wait until they craft the 2024 budget next fall.

“I hope we can get a clear understanding of the fund balance,” Brown said, opening the door to added funding.  “I want to understand what projects could be funded with the fund balance and which could not.  It would be helpful information.”

It’s a question to be answered—and a challenge to be wrestled with—later.

****

This story cannot conclude without addressing Cayuga Medical Center’s $1.5 Million request, the biggest Recovery Fund give-away of them all.  Randy Brown, who said he likes CMC’s Crisis Stabilization Center concept, yet argues the hospital has sufficient money banked to pay for it, attempted to pull CMC’s request out of the funding package to accommodate more threadbare applicants.  Brown’s attempt failed.  Only he voted for CMC’s removal.

“This is a new and monumental task.  I think it’s worth it,” Cayuga Medical’s CEO, Martin Stallone, the long meeting’s first speaker, told legislators.  But the hospital chief added, “This is not something where health systems given the climate of health care today can do in and of themselves.”

“This is a new and monumental task,” but we need the full $1.5 Million. Cayuga Medical’s Stallone

CMC had played hardball with Tompkins County, insisting that unless the County fully funded its $1.5 Million request, the mental health treatment facility would simply not happen. 

“As an institution we have extended ourselves to our brink, the brink of what would responsibly be our outlay of capital, and beyond that would be unwise,” Stallone said.  The CEO claimed that the hospital this year, operationally, has lost $10-20 Million.  And he described the organization’s investments, that together top $100 Million, as “frankly, unstable.”

“This is transformative,” Rich John observed of the Crisis Stabilization Center proposal.  “This is what this government program was really set up to do.” 

John added, “This is a pretty good bargain.  It’s a big ticket.  But if you think about the benefits it will provide for years and years to come, I think it’s really worth it.”

Nonetheless, some like legislator Brown, maintained that forcing CMC to self-finance would “open up money for a lot of other things,” Enfield and Newfield projects included.

During the CMC debate, Greg Mezey briefly floated a compromise that would have cut the hospital’s Recovery Fund payout in half, financing its remaining needs directly from the County’s fund balances.  Mezey, like Brown, recognized that shaving CMC’s request, but funding its remainder through the County treasury, would free up three-quarter Million for unfunded applicants.

Dawson: Taking half the CMC money from fund balance “makes no flippin’ sense.”

Yet Mezey’s novel idea also resurrected those pesky rules about public-to-private gifting.  It would also have expanded the night’s discussion far beyond where many on the Legislature had intended to go.

“This amendment is not germane and should not be allowed,” legislator Mike Lane told colleagues.

“That makes no flippin’ sense,” Deborah Dawson put more bluntly. Mezey quietly withdrew his suggestion.

To be clear, no applicant the Advisory Committee during its many meetings in recent weeks had recommended against actually got any money Tuesday.  And that includes anyone from Enfield.  Nearly two dozen citizens—this Councilperson included—addressed the Legislature that night, each in vain.  Only the funding fate of Second Wind Cottages remains undecided right now.  Its environmental review could prompt a fight.  Moreover, that fight could drag on for months.

Just like when parceling out grandma’s china after her will has been read can ignite a family feud, the award of Tompkins County’s Community Recovery Fund has left many community advocates smarting.  And that includes legislator Randy Brown.  And that also includes me.

“I know your committee tried to do the right thing,” I told the Legislature Tuesday night, as I spoke my three minutes on behalf of Enfield’s interests, most principally its Food Pantry.  But as to the review process, I concluded, “Numbers mattered more than people.  Too many calculators and spreadsheets; too few hugs and tears.”

Well, maybe better next time, if there is a next time. Second Wind may tell us so.

###

Pleading the Pantry’s Case

December 21, 2022

No, it’ didn’t earn any votes of support.  But what does it matter.  It was doing the right thing.

Tuesday night, December 20, I stood before the Tompkins County Legislature and pled the case of three Enfield organizations each deserving a slice of Tompkins County’s mammoth $6.5 Million Community Recovery Fund.

Enfield got shut out.  We didn’t get a penny.  We should have gotten our share.  We’re the poorest town in Tompkins County.  And it’s easy for others to forget we have needs.

I had a precious three minutes.  So I chose to focus on just one of our three requests, the largest; that for a new Enfield Food Pantry.  Here’s what I said:

****

Good Evening. Robert Lynch, Councilperson, Town of Enfield:

Many deserving applicants will tonight seek Community Recovery funding.  I’m here to support three from Enfield:  Enfield Food Distribution, Enfield Community Council, and the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company.  None were recommended by your committee.  I believe each should have been.  I’ll speak to one in particular.

Imagine you’re hungry; I mean, really hungry; no, not just missing a meal or two.  You’ve gone for weeks on Ramen noodles, Rice Krispies and junk food.  So have your kids.  You can’t pay Wegmans’ prices. You either want to buy food—you have to buy good food or pay the rent.  And without rent, you’re homeless.  Food insecurity is real.  Food insecurity hurts.  Food insecurity happens here.  And food insecurity has been worsened by the pandemic.  The Enfield Food Pantry has become Tompkins County’s first line of defense against food insecurity.

Our pantry needs a new home.  On your committee’s first vote, it got just two votes out of six.  It never got a second look.  That was a mistake.  Tonight, your Legislature holds the power to correct that mistake.

Don’t think of this as just an Enfield food pantry.  It’s truly Tompkins County’s food pantry.  It’s the only one locally with the strength of volunteers and the depth of dedication to operate three days a week, every week.  We serve county-wide populations.  And unlike most others, we handle meat, produce and dairy.  We stand alone.  We stand proud.  And our freezer’s too small; and our cooler’s too small too.

Matthew 14; 13 through 21; speaks of how Jesus fed the multitude with just five loaves and two fish.  Well, in Enfield, Pantry Director Jean Owens does that every week.  We feed more than 500 families, often different families, each weekend—625 families the weekend before Thanksgiving.  We do it out of a 1948 fire house, cramped, outdated, and cold.  In summer, we distribute produce outdoors in the blistering sun and driving rain.  Winters, patrons squeeze between bags of potatoes piles of carrots, and us.

We have the food.  We have the volunteers.  What we need is a new home to serve people better.  You hold the purse and the power to help us.

I know your committee tried to do the right thing.  They meant well.  And as I told Randy Brown at our Town Board meeting last week, the problem is systemic.  Numbers mattered more than people.  Too many calculators and spreadsheets; too few hugs and tears.  I so wish you’d invited each of our major applicants to plead her case personally for a brief ten minutes.  Because passion can never leap from the printed page the way it can spring from the heart, passing through the lips of a dedicated advocate. 

Please, I believe Enfield Food Distribution’s application speaks best to the purpose of this fund.  It’s transformative.  It’s purposed for people.  And it’ll do good. 

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The Original Recovery Fund Story:

Recovery Fund Approved; Enfield Still Slighted

by Robert Lynch, December 21, 2022

The Finger Lakes Toy Library may have gotten its money, but the Enfield Food Pantry did not. 

Message to Enfield: “They’re on their own.” In dissent; Randy Brown.

Culminating a year-long process and steered to its decision by a numbers-crunching consultant and then a six-member Advisory Committee whose decisions some viewed as arbitrary and unfair, the Tompkins County Legislature Tuesday ratified, without change, the committee’s recommendation for parceling out the bulk of $6.5 Million Dollars under the Tompkins County Community Recovery Fund.

The final 12-1 vote capped a marathon session in which legislative majorities beat back as many as a dozen amendments, and nearly two dozen speakers raised objections to the committee’s recommendation against favored applications .

Newfield-Enfield legislator Randy Brown cast the lone dissenting vote.  Brown was also the lawmaker who sought the greatest number of changes.  Among them, the Newfield Republican attempted unsuccessfully to strip away the biggest appropriation of them all; a $1.5 Million grant to Cayuga Medical Center to construct an “Intensive Crisis Stabilization Center.” Brown argued the hospital already has the money to build it.

Brown also lost in his separate effort to defund a half-Million Dollar set-aside for Second Wind Cottages’ homeless encampment in Newfield, a project the Newfield Town Board has already gone on record against.  Because it must still clear an environmental review, the Second Wind funding was pushed off until a later meeting.  But the 5-8 defeat of Brown’s move to defund the project signaled Second Wind’s likely future approval.

“I’m going to vote ‘no’ not just because of Second Wind, Brown said as the evening’s final vote neared on funding the vast majority of Recovery Find grants.  “But I feel that the committee didn’t even understand the transformative processes that Newfield-Enfield attempted to do.” 

Enfield, like Newfield, Brown said, has been told, effectively, “they’re on their own.”

Of Enfield, Brown said, “They’re the poorest district in the county.  They’re buying used equipment ‘cause that’s all they can afford.  And yet nothing got funded.”

In addition to a $1.2 minimum grant sought by the Enfield Food Pantry to construct a new distribution center—a proposal that the committee had tossed aside in early deliberations—legislators also denied approval of lesser-dollar requests by the Enfield Community Council and the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company.

“In recognition of all the problems in the county, you didn’t even think about Enfield and Newfield in my mind,” Brown faulted legislators.

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Posted Previously:

End of an Enfield Era… at a Crossroads

Judge Poole Retires; Board ponders options

by Robert Lynch, December 14, 2022; additional reporting December 15, 2022

Judge Betty Poole, on the Enfield bench for 29 years, has retired, Enfield’s Town Board disclosed publicly for the first time at its December monthly meeting Wednesday.

Old masking days; Town Justice Betty Poole (right) after administrating the Oath of Office to newly-named Supervisor Stephanie Redmond, January 2021.

Poole, the Town’s only Justice for the past decade, and one of the Town’s two justices before that, her service dating back to January 1994, tendered her retirement notice, citing health reasons, to State officials in November.  Although Town Board members knew of the impending judicial vacancy for several weeks, they withheld public disclosure of her retirement until Wednesday’s session at the request of Supervisor Stephanie Redmond.

Amid low-key acknowledgement of the judge’s decision, the Town Board adopted a Resolution of recognition Wednesday and circulated among its membership a retirement card to sign.

“We truly appreciate all the time, energy and expertise you have brought to the Town of Enfield,” Supervisor Redmond wrote in a letter of appreciation Board members signed and then memorialized in their adopted Resolution.  “Our community has benefited from your vast wisdom and selfless dedication,” the letter continued.

Poole’s retirement becomes effective at year’s end.  Officials acknowledge that Town Court in Enfield has not been held for several weeks.

Wednesday’s announcement was coupled with Board discussion of judicial succession.  The Town Board made no decision on selection of Poole’s replacement.  Instead, Board members weighed several options on how to move forward, aided in their discussion by Joshua Shapiro of the New York State Unified Court System.  Among the options available to Enfield—and one enthusiastically advanced by Supervisor Redmond—is the potential consolidation of the Enfield Town Court with that of a neighboring municipality, such as Newfield, Ulysses, or the Town of Ithaca.

“I don’t think we’re in any position to make any decisions about that tonight,” Redmond acknowledged as to consolidation.  “But it’s time for us to start educating ourselves  about whether that’s a move we would want to take as a Town; whether it would actually save us any money, or whether it is something that we need.”

“My first reaction is hesitancy,” Councilperson Robert Lynch (this writer) said in answer to the Supervisor’s suggestion. “The second thing is we have to hear from the community because they’ve got to weigh in on it.”

In addition to calling for a “community conversation” about the Town Court’s future, Lynch offered a third reason for reticence Wednesday.  “Really, tonight is not the appropriate time to discuss it further,” he said of consolidation.  “We are celebrating Judge Poole’s service…. She has served us well, and we are very disappointed that she has to retire, that she chose to retire, more properly put.”

“This town has to realize we’re at a crossroads,” Lynch concluded.  “We have several options open, and I think right for the moment we just have to let the community speak.”

Those options, Joshua Shapiro advised the Board, are several. Think of them as consolidation-heavy and consolidation-light.

“No municipality can ever truly ‘close’ a courthouse, as all Towns must maintain a court under the New York State Constitution,” Shapiro wrote Redmond in a November 29th email, its contents shared with the Board.  “However there are several legislative options available that allow you to share court space and judges with other municipalities,” Shapiro wrote.  Some options, the judicial administrator told the Board Wednesday, could take one to two years to implement.

“No municipality can truly ‘close’ a courthouse;” Josh Shapiro

Simplest, Shapiro told Board members, would involve individual Town Justices from separate towns meeting at a common location and sharing costs between them.  Municipalities would only need to sign a shared services agreement to implement that change.

But a “true consolidation,” Shapiro warned, would entail far more.  Adjoining towns would first need to adopt joint resolutions to study the concept.  Then there’d be hearings, followed by a request to the State Legislature for Home Rule legislation.  Voters in both municipalities would elect the merged court’s judge.  But Shapiro said there’d be no need for a referendum to make the merger happen.

“If we want to do it, now’s our chance.” Redmond remarked as Shapiro spelled out the options.  “We have this one year that we have available to think about it until our next election cycle…. I think we should at least review it.  We may not choose to consolidate.  But we should at least look at our options.”

But with Poole’s year-end departure looming large, “We need have to have a judge somehow,” Lynch reminded the Board.  “We would have to have somebody to cover us.”

The Town Board turned to Eugene Faughnan, Administrative Judge for New York’s Sixth Judicial District, in order to escape any legally-prohibited lapse in Enfield court functions after January first.  The Board agreed to have Judge Faughnan appoint one or more Town Justices from other local municipalities to sit temporarily in Enfield while the Board weighs its choices. 

If we want to do it, now’s our chance,” Supervisor Redmond, talking possible judicial change. (Jude Lemke attended remotely.)

Betty Poole, a Republican, was first elected Enfield Town Justice in 1993.  She was then re-elected seven times to successive, four-year terms.  Her most recent reelection was last year, when she was cross-endorsed by Democrats.  Had she not retired, Poole’s term would have run through 2025.

Prior to her election as Enfield Town Justice, Poole served as court clerk for the Town of Ithaca, in all giving over 33 years of service to the local judicial community.

“She’s one of the good ones,” Josh Shapiro said of Judge Poole.  “So she’s got big shoes to fill.”

Should the Town of Enfield retain its Justice Court as now constituted, the Town Board could appoint an interim Town Justice, whose term would run through next year, the appointee then subject to a November election to a shortened term.  Candidates for the November election would petition next spring.

As for an interim appointment, Shapiro advised Board members that any appointee would either need to be a licensed attorney or else first complete a State-mandated judicial training course.  But that course for lay justices, Redmond warned the Board, will not be conducted until the spring.

When Judge Poole tendered her retirement notice, her own court clerk, her daughter, Tiffany Poole, also announced her resignation, also effective at years end.  The Town Board agreed Wednesday to post the clerk’s job opening, which Shapiro advised the Board need not necessarily be filled by an Enfield resident.

“Thank you, Judge Poole, for your service,” Councilperson Lynch closed the Board’s half-hour discussion that addressed both Poole’s judicial legacy and talk of what lies ahead.

“Always professional, sweet, and knowledgeable,” Supervisor Redmond echoed.  “She will be missed.”

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