December 2023 TCCOG Report

Monthly Report

Tompkins County Council of Governments

for December 13, 2023

by Councilperson Robert Lynch

Enfield TCCOG Representative

The Tompkins County Council of Governments (TCCOG) met on December 7th.  At my request, TCCOG discussed a pending Resolution by the Tompkins County Legislature that would direct the County Administrator to negotiate a Memo of Understanding with local municipalities into potential cost-sharing for what’s now called the “Pilot Rapid Medical Response” (PRMR) Service, the three-vehicle “flycar” network, set to launch in 2024, that would provide supplemental emergency medical assistance primarily to rural communities.  The PRMR would supplement volunteer rescue squads, including Enfield’s, during weekday daytime hours only. 

PRMR funding dominated the meeting and generated 40 minutes of discussion.  TCCOG took no formal action following its deliberations on the cost-sharing initiative.  But during the discussion, members offered opinions on whether—and if so, how—municipalities should help underwrite the program.  Four County legislators, including Public Safety Committee Chair Rich John, participated in the discussion. 

During its budget deliberations in October, the Tompkins County Legislature committed $232,000 in County tax dollars toward the PRMR; one-half of the service’s projected 2024 operational funding.  A like amount, $232,000, was set aside in the budget’s Contingency Fund for the PRMR.  John has stated that legislators would tap the contingency money to assure the program’s operation unless the County could persuade the towns to provide that funding instead as a shared contribution.

A Resolution authored by Rich John, amended on the floor of the Public Safety Committee November 16, and then forwarded to the full Legislature on a 4-1 vote, would direct County Administrator Lisa Holmes  “to invite County  municipalities and private emergency service companies to meet and determine the terms of a Memorandum of  Understanding for the PRMR program, including determination of service level commitments and the allocation of the remaining one half of the estimated 2024 operating cost of the PRMR.”  Assuming successful negotiations, the Memorandum would be presented to the Legislature for adoption.  Enfield-Ulysses legislator Anne Koreman voted against the resolution in committee.  I addressed the committee at the start of its meeting that day and spoke against the Resolution.  Though the measure had been scheduled for action by the full Legislature December 5th, Rich John pulled the Resolution from the meeting’s agenda, telling me later he wanted TCCOG to offer its opinions first.

“The point of the Resolution is to make sure there is conversation and negotiation between the County and various other municipalities that will be involved,” John told TCCOG.  Rich John believes all those municipalities that benefit from the service—he would exclude the City of Ithaca—should contribute.  “I would like this to be truly an enhancement to the overall services that are out there right now,” John said, “and a cost share is a way to make sure everybody has skin in the game.”

And the committee’s chair sees a negotiated Memorandum of Understanding as an essential component toward providing true benefit.  Said Rich John, “I do not want to see the County put in money and have some of the towns cut their budgets for their rescue services, because then we’re not really doing an enhancement; we’re just doing a shift.”

Danby Supervisor Joel Gagnon brought to John’s attention that his town—and now, of course, also Enfield—has placed its fire and EMS services under the control of a Fire District.  Because of that, Gagnon said,  Town Government has little power to influence how Fire Commissioners alter funding for their rescue squads once a the PRMR becomes reality.

As to what individual towns might be asked to contribute financially, Tompkins County has never gone beyond the five-option cost-sharing model its Department of Emergency Response presented the County Legislature October 4th.  Though total estimated startup costs ($700,000) stood higher then than the current  $464,000 annual operational estimate, cost sharing models in October had placed annual charges to a town such as Enfield at between $19,000 (75% County contribution) and $58,000 (50% local share, with only towns lacking their own ambulance services charged a local share.)

“Each town is approaching emergency services differently,” Dryden Councilperson Dan Lamb counseled legislator John.  Lamb urged the County take a “more nuanced approach” in any future cost-sharing negotiations.  Dryden, Lamb noted, already contributes more than $1,000,000 a year toward its community’s own ambulance service.

Ulysses, similarly, contributes to its Trumansburg ambulance service.  And Ulysses Supervisor Katelyn Olson cautioned that emergency service costs in her town are rising faster than the tax base.  And Olson questioned why all of the cost-sharing options favored by John specifically exclude Ithaca from a shared contribution.  John is a City of Ithaca legislator.

“In order for me to go sell this to my community,” Olson told TCCOG, “I’m going to need to hear and explain why, frankly, the City of Ithaca doesn’t pay taxes for EMS services and the Town of Ulysses does.”  Olson continued, “I’m not trying to torpedo this.  I want the Town of Ulysses to be a player at the table.  I want to support this initiative.  But this question will need to be answered if I can go pursuade Ulysses to pay in financially.”

Rich John countered that Ithacans would pay into the PRMR.  They’d do it through the county taxes they would pay to fund Tompkins County’s 50 per cent committed share.  Legislator Koreman later reminded John that rural residents pay county taxes too, and what’s asked of them constitutes an added burden.

“I don’t think you can mandate this,” Koreman said of any request that towns contribute.  She suggested local cost-sharing could only be part of some sort of “opt-in agreement,” or some type of consortium, like municipalities have to pool health insurance purchases.

During discussion, I raised a practical point, not yet addressed elsewhere.  It involves timing:  “The towns have already set their budgets,” I told Rich John, then reminding him of Enfield’s own tight finances, which I’d previously shared with his committee.  Yet, still, Tompkins County would prefer its $232,000 contingency set-aside for 2024 be reduced through municipal contributions.  “If it’s going to be 20,000, 30,000, 50,000,” I said of a potential 2024 request from each town, “I don’t know where that money’s going to come from in Enfield, and I presume other towns are going to be in the same situation.”

Rich John’s reply brought some relief to Enfield and its neighbors, a first-time suggestion that perhaps our towns have up to a year to sort this out.  “To some extent, perhaps, the ship has sailed for 2024,” Rich John replied to me, indicating that legislators may dip into the contingency moneys this one time, if only the towns provide assurance that they’ll contribute in years to follow.  “The concern with the Legislature… is precedent,” the committee chairman said.  “That if we just say, ‘all right, let’s start, and we’ll try to figure it out later,’ in 2025, at least one town is going to say, ‘No, it worked pretty well in 2024,’” John implying that municipalities would balk at changing the rules in Year Two from those of Year One without a prior commitment to do so.

“I think it’s critical to our residents that we launch in ’24,” Rich John told TCCOG.  “And I would defer to (County Administrator Lisa Holmes) when she comes back from negotiations and says we, the County, pays in ’24, but we have commitments for ’25.  That’s a fair deal in my mind.”

Anne Koreman agreed that a first-year cost-sharing hiatus is a near certainty.  “I think definitely to me, 2024 is off the table,” she said as far as an immediate local contribution is concerned.

But the City of Ithaca’s contribution—or lack thereof—remains a thorn in cost-sharing negotiations.  Outgoing Ithaca Alderperson Cynthia Brock took note of her city’s current, major transition to a city manager form of government.  “I don’t believe the City is in a position to respond as quickly to enter either an MOU (Memo of Understanding) or a commitment with regard to cost-sharing at this time,” the departing TCCOG member cautioned colleagues.

But Trumansburg Mayor Rordan Hart, for one, believes the City of Ithaca should chip in.  Hart says the City benefits and enjoys shorter response times due to Bangs Ambulance’s proximity to it and their “50-year relationship.”  But Hart argued that rural taxpayers and the ambulance services some of them support pay for what now benefits the City and its residents.  Hart offered statistics that indicate a full 25-30 per cent of calls by Dryden Ambulance are for Ithaca emergencies.  He said eight to ten per cent of Trumansburg EMS calls have City destinations.

“A rescue-based service which will alleviate pressure from Bangs to respond rurally, which will then allow Bangs to stay home in the City of Ithaca more often, which will then allow, like dominoes, Dryden Ambulance and Trumansburg EMS to stay in our areas more often; it’s very, very important to grasp.”

“The elephant in the room,” Hart said, “is how do we engage the City of Ithaca proper to participate in this outside of, well, every resident of the City of Ithaca will pay through county taxes.”

Rordan Hart suggested, and TCCOG members seemed receptive to the idea, that rather than the County Administrator negotiating a Memorandum of Understanding with each individual municipality, the County consider “starting a formalized conversation of some kind with all 17 Tompkins County entities (towns and villages)” toward cost-sharing negotiations.  Hart suggested some sort of joint meeting of the municipalities.  County Administrator Holmes said such might be possible early in 2024.

Other Business:  TCCOG received three presentations on December 7th, the most extensive of which was a progress report from consultants undertaking a County-funded study on possible intermunicipal cooperation on Building Code administration and enforcement.  Officials stressed there’s no talk of merging or consolidating code enforcement; only in working on ways to ease the tasks of individual town enforcement officers and in finding ways for them to cooperate and share expertise.

Respectfully submitted,

Robert Lynch, Councilperson  

Enfield TCCOG Representative