by Robert Lynch, April 18, 2023; additional reporting April 19, 2023
For the fourth time in as many meetings, the Tompkins County Legislature took the occasion Tuesday to tell Albany lawmakers what to do. Only this time, it was different. The vote was unanimous, rather that splitting predictably down partisan lines.
Without a single dissent, local legislators urged the State Senate and Assembly to enact, and Governor Hochul to sign, a measure that would force the manufacturers of packaging—particularly plastic—to bear up to half the cost borne by the municipalities that recycle them.
Tuesday’s vote came at an otherwise relatively routine legislative session whose otherwise most noteworthy take-away was the appointment of an Ontario County administrator, Lorrie Scarrott, as Tompkins County’s new Director of Finance.
“Our recycling costs have skyrocketed,” Barbara Eckstrom, Tompkins County’s recently-retired Director of Recycling and Materials Management, told the County Legislature. “It is not fair for the burden of the cost of recycling that’s mandated in this state to be borne by government and not those that produce the packaging.”
The County Legislature Tuesday coupled its endorsement of New York’s proposed “Packaging Reduction and Recycling Infrastructure Act” with similar support for an enhanced New York “Bottle Bill,” a revision that would double the cost of a soda or beer bottle’s deposit from a nickel to a dime and expand the deposit mandate’s reach to cover a wider range of containers, including liquor bottles.
“Five cents means nothing,” Eckstrom told the Legislature. “Ten cents is very common in states around the country.”
In recent meetings, the County Legislature has placed its endorsement behind pending, liberal-leaning bills in Albany this legislative term that would accelerate proposed increases in New York’s minimum wage, speed green-building mandates to prohibit as soon as next year fossil-fuel heating in new home construction, and ban the sale of menthol cigarettes. Republicans often dissented on those measures. But this time, on container legislation, they backed the local body’s Democratic majority. The difference was cast in dollars. Tougher container mandates could save taxpayer money.
“I think it is very important we push back on manufacturers to be stewards for the products they’re shipping to us,” Newfield-Enfield’s Randy Brown told Tuesday’s meeting. “Plastic is used because it’s light and it’s a lot less weight, low volume, spread out, very easy to collect and manage,” Brown added.
Brown said manufacturers, as opposed to municipal recyclers, hold the technological advantage in reducing landfill waste. “They have the systems… the ability to make packaging recyclable, and we need to push back on them,” Brown stated.
A second Republican, Groton’s Lee Shurtleff, asked Eckstrom how much the proposed packaging law might save this county’s government. The retired recycling chief didn’t have a ready answer, but made an educated guess.
“I think we are talking in the millions in terms of savings,” Eckstrom surmised. “Maybe one to 1.5 Million.”
“The recycling market has plummeted,” Eckstrom reported. She predicted the slumping market for once-valuable castoffs could make for her former department a “$300,000 to $500,000 shortfall this year.
“We luckily have an annual fee,” Eckstrom acknowledged, referring for the uniform fee homeowners pay annually—this year $80—tacked onto their tax bill. But if the market for recyclables continues to tank, and deficits mount, she warned, “It’s going to go up; you know, up, up, up; if things go on further with all of this”
“You know my hesitancy on advising the Legislature and the Governor on legislation,” Shurtleff said. “But this clearly has an impact upon the local taxpayers.”
“The time is overripe here,” Eckstrom observed, admitting the packaging mandate’s been proposed before, only to meet stiff headwinds from a New York Governor, one who’s no longer in office.
“Cuomo was not—it wasn’t something that was ever going to happen,” Eckstrom told Tuesday’s meeting, hoping that with Hochul now in the Governor’s Mansion, prospects for the packaging bill’s adoption look brighter.
“I can imagine this week’s Ithaca Times is going to be, ‘Barb Eckstrom versus the Governor on the other side,’ the Chair laughingly said, referring to the weekly’s previous report on Tompkins County’s ongoing battle with the Executive Branch regarding Medicaid reimbursements.
“I wouldn’t be able to say that unless I’d retired,” Eckstrom replied with a chuckle.
And as for the need to double the bottle deposit, Dryden’s Mike Lane drew his own comparison, remembering that long ago, when he was a kid, quart soda bottles carried a nickel deposit, same as today. “And with a nickel,” Lane remembered, “you could buy a standard Milky Way or Snickers bar.”
“I’d like to thank each and every one of you for placing your faith and trust in me in this role,” Lorrie Scarrott said following the County Legislature’s unanimous appointment of her as County Government’s new Director of Finance. Scarrott, who public records indicate currently serves as the Deputy Director of Finance for Ontario County in Canandaigua, fills the post left vacant since late last November with the retirement of former Finance Director Rick Snyder. Scarrott will begin work locally May first.
“I’ve been watching Tompkins County as an organization from afar for quite a few years,” Scarrott said at the podium following her appointment. “I have always wanted to come here and work, so this is kind of like a dream come true for me… I’m very excited.”
The new appointee told lawmakers she brings to her new job over 22 years of governmental finance experience, skills gained, she noted, in a county with a population similar to Tompkins’.
“And as we all know, some things are the same; some things are different,” Scarrott told lawmakers, acknowledging governmental comparisons and contrasts. “And so I’m sure I have a lot to share with each of you, and I’m sure each of you have a lot to share with me.”
Tompkins County evaded one big obstacle in filling Snyder’s shoes, one that’s frustrated its leaders during several recent executive searches—namely the high cost of local housing. Tompkins legislators, in appointing Scarrott, waived the local residency requirement, thereby making it eligible for the appointee to commute from her current residence, presumably located somewhere between her old job and her new one.
Since December, Enfield’s Andrew Braman has been Snyder’s interim replacement. Presumably he’ll stay on as Scarrott’s deputy. During Tuesday’s meeting, legislators applauded Braman for his oversight of governmental finances during the past five months.
On a different matter, Tompkins lawmakers Tuesday avoided—but only for two weeks—making a tough call which may either delight or anger local arts organizations. It postponed until May 2nd voting to reallocate more than $1.4 Million in hotel room tax revenue to a variety of programs aimed at shoring up the local arts community, many of whose organizations have suffered from dwindling attendance and sagging revenues post-pandemic.
Ithaca’s Amanda Champion requested delay, which passed the Legislature just barely on an 8-6 vote. Champion referenced unspecified “amendments” she expected some would offer had the debate continued. It alluded to a backstory yet to be told.
Funding supporter Greg Mezey wanted an immediate vote, saying he needs no delay. And he revealed that the legal question yet unresolved involves whether room tax surpluses can be clawed back by County Government and put into the general fund.
“I don’t really need a legal opinion,” Lansing’s Mike Sigler said. “I don’t want to go back two years and reach back and grab that money back.” What’s more, Sigler said, money in the General Fund “just kind of gets muddled.”
At the meeting’s start, representatives of several local arts organizations took their turns supporting the room tax’s repurposing. Remarked Joey Steinhagen, Artistic Director of the youth-centered Running to Places Theater Company, “We’re struggling to keep our heads above water.”