Broadband at a County Crossroads… Again

by Robert Lynch, September 26, 2021

“Tompkins County can’t become everybody’s ISP.”

With those memorable words, Tompkins County Legislator Martha Robertson planted her flag September 16th at yet another of those intermunicipal come-together bull sessions where town leaders and county lawmakers trade ideas—and frustrations—about the lack of adequate and affordable broadband Internet in our county. 

Skeptical of Municipal Broadband; Legislator Robertson

Most recently, the discussion found its home September 23rd at a committee of the County Legislature Robertson chairs, one where a reading of the room brought a sense that any thought of a governmentally-run, countywide network to compete with the likes of Haefele and Spectrum is just about dead.

“I know you don’t want to take anything off of the table,” cautioned Lansing legislator Mike Sigler.  “But I just don’t see municipal broadband.  I don’t see us starting a company.” 

Why not take the plunge to set up a public-option ISP alternative?  It’s done some places with municipal power. Sigler distinguished the two.  “It works if you own the power company,” he said.  “You’ve already got the trucks; you’ve got the customer service… but to start from scratch, it would require such an overbuild… to what’s already existing.   It seems that’s not a great direction for the County to go in.”

Actually, the Town of Dryden is trying just what Sigler is rejecting.  It’s attempting to string its own lines to compete with the private companies.  And Dryden Supervisor Jason Leifer has become municipal broadband’s leading local cheerleader.

“It’s not just people who don’t have a service,” said Leifer at an August meeting of the Tompkins County Council of Governments (TCCOG).  “It’s people who have no competition, who are relying on DSL, or who are relying on satellite, or rely on Spectrum, which to be frank, is way too much money for way too little, and it’s unreliable.” (See story posted on this website August 27th.)

But public broadband would cost money—big bucks; the kind of big bucks that would likely increase taxes.  And legislators find the tradeoff daunting especially should they lean on data—admittedly flawed data—that suggest that only a small fraction of local residents, most living in the county’s southern reaches, lack access to any high-speed Internet at all.

A September 23rd meeting of Robertson’s Housing and Economic Development (HED) Committee provided the County Planning Department’s point person on broadband, Nick Helmholdt, his first opportunity to detail current courses of action following his boss’s decision to pause a $60,000 consultants’ study August 6th.  Planning and Sustainability Commissioner Katie Borgella then called a halt to the work after only the first of the study’s four phases.  She concluded any broadband solutions that consultants might devise would serve too few households to justify taxpayer investment.

The consultants commenced work in April, when “middle-mile” cable stringer Southern Tier Network (STN), a regional nonprofit, partnering with Fujitsu Corporation, launched a four-part study that some County and municipal leaders had hoped would lead to government-run broadband.  But the study faltered when its first-stage Market Assessment revealed that an STN system might reach only 269—or maybe 473—unserved homes.  Borgella paused the study before consultants ever got to part two… or to calculating cost.

Take a path, one of three; Nick Helmholdt

Helmholdt’s report—and County legislators’ reaction to it—underscored the common speculation of recent weeks that continuing the STN/Fujitsu study to its conclusion has become a lost cause.  Instead, as many municipal leaders (including this writer) have publicly recommended, the County may tap unspent moneys from the Fujitsu study to underwrite a county-wide survey of hard-wired Internet’s true reach, granular down to the last road, if not the last house.

Helmholdt advanced such a physical survey of fixed broadband as one of three alternative “paths forward” in working toward universal coverage.  Under this path, the Planning Department would end the STN/Fujitsu study and instead use the survey to prod private providers to extend their cables to reach neighborhoods not now served. 

Already, this strategy claims one success to its credit.  After the Town of Newfield commissioned a road-by-road survey of its own, the County, Town, and Point Broadband collaborated to extend fixed service to some 180 homes in the “Millard Hill Corridor,” a deal the County Legislature finalized September 14th(See Sept. 15th story; posted earlier.)

While physical surveys provide “really detailed street-level information,” Helmholdt told the committee, any report a surveyor hands up “doesn’t have a great shelf life.”  So while the data may pinpoint pockets of need, deals must be struck promptly with a chosen provider before a competitor swoops down and strings cables to those places first.

Helmholdt’s remaining “paths forward” for lawmakers included potential resumption of the STN/Fujitsu study and, alternately,  evaluating the feasibility of a Municipal Broadband System.

With its limited spread of service, the STN solution—namely using STN middle-mile fiber to connect particularized dead-spots—“will be pretty expensive,” Helmholdt forecast.  “And it could be challenging to finance with the existing Federal sources,” considering, he said, how few homes the system would serve.

Moreover—and not well publicized in prior discussions—the planner cautioned that the STN/Fujitsu prescription would only benefit three of Tompkins County’s nine rural towns; namely Newfield, Danby and Caroline.  While residents in those three would gain service, other “very small pockets of homes” in other parts of the county would not be “captured” by the service constructed, the planner cautioned.

Helmholdt’s final path forward would lead to the municipal system Dryden’s Leifer would welcome, but most on the Legislature’s committee decidedly resist.

To its credit, said the planner, municipal broadband would carry the advantage of providing universal service and addressing concerns about quality and competition.  It would be “a whole new potential service the County would be operating,” Helmholdt said.  It “could also potentially address every unserved household in the County.”

But the drawbacks loom large.   A municipal service “would require a substantial amount of time to both evaluate and establish, Helmholdt said, adding that just investigating the option could prove exhaustive.  “A study of this magnitude would be pretty thick,” he cautioned.

Then there’d be the “public responsibility for the ongoing cost of maintenance and operation.”  Moreover, government would find itself treading on private turf.  A public system would “overbuild” and therefore compete against existing commercial providers.  In effect, its cables would go virtually everywhere.

****

“I’m ready to give a direction,” Lansing’s Sigler piped up.  “I know there are people that aren’t covered.  But frankly, we do have pretty decent coverage.  We’re over 90 per cent broadband in this county.” (Sigler may have relied on the admittedly flawed FCC coverage data that almost everyone agrees exaggerates broadband’s true reach.)  “So it seems we’re really trying to reach these pockets, these people who don’t have it,” Sigler said, framing the discussion.

“I like the idea of reducing the cost to people,” Ulysses/Enfield legislator Anne Koreman said, extending a passing compliment to the municipal option.  But municipal broadband, she conceded, “seems like a huge undertaking;” an endeavor “I’m not inclined to want to do.”

The public option “seems like a huge undertaking;” Legislator Koreman

The one attending legislator whose constituencies have the most to gain was Dan Klein, drawn from cable-deprived Caroline and Danby.  Klein raised the idea of “dragging out” STN and Fujitsu; extending the study’s “pause,” yet reserving the possibility of resuming it should private ISP’s not embrace a willingness to serve.  “I think it would be premature to end the Fujitsu study before we’ve gotten as far as we can with that ‘other exploration,’” Klein said, his referenced exploration being the physical survey and subsequent private inquiries.

Planning Commissioner Borgella cautioned that the County can only wait so long.  Her Department had told consultants a decision on continuation would be made in August.   It wasn’t.  Fujitsu’s been patient.  But the County had negotiated a bargain price at the start.  And further delay might require a new contract at higher cost, she said.

Of those at the committee’s meeting table, virtual or otherwise, only Klein held out much hope for municipal broadband’s potential conception.  But even he was skeptical.  Klein urged the committee look toward Dryden’s years-long municipal broadband effort as a guide.  “I’m a little doubtful,” Klein said of Dryden’s prospects.  “If they can pull it off,” he said, “there’s a model for us.  If they can’t pull it off, there’s some information for us, too.”   Municipal broadband, Klein opined, is “an ideal thing to happen.”  But he, like other legislators and planning staff, admitted its creation would take “a lot of study and a lot of time.”

Should the earlier-ballyhooed STN/Fujitsu study now meet its unceremonious demise, Tompkins County will owe the consultants about $24,000 for time already spent.  The unused portion could bankroll the increasingly likely physical survey, which Helmholdt pegs at between $15,000 and $25,000.  Once the survey’s completed, the County would likely continue its piecemeal approach, bargaining with private firms, using the Newfield-Point Broadband agreement as an example.

Enfield, Newfield and other municipalities had pledged funds—most of them $5,000 apiece—to defray the STN/Fujitsu study’s expense.  The HED Committee Thursday recommended the Legislature release municipalities from those prior commitments and tap money from the County’s Fund Balance instead.

“I’m just glad what we’re doing in Dryden is moving forward,” Supervisor Leifer said of his Town-attempted municipal venture to TCCOG in August.  As for partnering with private providers, he said, “if you just let them fill in the blanks, you don’t even address the competition problem.”

Danby Supervisor Joel Gagnon agreed with Leifer.  Piecemeal extensions, Gagnon told TCCOG, only “become part of the private network and part of the monopoly supply.”

“It does get it to where it needs to go,” Gagnon admitted of private agreements, “but our history of doing that has not been particularly satisfactory.  We’re not taking a serious look of the cost effectiveness in the long run of a public network.”

But politicians often have limited eyesight and short attention spans. They cast their gaze on what matters most—the next Resolution, the next budget, the next election.

And though she’s relinquishing her seat to a newcomer in January, Robertson, a reliable legislative liberal, still counseled her colleagues to remain frugal and to see public-option broadband as simply a reach too far. 

“I don’t think [it] is something we can take on,” Robertson warned.

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Posted Previously:

Vaccine for nothin’ and the tests are free…

County funds testing prong of Enfield Vaxx Policy

by Robert Lynch, September 22, 2021

Had you not scoured the agenda, you might have missed it.

Federally reimbursed; but logistics that are not “simple or straightforward.” Deputy Administrator Hendrix

With all the heavy lifting done in committee the day before, the Tompkins County Legislature Tuesday (Sept. 21st) gave quick and unanimous approval to expansion of a County-funded—and likely federally reimbursed—COVID-19 surveillance testing program that will now cover local municipal employees.  The expansion would permit the Town of Enfield’s workforce to obtain free weekly asymptomatic testing at Cayuga Health Systems’ mall-based sampling site should they opt-out of a vaccination mandate policy under consideration by the Enfield Town Board, but not yet adopted.

Buried within Tuesday’s “consent agenda,” a laundry list that contained multiple, routine actions, the testing policy’s expansion cleared the Legislature without discussion.

“I’m glad that the Committee has been receptive to this,” Enfield Councilperson Robert Lynch (this writer) told the Health and Human Services Committee one day prior to the Legislature’s vote.  “There are still other issues in Enfield that we have to resolve with regards to the vaccination policy,” he cautioned the Committee.   “They’re Enfield issues.  I’m not asking you to solve them today.  That’s for us to solve.  But at least the financial aspect will be rectified by this Resolution.”

Tompkins County began funding free surveillance testing for the general public in September of last year after insurance companies began denying reimbursement for routinely testing those who failed to show COVID-19 symptoms.  While the program funds the tests for most residents, it does not include those whose employers demand the samples.  In those instances, the employer must pay the charge.

But with some municipalities now considering following County Government’s lead and requiring employees either vaccinate or get regular tests, municipal boards, including Enfield’s, have raised the expense factor as a potential obstacle to a mandate policy’s adoption.

When Councilperson Lynch initially introduced Enfield’s vaccination mandate this August, Supervisor Stephanie Redmond countered that the weekly testing cost for employees who chose not to vaccinate—even if only one or two—could break the Town’s budget.  Tuesday’s action by the County Legislature would appear to remove the financial barrier.

Yet even with County funding an increasingly likely prospect, the Enfield Board rejected the vaccinate-or-test policy at its September 8th meeting.  Councilperson Lynch, the policy’s lone supporter in the September vote, has pledged to resubmit a modified version of the mandate at the Board’s October meeting.

Following Supervisor Redmond’s raising her cost concerns in August, Lynch contacted several in County Government, including Health Committee Chair Shawna Black in search of a solution.  Subsequent committee deliberations led to this week’s two-step legislative endorsement.

Tompkins County initially bankrolled its surveillance testing policy with hundreds of thousands of dollars from its Contingency Fund.  But more recently, a federal agency (FEMA) has agreed to cover the cost fully.  Deputy County Administrator Amie Hendrix informed both the Health Committee Monday, and then the full Legislature on Tuesday that FEMA reimbursement should also cover municipal employee tests.

As for the municipal collection and testing procedures, Hendrix cautioned the committee, “The logistics on that are not as simple and straightforward as maybe we had thought originally.” 

Beginning next month, County Government, with its large workforce, will send around an employee to collect test samples from various worksite drop boxes and then take them to a hospital lab for analysis.  Hendrix indicated the Town of Ithaca may do the same.  But for smaller municipalities, like Enfield, employees would likely have to drive themselves to the testing site.  There’d be no County pickup.

“We need to work with each municipality to look at how that program would look,” the deputy administrator told the committee.

But some governments, Hendrix advised the Legislature, want to go one step farther.  She said the City of Ithaca may choose a more ambitious regimen, namely to surveillance test every employee regularly, whether vaccinated or not—a policy Redmond has also suggested Enfield do.  Hendrix doubted Ithaca’s more aggressive strategy would qualify for FEMA’s blanket coverage.  As a result, she told the committee the City may need to contract separately with Cayuga Health and seek separate FEMA reimbursement of its “more broadspread program.”

In other County Legislature business Tuesday:

  • The Legislature unanimously appointed Tamara Scott as the County’s new Republican Elections Commissioner.  Scott, endorsed by the local Republican Committee, has served as Interim Commissioner since the recent retirement of Commissioner Elizabeth Cree.  Stephen Dewitt continues as the Democratic Commissioner.
  • The Legislature paid tribute with a moment of silence to mark the passing of their former colleague, Peter Stein, who represented the Town of Ithaca.  Stein died Friday, September 17th, at age 89.  A retired Cornell physics professor, Stein had served on the Legislature from 2010 through 2017.  Current legislators and staff took turns sharing their memories of Peter.
  • And on a matter likely to enthrall only the most fervent of financial pencil-pushers, the Legislature updated its long-debated Fund Balance Policy, setting new guidelines for how much money the County should put aside in what amounts to its government savings account.

The proposed policy changes hobbled to the legislative floor after having been supported in one committee, but crippled by a split voter in another.  The old policy had called for setting aside in the General Fund Balance moneys equal to only ten per cent of the County’s annual budget.  (It had been just five per cent a few years back.)  What emerged from the single committee that could reach agreement—the Budget and Capital Committee—was a set-aside of between 18 and 23 per cent of an annual budget.  The Legislature Tuesday first rejected an amendment that would have chopped the top figure down to 20 per cent; then passed an amendment that eliminated the top figure altogether.  The 18 per cent number—only a guideline; not a hard-and-fast constraint—still stands above the percentage financial experts recommend.

Having an upper limit could “guide and color the decisions of staff and the Legislature,” warned Dryden’s Martha Robertson in supporting a lower top limit.  Robertson feared the upper number of the two would become the fund balance’s de facto target.  We could “lose out on opportunities,” she said.  By “opportunities,” she most likely meant added spending.

Her Dryden colleague, Mike Lane, however, supported keeping the higher number high.  He even voted against the final Resolution.  What an upper range does, said Lane, is alert us of when the balance creeps too high, perhaps signaling a need to cut taxes.   Moreover, he said, the higher number underscores the importance that “we have a good amount in the bank for things that may come along.”

****

Speaking Up; Making a Difference

I’ve long known that if there’s something you want; something and need, you’d best ask for it. 

When our Town Supervisor raised a plausible concern in August against my proposed Vaccine Mandate—namely that a weekly COVID-19 test for an asymptomatic Town employee who chose not to vaccinate might break the Town’s budget—I went to work.  My path led me to contact Shawna Black, Chair of the County Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, on August 16th.  I explained to her Enfield’s predicament and the political pushback given my well-intended vaccinate-or-test Resolution, one that mirrored newly-adopted Tompkins County policy.  I wrote Legislator Black, in part:

“[H]as the County considered furthering public health by underwriting the costs of asymptomatic employee testing by participating municipalities?  We, Tompkins County’s Towns, lack the financial resources of County Government.  Funding testing at the mall-based Cayuga Health Systems testing site would help keep our municipal employees, and the publics they serve, safe.”

It brought action.  The Health Committee and County staff wrote a Resolution that would expand the County-funded—and FEMA-reimbursed—surveillance testing at the Cayuga Health Systems’ drive through sampling site to cover municipal employees of Tompkins towns, villages, and the City of Ithaca.  Each municipality—including our own—sets its preferred policy.  The County Resolution, adopted by the County Legislature September 22nd, keeps employee testing from breaking our bank.

I expected the testing expansion Resolution would clear the Health and Human Services Committee Monday (Sept. 20th).  It did. The full Legislature adopted it one night later.  But to underscore Enfield’s encouragement—and our gratitude—I stated the following before Legislator Black’s committee:

****

Good Afternoon, Robert Lynch, 175 Gray Road, Town of Enfield.  I’m here as a representative of the Enfield Town Board and of myself

I suppose the Resolution that I come to endorse, which is the Resolution to extend the contract with Cayuga Health Systems for COVID-19 testing , I suppose that Resolution has a thousand parents by now because it’s so popular in this county.  I’d like to think I was one of the first back in the summer of 2020 when I talked with then-member Anna Kelles and other members of the Legislature and urged you to adopt it to allow asymptomatic testing for COVID-19 as an initial way to get our hands around this pandemic.  And it’s been very successful and I urge that it be continued with the Resolution that you have before you today.

I also particularly want to endorse the fact that you have requested that it be extended to cover municipal employees in Tompkins County.  And as a member of the Enfield Town Board, I feel a particular attachment to that.

As you know, we’ve had some discussion out in Enfield, on the Town Board, regarding a vaccination mandate policy for vaccination of employees with an opt-out option for weekly testing.  And when we first brought this up in August, there was some concern by some Board members that the expense of weekly testing even for one employee, or two, would be a budget-breaker for us.  And at that time, I came to the [Health and Human Services] Committee, talked to [Committee Chair] Shawna Black and others and urged that we consider it, County funding through the Cayuga Health Systems’ drive-through testing facility, for this kind of testing. 

I’m glad that the Committee has been receptive to this. It’ll work out.  There are still other issues in Enfield that we have to resolve with regards to the vaccination policy.  They’re Enfield issues.  I’m not asking you to solve them today.  That’s for us to solve.  But at least the financial aspect will be rectified by this Resolution.  And I urge its recommendation and adoption by the Legislature tomorrow.

Thank you.

And yes, thank you Tompkins County.  Now, Enfield, let’s act.

Bob Lynch

###

Now, to Newfield:

Newfield Board OK’s Solar Law; sets cannabis opt-out hearing

by Robert Lynch, September 23, 2021

Pretty? One of the PowerPoint slides showcasing Newfield’s newly-adopted Solar Law.

Statutes don’t often win beauty compliments.  Newfield’s new Solar Law did.

“It’s well thought-out, easy to understand, and it’s pretty,” Councilperson Joanne James remarked during a quick and largely uneventful Public Hearing Thursday (Sept 23rd) prior to the Newfield Town Board giving its unanimous approval to a thorough overhaul of the Town’s 2017 law regulating solar generating installations, whether large or small.

“The purpose is not to impede or slow down solar development,” Planning Board secretary Jim Haustein stressed, as he walked the Board and public through the Hearing’s 30-slide PowerPoint presentation.  It’s to “create a win-win situation.”

Haustein explained solar technology is changing rapidly.  New York, he observed, seeks to rely increasingly upon renewables.  Newfield is already home to two, new prominent arrays; a 7.5-Megawatt, 30-acre system off Millard Hill Road; and a 4-Megawatt, 26-acre solar farm close by, off Burge Hill Road.  Both would be classified as “Large” arrays under the law’s new three-tiered classification system.

Expanding the existing law’s reach, the newly-adopted Newfield controls would also cover “Battery Energy Storage Systems,” a rapidly-growing technology that permits solar energy generated during the day to be used by customers at night.

Haustein, whose Planning Board labored on the new law for months, said the planners wrote it to be consistent with the Town’s Comprehensive Plan, to have it fall in line with laws for neighboring communities, and to update a 4-year old law that only covered larger systems.

Under its provisions, the larger the solar farm—or the battery storage facility—the more extensive the law would regulate.  Small-scale systems, such as those on homes, would face minimal oversight.  Medium-sized units—which Haustein equated to those atop the McGuire dealerships—would need Site Plan Review and Planning Board approval. 

The largest systems, with greater than 25 kilowatts capacity and spread out over at least 2.5 acres, would need not only Planning Board consent, but also a visual impact assessment, species protection compliance, and a developer’s assurance that the farm would provide “tangible community benefits.”  It would also demand a “community meeting” to ascertain public sentiment.

Land use controls sometimes trigger backlash.  The Newfield Solar Law did not.  Only a handful of residents asked questions, a majority of the speakers either local officials or political candidates.  They posed questions; not criticism.  The hearing and the Board’s subsequent vote took just over 40 minutes.

****

Similarly non-controversial was the Newfield Board’s brief revisit of New York’s new cannabis law, a statute that gives municipalities the option to opt-out of allowing marijuana dispensaries.  Although the evening’s agenda listed the prospect of putting the issue on November’s ballot, the deadline for doing so has passed.  So instead, the Town Board decided to schedule a Public Hearing on an opt-out law for October 28th, the same night as its Budget Hearing.

As to marijuana sales, “I can’t see it as being a windfall,” remarked Councilperson Joanne James cautiously.

Both Supervisor Michael Allinger and Councilperson Christine Laughlin expressed the strongest reservations about the dispensaries.  Both feared storefront pot sales might change the character of the Newfield business district, especially since the Town lacks zoning.

Nevertheless, most Board members appeared open to persuasion.  They saw the late-October hearing as a good way to gauge public opinion, especially since the Town Board must avail itself of New York’s one-way opt-out provisions before year’s end.

In yet a final matter, the Newfield Board took its first steps toward securing a multi-million dollar State grant to upgrade its aging water and sewer systems.  The Board passed measures to seek assistance toward $4.2 Million in water upgrades and $741 thousand in sewer improvements.  If approved, the State would pay 60 per cent of the total cost.  Laughlin cautioned that even if the money comes through, the Town could always back out of the projects later.

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Posted Previously:

Slice and Dice

Competing Congressional Maps would bring us different political bedfellows

And one could bring to our District both Katko and Tenney

Plan #1: The Democrats’
Plan #2: The Republicans’

Posted by Robert Lynch, September 16, 2021; Updated September 17, 2021

If Democratic line-scribblers on New York’s party-divided Independent Redistricting Commission prevail, Tompkins County voters will be looking north—not to the south or west—to cement their Congressional loyalties during the next political decade.

Draft maps submitted Wednesday (Sept. 15th) by the Democratic partisans on New York State’s now fractured and visibly wrangling Redistricting Commission, would pull Tompkins County out of the hundreds-mile-long Southern Tier District where retiring Congressman Tom Reed currently holds sway.  Instead, Democrats would put Tompkins County as the southern anchor of a slightly more compact district, one that would curl right from Ithaca up Cayuga Lake’s eastern shore, then through Syracuse and on to Utica.  Curl right, perhaps; but likely lean politically left.

In fact, the Democrats’ plan—given the upper hand the way both Empire State politics and Commission rules are structured—would actually carve the Reed District into oblivion. The Southern Tier sprawl of counties, most bordering Pennsylvania from about Elmira heading west to Lake Erie, has long been a fixture in regional Congressional politics. Think Stan Lundine and Amo Houghton.

But on the other hand, if Commission Republicans can somehow wrest control, the Reed District would still survive.  Indeed, it would expand.  And it would remain with most of Tompkins County still within it, including Enfield and Newfield.

Perhaps by political design, the Democrats’ alternative, if adopted, would put two Republican Congressional incumbents, John Katko and Claudia Tenney, in the same District—ours.  It would set the stage for a knock-down Republican Primary, its winner to face a Democratic challenger yet to emerge, yet a candidate likely to hold a voter registration edge.

At the same time as Congressional districts would get sliced and diced, the split Commission’s competing maps could spell changes down-ballot as well, namely in races for the State Legislature.  Most notably, the Republican map—but not the Democratic one—would chop incumbent Democrat Anna Kelles’ home base of Tompkins County right down the center of Cayuga Lake.  The Republican map, based on its grainy approximation, would lob off the Towns of Enfield, Newfield, and Ulysses from the rest of Tompkins County and merge those towns into a district that would include Seneca, Yates and Schuyler Counties, among others.

For the State Senate, the Democratic—and it appears also the Republican—maps would provide local Democrats something they’ve long sought for decades, namely a single district representing all of Tompkins County.  But the similarity stops there.  The Democratic Senate draft would tie Tompkins County to Binghamton and its western suburbs.  The GOP alternative would link Tompkins with several northern Finger Lakes counties in Republican Pam Helming’s District.  Helming already represents Lansing.

“What an embarrassment!” an old hand at local government and media texted this writer as we both concluded watching the Redistricting Commission’s brief half-hour Wednesday session, a meeting hyped for an unveiling of proposed maps, but instead consumed by posturing and preening among Commission members, most of them off microphone,
muffling through masks.

“I was negatively surprised when I saw the maps,” said member Charles Nesbitt, a former Assembly minority leader and one of the few members whose words could be understood, since he was talking remotely, unmasked.  “Communities of interest were entirely ignored,” Republican Nesbitt complained.  “I can see nothing but confusion …. I believe that a fair reading of the Constitution does not contemplate this process that we’re about to go forward on.  So let’s do better.”

“Let’s do better.” Redistricting Commissioner Nesbitt

The handing forth of competing, partisan maps surely complicates the Redistricting Commission’s mission.  The bipartisan entity, created by a constitutional amendment in 2014, was established supposedly to take partisanship out of line drawing.  But the latest deadlock could thrust the process right back into the smoke-filled room, one in which majority Democrats hold the upper hand. 

As Nicholas Fandos and Grace Ashford wrote in the New York Times:

“Under the New York Constitution, the redistricting commission leads the way in drawing maps.  But if it fails to come to a consensus among itself or delivers lawmakers a map that they don’t like, the Legislature can overpower the body and establish almost any map it chooses, so long as the districts meet constitutional requirements and are roughly equal in size.”

And as the Times reporters observed, “Privately, the Republicans fear that Democratic commissioners have no intention of finding an agreement and would prefer to let the body fail so they can kick the process directly to the Legislature to draw more advantageous maps for their party.”

Local residents will get an opportunity to sound off about the redistricting plans—either in-person or virtually—at a series of Public Hearings, the nearest to be held in Binghamton October 25th and in Syracuse October 26th.

****

One of the more common themes voiced at the Commission’s August 9th Southern Tier Public Hearing was the need to preserve the elongated Southern Tier District, despite the geographic separation of its constituents and the impediments that confront candidates who seek to represent it.

The 23rd District’s breakup would be “detrimental to the region’s recovery,” Bill Mullaney, President of Corning Community College told the Hearing.  There’s a “delicate ecosystem of the Southern Tier,” he said.  Many commenters agreed.  At times one gained the impression community leaders had been recruited to strike a common theme.  They repeatedly said that Southern Tier rural counties hold a common “community of interest,” a key criterion in any redistricting.

The Democrats’ plan—but not the Republicans’—would render the Southern Tier District a thing of the past.  The Democrats’ draft map would slice central and western New York districts with a series of vertical cuts, in two instances extending districts all the way from Lake Ontario to the Pennsylvania border.  Binghamton would be swept into the district of Hudson Valley Democratic Congressman Antonio Delgado.  With Reed retiring when his current term expires next year, the Reed seat, for some, seems ripe for the picking.  Many of the political battles, some observers say, are to preserve—or endanger—Democratic incumbents, including Delgado, whose constituencies straddle the Hudson River from Albany to the outskirts of New York City.

How the GOP would alter the Kelles’ District; note the slice down Cayuga Lake, lopping off Enfield and Newfield

But while the Congressional carving of Reed’s District might be predictable, the unexpected Republican slicing of Kelles’ home county of Tompkins becomes more of a surprise.  The Kelles’ seat is seen as safe; well-suited for “packing” Democrats within its borders and leaving outlying rural areas more competitive.  The Democratic plan would recognize that fact.  The GOP’s submission does not.

Perhaps the Republicans hope to “crack” Kelles’ Tompkins County base; effectively to divide and conquer. Or maybe the division just fell as the byproduct of strategizing elsewhere.  In any event, the Republican plan would give Kelles (or her challenger) new constituencies in Tioga and Broome Counties.  The Democrats’ alternative, while keeping Tompkins in Kelles’ camp, would extend the Assembly District north along Cayuga Lake’s eastern shoreline and almost touch Syracuse.

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Previously Posted:

Up, Up, and Away

Downtown Office Project Budget tops $30 M; up 50% from first estimates

[Also: Following this story: County Legislature earmarks $7 Million for Post-COVID Relief]

No questions; Administrator Holmes projects “Center of Government” to top $30 Million.

by Robert Lynch, September 14, 2021

When Interim County Administrator Lisa Holmes tossed out the number, legislators never batted an eye. They never asked a question.  They took it in stride.  It may be because they’ve been working on the inside.  The rest of us have not.

Outlining County Administration’s proposed Tompkins County Budget for next year, Holmes unveiled a Capital Plan Tuesday night (Sept. 14th) that pegged the cost of a New Downtown Office Building—the Center of Government seen as a crown jewel by some on the County Legislature—at over  $30 Million, up more than 50 per cent from when a former Administrator first presented cost figures to lawmakers two years ago.

“The current estimate for the new construction project totals $30.6 million” Holmes wrote in her 2022 Capital Plan and Budget narrative.  “The Center of Government project is budgeted to be funded through a combination of bond proceeds, general funds, and State/Federal grants.”

“Right now, it’s envisioned the design work will occur in 2022 and 2023 with construction possibly commencing in 2023 and 2024,” Holmes told legislators in her verbal presentation Tuesday.

When former County Administrator Jason Molino first outlined the Downtown Office project to the County Legislature in a flashy, PowerPoint-assisted presentation in April 2019, he’d put the price of construction and associated renovations at between $18.55 Million and $19.55 Million.  Since then, however, the cost estimate, kept largely in the shadows, has edged up year-by-year, ballooning by $2.5 Million for the year ahead. 

The latest increase appears fueled largely by the County’s decision last month to buy a new site for the project, acquiring two buildings adjacent to the Courthouse for a combined $2.8 Million.  To provide itself a cushion, a key County committee last week recommended transfer of an even $3 Million from fund balances to cover the acquisition.

“We don’t have to have a new County Office Building tomorrow,” Dryden legislator Mike Lane cautioned the Legislature’s Downtown Facilities Committee September 9th.  But the prevailing attitude at every legislative discussion of the project over the past two years has carried a sense of fait accompli; that the building will get built; it’s just a matter of when.

The night the County Legislature in 2019 bought its first site for the Center of Government—land a block away, now likely abandoned to other uses—a critic (this writer) described it as “office creep,” intrusion of a lubberly misfit into a residential neighborhood.  But the more proper term today may be “cost creep.”  Careful examination of the County’s annual budgets shows rapid escalation in the Center of Government’s cost, its construction sidelined for two years while county officials secretly negotiated to buy the new land.

That was then; Former County Administrator Molino

Whereas Molino’s 2019 estimate of around $19 Million may have held that April, the Administrator’s projected 2020 budget, drafted just months later, jacked up the cost to $22 Million.  A year after that—amidst the shutdowns of COVID, when few paid attention—the project’s price tag jumped again to $28.1 Million.  Now it tops $30M.

Holmes’ capital breakdown, presented County legislators Tuesday as they met as a committee of the whole, called for drawing $2 Million for the building project from next year’s fund balances.  $1 Million would be similarly spent the following year, with $3.2 Million spent 2024 and again in 2025.  As much as $14.6 Million would be bonded.  A rather small slice, just $2 Million, would come from projected State aid.

****

As to next year’s overall proposed 2022 Budget, presented by Holmes, Tompkins County would spend nearly $194 Million, up nearly 2.7 per cent from the current year’s spending plan.  The proposed tax levy of $53.8 Million would rise by 2.7 per cent from this year’s.   The current budget, adopted last fall, kept the levy increase at about a half percentage point lower.  But the next year’s increase, reported the Interim Administrator, falls well beneath New York’s largely-symbolic property tax cap.

And if Administration figures hold true, Tompkins County, as usual, would end the New Year with plenty of money in the bank.  The budget projects a $42.6 Million Unassigned General Fund Balance for 2022, down about $5 Million, the decrease resulting from Legislature plans to tap the  fund balance for various capital projects, including the new building.

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Also: From The County :

Legislature earmarks (just) $7 Million for County Post-COVID Relief

by Robert Lynch, September 15, 2021

Let’s first give it a nickname: “Mock-ARPA.” (It sounds better than “Fake-ARPA.”)

Now, let me explain why we’ve named it such.

Months ago, the Federal Government pledged Tompkins County nearly $19.9 Million through the American Rescue Plan (ARPA).  In late-July, though not all agreed, the County Legislature assigned all of the expected, multi-year federal assistance to “Government Operations,” a fancy phrase that covers just about everything.  And in part to save on paperwork, three-quarters of the total was set aside as “Cash for Capital,” funds to be spent on future building projects and the like. (See story posted here July 20th.)

At the time, lawmakers promised recalcitrant hold-outs they’d revisit post-COVID funding later, strongly indicating they’d tap the County’s own massive surpluses—its Fund Balance—to underwrite the human service needs that critics asserted Uncle Sam’s funds were truly intended to address.

That brings us to Wednesday (Sept. 15), when the County Legislature made good on its July promise—sort of.

 Following more than two hours’ of eye-glazing discussion, and with only Danby’s Dan Klein in dissent, the Legislature earmarked $7 Million in local moneys to future grants under the “Tompkins County Recovery Fund.” (That’s why we’ve called it “Mock-ARPA.”)

No one’s yet decided exactly how the money will be doled out… or to whom.  No doubt, the County Legislature will have the final say.  But it’ll likely be a third-party agency, selected later by the County, that’ll vet the many expected non-profit applicants angling for support.

“The idea of this recovery fund is that it does allow the community to recover,” said legislator Leslie Schill, who predicted the spending, handled properly, could accomplish “significant, transformative change.”

Schill was one of the Legislature’s “Gang of Three,”—another apt nickname—that over recent weeks crafted the Recovery Fund Proposal.  They took on the task after lawmakers got hopelessly lost during an unfocused, hours-long, August 10th study session that would have challenged the best of reporters to find a coherent story line.

What Schill, Rich John, and Mike Sigler, that Gang of Three, came up with and unveiled for the first time Wednesday—namely a two-page, bullet-pointed, targeted implementation plan for legislators, administrators and staff—legislative colleagues then promptly took their turns picking apart, and significantly weakening the plan as they did.

The proposed Recovery Fund (Mock-ARPA) the lawmaking trio initially advanced would have spent a full $15 Million from Fund Balance, not just $7 Million.  It envisioned distribution “through a series of three competitive funding rounds,” with $7 Million as only the “initial round” allocation, not the only one.  Front-loaded by design, the program’s successive rounds would have allocated $5 Million, and then $3 Million over an unspecified, multi-year period.

“Well, I can’t vote for this,” asserted Dryden’s Mike Lane.  “One word we haven’t heard much about in this discussion,” he said, “is ‘taxpayer.’”  “We represent people who are going to have to pay taxes for government operations as we go along,” the Dryden Democrat continued.  “And they’re looking for us to be protective of their money.”

Lane found support with Lansing’s Deborah Dawson, always a budget hawk.

“I fear that if we save [meaning give] a big pile of money to a particular sector or need, and then we end up in an economic shutdown again, or if we had a huge medical need that we had to meet, we wouldn’t have the money,” she said.   “We would have thrown away the money we gave out, and we wouldn’t have the money to meet a newly-emerging need,” Dawson reasoned.

Dawson’s choice of words irritated Ithaca’s Henry Granison.

“I don’t think that we’re throwing the money away,” Granison responded.  “I think we’re investing in the community; simple as that.”

In a double-layered series of amendments that left some lawmakers bewildered, the Legislature Wednesday trimmed the initial $15 Million funding plan by more than half, leaving only the $7 Million initial funding round untouched. (Lane and Dawson would have favored just $5 Million, but supported the final compromise.)  Only Klein opposed any funding at all.

“I don’t even support a specific dollar amount,” said Klein.  “We are still in the pandemic.  We don’t know what’s happening next.  We really are not in a position to make very solid predictions about really knowing what the needs are going to be down the road,” he observed.  “I am not personally in a hurry to spend this money.”

With the Gang of Three’s Mock-ARPA proposal battered and bruised, yet still standing as a shell of its former self, timing remained an open question as Wednesday’s meeting ended.  Promptness must overcome traditional bureaucratic lethargy.  First round funding proposals would require lawmaker approval before year’s end to fall within the current budget cycle.  And should they fail to do so, the requests would meet a new Legislature, one with at least a 36 per cent membership turnover.  The new panel would also need to decide whether to proceed with funding rounds two and three.

But one of the Mock-ARPA’s three original architects, Rich John, called his group’s plan a “compromise.”  And he faulted Klein’s suggestion that lawmakers advance the Recovery Fund only in concept, without any fixed dollar amounts.

“If you don’t say any numbers,” warned John, “you have kind of a shapeless program.  I don’t think you instruct the public on what we’re really trying to do.”

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Posted Previously:

Try Again for that “Little Nudge”

Town Board rejects Enfield Vaxx Mandate 3-1; Resubmission planned

“I thought I was going to die!  I literally thought I was going to die for the first—for a 24-hour session after my second shot.  I thought I should maybe take myself to the hospital as fast as I could.  If I could have moved six inches I would have gotten my phone to call an ambulance.  I will not be getting a booster shot!  I will not, because I got that sick.”

Enfield Supervisor Stephanie Redmond, on her experience with the COVID vaccine.

“[A]s soon as I’m eligible for a booster shot, which is on the 9th of December, I’m going to get one….  And I know it may floor me for a day.  That’s better than being on a ventilator, and I don’t want to be there.”

Enfield Councilperson Robert Lynch on his plans to get a booster shot.

Posted by Robert Lynch; original story on September 8, 2021; updated September 12, 2021

Following President Biden’s call September 9th for larger employers to mandate workers vaccinate against COVID-19 or else be tested weekly, an Enfield Councilperson (this writer) pledged Friday to reintroduce a Resolution that would require the same tough standards apply to his Town’s workforce, despite the Town Board’s lopsided rejection of that initiative just one night before the President’s edict.

Councilperson Robert Lynch’s “Resolution to establish a Vaccination Policy against COVID-19 for Public Officers and employees of the Town of Enfield,” lost Wednesday by a vote of 3-1.  Only Lynch voted for it.  Supervisor Stephanie Redmond called the resolution “pointless.”

“Be advised that in view of national and New York State announcements either made or coming to light since our September 8th meeting, I intend to reintroduce my [Resolution] at our Board’s October 13th Regular Meeting,” Lynch wrote the Board in an email September 10th.  Lynch raised the prospect of moving his motion at an earlier special meeting, should one be called.

Lynch noted that the Presidential directive of Thursday would not extend to smaller employers like Enfield, a municipality with fewer than 100 workers.  “I believe we owe it as responsible public servants to abide by [the President’s] directives, nonetheless,” Lynch wrote, adding, “I believe my earlier Resolution, subject to subsequent amendment by this Board, helps fulfill the spirit of what all American employers have been asked to do.”

The Enfield vaccination mandate stands similar to, and is modeled after, one that the Tompkins County Legislature adopted for its own workforce August 10th amid little controversy.  It would require employees to vaccinate by set deadlines or else fall subject to frequent COVID testing.  Tompkins County’s requirements will take effect October 1st.  As written, the Enfield mandate would kick in 60 days after its passage.

The September 8th Town Board defeat of the Enfield mandate marked yet another instance of  Councilperson Lynch finding himself alone as the Board’s one-man minority.  Supervisor Stephanie Redmond and Councilpersons Virginia Bryant and Jude Lemke voted against the initiative. (Councilperson James Ricks was excused.)  Lynch said later he’d expected defeat when the vote was called.

Redmond termed the mandate “pointless,” she said, “because I think we’re all just as likely, pretty much, to be harboring this virus and spreading it as an unvaccinated person.”  She quickly qualified her appraisal.

“Slightly, potentially,” the Supervisor acknowledged, “you have more of a chance of spreading it (COVID) if you’re unvaccinated.  But let’s not pretend that just because we’re vaccinated we can’t spread it.” 

 Lynch countered the Supervisor’s assertion by placing within his amended Resolution direct quotes from Tompkins County’s Public Health Director and its Medical Director, both of whom, if present, would likely have contested Redmond’s broad-brush assertion.

“The data still show that if you are vaccinated you are at a lower risk of getting or transmitting COVID-19,” Public Health Director Frank Kruppa said in a September 1st public guidance document, even though  Kruppa  acknowledged having seen “an uptick in cases and the number of vaccinated people becoming positive.”   

Medical Director Dr. William Klepack told the Tompkins County Legislature on the day it adopted its own mandate that one’s “extremely unlikely to get infected,” if vaccinated; less likely still to become seriously ill with COVID or die.

But perhaps straining at hyperbole, Redmond said Wednesday she felt like she was dying from the immune response she had to her vaccination of last spring.  As a result, the Supervisor took aim at a clause in Lynch’s submission that would have mandated employees receive COVID booster shots within six months of their eligibility or else fall out of compliance.

“Robert, you say it was like just a little bit of an illness for you when you got your shot,” Redmond said to Lynch.  “I thought I was going to die!  I literally thought I was going to die for the first—for a 24-hour session after my second shot.  I thought I should maybe take myself to the hospital as fast as I could.  If I could have moved six inches I would have gotten my phone to call an ambulance.  I will not be getting a booster shot!  I will not, because I got that sick.”

Redmond said she’d heard that “people who are younger and have a healthier immune system” often develop strong responses.  She predicted fears like hers will dissuade other workers from getting their own boosters.

“And that’s unfortunate,” Lynch responded. “Because, I mean, as soon as I’m eligible for a booster shot, which is on the 9th of December, I’m going to get one….  And I know it may floor me for a day.  That’s better than being on a ventilator, and I don’t want to be there.”

“We’re all just as likely, pretty much, to be harboring this virus;” Supervisor Redmond.

The Supervisor’s other colleagues were driven to her side Wednesday for different reasons.  Lemke reasoned that a tough, enforceable masking mandate—debated, but then tabled that night—would suffice; limiting the contagion’s spread without imposing the Town’s heavy hand.

Of the vaccine requirement, Lemke warned, “I suspect that this will create a lot more upset with the employees than the mask mandate.  I think a reasonable mask mandate is probably preferable in my view.”

Councilperson Bryant, meanwhile, worried the testing regimen—likely weekly—for those who refuse vaccination would burden the workforce too much. 

“It’s another, yet another policy that puts more responsibility on people” Bryant said.  “They have enough to deal with anyway.  You can’t protect everybody from everything.”

Indeed, the burden-factor stood among the reasons for Redmond’s own opposition.  The Supervisor reported that an unidentified employee with a “medical situation” has not and will not get the vaccine.  Even when Lemke suggested the Town compensate that employee for her testing time, Redmond balked.

“I feel like it would be inappropriate for us to do that and burden them further, especially when I feel like I am just as likely being vaccinated to infect someone with COVID as this person is,” the Supervisor insisted.

A chorus of libertarian and anti-vaxx voices within Enfield—though perhaps reflecting a minority opinion—has brought to the Enfield debate a level of division not sensed within Tompkins County as a whole.

While some in Enfield may clamor for individual choice and call for governmental restraint, Lynch pushed back Wednesday with his appeal to a collective sense of community and to public safety.

“You are your brother’s keeper,” Lynch reminded the Board.  And with a vaccination mandate, he said, “you are trying to protect your fellow citizens.  I believe in that.  And I believe that we have to think about more than our own selfish interests.”

“And we as a Town Board,” Lynch acknowledged, “Yes, maybe we’re like a Town Nanny.  Maybe, to a certain extent, we’re being a nanny here….  A  person at the last meeting said very sincerely, ‘You can’t—People have to protect themselves; you can’t protect them.’  Well, yes, maybe we can help protect them.  And maybe we should.  Maybe we should look out for our employees because they’re good people.  And maybe we should give a little nudge.  And this might do it.”

****

Before the Enfield Board debated—and dispatched (at least for that evening) the vaccine mandate, it discussed, only to then table, a parallel COVID-fighting measure, in this case, the imposition of  a tough masking mandate for all Town employees and visitors.

The mask mandate, proposed by Redmond, but later given a drastic overhaul by Lynch, would, if adopted, require all employees and visitors to Town facilities mask-up or suffer consequences.

Most controversially, Redmond’s original masking measure would have subjected non-compliant employees to potential “dismissal.”  Lynch’s overhaul would have stripped away the prospect of termination, and substituted more benign language lifted from Tompkins County’s personnel policies.

But Lemke and Redmond worried the amendment’s bow to voluntary compliance lacked sufficient toughness.  They urged deletion of Lynch’s stipulation that Town officials “will not routinely check whether individuals are not wearing masks in their workplace settings absent complaints,” tactics that Lynch worried might reopen old wounds between the Town and its workforce.  Lynch refused to revise the stipulation, and the Board quickly tabled the mask mandate until October.

In other action Wednesday:

  • The Town Board voted unanimously to return temporarily to online meetings in view of recently-adopted State legislation—encouraged, and perhaps originated, in Enfield—a waiver of law that enables municipal bodies to meet remotely at least through mid-January.
  • The Board also adopted a Resolution, authored by Lynch, that directs a citizen committee to draft a Local Law that would again impose a short-term moratorium on applications for new solar farms.  Though the already-approved, yet unbuilt, Norbut Solar project off Applegate Road would not be affected, the Board agreed the Solar Law’s financial requirements, and perhaps other provisions, need toughening.   Most particularly, they’d like to mandate solar developers provide “Host Community Agreements” that directly—and exclusively—benefit the Town.  Norbut officials refused to provide Enfield such an agreement after they’d negotiated a tax abatement plan with a County agency.

****

And here’s the Ithaca Voice’s report on the meeting: https://ithacavoice.com/2021/09/enfield-board-rejects-vaccination-mandate-for-town-employees/

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Next: My statement to the Downtown Facilities Committee regarding the Center of Government land purchase.

The following were my comments September 9th to the Downtown Facilities Committee of the Tompkins County Legislature. You may hear these remarks on the Legislature’s You Tube channel during the first minutes of the meeting:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NDJHre5TreY

A full transcript of my remarks is posted below. I will have more to write on this subject later:

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“Good afternoon.  Robert Lynch, 175 Gray Road, Town of Enfield, a member of the Enfield Town Board.  I’m speaking here as an individual today.

The Key Bank Building, 300 North Tioga Street

“You have on your agenda an item that would spend $3 Million out of Fund Balance to finance the purchase of the land next to the Courthouse, which would be used presumably, eventually as a new Center of Government, Downtown Office Building.  I will probably talk to the Legislature as a whole at a later time about this in detail.  But let me say briefly today I oppose this.  I think it is unwise spending.  I don’t think we need the land, and I don’t think we need the building.

“Two years ago, we bought a parcel of land just a block away.  And we said at that time it was perfectly serviceable and should be used.  I think we should stick with our original decision.  There may be some buyer’s remorse today because a better piece of land came along.  Well, most of us are not entitled to make those after-the-fact decisions.  But County Government, that has an unlimited supply of money, is allowed to do that.  I don’t think that we should.

“As everyone knows, I’m a candidate for County Legislature, seeking a seat on District 8.  There are three candidates running.  I know for a fact that two of the three candidates—maybe all three—oppose the idea of a new office building, and they oppose the idea of buying this land that we’re talking about today.

“All money is fungible, truly, and I know that we’re taking this money out of Fund Balance.  However, I can’t escape the realization that we are helped in spending this money by the nearly $20 Million in American Rescue Plan funds that we are getting, and three-quarters of that put into Cash for Capital.  That is cash.  This is capital.

“I guess I think if we have “mad money,” why don’t we spend it a little differently.  I know of a little parcel of land in Lansing [the NYSEG Bell Station site].  We’ve talked about it.  In fact, we actually voted on it at the Legislature a couple nights ago.  It’s up for sale.  It’s about $2 Million.  And you know what?  The County could take that land by eminent domain.  And it could use that $2 Million to help pay for it, and we’d have a County Park.  And that might be a pretty good thing to have.  And the people of this county might get far more benefit from that land in Lansing that we bought than a parcel of land only used for a building.

“That’s my opinion.  Thank you.”

****

Note: that “little parcel of land in Lansing,” the expansive 470-acre Bell Station parcel, with more than 3,000 feet of undeveloped Cayuga Lake shoreline, is set for auction by its current owner, NYSEG. Joining thousands of online petitioners, the Tompkins County Legislature voted September 7th to urge NYSEG to halt the auction to permit the non-profit Finger Lakes Land Trust to tender a viable purchase offer. Purportedly, the parcel carries an assessed value of just under $2 Million.

Bob

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