I let my mind wander. I raise hypotheticals, if for only fleeting seconds. Once a thought is pondered; then more often than not tossed away, I move on to the next. Spontaneously acting upon every impulse invites danger. Intelligently weighing the alternatives to ascertain a proper course of action, on the other hand, remains quite healthy. Governments should brainstorm just as people do.
As your next Tompkins County Legislator I would attempt always to think outside the box. I would encourage my 13 colleagues in the Legislature to join me in that effort. Thinking costs us nothing but a little of our time.
I’ll use a good example, one drawn from the County Legislature’s not-so-long-ago past; the deliberations over Public Safety Co-location:
In 2018, the County and the City of Ithaca began initial discussions toward establishing a joint City-County Public Safety Facility, one likely to be located off Elmira Road not far from the solid waste and recycling center. The Sheriff’s Office was becoming cramped and outdated. The Ithaca Police Station was too. The State encourages shared services cooperation. At first blush, a combined police headquarters seemed like a budget-saving no-brainer.
In September of 2018, the County Legislature took a cautious, low-cost first step. Yes, it did cost taxpayers a little bit of money. But considering the magnitude of what could become a $20 Million building project, it was a trifling amount. The County half-funded a $20 Thousand consultants’ initial look-see into possible co-location. Kingsbury Architecture brought forth its report the next year. Prospects looked good. Now the hard part began, the part where legislative leadership kicks in.
“I don’t think it would work, not with an appointed Ithaca Police Chief and an elected County Sheriff,” Dryden’s Mike Lane told our County Legislature in early-August 2019. Lansing’s Deborah Dawson warned of the two police agencies’ very different cultures, unions, policies and pay scales. Danby’s Dan Klein conceded that co-location had been talked about before. He never thought it was a good idea and wouldn’t support it now (though he’d later vote that night for more study). Klein insisted that co-location is not “a solution in search of a problem.” Problems exist for each agency, he assured us.
Others voiced cautious support. “I don’t know whether it’s a good idea,” Public Safety Committee Chair Rich John acknowledged, conceding uncertainty. He begged for more information. Walking away from collaboration’s potential benefits would be wrong, he stated. Ithaca’s Anna Kelles observed that contrasting the two police agencies’ cultures takes the wrong view; imposes a false choice. Look at the buildings instead, she said. Kelles even suggested potential long-term benefits from a sharing the departments’ administration and road patrols.
In the end, the Legislature stopped the study dead in its tracks without taking one step further. It defeated, 5 to 8, a resolution that would have advanced co-location into a more costly investigation, one of architectural and engineering drawings and a joint operational plan. Members Kelles, John and Klein stood among those in favor; Lane and Dawson voted with the majority to kill the idea.
But the case study I’ve chosen proves my point. As long as one keeps one’s head above water and disciplines the mind to pause and contemplate at designated stops along the Primrose Trail, these brainstorming exercises serve to sharpen legislative focus. They can lead to better, more creative, purposeful government. They can also strip the mind of bad ideas, leaving room for better ones to grow.
By raising prospective hypotheticals, I do not necessarily predetermine an outcome. As with police co-location, what I suggest may find itself tossed aside at the first turn, on the first day, by the first legislator or constituent I chance to meet. Fresh ideas, no matter how innovative, may encounter legal obstacles, financial impediments, or confront downright political resistance. Some people may support them; others oppose. Eyes may roll around the legislative table, or applause may break out. But without at least a raised hand or a brave suggestion, some of the boldest and brightest inspirations may never, ever see the light of day.
Where might I start? In no particular order, here tumble from my candidate’s brain a few random suggestions:
- Administrative Reimagination: Has our County Administration grown to the size that we should consider replacing an appointed County Administrator with an elected Executive? Many of New York’s larger counties employ elected administrative top-level officers already. Maybe doing so here in Tompkins County would put voters in firmer control of day-to-day operations and make County Administration more accountable? Then, again, having an elected Executive customarily reduces the County Legislature’s relative power and influence. Best intentions might backfire. The switch could compromise our democracy, not strengthen it.
- Weighted Voting: The delayed 2020 U.S. Census results, coupled with New York’s earlier petitioning rules, this year precluded us from reapportioning legislative districts in time for the fall elections. Accordingly, revised census data won’t redraw our county’s legislative lines until future members assume office in January 2026. Is that too long to wait to achieve reapportionment’s equitable rewards? As one member last year suggested, maybe we should employ weighted voting in the interim. Without doubt, it complicates the vote tallies. Lawmakers and legislative clerks hate it. It also accords lawmakers from more populous districts a weighted power advantage. But we’ve used weighted voting before. Should we use it again? Let’s talk.
- Solid Waste Fees: Our County’s current one-rate-fits-all solid waste fee, a set charge added to everyone’s tax bill, imposes lopsided burdens upon low-income households. The pauper pays the same as does the millionaire. Is there a better solution? Is there a way to make the fee less “regressive,” more equitable; and link the amount due to a property’s assessment? Maybe yes; maybe no.
- Commercial Tax Abatements: Is it fair that the big rental real estate blob gets to claim millions of dollars in government tax reductions while creating few, if any jobs? Tax-abated City Centre is trading for $75 Million, accruing its sellers tens of millions in profits. Why should they enjoy assessment write-downs while your Mom-and-Pop small business pays full rate? I’d argue it’s time to reform the Industrial Development Agency and award benefits only to those who truly create real jobs; plentiful jobs; permanent jobs; local employment. In 2019, I spoke out against a $3.9 Million tax abatement for Library Place, a project whose business plan could only point to a handful of new hires. I’d suggest we reserve tax abatements for job-creating industries, not big rental. Demand construction jobs stay local. Reform the IDA.
- A Retail Rights Law: Here’s a fresh idea to consider; one wrapping labor rights, business equity, and consumer freedom into one neat bundle. Notice how Big Box retailers respond to the higher minimum wage? They’ve cut back on cashiers and forced customers like you and me into the cattle chutes of self-checkout. I hate it, don’t you? What about writing a Local Law that sets minimum cashier thresholds for larger retailers? And if New York won’t let us do that, why not pressure Albany lawmakers to step in and legislate for us? Automation’s compelled acceptance hurts small retailers most. Why not step in to help? Let’s level the playing field.
We’ve just gotten started. Got another great idea? I bet you have. Let’s share our individual insight. Again, talk costs us nothing but a little of our time. And I’ve learned that the best solutions can sometimes result from the wildest of ideas. Let’s all think outside the box. I’ll join you.
May 5, 2021