March 2024 Reporting Archives

News Briefs:

Tough Times, Trumansburg

(Mar. 31):  While the Ithaca City School District proposes a more than 12 per cent tax levy increase to cope with funding challenges (see separate story), the Trumansburg Central Schools are taking a different approach, one that inflicts pain.

The Ithaca Times reported March 28th that as many as five named teaching positions and an additional two in special education would be eliminated under a cost-cutting proposal, now scheduled for a school board vote April 16.

T-Burg’s fiscal problem is two-edged.  Education aid may be cut under a proposed state budget, now under review.  Moreover, enrollment is dropping.  The story reports that K-12 enrollment has dropped nearly ten per cent from pre-pandemic levels.

“When you look at the decline in our enrollment, we are down by the equivalent of an entire grade level,” Jon Koeng, school business administrator, told the school board.

“I’m hopeful this is our hardest year with our hardest conversations taking place now,” School Superintendent Kimberly Bell was quoted.  “It doesn’t feel good for any of us; it’s a loss to our community and a loss to our district.”

T-Burg proposes a 3.35 per cent tax levy increase for the year ahead, far less than does Ithaca. The Times reports Trumansburg Schools plan to reduce spending by $1.6 Million. / RL


Leaders: County should pay for EMS

(Mar. 28):  A collective meeting of Tompkins County municipal leaders Thursday endorsed Trumansburg Mayor Rordan Hart’s drive to have Tompkins County Government pick up the full cost—both this year and also next—for the three-unit Rapid Medical Response system that will fill-in for volunteer rescue squads when they’re short-handed.

Thursday’s unanimous vote by the Tompkins County Council of Governments (TCCOG) dealt a crippling, if not fatal, blow to efforts by some County legislators to persuade local municipalities to pick up a third or more of the pilot program’s cost for 2025.  (This Councilperson represents Enfield on TCCOG.)

“We often talk about storm water that water doesn’t respect municipal boundaries,” Ulysses Supervisor Katelin Olson remarked.  “Well, in the EMS world, health emergencies don’t respect municipal boundaries as well.”

County Legislature Chair Dan Klein pointed out Ulysses’ own taxpayers would likely pay more—not less—under full County funding.  Olson said she’s OK with that, given how the service will shorten medical response times.

Your budgets are going to look a little better.  Tompkins County’s budget is going to look a little worse,” Klein concluded.  But that said, the chairman did not vote against TCCOG’s recommendation.


ECC will weigh skate ramp

(Mar. 28):  “Further discussion is a waste of time until we get more answers,” Enfield Community Council (ECC) President Cortney Bailey cautioned.  Nonetheless, the ECC Board will consider skateboard enthusiast Daniel Woodring’s proposal to build a 15 x 24-foot public skateboard ramp behind of ECC’s Community Center.

What’s at GrassRoots

After hearing Woodring’s pitch—similar to one he made to the Enfield Town Board March 13th—the ECC adopted a loosely-worded resolution Thursday to investigate insurance issues, possible tie-ins with Town Government, and report back in a month.

The volunteer-built “half-pipe” Woodring proposes would be similar to one he’s built near the GrassRoots camping area in Trumansburg.  If the ramp can’t be behind the ECC, it might be on Town property across the road or near the Town Hall’s food scrap drop-off.

“I think the whole idea is awesome,” ECC Board member Lisa Monroe remarked during the meeting.

Bailey warned that the director of the ECC’s summer camp remains skeptical of letting campers use the half-pipe.  Then Woodring had an idea:  What if he and other experienced skateboarders show up at camp to demonstrate and teach their skills?  “That’s a win-win,” Bailey answered.


No Recovery Leftovers… yet

Klein: “That’s a lot of work… not a lot of money.”

(Mar. 25):  Enfield agencies that thought they might catch a few crumbs that fell off of Tompkins County’s Community Recovery Fund table found disappointment Monday as the fund’s Advisory Committee voted to plow the $16,758 in savings from projects that fell through back into the fund’s own administration.

“What would be involved in redistributing $16,000?” Committee Chair Dan Klein asked rhetorically.  “That’s a lot of work.  It’s not a lot of money, though.”

“If something goes belly-up with one of the larger grants that’s still kind of ‘out there,’ then we have to come back in and figure out how we’re going to push that money back to the community,” member Deborah Dawson remarked, declining to say more, yet suggesting Administration may have work to do.

In the past two years, the fund has distributed $6.5 Million in repurposed American Rescue Plan funds to about 65 agencies, businesses and governments.

Although the Enfield Town Highway Department got more than $26,000 to buy new radios, every other Enfield applicant, including the Fire Company and the Community Council, were frozen out of the government giveaway.

Meeting for its first time in months, the committee Monday stretched its rules to save the Human Services Coalition’s award of $174,000.  The Coalition was supposed to tie-in with a non-profit agency to help Ithaca’s chronically homeless transition to stable housing.  The non-profit couldn’t be found, so a commercial developer will be recruited instead.

Had the committee rejected the Coalition’s revision, its award could have been freed to assist others.


Bigger, Better… and Bloated

(Mar 21):  Anne Koreman’s Environmental Quality Committee had stuffed nine Green-friendly legislative endorsements into a single Resolution.  And Tuesday it passed the Tompkins County Legislature, but only on a party-line vote of 11 to 3.

Koreman: The cost of inaction? $115 Billion

Included in the adopted lobbying amalgam was the “Bigger Better Bottle Bill.”  It would raise deposits from a nickel to a dime.  And judging from comments on the floor, had that one endorsement stood alone, it might have passed unanimously.

“The nickel doesn’t buy what it used to,” Mike Lane remarked.

But, the committee had mixed the bottle bill’s endorsement together with eight other measures, initiatives mostly to wean New Yorkers off of fossil fuels.  They were bills the contents of which some legislators remained unsure.

“This is a buffet of legislative proposals,” Democrat Rich John admitted.  “Like a buffet, some things you like more than others.”

Koreman defended the package, claiming “inaction” on Climate Goals could cost $115 Billion.

“How are we predicting 115 Billion?” Republican Mike Sigler asked.  “That’s kind of out of nowhere… It’s very random to me.”

Koreman claimed the estimate came from New York’s Climate Action Council, comprised of professors, scientists and industry people.

Republicans didn’t buy it.  They all voted no.  Every Democrat supported the package.


On ICSD’s “Eclipse Day”

(Mar. 21):  I thought schools were places for students to learn, including about astronomy.

Jill Tripp: Keep schools open.

By a seven-to-one vote, the Ithaca Board of Education reversed course Tuesday and opted to close school on April 8th, the day of the Solar Eclipse, not quite total in this area; but more so in places farther north.

Hooray for the lone dissenter, School Board member Jill Tripp. 

“We provide a safe environment.  I think we provide a very healthy and exciting environment for children,” Tripp told the Board.  “I think people who want to take their children or other people’s children to this event should do that, but I think we need to keep our schools open.”

One argument for an “Eclipse Day,” was fear of short-staffing; that with many other districts also closing, teachers will take personal leave to tend to their own kids. (Yes, that raises a whole separate issue.)

But there’ve also been fears that students riding home on the school bus might gaze at the sun, eyes unprotected.

There’s an easy solution to that one:  Keep school in session later, until the eclipse is over.  Have teachers supervise any viewing, teach the principle, and give pupils a moment to remember.

Then, again, there’s a point nobody’s talked about.  What if it’s cloudy or rains?  This is Ithaca. / RL


For What It’s Worth Department

(Mar. 21):  The Republican and Democratic Presidential races are decided. New York’s Presidential Primary is April 2nd, really this year too late to matter.

You can’t write-in anyone new.  Scrawling “Uncommitted” or “Cease-Fire” will only void your ballot.

Nonetheless, probably because the law commands it, New York will hold eight days of early voting for the Presidential Primary, Saturday, March 23rd through Saturday, the 30th.  Locations will be at the Ithaca Town Hall, downtown, and the Finger Lakes Library System office at 1300 Dryden Road.  (Hours are posted at the Board of Elections website.)

There’ll still be voting at the Enfield Community Building on Tuesday, Apr. 2, Primary Day.  Whenever you vote, one suspects elections workers will be as busy as Maytag repairmen. / RL


Buildings: Down sooner the better

(Mar. 20):  Without much talk or added information, the Tompkins County Legislature Tuesday ordered the soon deconstruction of the two 1960’s buildings standing on the site of a future Center of Government. 

John: Don’t just sit and wait and think about it, NYS.

Graffiti has grown like weeds around the law office building nearest the Courthouse.  The vacant former Key Bank building is also slated to go.

Legislators acknowledged what many had learned in committee a week earlier:  that the New York State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO)  could delay demolition for want of review of the two albeit non-historic buildings standing, nonetheless, in an Historic District.

Adding (this) unknown element was pretty scary,” Ithaca’s Rich John told fellow lawmakers.  “We have to lean on them (SHPO) very hard that New York State has to help us, and if their plan is to just sit and wait and think about it for a long time, that will hurt us, it will hurt the taxpayers.”

“New York will do what New York will do, no matter what we say,” legislator Deborah Dawson replied cynically.

State help or hindrance, Tuesday’s adopted Resolution calls for razing the buildings “with all deliberate speed,” both to be down by next February.


Fire Board Bonds Truck; Moves Gear

(Mar. 19):  With five unanimous votes and next-to-no discussion, the Enfield Board of Fire Commissioners Tuesday took its most significant—and costly—step toward putting fire apparatus in its own name and establishing long-term funding for its most expensive fire truck.

Most notably, Commissioners authorized ten-year bonding of “Truck 602,” the $825,000 pumper engine its predecessor agency, the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company, bought last year and district voters wrangled during the year’s final months over how it should be paid.

Unit 602’s ten-year bonding is half the length than what last year’s appointed Commissioners, and the District’s former legal counsel, had preferred.  At the 4.6 per cent interest rate current counsel secured from the Bank of Greene County, taxpayers will spend just over $1.04 Million for the pumper over the decade.  An additional, last-minute funding gap for the truck was closed by tapping unused financing costs within this year’s budget and trimming over $9,000 from earlier-projected attorney’s fees.

“I think we made good progress tonight,” Board Chair Greg Stevenson said after the two-and-a-half hour meeting.  And he commended fellow Commissioners for not squabbling.

Tuesday’s actions also transferred, at no cost, Fire Company apparatus to the Fire District, equipment that included ten other fire trucks and supplies ranging from hoses to boots.


Anna and the Fracking War

To Goodell: “Actually, I am” a scientist.

(Mar. 18):  Anna Kelles got a workout.  Before the State Assembly March 12th passed her sponsored bill to expand New York’s fracking ban to include the use of carbon dioxide, Ithaca’s Assemblymember did floor debate battle with two Republican opponents of the bill, including the Jamestown area’s Andy Goodell.

Goodell: “But the whole purpose of this law is to override the [Department of Environmental Conversation; the DEC] or sidestep them… because we as legislators, without any scientific background, without doing any studies, without evaluating it, know better than our DEC, is that correct?”

Kelles:  “But actually to say that we’re not scientists, with all due respect, actually I am.” [Oh, Boy.]

Goodell:  “Oh, are you a natural gas scientist?”

Kelles:  “No, but I am a scientist by training.”  [Dr. Kelles’ specialty is nutrition.]

Goodell:  “Are you a geologist?”  He pressed on as comments overlapped.

Assembly Speaker Pro-Tempore Jeffrion Aubry intervened:  “Mr. Goodell and Ms. Kelles; we ask and we answer.  We don’t cross each other while people are speaking.  This is not the court, all right?”

Goodell [tossing the last barb]:  “It should be.”

After an hour on the floor, Anna Kelles won the day.  Her fracking bill passed the Assembly, 98 votes to 50.  It moves on to the Senate. / RL


Ithaca PBA Backs Sigler

(Mar. 18):  A few years back, when protesters sprayed “Pigs” and other anti-police slurs onto Ithaca Police Headquarters, Tompkins County legislator Mike Sigler took to the Legislature’s floor and faulted then-Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick for doing next to nothing about it.  Now the officers inside that Headquarters have returned their thanks.

The Ithaca Police Benevolent Association (IPBA) Monday endorsed Republican Sigler in his race to unseat current 52nd District State Senator Lea Webb.  The Tompkins County Deputy Sheriff’s Association endorsed Sigler previously.

IPBA President Thomas Condzella commended Sigler, writing, “Having you stand with us, denouncing the proposed abolishment of the Ithaca Police Department, while also supporting practical and meaningful reform efforts, was noticed by the membership of the PBA.”

In accepting the endorsement, Sigler noted that his opponent, Democrat Webb has secured the Working Families Party endorsement, a third-party he maintains seeks to Defund the Police. / RL


More than a Pipe Dream

What Dan Woodring built at GrassRoots.

(Mar. 17):  Daniel Woodring, I’m told is an avid skateboarder… and pretty good at it.  Now he wants to bring his passion and ingenuity to Enfield.

Wednesday, March 13th, the soft-spoken Woodring brought his idea for a modest-scale “SkateGarden” to the Enfield Town Board. He’s already built one ramp near the GrassRoots Festival camping area, but its fate remains uncertain.

What’s planned for starters in Enfield is a wooden ramp, 24 feet long, 16 feet wide, and three feet high.  It would take 24 sheets of plywood and some volunteer labor.

“It’s definitely something that our local youth have been asking for,” Supervisor Stephanie Redmond told Woodring.  “The issue is location.”

And that’s the challenge.  While Redmond and others dream of a town park near the Highway Garage, the lot’s now barren and remote.  “It’s a crying shame it can’t be at the ECC,” I remarked.  “That’s where the kids are.”

But here’s the rub:  It’s insurance.  Woodring’s gotten quotes of as high as $8,400 a year for even a non-profit like the Community Council to insure a half-pipe.  Redmond claims a Town can get one insured for as little as $330.  I’m skeptical.

Town property next to the park-and-ride lot, across from the Town Hall, has gotten consideration.  A skate ramp remains very much a work-in-progress, / RL


Tiny lots prompt water worry

(Mar. 11):  The Enfield Town Planning Board will demand from a local, small-scale developer what it never required from giant Breezy Meadows: namely proof that the new lots created will not draw down the well water from neighboring homes.

Continuing preliminary review March 6th of Adam Scholl’s plans to subdivide three, one-acre lots off his home’s long, narrow driveway at 166 Van Dorn Road South, Town planners said they’d require Scholl drill a test well on the first new lot and see if it depletes wells from the two nearest existing houses facing Van Dorn. Problems, they warned, could nix the project.

Planners distinguished Scholl’s plans from Breezy Meadows on two counts.

First School’s lots are tiny; most at Breezy Meadows’ were five-to-ten acres apiece.  Moreover, because of their landlocked nature, the Scholl lots require Town Board approval.  ”The Town Board would be happiest,” Planning Board Chair Dan Walker said, “with that they wouldn’t have to consider a ‘special development area’ unless they knew water was going to be available and acceptable.”

The Planning Board’s Rich Teeter looked at water through the zero-sum lens that nobody applied at Breezy Meadows.  “If this is good water, it’s not going to matter,” Teeter said.  “But if it’s bad water, and house number three is doing laundry or taking a shower, house number one ain’t going to be able to get the dog washed.”


Safety Upgrades coming to Applegate Corners

(Mar. 9):  Greg Stevenson, then Enfield’s Fire Chief, called it our town’s “Hot Corner” last fall, and not as a compliment.  Applegate Corners, he said, has had too many traffic accidents recently.

But now, in response to a Town Board Resolution passed in December and requests from Enfield’s leaders, the New York State Department of Transportation (NYDOT) is taking action.

In a message to Board of Fire Commissioner’s member Robyn Wishna February 26th, Scott Bates, Regional Traffic Engineer for NYDOT, announced four planned safety upgrades at the corner of Route 79 and Applegate Road.

Bates said the North Applegate Road Stop sign will be replaced; a Stop-Ahead warning sign on South Applegate will go up; Route 79 westbound motorists will be warned of the upcoming 45 MPH speed reduction; and a “street name supplemental plaque” will be added.

Bates said “signage improvements will be made by NYSDOT maintenance staff as soon as the materials are procured and work schedules permit.”

The only things NYDOT will not promise right now are the flashing blinker that the Town Board had suggested, along with possible “pavement modifications.”  We’ll gladly take what we can get.  One step toward safety at a time. / RL


Common Council backs Gaza Cease-Fire

(Mar. 6):  Ithaca’s pro-Palestinian activists Wednesday achieved a victory that eluded them a month earlier before the Tompkins County Legislature.

By a lopsided 9:2 vote at a meeting which at times resembled parliamentary chaos, Ithaca’s Common Council Wednesday supported a watered-down resolution calling for a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip and an end to U.S. military support for the State of Israel.

Exactly one month earlier, the County Legislature had fallen a single vote short of backing a similar initiative.

Many of the same activists who’d urged Tompkins County to back a cease fire, packed the cramped Common Council Chambers Wednesday to urge the same.  As many as 25 speakers took turns reciting similar Palestinian-friendly themes.  At one point, Alderperson David Shapiro exited chambers for 30 minutes to protest a banner they’d unfurled that he found “anti-Semitic and racist.”

Alderperson Kayla Matos had prompted the public attendance by submitting a Resolution she’d hoped would receive majority support, one decidedly critical of Israel and accusing it of genocide.  But Council  instead replaced her language with Patrick Kuehl’s quickly-drafted substitute, a draft more sympathetic to the Biden Administration.

Matos and colleague Phoebe Brown objected to the Kuehl replacement, but supported it anyway.  “Whatever we do tonight, let’s make a stand,” Brown stressed.


Mural, Mural on the Wall

Where will it Go? (Sigh)

(Mar. 6):  Credit Lansing’s Mike Sigler for speaking up.  Had he not called for debate Tuesday of that proposal to plaster some kind of a COVID-19 tribute mural onto the side of the Human Services Annex downtown, it would have been rubber-stamped by the Tompkins County Legislature without the discussion it deserved.

“It just doesn’t fit right with me,” Sigler, who’s also a Republican candidate for State Senate, told fellow lawmakers Tuesday.  “We can hold up and say this vaccine is terrific, but the problem remains a lot of people don’t think it’s terrific.”  Sigler noted that the CDC reports only 19 per cent of adults have gotten the latest booster.

Sigler called for a “reckoning”“I would like to know what worked; what did not work; are masks effective; are they not effective; how effective are they?”

Sigler cast the only dissent when after ten minutes’ discussion legislators authorized the mural’s placement.  No one yet knows what the painting will look like.  Lawmakers have been assured they’ll have review power.

Yet caution may stand in order:  “I do think there is something about public art that should be provocative and engaging and spark conversation,” Dryden’s Greg Mezey said in defense of artistic freedom.  “I hope as a Legislature we don’t over-censor that art and we let the artists do what they do.”


Fire Truck Bonding Hits Snag

(Mar. 5): “It was clearly an error,” Board of Fire Commissioners Chair Greg Stevenson said bluntly.

Because of either a prior attorney’s or a prior commissioner’s error, the Bonding Resolution that Enfield voters approved last fall to refinance the town’s new $825,000 pumper truck will fail to cover the accrued interest between when it was bought and when the bonds will likely kick in this spring.

“We will have to figure out where the rest will come from,” Stevenson told the Board Tuesday.

The truck’s accrued interest is now $41,961.  Voters authorized bonding the truck only up to $830,000.  So Commissioners must unexpectedly squeeze nearly $37,000 from an operating budget that’s already pretty tight.  Enfield’s fire budget is only $483,000.

During the next two weeks, Commissioners will eyeball possible reductions.  And although they’d earlier decided not to bond a second truck even though voters had also authorized its bonding in the October referendum, money cannot be swapped from one truck to the other.

[A more detailed version of this story is now posted.]


ICSD Would hike levy 12%

(Mar. 5):  Preliminary budget figures presented the Ithaca Board of Education at its most recent meeting would raise the total amount requested from taxpayers next fall by 12.1 per cent, even though district officials would rather you think of only the tax rate, which would remain stable next year due to rising assessments.

During her 20-minute presentation to the Board February 27th, Chief Operating Officer Amanda Verba projected a 7.8 per cent rise in revenues for the 2024-25 budget, increasing budget totals from $158.6 Million to $170.9 Million.

The tax levy climbed only just under four per cent a year ago.  The coming year it would rise from $107.7 to $120.8 Million.

“Most of our expenditures are people,” Verba told the Board.  “We invest in our people, salary and benefits to deliver the top-line education and to deliver those experiences and the programmatic opportunities for all of our students.”

Instructional expenses would rise next year by 8.9 per cent, well above the rate of inflation.  Total salaries and benefits would top $119 Million.

“This is a very large organization.” Verba remarked.  ICSD, she said, employs 1,400 people.

After Verba’s PowerPoint, Board members kept mum, other than for one of them to tell Verba, “You’ve outdone yourself one more time.”

Administrators will present the Board a final budget in mid-April.  Voters decide the budget in May.


Where Ya’ Hangin’, Josh?

(Mar. 5):  Republican Congressman Marc Molinaro may make a campaign issue of presumptive Democratic opponent Josh Riley’s true home.  Is it Ithaca or Washington?

In a posting “DC Isn’t Gorges,” Jeff Coltin writes in the Mar. 5 edition of the Politico New York Playbook that Molinaro “is again tweaking  (Riley) for being a ‘DC lawyer’ and arguing he doesn’t really live in the upstate 19th Congressional district.”

Riley owns a home in Ithaca, all acknowledge.  But he reportedly still owns a home a mile from the U.S. Capitol. (That would prove convenient should Riley win this November.)  While the Democrat touts his southern tier roots, having grown up near Binghamton, he also worked for a decade in D.C, having left the law firm of Jenner & Block in 2021 ahead of his failed first run for Congress a year later.

The first time around, Molinaro also criticized Riley’s “DC lawyer” status. But now, Coltin says, the GOP incumbent is “pushing an entirely unscientific poll showing that 96 per cent of people on Molinaro’s campaign email list ‘believe you should have to live in New York to run here.’”

Coltin reports Riley cites the Ithaca home as his “primary residence” and is registered to vote here.


A choice, but what choice?

(Mar. 5): We New Yorker’s cast our Presidential Primary votes April 2nd.  But unlike in states like Michigan and Minnesota, disaffected Democrats wishing to lodge a protest vote against President Biden for his handling of the War in Gaza—or for any other reason—have no ability to vote “Uncommitted” in that election.

The sample Democratic ballot posted by the Board of Elections shows only the Presidential choices of Biden, Marianne Williamson, and Dean Phillips.  No write-in line appears.  Stray marks can void a ballot.

Republicans are given Donald Trump and Nikki Haley (plus drop-outs Christie and Ramaswamy.)

On the Democratic ballot (only), voters may also select convention delegates.  Tompkins County legislator Shawna Black and former Congressional candidate Max Della Pia are among the seven delegate names.  But again, all seven can be chosen, and no one else’s name appears.

Board of Elections officials confirm the no-write-in rule.  Sadly, in effect, Biden’s a lock.  Ideas? / RL