Enfield spends ARPA cash to beat the Congressional clock
by Robert Lynch. May 25, 2023
A “mini-panic” was how this writer and Councilperson characterized Enfield’s Thursday evening mindset as he spoke at a Tompkins County Council of Governments (TCCOG) meeting a few hours earlier. It was perhaps an exaggeration, but this writer made his point.
Fearful that Congressional negotiators might claw-back earlier-granted—yet still unspent—COVID relief money granted Enfield through the American Rescue Plan (ARPA), the Enfield Town Board Thursday evening quickly distributed $295,000 among eight Town- or nonprofit agency-sponsored projects, leaving little more than $23,000 of its $349,639 ARPA award remaining to be spent..
The Enfield Food Pantry, the Enfield Community Council (the ECC), and the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company (EVFC) each became ARPA recipients in the process. However, the Fire Company received less money than did the other two agencies, prompting one of the only significant disagreements during the otherwise collegial, businesslike meeting that lasted less than an hour.
Let’s not act “faster than we can think,” Councilperson Robert Lynch (this writer) cautioned his Town Board colleagues as they prepared to vote on the ARPA distributions. Yet act with urgency they did.
The Town Board has known the total of its federal ARPA award since 2021. Yet its members have up until now chosen to spend the cash thoughtfully and without haste. The Board assembled an ARPA Advisory Committee in April of last year, a panel comprised of Board members and private citizens. The committee deliberated in private and handed forth a generalized list of recommendations. For months the list sat on the shelf.
In the end, however, the Town Board followed its own priorities, culminating in its Thursday night vote. The decisions came at a special meeting, hastily convened by Supervisor Stephanie Redmond after the Town’s auditor had warned the Board May 10th that the COVID relief “clawbacks” Congressional negotiators have referred to in their ongoing debt ceiling talks could endanger unspent ARPA moneys nationwide.
“It’s come out that the Republicans in control of the U.S. Congress are thinking about cutting the federal deficit in the debt ceiling negotiation talks by clawing back what the media describes as ‘COVID Relief Funds,’ Lynch asked Insero and Company auditor Duane Shoen at the May 10th meeting. “Is any of that ARPA money that may get clawed back if the Congressional Republicans succeed?”
“Absolutely yes,” Shoen responded. “I know you’ve received the money,” the auditor continued. “It’s still sitting in the bank…. If that money remains uncommitted, it’s definitely possible, depending on how those negotiations work out, that there may be some efforts to claw some of that back.”
Supervisor Redmond sensed surprise at Shoen’s words. And since his warning, she’s moved quickly to seek distribution of the federal cash. And as Councilperson Jude Lemke told the Town Board Thursday, it’s conceivable Congressional Republicans will rewrite the rules to grab even the cash Enfield chose to spend that same night. But with a firm plan for distribution in place, commitments established by Resolution, any Republican clawback could prove more difficult, Lemke surmised.
As Washington debt ceiling negotiations edge ever closer to a supposed June first default deadline, media reports suggest that even the Biden Administration may regard unspent ARPA funds as a negotiating throw-away as it searches for a compromise with the GOP.
With Councilperson James Ricks excused due to an ongoing illness, the Enfield Town Board Thursday unanimously adopted a catch-all Resolution that distributed the $295,000 among eight projects that it had either previously committed to undertake, or decided that night to aid with lump-sum appropriations.
Among the prior projects specifically assigned ARPA funding was a $70,000 replacement of the Town Hall roof over the Clerk’s Office and a $30,000 upgrade of the Enfield Courthouse exterior. The Board had authorized both projects at meetings in April and then proceeded to advertise bids for the projects earlier this month.
Other earlier-resolved spending packaged into Thursday’s Resolution included purchase of a Highway Department backup generator ($50,000) and acquisition of automatic defibrillators ($4,000), one for the Town Clerk’s Office, and another for the Highway Department.
Also authorized Thursday was a $31,000 set-aside to fund a variety of Town Clerk’s office renovations, including countertop windows, office furniture, and security cameras.
But what generated greater discussion was a trio of initially-equal allocations that ate up more than a third of the ARPA cash. The Board settled on providing equal $45,000 allocations to the Enfield Food Pantry and the ECC, and a lesser-amount, $20,000, to the EVFC.
The Resolution’s initial draft had earmarked $45,000 for the Fire Company as well. But in part at Lemke’s suggestion, the majority reduced Fire Company funding by the $25,000 drawn from ARPA at budget time last fall to maintain continued third-year funding for protective firefighter outerwear, so-called “Turnout Gear.”
Lynch objected to the last-minute reduction, saying ARPA funding for the gear last October was meant to be treated differently; it spared the Town the inconvenience of reopening its three-year contract with the EVFC. Lynch maintained that Fire Company leaders saw last year’s funding the same way as he did. (No EVFC leader attended Thursday’s meeting.) Lynch voted for the final funding package only reluctantly, conceding that the Board’s majority viewed the matter differently than he did.
The Town’s $45,000 ARPA funding to the Food Pantry was directed toward the purchase of a $62,500 parcel of property Enfield Food Distribution seeks to buy as its new distribution site.
The ECC’s funding, another $45,000, will underwrite three years’ worth of youth programs, including summer camp activities, trips to zoos and museums, and what its application termed “career exploration and exposure.”
“The COVID pandemic further isolated families in a rural, sparsely populated community,” the ECC’s Deborah Teeter wrote in her half-page, newly-revised application for ARPA support. “Much attention has been given to children’s academic losses,” Teeter’s narrative continued, “but children also lost the opportunity to spend time together and build social skills.”
With the Town Board having committed more than 93 per cent of its ARPA allotment following Thursday’s vote, the lone question remaining is how will it spend what little is left. To that point, Highway Superintendent Barry “Buddy” Rollins had a suggestion. Rollins had sought ARPA money to pave both the yard back of the Highway Garage and also the driveway leading to that building.
The paving would have cost big bucks; over $100,000 for the yard, nearly $95,000 more for the driveway. Rollins voiced disappointment that the Board had declined to consider the requests. He also faulted an unnamed Board member—in fact, it was this Councilperson—who wrote in a May 17 email that “to pave a driveway and a work yard inside the fence… doesn’t address one human need in this Town.” The member continued, “And it paves places that the public doesn’t drive anyway.”
Rollins said his Department’s employees drive and use the area, and that their needs should have been considered.
Board members took no formal action on Rollins’ request. But they agreed to consider using the remaining $23,000 unspent after Thursday’s vote to pave a portion of the Department’s work yard. Approaches to the Town Clerk’s Office may also be repaved.
Update: Ricks withdraws; Enfield Primary Still On
By Robert Lynch, May 24, 2023; Updated May 25, 2023 @ 2:18 PM
[Please Note: This story is written by incumbent Enfield Town Councilperson Robert Lynch, who, until Wednesday, was a Democratic Primary opponent of James Ricks and still could face a Primary contest for reelection should a committee designate a replacement candidate.]
Update (May 25, 2023): Though Enfield Councilperson James Ricks has sought to withdraw his candidacy for re-election, Tompkins County elections officials indicate there’s little they can do to honor his request. Ricks’ name, they say, must appear on the June 27th Democratic Primary ballot, the Primary must be run regardless of Ricks’ request, and should Ricks win the Democratic nomination, he’d go on to the November General Election with virtually no way for even Ricks’ vacancy committee to substitute the name of another candidate.
“It’s too late to withdraw from the Primary,” Democratic Elections Commissioner Stephen DeWitt told this writer (and fellow competing candidate) Thursday. “The only thing Ricks can do,” DeWitt said,” is to inform Enfield voters that he doesn’t want to run and that they vote for somebody else.”
DeWitt further explained that the three-person vacancy committee Ricks had designated on his Designating Petitions can only replace a candidate when that candidate becomes legally disqualified to serve. DeWitt gave examples of such legal disqualification as a candidate’s death, his moving out of the town, or his conviction for a felony. None of those circumstances apply to Ricks.
Should Ricks lose the party primary, the matter would be settled, DeWitt noted. Then the two remaining candidates, as Democratic nominees, would proceed to the General Election (where, at present, they’d run unopposed). Should Ricks win the Primary, despite his reluctance, be listed on the November ballot, and subsequently win the General Election, the Commissioner said Ricks could always decline to take his oath of office and leave it for the Town Board next January to choose a replacement Councilperson.
[The earlier-posted original story follows]
James Ricks, believed to be the first African-American ever appointed or elected to the Enfield Town Board, will leave office at year’s end and will not compete for reelection in the June 27th Democratic Primary, Ricks announced late Wednesday through a spokesperson. Ricks, who suffered a stroke earlier this year, cited health reasons for his decision.
“After thinking this through and meeting with my support committee from the Anti-Racists in Enfield group, I, James Ricks, have decided to withdraw my candidacy for the Enfield Town Board,” Ricks announced Wednesday evening through his associate, Enfield resident Thomas Joyce, who serves with Ricks in the Anti-Racists in Enfield (A.R.E.) organization. “I would like to focus on this for now and some other things in my life. I’d like to give myself this time to heal,” Ricks’ statement continued.
Though the decision, at least for the moment, removes any contest for either the earlier-scheduled June Democratic Primary for Enfield Councilperson or for any subsequent contested race in the November election, it incurs no immediate need for the Town Board to appoint a Councilperson replacement. Ricks’ statement indicated he intends to serve out his current two-year term through year’s end.
“As for my current town board appointment, I will continue to engage in Town Board activities when I am able to until the end of the year,” Ricks stated. And addressing his ongoing advocacy for native American rights, especially those of the Cayuga Nation, Ricks continued, “I am dedicated to continue building the relationships with and recognition of the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ people in Enfield.”
James Ricks further indicated that he intends to remain active in A.R.E and work on the group’s efforts “to draft a proposal of inclusion for the Town of Enfield.”
Enfield Town Board members first learned of Ricks’ medical condition at their March 8th monthly meeting when Supervisor Stephanie Redmond and Joyce revealed the reason for the Board member’s absence.
“James had numerous small vessel strokes that may not necessarily heal and could get worse,” the March meeting’s Minutes quoted Joyce as reporting. “James is struggling with controlling his blood pressure,” Joyce told the meeting.
The meeting’s Minutes continued with Joyce remarking. “He (Ricks) is in good spirits and he does not appear to have any lasting complications.”
Ricks subsequently attended the Enfield Town Board’s April 12th meeting, but departed prior to its adjournment. He requested to be excused from the Town Board’s most recent session, May 10th.
The Enfield Town Board appointed James Ricks as Councilperson in mid-December, 2020. The Board named Ricks to fill a vacancy left by the sudden resignation of then-Councilperson Stephanie Redmond. Redmond had departed the Town Board—but only briefly—one week earlier as part of her effort to secure the position of Town Supervisor, an office she now holds. The Ricks appointment transpired during a tumultuous flurry of Town Board departures and arrivals in the wake of former Supervisor Beth McGee’s resignation in September 2020. As many as three new Town Board members were named during a three month period.
As state law required, Ricks stood for election in November 2021 to finish the remaining two years of Redmond’s uncompleted Councilperson’s term. He was elected to the shortened position unopposed.
But Ricks’ sudden withdrawal now raises uncertainty as to the operation—or even the need—for a June 27 Democratic Primary, one in which three candidates (including this writer) had been expected to compete for two Enfield Councilperson’s seats.
In March, Ricks had petitioned for reelection, his Democratic Party Designating Petitions circulated exclusively by his supporters, including by Supervisor Redmond, party leaders, and A.R.E members. When the second Councilperson incumbent, Robert Lynch (this writer) and political newcomer Melissa Millspaugh also filed for the positions, the candidate field required a primary to determine the party’s nomination, one based on the primary’s top two finishers.
But Ricks’ departure from the late-June contest leaves only two viable candidates at the moment, namely Lynch and Millspaugh. Yet the Primary Ballot has already been set, and state law may require a Primary be run, regardless.
“It’s too late to cancel the primary,” former Enfield Democratic Party Chair Barbara Sadovnic communicated to party members in the hours following Ricks’ announcement. Sadovnic indicated that Ricks and Tompkins County Democratic Elections Commissioner Stephen DeWitt had already conferred.
“My best wishes to James as he continues his recovery,” Councilperson Lynch wrote Joyce Wednesday in acknowledging Ricks’ planned departure from the race, Lynch adding, “I trust we will see him (Ricks) at Town Board meetings soon.”
As to the Primary, Lynch reminded Democratic leaders that Ricks’ party petitions had designated a three-person replacement committee, one that would hold the power to designate a successor candidate should a vacancy arise. Enfield residents Susan Robinson and Martha Fischer sit on that committee, as does Ithaca resident Catherine Rossiter.
As of Wednesday evening, members of the replacement committee had yet to announce their plans, if any, to field an alternate candidate. Ricks’ announcement, released through Thomas Joyce, made no reference to a replacement.
It also remained uncertain Wednesday whether a withdrawal at this late date, little more than a month before the Primary, could allow a committee-designated replacement’s name to appear on the June ballot.
Up until James Ricks’ unexpected withdrawal from the Councilperson’s race, Enfield Democratic Party leaders had begun laying plans for a candidate forum in early- June, the forum’s exact date undetermined. Following Ricks’ announcement, party leaders voiced greater uncertainty about such an event’s scheduling. The Councilperson’s positions were the only ones subject to a Democratic Primary in Enfield this year. (Republicans will hold a two-way Primary June 27th for Highway Superintendent.)
“Given that a replacement is possible, I would urge that we continue plans for a candidate forum,” Councilperson Lynch wrote Democratic leaders late Wednesday.
Shawna to Migrants: “You will be Welcomed”
by Robert Lynch; May 16, 2023
Best never tell Greg Abbott or Ron DeSantis what Chair Shawna Black said to the Tompkins County Legislature Tuesday night. The Texas or Florida governors might just send several busloads of border-crossing Latin American migrants Ithaca’s way.
“Those who seek asylum in Tompkins County will be welcomed as our new neighbors,” Black told the County Legislature near the start of its Tuesday biweekly meeting, the Legislature’s leader making her first widely-aired comment on the potential transfer of busloads of migrants from the southern border to Tompkins County. They’d likely come by way of New York City, ordered by Governor Hochul or New York City Mayor Eric Adams.
Black’s nearly four-minute, 500-word prepared statement, which she read aloud to the Legislature, struck a decidedly accommodating, liberal tone. It stood in marked contrast to statements made in recent days by leaders from Tompkins County’s more conservative neighbors, some who’ve declared states of emergency or otherwise informed New York officials to avoid transferring any southern migrants to their communities, places like Schuyler, Tioga and Broome Counties.
“Tompkins County has always prided itself in being a caring, accepting and open community,” Shawna Black told her fellow legislators. “In the future, Tompkins County may be in a position to welcome asylum seekers. If given the opportunity, we would do so with coordinated resources and open communication with the state, local partners and our community.”
Following her statement Tuesday night, delivered a half-hour into the Legislature’s two-hour meeting, Black’s fellow Democrats in Legislative Chambers responded with applause. Yet not all clapped. Republicans Lee Shurtleff and Mike Sigler sat in silence.
Tuesday’s marked the first meeting of the County Legislature since the federal government lifted the pandemic-era Title 42 restrictions that had impeded the arrival of undocumented immigrants crossing the southern border seeking asylum. Although a flood of asylum seekers had been expected following Title 42’s expiration last Thursday night, that surge of migrants has proven smaller than many expected, the number of border crossings actually having declined from those days prior to Title 42’s expiration.
Nonetheless, the unpredictability of future border crossings has fueled fears among some that a renewed surge could follow in the days ahead. Last Thursday, speaking before the Newfield Town Board, County Legislator Randy Brown had warned that Governor Kathy Hochul might direct as many as ten busloads of southern migrants from New York City to Tompkins County. No such transfers have yet to occur.
Brown had last Thursday also informed the Newfield meeting that Legislature Chair Black had pushed back to unnamed state officials on the prospect of migrant transfers to the level that Brown had suggested. Black’s prepared remarks Tuesday made no reference to any initiatives on her part of blunt the number of new arrivals. Nonetheless, the Chair was careful to refer to any southern arrivals only in the future tense, and she always generalized as to their numbers.
And of note, Shawna Black always referred to potential arrivals by the politically-correct term of “asylum seekers,” not “migrants.”
“Right now as we await more information, we’re asking the community to be patient,” Shawna Black told the Legislature. “If we are to receive asylum seekers, we would commit to as robust and compassionate accommodations as we are able to offer,” she continued. “In any case, we would only be able to effectively welcome a limited number of asylum seekers. We’re in coordination with relevant community partners on how we might house and deliver services to these individuals.”
But the overall welcoming nature of Shawna Black’s statement may become what’s most off-putting to some conservatives. Every sentence of Black’s statement carried the message of an outstretched hand that stopped just short of spreading unlimited open arms.
“The United States has an imperfect immigration and asylum system,” she said. “Regardless of delays in inaction at the state and federal levels, welcoming communities like ours can do our small part to offer safe harbor.”
In an odd twist near the end of her remarks, Black conflated the potential migrant arrival with Ithaca’s continuing, unsolved homelessness problem. It suggested that perhaps Black fears that the unplanned arrivals from the border could aggravate local housing shortages and make it even more difficult for Ithaca’s already unhoused to find permanent shelter.
“I want to be very transparent with the facts that actions to potentially house asylum seekers come as our local homelessness issue is growing,” Black told the Legislature. “We acknowledge that. Regardless of how this plays out, we can no longer endlessly debate proposals and leave them in need and unhoused without action to ensure stable housing and effective services.”
Some might have thought that Shawna Black’s statement Tuesday would have prompted a thorough legislative airing of the border migrant problem, especially given that Tuesday’s legislative agenda was comparably light. It had no such effect. The Legislature took no action in response to the Chairwoman’s comment. Indeed, virtually nothing more was said on the topic all night by anyone else.
A full transcript of Shawna Black’s comment to the Legislature follows:
“I want to make sure that you have the facts and some of the information as far as where Tompkins County is headed:
“Tompkins County has always prided itself in being a caring, accepting and open community. As we observed during the pandemic, we have the tools and people to manage an emergency, coordinate with our partners, and to communicate with our community.
“In the future, Tompkins County may be in a position to welcome asylum seekers. If given the opportunity, we would do so with coordinated resources and open communication with the state, local partners and our community.
“Tens of thousands of asylum seekers have been transported from southern U.S. to New York City over the past several months. The City says that few resources remain available to house the newcomers. After calls from other counties for more communication and coordination with the City and the State, the Governor said that her team is working to first increase resources to New York City. They’re also considering options where some asylum seekers may be relocated to more welcoming communities upstate.
“Plans are in development for if we were to receive asylum seekers. Our Administration, Emergency Response, Social Services, and Sheriff’s Department staff are working diligently and staying informed on the issues as they develop. We are fortunate to have a caring community with so much good will. As with any challenge or opportunity, we have relied on our residents, businesses, religious organizations and not-for-profits to work with this to ensure safe and positive outcomes. I expect the same if we were to welcome asylum seekers.
“Right now as we await more information, we’re asking the community to be patient. If we are to receive asylum seekers, we would commit to as robust and compassionate accommodations as we are able to offer. In any case, we would only be able to effectively welcome a limited number of asylum seekers. We’re in coordination with relevant community partners on how we might house and deliver services to these individuals.
“I want to be very transparent with the facts that actions to potentially house asylum seekers come as our local homelessness issue is growing. We acknowledge that. Regardless of how this plays out, we can no longer endlessly debate proposals and leave them in need and unhoused without action to ensure stable housing and effective services.
“I would challenge us to consider comparably rapid brainstorming, leadership and political will to house people in Tompkins County. Yes, it’s complicated. But it is also possible. The United States has an imperfect immigration and asylum system. Regardless of delays in inaction at the state and federal levels, welcoming communities like ours can do our small part to offer safe harbor.
“As with many things in government, this is about balancing; creating a community where people feel safe, cared for, and each person can contribute. As we navigate uncertain times, our goal as a County Government will be focused on transparent and timely communication to our constituents. We continue to look to our highly qualified staff for information and direction.
“In closing, those who seek asylum in Tompkins County will be welcomed as our new neighbors.”
Posted Previously on this story:
Migrant Busloads may come here
Legislature Chair says no transfers imminent
By Robert Lynch, May 11, 2023; Updated May 14, 2023
Up to ten busloads of migrants from the Mexican border, shuttled by way of New York City, could be arriving in Tompkins County within days, Tompkins County legislator Randy Brown revealed to a meeting of the Newfield Town Board Thursday night.
Nonetheless, in a statement issued to the media the next day, the Chair of the County Legislature, Shawna Black, downplayed that possibility, Black telling The Ithaca Voice Friday that, “Tompkins County is not aware of any migrants slated to arrive in our community.”
The potential transfers of border asylum seekers initially moved to locations downstate, their numbers swelled by the federal government’s imminent expiration of Title 42 restrictions, come on the orders of Governor Kathy Hochul, Brown told the Newfield Board. However, later sources indicated that New York City Mayor Eric Adams may have been the driving force behind any relocation.
“They’re going to be busloads. We don’t have food to feed these people,” Brown told Newfield lawmakers.
Nor, for that matter, do they have a place to stay. According to Brown, Shawna Black, Chair of the Tompkins County Legislature, when notified Thursday of the imminent arrivals—their numbers uncertain—pushed back hard. Brown said Black contacted unidentified New York State officials and advised them that temporary housing for the arrivals does not exist in her county.
In her statement to The Voice Friday, Legislature Chair Black made no reference to any pushback on her part. Rather, she stressed that no relocations to Tompkins County had been ordered to her knowledge. Black also told the online paper that Tompkins County would not, at least at the moment, consider any ban on migrant arrivals, as has already been imposed by some other counties, including Schuyler, Tioga and Broome.
“At this time, Tompkins County “is not currently considering a ban on accepting asylum seekers,” Black told The Voice.
Though the online newspaper quotes a “statement” Black reportedly has made on the migrant issue, no such official comment was posted on the Tompkins County website as of early Sunday afternoon.
“It could be expensive,” Brown Told the Newfield Town Board Thursday of the need to shelter, feed, and otherwise humanely treat those who suddenly come here. “Where are we going to house these people?”
The legislator mentioned at the meeting Tompkins Cortland Community College as one potential location to house some of the arrivals. After the meeting, he also speculated that the former South Lansing Center youth detention facility, owned by New York State, but now mostly closed, is another possible, indeed, logical location for migrant housing.
“It may be one bus; it may be ten,” Randy Brown remarked after Thursday’s meeting. Officials, he said, have no real way to know the true number of buses that may arrive locally.
Brown’s revelation came as a late-breaking addendum to his monthly legislative report to the Newfield Town Board. Town Board members responded with words of concern that bordered on bewilderment. But the Board, itself, took no official action in response.
On Tuesday, May 9th, Governor Hochul signed an executive order aimed at addressing New York City’s expected cross-border arrival crisis. Her order referenced logistical support she offered, mostly to downstate, but did not address her now-reported plans for transfers to upstate.
According to the Governor’s news release, “The Executive Order will provide the State with greater flexibility to procure the resources necessary for municipalities to support asylum seekers while also allowing the State to increase the number of National Guard service members providing logistical and operational support.”
“With Title 42 set to expire, the circumstances on the ground are expected to change significantly and this Executive Order will be an important part of our coordinated response. I have spoken to (New York City Mayor Eric) Adams and County Executives throughout New York as we work to address this situation,” the Governor’s release quoted Hochul as saying.
On Friday, Governor Hochul issued a letter to President Biden urging the President to direct additional federal resources to New York State to cope with the feared migrant influx.
“New Yorkers are working together to welcome asylum seekers and provide the necessary shelter and resources for these individuals who are simply coming to our state looking for a better life,” Hochul stated in a Friday news release. She added, “I will continue working hand-in-hand with leaders from all levels of government to coordinate our statewide response and secure the resources we need to support these new arrivals.”
Title 42, the former Trump-era, pandemic-related border policy, extended until now by President Biden, sometimes upon court orders, lifted Thursday at one minute before Midnight. The order had empowered border officials to turn asylum seekers away at the border on grounds that the Title 42 restrictions served to stem the spread of COVID-19.
With Title 42’s expiration, the Biden Administration will apply a different section of law, so-called “Title 8,” which in some respect, officials say, is more punitive. Nonetheless, many acknowledge that those fleeing persecution in Latin American countries may not be aware of the new rule and have made plans, nonetheless, to cross the United States southern border as soon as Title 42 lifts.
In the days that followed Title 42’s lifting, however, national media reported that the expected cross-border migrant surge has proven somewhat less intense than first feared. The less-than-expected flood of refugees could impact the need for transfers of those asylum seekers out of New York City.
Legislature Chair Black’s Friday statement to the media struck a middle ground between compassion and the recognition of strained resources.
“The welcoming of any asylum seekers must be paired with the swift availability of significant resources from the State and federal governments,” The Ithaca Voice reported Black as stating. “The safety of both our community and anyone newly arriving here are paramount. Please understand that Tompkins County is approaching this issue with caution.”
“Our staff is aware of the issue and we have been in contact with the State Association of Counties and the Governor’s office to stay informed of the situation across New York,” Black added.
The Tompkins County Legislature convenes Tuesday night, May 16, for its normal biweekly meeting. Legislators could have more to say on the matter at that time.
Done Deal, Already?
Breezy Meadows Secures Environmental OK
Planners Waive Need for Developer’s Impact Statement
By Robert Lynch, May 3, 2023
It was the heaviest of lifts that the developers of Enfield’s proposed—and controversial—Breezy Meadows housing subdivision had requested. And Wednesday night—perhaps sooner than some had forecast they would—the Town’s Planning Board delivered .
With little questioning from within the Board itself, but following a brief, yet tense, exchange between the Planning Board’s Chair and one Town Councilperson, the Enfield Town Planning Board unanimously made “a negative declaration of environmental significance” regarding the proposed 33-lot Breezy Meadows subdivision, and further specified “that an Environmental Impact Statement is not required.
With this key hurdle for the project surmounted—a decision that avoids owner New York Land & Lakes Development from underwriting a lengthy and more costly environmental study—Planning Board Chair Dan Walker signaled at the meeting’s close that he expects Breezy Meadows’ proposed site plan to come before his Board for its final approval in just a month.
“I’ll prepare a resolution with all the bells and whistles in it,” Walker told the Board, and will then, he said, move it to a vote in June.
“Breezy Meadows,” Land & Lakes’ proposal to subdivide the 337-acre former John William Kenney farm between Podunk and Halseyville Roads into building lots, has faced targeted criticism from its neighbors ever since the Oneonta developer first disclosed its plans in December. As many as a score of residents attended a Planning Board Public Hearing on the proposal in April, speakers’ comments at the time decidedly critical. Fears ranged from the prospective loss of agricultural land; to increased traffic on currently-unpaved Tucker Road; to most particularly, the worried depletion of the well water supply when adding as many as 33 new homes.
“With the density we’re talking with here, we’re not going to stress the water supply,” Walker insisted Wednesday, always erring toward optimism, as he steered his four Planning Board colleagues toward diminishing Breezy Meadows’ water well impact, and also away from any thought that the water issue warranted more study.
Walker’s rationale holds that with the subdivision dividing the former farm into lots averaging ten acres—some larger; some smaller—wells that the new owners will drill would be spaced sufficiently apart so that one neighbor would not deplete the underground water supply for anyone else, whether on the development tract or adjacent to it.
“It sounds like everybody will have a decent water supply for their house,” Planning Board member Mike Carpenter concluded. Though sometimes cautious regarding Breezy Meadow’s impact, Carpenter, like all other voting members, supported Wednesday’s Resolution declaring the project lacking the environmental significance to require an in-depth study.
But momentary tension erupted when Enfield Councilperson Robert Lynch (this writer) interrupted the Planning Board’s perfunctory discussion of Walker’s environmental Resolution. Lynch challenged the Chair and suggested that his own Town Board had been misled when Walker had strongly suggested to the Town Board April 12th that the Planning Board would hold off key votes on Breezy Meadows until June, thereby enabling the Town Board, itself, to weigh in on the project at its May meeting.
Walker Wednesday refuted the allegation, insisting that the Planning Board was not taking final action on the project that night, only making its environmental determination.
Technically, Walker was correct, having told the Town Board April 12th these words: “Right now, I don’t see a final approval coming at the May meeting… because we don’t have all the data in yet.”
But most of that additional data Walker had said he needed concerned water. And it’s the water data that’s proven crucial to determining whether an Environmental Impact Statement will be necessary. One could have drawn the inference that planners would need to delay the environmental vote, too. They did not.
Lynch informed Walker that the Town Board had declined to provide the Planning Board any guidance regarding Breezy Meadows at its April meeting because the Town Board had assumed the decision clock had slowed and that the Town Board could wait a month to offer its input. Walker responded that when it comes to the need for an Environmental Impact Statement, sole authority rests with the Planning Board.
“The Town Board has no role in this,” Walker told Lynch at one point. “We’ve decided no Environmental Impact Statement is required.”
“You’re not instilling positive relations between the Planning Board and the Town Board, or between the Planning Board and the residents of the Town of Enfield,” Lynch rebutted.
“You’re not instilling positive relations” either, Planning Board member Henry Hansteen told Lynch.
At its April Public Hearing, Lynch had urged the Planning Board to demand both an Environmental Impact Statement from Breezy Meadows’ developers, and also that the firm underwrite a hydrological study to professionally assess the development’s well water impact.
Prior to Wednesday’s meeting, Land & Lakes had presented planners a pieced-together “Well Water Study” for the project. Though received by Town officials in an April 24th email, the report was never shared publicly before the Wednesday meeting, (It’s since been posted on the Town’s website.)
Most notably, the study’s key two-page narrative concludes, “New York Land and Lakes Development feels there is more than sufficient water to serve 33 residential lots on this property by individual wells without having any negative effect on neighboring pre-existing wells located outside the subdivision.”
Land & Lakes based its conclusion on a Department of Environmental Conservation website listing of 209 wells in Enfield, the vast majority of which are situated far away from the development site. It also cited the Town’s own water well study, one that surveyed 260 well records, again, town-wide.
Finally, the developer contacted three well-drillers with supposed experience in the area. One driller said that “he doesn’t know of any problems finding water and doesn’t believe there would be a problem….” A second driller likewise said he didn’t know of any problems. The third firm never responded, despite three attempts, the company said.
We’ll rely on “DEC well logs and anecdotal data from local well drillers,” Walker told Planning Board members in answering a particularly nettlesome question on the Breezy Meadows’ Environmental Assessment. The Assessment is a less-exhaustive questionnaire that state regulators require towns to answer about proposed development, even when planners don’t demand a full-blown Impact Statement.
“Just relying on anecdotal well driller data is not the same as a hydrological study,” Lynch responded when he seized the opportunity to comment prior to Wednesday’s vote. (Planning Board meeting procedures don’t allow for public privileges of the floor.)
No other Town Board members attended Wednesday’s Planning Board meeting.
Other neighborhood concerns amply aired at the Breezy Meadows hearing in April received scant discussion by Town planners Wednesday. The project’s impact on Tucker Road never got more than glancing consideration. And while some had argued in April that chopping up an old farm into building lots would eat up valuable cropland, the Board spent little time Wednesday on agricultural impacts, concluding, by inference, that the farm fields weren’t all that valuable anyway. And Land & Lakes, Board members said, could always merge lots and sell them to a farmer, albeit for a price.
Someone asked how the developer would treat the vacant, increasingly overgrown site between the present and when a purchaser buys it.
“If we can get somebody to take it for hay, I’d prefer it to a bush hog,” Alan Lord, the developer’s project manager, told Wednesday’s meeting. Lord also said he plans to bring in larger equipment to grind up the heavy undergrowth surrounding the former Babcock Poultry Farm buildings on the Podunk Road side of the tract.
And then there’s the question regarding chopping of a different sort. It concerns how soon Land & Lakes dividing of the Kenney farm will lead to new homes sprouting up amidst the goldenrods.
“In the 25 years I have worked for New York Land and Lakes Development, I have not seen one of our subdivisions with 100% built out,” the company said in its Well Water Statement, the document sent to the Town by Alan Lord, and thus its implied author. “Using that stat,” he predicted, “in the next 10 years there will be 7 or 8 houses built out of the 33 parcels.” The firm’s go-slow prediction was intended to allay fears that new housing construction will be fast and furious.
“It is likely that a few buyers will buy more than one parcel or will just buy for investment later on,” the report speculated.
Of course, such investment buying is just what some in Enfield most fear. Look at today’s Ithaca. Don’t expect the Breezy Meadows controversy to subside anytime soon, even though the subdivision itself increasingly looks like a done deal.
[Expect additional reporting on this story.]
EVFC’s long-shot bid for downtown funding
A Déjà vu Moment in a post-Second Wind World
by Robert Lynch, May 5, 2023 (Updating a prior story)
It’s a long-shot. Odds are it will never happen. Everything would need to fall into place just right. But if history repeats itself, and if misfortune befalls a Danby communal farm the same way it confronted a Newfield homeless camp, the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company could become the beneficiary of downtown funding it could use to build a bunk room, or do whatever else it had planned to do with money its leaders thought they’d lost the chance to receive.
A list of 14 winning applicants for the Tompkins County’s Community Recovery Fund raced through a legislative committee last Monday. The full Tompkins County Legislature dutifully ratified it the next night. And barring an all-too-familiar stumble that involves one awardee’s securing a local municipality’s consent, the varied collection of non-profits, governments, and at least one business will now gobble up the left-behind $510,000 that Second Wind Cottages forfeited when it gave up on its Newfield–based housing plan for the homeless. That winning list of 14 includes the Town of Enfield, but not its Fire Company. The EVFC rated just two candidates beneath the funding line.
But here comes that familiar twist: In a sense, the same plight that derailed Second Wind’s filing under Tompkins County’s Community Recovery Fund could also infect one of the newly-qualified recipients, a minority-focused cooperative farm planned for rural Danby, Khuba International. And the EVFC, so they say, has skin in the game.
“Déjà vu,” Groton legislator Lee Shurtleff remarked during the Legislature’s discussion of Khuba’s $74,000 Recovery Fund award Tuesday. He was the first of several legislators to say those words. And he had reason to say it:
“The project as proposed right now is not in compliance with the Town of Danby’s zoning laws,” Dan Klein, Chair of the Legislature’s Community Recovery Fund Advisory Committee, said regarding the Khuba application. And at that point, Klein shook his head.
“So if we pass it,” Klein continued, “what we’re doing is we’re saying we’re willing to fund it, and then it goes to the Town of Danby for them to go through their process and decide whether they want to move this project forward. We can’t override the Town of Danby zoning.”
Déjà vu, indeed. At least on the surface, the parallels with Second Wind appear striking. In both instances, the applicants secured their County funding promises before they got their hometown ducks in a row.
On the other hand, that may be where the similarity ends. Khuba’s “Uhuru Creek Farm” is a cooperative farm. Second Wind Cottages’ sought to bring 12-18 previously-homeless men to Newfield, their portended arrival bringing with it all the collateral concerns about substance abuse and feared criminality. In Second Wind’s instance, the entire Newfield Town Board and a roomful of fearful residents stepped up to oppose the homeless camp. By contrast, for Khuba, Klein said he’s only heard from two Danby Town Board members. Each voiced concerns about zoning non-compliance, not about the project’s risks.
Nevertheless, the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company holds a self-serving interest in the outcome of all of this. Were Danby to deny the Uhuru Creek Farm zoning approval, Khuba would probably forfeit its County money. And were Khuba to forfeit, the EVFC, whose trimmed-down $50,000 Recovery Fund request fell just under the cutoff line, could pick up at least some of Khuba’s then-surrendered cash.
Only a minimum $35,000 request from the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce Foundation stands between the funding line and the EVFC’s application, as scored by all 14 local legislators in recent weeks. And under fallback procedures endorsed by the Advisory Committee last Monday, any forfeiture of less than $250,000 would prioritize the next applicant on the list without need for further committee scoring.
“Do you see a good cooperative effort going forward, or are we possibly back to the table?” Shurtleff asked Klein regarding Khuba’s prospects for zoning approval.
“It is hard for me to predict,” Klein responded. Klein, himself, represents Danby. And about the two Town Board members’ concerns, he said, “They were supportive of the idea and the project in principle, but concerned it would violate the zoning laws.”
“So the actual Town Board has not taken a position on this yet,” Klein acknowledged. “I really couldn’t predict what’s going to happen over there.”
Ithaca-based legislator Veronica Pillar, a long-time supporter of Khuba’s initiative, remained optimistic about the cooperative farm’s approval prospects.
“I’m kind of like getting hearsay from folks,” Pillar told the Legislature. “But this sounds like they have a substantively different relationship with the community than Second Wind did in Newfield.”
Before Second Wind withdrew its tentative $510,000 Recovery Fund grant in late-March, the Newfield Town Board had imposed a one-year moratorium on new campgrounds in its town, a move targeted to blunt Second Wind’s initial effort to build 18 campsite-type shelters with its newly-found money. Second Wind responded by switching its plans to the construction of a dozen tiny houses instead. Those 12 would complement the 25 already there. But facing continued community resistance, Second Wind dropped that idea, too.
Ithaca’s Rich John, like other legislators, voted Tuesday to support the pair of resolutions that permitted Khuba International’s proposal to proceed. But he also expressed the evening’s strongest reservations.
“I am ambivalent on this one,” Rich John said of the Khuba funding measure. “I like the project, but it does have a déjà vu aspect to it.” John noted that he’d voted against Second Wind’s funding because of Newfield’s opposition. So he admitted his support now for Khuba’s proposal comes “with a little trepidation.”
“It does seem like there are storm clouds on the horizon; that we have two of, I believe, five Town Board members saying this just doesn’t fit at all” John said. “And I’m uncomfortable that we’re putting them in the position (that) they have to say ‘no’ to the project, and they’re feeling the weight of the County saying, you know, ‘come on, come on.’”
Rich John predicated his support for Khuba by sending a message to Danby’s Town Board. That message: “This is their decision and that they’re supposed to take their zoning seriously.”
The two-resolution funding package for Khuba International, adopted Tuesday, conceded the project’s non-conformance with zoning law, but said that “this potential impact would be adequately mitigated” should Danby amend its zoning law, grant a variance, or establish the farm as a Planned Development District.
The Danby Town Board next meets May 17th.
“I’ve been a strong proponent of the notion of comity, that the County needs to respect the home rule rights of our constituent municipalities,” legislator Deborah Dawson insisted. But she added, “I don’t think that by voting for this we’re telling the Town of Danby how they should come down on this.”
Dawson cautioned that Tompkins County has heard from only two (so far, unnamed) Danby Councilpersons, not from the entire Danby Town Board, the Planning Board, or the Supervisor.
“So I think that we should go forward,” Dawson said, “on the assumption… that people of good will can come to some sort of agreement on this.”
The Tompkins County Legislature’s adoption of the post-Second Wind funding resolutions took only eight minutes Tuesday. It marked an anticlimactic close to two months of committee deliberations and consultant-aided legislator scoring. Legislators this time followed revised procedures that succeeded in quelling concerns that Advisory Committee members had wielded too much power when they reviewed the bulk of applications last fall. In addition to Khuba, Recovery Fund applications funded this time around included Ithaca’s YMCA, Finger Lakes ReUse, and perhaps most controversially, the Shortstop Deli, a private business.
And for the first time, the Town of Enfield Tuesday saw one of its own applications supported. The Legislature supported the Town’s request for $26,592 to cover purchase of replacement communications radios for the Enfield Highway Department. It was Ithaca City legislator Susan Currey, by the way, who placed the Highway radios application into consideration for its successful award.
On balance, however, during this second round, like in the last, Enfield applicants came out the losers. In addition to the EVFC, the Enfield Community Council failed to score high enough to secure funding. The ECC had cut its minimum funding request from $206,000 to $146,000 to underwrite the mental health addition it had hoped to build. ECC fell to 22nd among 35 semi-finalists.
“I think this was a very fair process,” Legislature Chair Shawna Black said of the latest, second-round Recovery Fund procedures. “Looking at the list, I think we’ve done a really good job.”
But clearly, to keep that package intact, the next move is Danby’s. Enfield firefighters should watch to see what happens.
More from County Government:
Tompkins’ Transilient Tax Hike
A first-thought 5.5% levy rise cut by nearly half two days later
by Robert Lynch, May 4, 2023
Credit Newfield/Enfield District 8 legislator Randy Brown and his cross-county Republican colleague Mike Sigler for getting it right. On Tuesday, May 2nd, they voted against a hurriedly-submitted, flimsily-forecast projection that Tompkins County’s next year’s property tax levy might rise by a full 5.53 per cent, more than two percentage points above the County’s anyone-can-guess New York State tax cap.
“The number’s so alterable, it ought to be written in erasable ink,” this writer wrote at the time. I, too, was correct. Two mornings later, Thursday, May 4th, the number was gone.
Tompkins Government’s projected 2024 budget shortfall is “about a Million Dollars less than in our original forecast,” County Administrator Lisa Holmes told a monthly Zoom conference call of local municipal leaders Thursday at breakfast time. By the revised estimate, she said, the County would face only a $1.9 Million tax levy rise for 2024, not the $2.90 Million written into Tuesday night’s “County Financial Goal” Resolution, adopted 12 votes to two.
Using middle school math, the lesser levy rise would translate into a 3.62 percent revised levy increase, much closer to the 3.35 per cent tax cap—a now penalty-free metric—that Albany announces each summer to encourage counties and municipalities to hold the line on taxes. This year’s true cap won’t be known for months.
The initial 5.5 per cent projected local levy increase grew out of an April 25th legislative “budget retreat.” It’s a meeting state law requires the County Legislature to make public, but that lawmakers do everything within their power to keep private. On the night of the retreat, New York State budget talks remained in limbo, and two financial obstacles stared local fiscal planners in the face.
First, judicially-mandated increases in Assigned Counsel fees for attorneys who represent indigent defendants could hike the local cost for that service by $1.1 Million. More importantly, a decision by Governor Hochul’s financial wizards to keep for Albany’s own use millions of dollars in post-pandemic federal Medicaid assistance could grow that program’s burden on local taxpayers by another $1.6 Million.
As New York’s budget takes shape, and as Hochul’s bean counters sense the wrath of politicians beneath them, fiscal prospects have trended in Tompkins County’s favor. In fact, Holmes advised the County Legislature of the encouraging news the same night as lawmakers later adopted their gloomy fiscal forecast.
Holmes said that for the Assigned Counsel mandate, it now appears the State will shoulder “up to 50 percent of the cost”—at least, the increased cost. And as to the hefty, Medicaid hit, the County Administrator has learned it’s still happening; “only more gradually than we had anticipated.” Holmes has been told the State will “intercept” (a real cute term for steal) only 25 per cent of the federal money next year; 50% in 2025; but all of it in 2026.
Some still hold out hope that an act of Congress could stop the steal and pass all of the Medicaid funds back to the counties.
But despite the County Administrator’s new glimmers of hope, legislative Budget Chair Deborah Dawson, a perennial financial pessimist, charged ahead later during Tuesday’s meeting and thrust onto the floor, without advance public notice, her Resolution for “Establishment of (the) 2024 County Financial Goal.” Her measure targeted the 5.53 per cent tax levy increase so as to provide a “maintenance-of-effort budget,” one that keeps County Government humming about the same as at present, with no major cutbacks.
Though one could argue that the targets Dawson set had already become outdated by the time of the vote, the legislator said her fiscal projections were “influenced by our desire to prepare ourselves for the worst possible outcomes in the state budget.”
“I urge you to resist the temptation to back off and lower the levy goal just in case things don’t turn out as miserably as we might expect it,” Dawson cautioned.
Republican legislators Brown and Sigler cast the only dissents to Dawson’s Resolution. But other voices on the Legislature sensed it would be better to wait until Albany’s waters calmed.
“I’m surprised to see this now,” Ulysses-Enfield’s Anne Koreman remarked. “I thought at our budget retreat, we had said we were going to wait a month to come up with a target.” Koreman thought the retreat’s only direction to Holmes was to work with department heads toward the maintenance-of-effort budget, not hazard a guess about taxes.
Sigler said the late-filed Resolution surprised him too. “It just seems like we don’t have enough information to do this,” he said.
But Newfield’s Randy Brown took the strongest stance against the kind of levy increase Dawson’s forecast envisioned.
“I guess I’m an optimist,” Brown said. “And I believe that our revenues are good and will continue to increase, and our fund balances are more than significant.” And of the projected 5.5% tax hike Brown added, “I think anything close to this increase would be ridiculous and not right to do.”
Dawson stuck to her guns though, defending her resolution as necessary to guide Holmes’ talks with department heads as to how they should plan. Sigler, meanwhile, revealed that those at the retreat had talked about a “soft freeze” in hiring if fiscal challenges loom too large. A “hiring frost,” some described the possible calm to hiring.
But looking back just one year may prove most instructive in concluding that anyone’s predicting a tax increase a full six months ahead of a budget’s adoption is just an exercise in futility, especially when dealing with image-conscious politicians who avoid a tax increase as though it were COVID-19.
Reports from last year indicate that at a similar retreat, with financial storm clouds not as dark, the same legislators took a “straw poll” and predicted a 1.88 per cent levy rise. But by budget adoption time in November, despite a flurry of last-minute spending additions, the County Legislature raided its fund balance a bit and cut the tax hike to zero.
Again, use erasable ink. It may be needed again. Keep that special pen handy.
And also from the County Legislature:
A Second Round after Second Wind
Recovery Fund package races toward approval
by Robert Lynch, May 2, 2023
Barring some bizarre, last-minute stumble, the awarding of over $510,000 in Community Recovery Funds to a group of 14 applicants— including a small amount of money destined for the Town of Enfield—stands poised for approval Tuesday by the Tompkins County Legislature, the revived applications made possible only by the withdrawal of Newfield’s Second Wind Cottages from the funding sweepstakes a month ago.
“I want to thank how the process worked out,” Newfield-Enfield County legislator Randy Brown said Monday as the Recovery Fund’s Advisory Committee, on which Brown now sits, endorsed the allotment of those funds according to a scoring procedure in which all of the Legislature’s 14 members participated.
“It seemed like (the procedure) worked fairly quickly, and it was good to see a wide range of projects funded, as well as numerous rural areas,” Brown remarked. “I think it worked out.”
Among the 14 applicants recommended for funding—the committee’s recommendation forwarded to a Tuesday evening meeting of the full Legislature—was a Town of Enfield request for $26,592 to cover purchase of replacement communications radios for its Highway Department. The radio purchases never made it even to the semi-final list of eligible candidates for the $6 Million Recovery Fund when the Legislature and its committee initially screened more than 200 applicants for the money last fall.
Critics might regard the Enfield appropriation as little more than a crumb, since other funding applicants received far more. Most notably, Cayuga Medical Center last December received $1.5 Million to establish a crisis stabilization center at Lansing’s Shops at Ithaca Mall.
But neither the Town of Enfield nor any of its community’s non-profit agencies received a single dime of support when first-round recovery moneys were doled out late last year, an exclusion that legislator Brown roundly criticized at the time. County funding of the radios now means that the Enfield Town Board will not need to include that purchase in its own allotment of federal American Rescue Plan funds, a funding process the Town Board began late last month.
Yet the prioritization by legislators that’s produced the latest 14-applicant list has proved a disappointment to a pair of non-profit Enfield applicants, namely the Enfield Community Council (ECC) and the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company (EVFC), each of which qualified this time among a batch of 35 semi-finalists, but failed to meet the final cut.
ECC’s pared-down request for $146,000 to add a mental health services wing onto its community center finished a disappointing 22nd on that legislator-scored list of 35, in which only the top 14 candidates secured funds. EVFC’s likewise trimmed-down minimum request of $50,000 fell just two filings short of the cutoff. Nonetheless, because of contingency procedures the committee embraced during its meeting Monday, the Fire Company’s application holds a continued slim chance for funding should other previously-supported applicants later drop out.
The $510,000 recommended for distribution Monday only became available because Second Wind Cottages, previously targeted for funding, withdrew its application March 28th. It did so amidst community resistance to its plans to use the money to construct either campsite cabins or tiny houses to shelter the homeless at the Second Wind site in Newfield. The Second Wind application’s departure set into motion the second-round funding procedures which led to the Advisory Committee’s Monday recommendation to be presented the full Legislature Tuesday night.
Other top applicants newly recommended for funding include the Khuba International cooperative farm in Danby ($74,086), the Finger Lakes Reuse recycling center ($68,444), and the Town of Dryden’s application to extend fiber-optic broadband internet within the town ($75,999). The Dryden Fiber project had inexplicably been omitted from consideration last fall, its timely-tendered paperwork somehow never received by Tompkins County’s consultant.
Not raised for discussion during Monday’s brief, half-hour Advisory Committee meeting was the current funding package’s most eyebrow-raising inclusion. Ithaca’s Shortstop Deli, a private business, would receive $50,000 to pay back rent to avoid eviction, and to employ staff, and purchase groceries. Like the Enfield radios, Shortstop had not been included in last fall’s semi-final crop of candidates. It’s submission was revived this time by an unidentified County legislator.
“It seems like people are more content with the process this time than last time,” Advisory Committee Chair Dan Klein said Monday as committee members prepared for their unanimous vote of endorsement.
“This process has been as democratic—small ‘d’—as we could make it,” Lansing legislator Deborah Dawson added, “and I have no interest in trying to make changes or adjustments, since this is the collective will of 14 of us.”
Indeed, the inclusion of all 14 legislators in the funding prioritizations—in contrast with the six committee members who last fall called most of the shots—seems to have made a big difference. And it would explain why no one disturbed the funding list Monday, and why it’s likely the package will breeze to approval by the full Legislature Tuesday evening.
Before it adjourned Monday, the Advisory Committee laid contingency plans. By informal consensus, members agreed that if still other applicants from this or the earlier round drop out, members will recommend that any surplus of less than $250,000 be assigned to the second-round applicants that just fell short of funding this time. Should the surplus total more than a quarter-million dollars, the procedure would restart. Should any surplus be small, the arrangement could benefit Enfield firefighters. Only the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce’s $35,000 minimum request stands between the cutoff line and the EVFC’s own application.
True, as this second round nears its end, Enfield stands in a better place than before. Its Highway Department will get more than $26,000, whereas at the end of last year, no applicant in Enfield had gotten anything from Tompkins County’s $6 Million funding pot.
Yet, still, even now, Enfield and its non-profits stand at a distinct disadvantage. With approximately 3,400 residents, Enfield holds about 3.2 per cent of its county’s population. The radio purchases will provide Enfield a meager 0.44 percent of the Tompkins County Community Recovery Fund.
Some Advisory Committee members would say one should not look at funding so parochially. Tompkins is one county, they’d say, not a confederation of towns. Yet the numbers don’t lie. Many in Enfield will always believe they got slighted. It is what it is.
Posted previously on this story:
Dollars for Delis, but not ECC
Community Council, EVFC Face Second-Round Recovery Fund Snubbing
by Robert Lynch, April 26, 2023
How does a commercial Ithaca delicatessen secure American Rescue Plan funds and Enfield’s non-profit Community Council and Fire Company do not? Apparently, it’s when the money gets doled out by Tompkins County Government.
Draft documents posted this week in advance of a pivotal meeting Monday by a County Legislature advisory committee would drop both the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company and the Enfield Community Council below the funding cutoff point for a second-chance bite of the Tompkins County Community Recovery Fund, the county government’s multi-million dollar pass-through program for federal ARPA assistance.
At the same time, according to the consultant-aided spreadsheet, the product of a process in which all 14 Tompkins County legislators got to score 35 eligible funding applicants, a “Revitalization” request by Ithaca’s Shortstop Deli ranked third-highest. The spreadsheet lists 11 legislators as recommending Shortstop for funding. Only five supported the Enfield Fire Company’s capital request; and just three backed ECC’s proposal to build a mental health wing.
“Something’s wrong here, very wrong,” Enfield Councilperson Robert Lynch (this story’s writer) said upon viewing the preliminary scoring sheet Wednesday.
“I know these are tough calls. And I applaud our Enfield legislators for putting each of our community applicants’ best foot forward. But when a private business, no matter how worthy, no matter how desperate, gets targeted for public funding, and a local agency like the ECC gets not a dime, despite its valiant desire to improve mental health, I’d say some people downtown have their priorities mixed up,” Lynch said.
Enfield found one bright spot in the latest round of legislator recommendations. The Town of Enfield’s own application for $26,992 to purchase replacement communication radios for its Highway Department gained legislative recommendation. Of the 14 applications placed in line for recommended funding, the Enfield radio request ranked fifth highest, endorsed by nine of the 14 legislators.
The funding spreadsheet released this week—the product of individual legislator’s rankings and the consultant’s compilation of those preferences—marks only the first in a three-step process for this second-round of appropriations. Draft resolutions based on the legislators’ rankings will face review by the County Legislature’s Community Recovery Fund Advisory Committee May first. The committee’s final recommendation will then head to the full County Legislature for ratification later in the month.
This latest opportunity for agencies, governments and small businesses to get this public money arose only after one earlier preferred recipient, Newfield’s Second Wind Cottages, dropped out of the competition. It voluntarily forfeited its $510,000 Recovery Fund award in late March amidst local opposition to its plans to use the money to construct temporary housing for otherwise homeless men at the Second Wind site off Route 13 north of the Newfield hamlet. Second Wind’s withdrawal freed up its portion of the county’s larger $6.5 Million Recovery Fund, the remainder of which the County Legislature assigned to a list of more than 50 applicants in late December.
In addition to the Enfield application for highway radios and the Shortstop Deli’s request for “revitalization” funds, applicants recommended this time for support include Khuba International’s communal farm in Danby, the Finger Lakes Reuse products repurposing firm, and the Town of Dryden’s fiber-optic broadband expansion, each recommendation based on the just-completed second-round scoring. The Dryden broadband request, recommended to receive more than $75,000, got inadvertently overlooked by the consultants last October when more than 200 other applications were tendered to Tompkins County and the consultant for consideration.
Aside from Enfield, expect others to raise concerns over the newly-released scoring list. Representatives of local arts organizations, whose agencies had requested—but were denied—Community Recovery funding, complained about their omission after completion of the funding program’s first round. This second time, no legislator added an arts organization to the funding list, and no arts organization was recommended for any new award.
For the Enfield Community Council, this recommended second-round rejection hits hard. The community nonprofit fell just fifth below the cutoff line last December when the advisory committee scored 80 semi-finalists, including ECC, during its first-round of review. ECC had first requested $206,000 from the program, planning to use it to tack a mental health services wing onto its recently-purchased community center, the former Living Waters Church.
Under special procedures the Advisory Committee allowed this time, ECC officials trimmed their minimum request from $206,000 to just $146,000. ECC accomplished its downward revision by substituting a modular addition for a stick-built structure. Yet the ECC’s proposal this time placed it in an even worse position. This time, as many as seven also-disappointed second-round applicants stood with higher legislator scores than did the ECC.
The Enfield Volunteer Fire Company’s trimmed-down request fared slightly better. But it, too, failed to make the funding cut. EVFC’s requested capital improvement project, its minimum request reduced from $186,000 to just $50,000, fell two places below the cutoff line. Five legislators recommended the Fire Company’s lesser amount; nine voted against providing it anything.
In the ECC’s case, three legislators supported minimum funding, but 11 opposed it.
Shortstop Deli, for whatever reason ranked third-highest on the legislators’ list of eligible applicants. Its rationale, stated during the Recovery Fund’s first round, called for governmental support to “cover operating costs, including back rent to avoid eviction.” Money would also be used, the deli’s grant writer said, to underwrite “25 per cent of future rent payments, payroll for four new part-time employees, and grocery inventory.”
Shortstop’s request was among the ten or so that individual legislators added to the list in recent weeks. The pre-meeting documents fail to indicate which lawmaker added it. But when the delicatessen’s application underwent first-round triage last November, only two of the Advisory Committee’s then-six members supported its award. By contrast, three committee members in November supported the Enfield Fire Company; four of the six backed the ECC.
Under the Advisory Committee’s procedures, outlined during an early-April meeting, each participating legislator could recommend one, but only one, previously discarded applicant to join a list of the 26 semi-finalists that fell below the funding cutoff of last December. The ECC, but not the Enfield Fire Company, had stood among the 26. The Enfield Highway Department and EVFC funding requests were elevated to the semi-final list by individual legislators during recent weeks.
The most recent legislative rankings are not cast in stone. Rankings could be changed either by the Advisory Committee on Monday, or later by the full Legislature. But history proves the spreadsheet scoring holds great influence. During first-round reviews late last year, Advisory Committee members saw little interest in amending their own, consultant-aided applicant scoring. And the full County Legislature later ratified the committee’s recommendation virtually unchanged.
Mall Sampling Site to Close
Expiring subsidies mean some must pay for tests
by Robert Lynch, April 28, 2023
Cayuga Health Systems CEO Martin Stallone made a terrible Freudian slip February 22nd, when he briefed a committee of the Tompkins County Legislature on his hospital giant’s three year partnership with County Government in the fight against COVID-19.
During the month of February, Stallone told the committee, “We actually closed the COVID testing at the mall, with the (testing) totals that I listed before, 2.77 million tests.”
Stallone’s PowerPoint slide at the time stated something different: the closing of a laboratory for test processing on Brown Road near the airport, a couple miles away from the mall.
Cayuga Medical’s public relations spokesperson rushed that afternoon to correct Stallone’s misstatement. This writer retracted his initial reporting of the corporate chief’s breaking revelation. One well-known legislator even rebuked me later for suggesting that Stallone had made a “slip of the tongue.”
But now it seems clear. Stallone held in the back of his mind something he thought premature to state publicly at the time.
Friday morning, April 28th, Cayuga Health Systems, in a joint statement with Tompkins County Whole Health, announced the planned closure of its COVID-19 sampling site at the Shops at Ithaca Mall. The statement also confirmed that with the end of County Government subsidies in December of last year—yet with the hospital still having underwritten testing costs since then, but not beyond next month— some people now tested for COVID-19 may soon need to pay out of pocket for the service they receive.
The mall-based sampling site will close May 5th, Friday’s statement indicated.
The closure decision was made “following a multi-month review of notable decline of its use,” the joint statement explained. After the mall site closes, it continued, “Cayuga Health will offer testing to the public at physician offices, including walk-in visits at Immediate Care (its outpatient clinic in northeast Ithaca), and at other healthcare providers in the community.”
The mall-based sampling site opened in September 2020, some six months after the COVID-19 pandemic began. It opened in large part because of encouragement from key Tompkins County lawmakers, including then-legislator (and now New York State Assemblymember) Anna Kelles and current Legislature Chair Shawna Black. Enfield Councilperson Robert Lynch (this writer) spoke before the County Legislature August 18, 2020 in support of County Government subsidies credited with making local sampling free. An initial County infusion of $300,000 got the project going. More similarly-sized appropriations followed.
But the Tompkins County Legislature quietly let the subsidies lapse with the end of last year. And since then, public officials have offered little clarity about whether or how those seeking discretionary testing—a test without explicit medical necessity—would be charged for the service.
Friday’s announcement finally clarified how those charges would be handled, advice consistent with an initial response that Tompkins County Whole Health Commissioner Frank Kruppa had provided this Councilperson during an intermunicipal zoom conference April 6th:
“Residents seeking a test through Cayuga Health and other local healthcare providers must meet criteria as medically necessary for health insurance coverage or pay out of pocket for the service,” Friday’s news release stated. “Medically necessary testing includes having symptoms related to COVID-19, exposure to someone with COVID-19, or having an upcoming medical procedure,” the news release continued.
The statement stressed the reliability of self-testing and that test kits are readily available free of charge (including at the Enfield Town Clerk’s Office).
“This is one of the best investments Tompkins County made during the pandemic,” Tompkins County Legislature Chair Shawna Black said. “I’m so proud that our Legislature stepped up to approve this funding and has been responsive to the community’s needs throughout this crisis.”
Black’s statement made no reference to any effort by her or any other public official to renew governmental support for the testing service, one that had allowed any Tompkins County resident without third-party reimbursement to receive the COVID testing at the mall free of charge.
And soon, even the insured may need to pay out-of-pocket. A Federal Emergency Declaration is set to expire May 11th. And when it does, Health Department officials warn, the expiration will mean “ending the availability of federal funds for free testing services or supplies, and vaccines available free of cost.” That could mean health insurance co-pays, depending on one’s insurance carrier, those officials say.
“It is best to speak with your insurance provider to find out what the cost of a receiving a PCR test would be, or the cost of the vaccine, as different insurances offer different options,” Friday’s statement advised.
Until this latest announcement, it remained unclear whether those currently being tested at the mall sampling site would be charged for their tests now with local governmental subsidies having ended.
“Cayuga Health covered costs from January 2023 through May 2023,” the Friday statement revealed. It explained that its short-term hospital-paid subsidy, “allowed the Tompkins County community to access testing without barriers or concern about payment.”
Sadly, however, community leaders remained virtually silent over the period and never publicly discussed their appraisal of the program during the first four months of 2023 or whether taxpayer subsidies should renew.
“This is an end of an era; a troubling time, yet one that arose from medical necessity,” Enfield Councilperson Lynch remarked following Friday’s confirmation of the sampling site’s impending closure and the clarification of payment requirements.
“We tapped our county’s massive fund balance once to underwrite this service,” Lynch said. “We should renew the conversation about tapping it again. Our fund balance grew during the pandemic. It grows today. As my own legislator, Randy Brown, has said, this isn’t the County’s money; ‘this is the people’s money.’ Perhaps the people would like to spend a little of it to continue free testing.”
Nonetheless, continuing the program poses a problem. It’s a financial one. Though the federal government was initially slow to reimburse Tompkins County for its testing costs, Washington eventually did come through with payment. But with next month’s expiration of a national Emergency Declaration, renewed federal subsidies stand unlikely.
All of those quoted in Friday’s announcement of the mall site’s closure sounded resolved to both the sampling site’s shuttering and the ending of the funding partnership that has provided free COVID testing for nearly three years.
“I want to thank Cayuga Health for setting up and managing the mass sampling site since early in the pandemic,” Commissioner Kruppa said. “This has been a great service to our community and contributed to our monitoring of disease in the community.”
Kruppa added, “Although this service is coming to an end, I want to remind the community that it is still important to get tested and take precautions when sick.”
Dr. Stallone agreed that it was a time to move on, while also celebrating a job he believed was well done. “It was an honor to provide this vital service to our community during a time of great uncertainty,” Cayuga Health’s CEO said. “Cayuga Health appreciates the trust the Health Department and Legislature placed in us.”
Maybe We Should Move to the Mall…
Indecision, Disagreement mark meeting on T.C. Center of Government
by Robert Lynch, April 25, 2023
No, a proposed $30-40 Million Tompkins County Center of Government isn’t dead. Nor, really has the idea been put on life support. Better to consider it at the point where every legislative “physician” stands eager to render a second opinion. And some of the doctors offer radically different prognoses.
“There’re a lot of different pages, and we’re all trying to assemble them into one notebook,” Chair Mike Lane observed, as he ended a two-hour long meeting of the County Legislature’s Facilities and Infrastructure Committee Tuesday, a meeting ostensibly called to act on a draft resolution that would “deconstruct,”—an artful word for demolish—the former Wiggins Law Office Building adjacent to the County Courthouse, one of two structures the County bought in 2021 for a combined nearly $3 Million, legislators intending to put a new Center of Government office building in their place.
As it turned out, the deconstruction resolution never saw action Tuesday, though its draft may still appear on a future legislative agenda. Deconstruction, itself, remains tied up in a regulatory spat with the City of Ithaca. And Tuesday’s meeting began with a more than 45-minute closed-door discussion addressing possible legal moves the County could take to overrule City Hall’s authority. That portion of the meeting ended with nothing made public concerning the County’s next move.
What the public got, instead, was an hour-long roundabout over how County Government should proceed in meeting its admitted need to find more and better office space. The Facilities Committee has five members. But nearly every other member of the 14-person County Legislature crashed the meeting and joined the discussion. Some called for building a new building as soon as practicable. Some would consider repurposing the structures that currently stand there. And at least one legislator toys with the prospect of moving most offices to Lansing.
“I guess it’s time for me to lay my cards on the table,” Groton Republican Lee Shurtleff told colleagues. “I keep looking back at the big picture. And if we’re talking $30-40 Million to build a 30-40 thousand square foot building, I’m not there yet, and it’s going to be a long time gettin’ me there.”
Partly in response to Shurtleff’s reluctance, County Administrator Lisa Holmes agreed to broaden her sights and revise current plans to include short-term remedies that stop short of new construction.
“We have been proceeding with the notion (that) these issues are going to be addressed through the Center of Government,” Holmes told legislators, concerning the problems of too little space. “So a plan could include interim solutions, if the Center of Government is not going to be built, or built farther in the future than we were anticipating.”
The committee requested Holmes do more homework and prepare a broader range of options. Whether or not any legislator is a supporter of a big, new building, most at Tuesday’s meeting conceded this fact: Building a Center of Government would take 3-4 years before anyone could occupy it.
“I would like to see two competing plans,” Mike Sigler interjected. Option one, the Lansing legislator said, would tear down all three County-owned buildings on the site. The second, he said, would retain and renovate each of them.
“And maybe we go with a third option altogether,” Sigler offered the committee. It was this: “And we don’t do any of that, and we move to the mall.”
Lansing’s Shops at Ithaca Mall, starving for tenants and seeking constructive reuse, has been hinted at before, though never terribly seriously. To date, most lawmakers have sought to consolidate offices downtown, close to both the Courthouse and to Legislative Chambers.
It “sounds like a crazy idea,” Sigler said of his shopping mall alternative, “but that’s where the hospital is going, and that seems to be a center of gravity for the county.”
Cayuga Medical Center recently bought a portion of the Shops at Ithaca Mall, a complex which its current owners have subdivided into separate parcels under its single roof. And should a downtown office high-rise remain the Legislature’s preference, Sigler laid down another wild card. He’d attempt to placate Ithaca’s resistance to a big government building in the shadow of DeWitt Park by leasing a portion of it to the City to replace an aging City Hall that Ithaca, in Sigler’s opinion, has “outgrown long ago.”
“Hell, we’re starting from a blank slate here,” Sigler remarked. “And this will be your (the City’s) only opportunity in an entire generation where it’ll be one last thing for the City to worry about, if you’re leasing space from us.”
Sigler’s City Hall idea got little more talk, other than when Mike Lane reminded members that a similar intermunicipal idea fell flat years ago, back when Tompkins County attempted to repurpose the now-demolished Old Library. But Sigler’s move-to-the-mall option got ample pushback from the Lansing legislator in whose district the mall stands, namely from Budget Committee Chair Deborah Dawson.
“It would be a ‘Homeowner’s Association’ kind of arrangement,” Dawson pointed out. There’d be “collective responsibility for infrastructure.” The parking lot is in rough shape, she observed. Furthermore, the legislator added, the “subsurface infrastructure, the water and sewer, has been a constant problem.” Dawson alluded to questions that have dogged officials since even before the Village of Lansing was incorporated a half-century ago.
“We don’t have any idea of what’s under the ground, don’t you?” Dawson said mall officials have asked village authorities.
Dryden’s Greg Mezey credited Sigler’s mall option for raising what he called an “actual suggestion and a theoretical suggestion” to address one question, “Is there somewhere else outside of a very restricted, dense area” where government offices can go?
But Dawson would prefer that the option-weighing stop, and the decision-making begin. “I think it’s time for us to put our money where our mouths are,” she said.
Legislature Chair Shawna Black, a close Dawson ally, agreed. “Instead of adding options, we should be taking down options,” Black said in response to Sigler’s three-pronged decision point.
Black brushed aside any kind of “partnership” that might quarter City Hall in a County-owned building. “I’m not sure we would want to do any such partnership until there’s stability there,” Black said, the Chair perhaps making veiled reference to the troubled alliances surrounding “Reimagining” police reform.
The meeting’s sharpest elbows emerged when Lane, Black, and Dawson sidetracked into the relative importance of building the Center of Government versus renovating the Public Safety Building and jail, another costly, Tompkins County eight-figure endeavor. The County’s Capital Plan sets aside more than $30 Million for the office complex; but nothing of the sort for jail upgrades.
“Say something about the jail, folks!” Lane blurted out, the committee chair rapping the table, after Dawson urged that the Center of Government’s building options move quickly out of committee and onto the Legislature’s floor.
“Say something about the jail that’s been 20 years that we haven’t done anything,” Lane continued, the generally soft-spoken leader showing perhaps the most anger and animation he’s ever displayed in a meeting.
“I’m sorry if I’m getting indignant about that. Somebody ought to. Somebody ought to think about the people that are up there. Somebody ought to think about what we need to have and have ignored because it’s not a sexy kind of project. And the jails never are. Certainly a Center of Government will be more so,” Lane exclaimed.
“I don’t think the jail has been ignored. I feel like it’s in the background,” Black responded, the Legislature’s Chair claiming that Public Safety Building renovation decisions must await recommendations by a Jail Task Force. But she then surprised Lane by indicating that because of state bail reform and other factors, that task force may recommend no expansion of jail housing at all.
“I don’t think it’s time to invest in a jail,” Black told the committee.
But back to the old Wiggins offices and a building on the brink of demolition: To that point, Newfield-Enfield’s Randy Brown said that for him, too many questions stand unanswered. Brown requested a structural study be performed into the building’s condition before the Legislature razes it to rubble.
“I’m a planner. I’m trying to look down the road, and I’m trying to check off things,” Brown said. “There are a lot of moving pieces here, and we need to do it right,” he continued. “The buildings may not be useful at all, and I want to know that.”
But there’s something else Tompkins County needs to know. It’s whether it can override City of Ithaca policies and ordinances and rip down the old law building, as well as structures adjacent to it, before City officials approve a site plan for whatever building would take its place.
“This is the land of the gray,” County Attorney Bill Troy advised the Facilities and Infrastructure Committee as Tuesday’s meeting began, Troy cautioning that an interpretation of municipal preemption prerogatives can rest on the narrowest of grounds, and the legal precedents are few. Though never explicitly stated after Tuesday’s executive session ended, the committee probably directed Troy to recruit a specialist to guide his path.
“I will be the first to tell you I’ve done these types of cases, but not where we’re at this level of granularity,” Troy told legislators. “I would like to run this by somebody with real experience, even if it costs a few bucks.”
One could say those bucks constitute chump change, with a $40 Million office building at stake. That building’s a dream in the mind of some legislators, but not all. Doctors often disagree.
And Now, Enfield’s “Breezy Meadows” Controversy, as April moves to May:
Water, Land, and a Dirt Road
Breezy Meadows’ Impacts Perplex Planners, Pols, and Public
Analysis by Robert Lynch, April 20, 2023
“There’s no question that there’s a lot of people that have water problems in the Town of Enfield.”
Planning Board Chair Dan Walker to the Town Board, April 12.
“I’m not sure there’s much we can do.”
Enfield Councilperson Jude Lemke (same meeting)
Planning Board reports to the Enfield Town Board are usually cut-and-dried affairs; over in a flash. But April’s encounter proved much different. This time, Planning Board Chair Dan Walker took a full ten minutes short of an hour to answer—and to at times, agonize—over Town Board members’ questions concerning the controversial “Breezy Meadows Farm” subdivision. All the time, Breezy Meadows’ project manager Alan Lord sat (presumably) behind a zoom tile that bore his name. He never spoke a word.
“This is the biggest controversy that’s hit Enfield since the Black Oak Wind Farm,” this writer, Councilperson Robert Lynch, observed during his own turn to comment at a Planning Board-sponsored Public Hearing one week before the Town Board’s own April 12th Breezy Meadows discussion. “And I’ll tell ‘ya: We don’t have zoning, and we don’t need zoning to deal with this problem.” I had other plans. But whether those plans will work, we have yet to learn.
Breezy Meadows, New York Land & Lakes Development’s plan to subdivide the former John William Kenney farm between Podunk and Halseyville Roads into 33 building lots of varying sizes, has faced criticism ever since someone stuffed copies of its site plans in neighborhood mail boxes in early-December. Town Planning Board review of the 337-acre subdivision led to the April 5th hearing. After about eight people spoke, and as many as a score looked on to see what transpired, Planning Board members weighed the project’s merits versus its risks. They made no decisions that night. But Board Chair Walker signaled he might move adoption of a required Environmental Assessment at the early-May Board meeting, with subdivision approval to follow.
Nonetheless, one week later, after struggling to answer Town Board concerns about the subdivision’s impact, Walker backed off a bit.
“Right now, I don’t see a final approval coming at the May meeting,” Walker told the Town Board April 12th, “because we don’t have all the data in yet.”
Yet Walker made no promises. “The Planning Board is an independent Board. And we do follow the regulations of the State and our Town’s Site Plan and Subdivision regulations,” the Chairman reminded anyone who would listen. “We are an independent Board, as we do our due diligence. I think we are very careful about doing that.”
Exacting timetables aside, odds right now point in Breezy Meadows’ favor. While public opinion tumbles decidedly against the project, and while some Town Board members voice concerns, the key decision-makers in Enfield’s most contentious housing controversy either lean in the project’s favor, or simply accept its inevitability.
“I’m not sure there’s much we can do,” Councilperson Jude Lemke warned after Councilperson Lynch cautioned that a 33-lot rural subdivision could easily double or triple in density if lot purchasers ignore Land & Lakes’ intended deed restrictions and simply subdivide their parcels further.
“The subdivision meets all of the Town’s regulations under the Subdivision Regulations,” Walker advised the Town Board. “So we really have no basis for denying the subdivision.”
“Unfortunately, if they start to (further) subdivide all these properties, then we’re going to have to deal with the issue then, because today there’s nothing in our law that would prevent them from doing this project,” Lemke advised.
Transforming open fields into hobby farms, mini-estates, or equestrian pastures may jar the senses of those who remember what the old Kenney farm used to be. Short of a total ban on development, the town can do little to hold back some degree of progress. But to Breezy Meadows’ critics, concerns lie far deeper—in some respects, literally deeper. Foremost among the concerns of many is the impact 33 (or more) new homes would have on a water supply that just about everyone agrees remains marginal at best.
“We’ve always had problems with the amount of water for the household. To overlook that would be a problem,” Iradell Road resident Russ Carpenter told the planners’ Public Hearing. “I really think… if you’re going to have this much housing development, you really have to consider the Town’s putting in a water district of some sort,” Carpenter said, suggesting that public sewers may need to follow.
“We’re not going to have public water in my lifetime; probably (in) most of your lifetimes. We have to rely on wells,” Lynch answered. “Our neighbors cannot run out of water.”
At both the Planning Board’s hearing, and a week later before the Town Board, Lynch pushed for Land & Lakes Development to do the same thing that the ill-fated Black Oak Wind Farm’s developers had to do a decade ago, namely perform a full-blown Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), not just the much more abbreviated “Environmental Assessment” Land & Lakes has already undertaken, aided by Walker’s assistance. Lynch would have Breezy Meadow’s developers focus on water issues; both the project’s impact on neighboring wells and also on water quality. “A full hydrological study,” I told the hearing, is what’s needed.
How much might such a study cost, Lemke asked Walker at the Town Board’s meeting. Walker guesstimated between $20,000 and $50,000 based on the developer’s need to drill a series of test wells at perhaps 4-5 thousand dollars per drill.
This Councilperson shot back, “It’s costing $20-50 thousand. The developer’s paying $1.6 Million for the land. It’s a drop in the bucket!”
But Dan Walker has repeatedly expressed doubt that water will be an issue, the chairman relying on the assumption that the Breezy Meadows’ lots, that would range in size from two to 32 acres, would be spread out sufficiently so that one owner’s well would not drain dry another, or far more importantly, anyone else’s well lying outside the development. Indeed, speaking before the Town Board, the Planning Board’s Chair suggested that a more tightly-packed four-lot subdivision already built at Van Dorn and Enfield Center Roads impacts its own water table much more.
“At this point, I have no documentation that this is going to be a major issue,” Walker told the Town Board concerning water supplies and pushing back on the need for an EIS. “Based on my experience with shale aquifers, (it’s that) they are low producing aquifers, but they generally stay pretty consistent unless you have huge demand on them.”
“The size of the lots provides enough area to protect other wells,” Walker reasoned. And if the dangers of well depletion were greater, Walker told the Town Board, “We’d have to do an EIS and a hydrological study for every two-lot subdivision” that the Codes Inspector, Alan Teeter, approved.
Walker readily admitted during Town Board questioning that Breezy Meadows’ siting puts it in a place where, as Russ Carpenter testified, well water conditions leave much to be desired.
“There’s no question that water supply in the Town is variable,” Walker said. “But with the low density of this development, the average of 10-15-acre lots, there’s enough separation that it shouldn’t be impacting adjoining neighbors.”
A state-prepared well survey—one that only lists newer wells drilled since about 2000, and relied on by the Board Chair to support his assessment—lists most wells near the proposed development in the 150-200 foot depth range, often producing water at an average two gallons per minute.
“They’re not the best producing wells,” Walker acknowledged. What’s more, he admitted, “a two gallon/minute yield can be run out if you aren’t careful with your water uses.”
A new home is going up just off the Breezy Meadows site, on Aiken Road near Halseyville. A well’s being drilled there. And Walker told the Town Board he’ll look closely at that new well’s performance once drilling is complete.
Paul Tunison knows the condition of Tucker Road. He and his wife live there. “The condition of Tucker Road is pretty bad,” Tunison told the April 5th hearing. Without a doubt, Tucker Road’s condition—now and in the future—bears heavily on Breezy Meadows’ impact. Gravel-based Tucker effectively bisects the development site, and Land & Lakes would front as many as 24 of its 33 building lots on it.
“It’s essentially a one-and-a-half lane road. It’s passable. But it can’t handle the kind of traffic for the 23-24 residences that are proposed for this subdivision,” Tunison told the hearing. Who’s going to pay for its upgrade, he asked. Tunison thinks the developer should pay.
Hayts Road sheep farmer Marguerite Wells agrees. And she brought figures—however accurate they may be — to the Planning Board’s hearing. By Wells’ calculations, at current estimates of $200,000 per mile, the paving of Tucker Road would eat up a full 19 per cent of the Enfield Highway Department’s budget in a single year. And it would take 10-15 years for the increased assessments of the newly-fronted residences on Tucker to pay back the cost.
Dan Walker and Enfield Highway Superintendent Barry “Buddy” Rollins take a different view. They sense no urgency for Tucker Road’s paving. Walker had talked with Rollins prior to the Planning Board’s review, and Rollins, himself, addressed the road’s condition at the Town Board’s meeting.
“(Rollins) feels Tucker Road is in pretty good condition for an unimproved gravel road,” Walker informed the Planning Board. The Superintendent “did not feel there was a need to totally rebuild the road,” Walker reported. “We have other gravel roads in the town that are in worse shape.”
Rollins told the Town Board a week later that he’s worked on Tucker Road. He reported that the ditches are good, and there are “very few potholes or wet spots.” Rollins continued, “My goal is to make all roads oil and stone roads.” And that, he said, includes Tucker. With oil and stone, the Superintendent stated, “That will handle car traffic and most delivery traffic, but not tractor-trailers and 10-wheelers every day.”
Of course, those bigger trucks could infect Tucker Road during Breezy Meadows’ construction.
“Our approval will state that this is a gravel road, and the Town has no plans to upgrade that to a paved road,” Walker told the Town Board, regarding Tucker. “The expectation should not be that that’s going to be a paved road.”
Councilperson Lynch, this writer, pushed back:
“The question is: ‘The road is never going to be improved; it’s going to remain a gravel road’ is all right until you get 24 people with houses along Tucker Road, and they come to this Town Board and say please pave that road. That’s going to happen if it gets a lot of use regardless of what the land seller tells the homeowner. They’re going to say ‘we want a better road.’”
The final spindle bracing this awkward, three-legged stool of opposition involves farmland. Land & Lakes estimates that the Kenney farm has 145 acres of agricultural land and that subdividing it would only take 29 acres away. Critics (including this writer) maintain farmable acreage would shrink to near zero. Soil quality remains subject to debate. Sheep farmer Wells chooses to think positive.
“There’s a very strong demand locally for farmland,” Wells told the Public Hearing. “There are so many farmers who would love to rent that farm.”
“We are all beneficiaries of this beautiful rural quality of life,” Wells continued. “But they could do a much more careful job of subdividing these parcels to protect the farm parcels and allow farming to continue.”
Wells presented the Planning Board a Crayola sketch of her redesign that would cluster houses on one portion of the Kenney farm and leave the rest to agriculture. Walker later critiqued Wells’ alternative.
To “densify” the property, “could actually create more water supply problems,” Walker told the Town Board.
But Wells remains undeterred. “Leave the farmland as farmland, and leave the dirt road (Tucker) as not a burden to the taxpayers of Enfield,” she pleaded.
Not all agree that Breezy Meadows’ soils are so prime or that its acreage will attract a line of bidders.
“It is not now being farmed because the farmer that was farming a lot of that land said he had problems getting a crop up every year because of the wetness conditions, and that the lease cost of the farmland was not worth it to him,” Walker informed the Town Board, the planner relying on what the developers had told him.
The Board Chair also posited that nothing would preclude a farmer from purchasing several of Breezy Meadows adjoining lots and merging them into a farmable field. Still, without a doubt, Land & Lakes’ would charge that farmer inflated prices more applicable to people than cows.
Where the Breezy Meadows’ debate leaves all of Enfield right now is with guarded uncertainty; and also with an unsettling expectation that this 33-lot subdivision will happen one way or another. Even were Enfield to be zoned, a large-lot slicing and dicing of an overpriced abandoned farm is hard to stop.
At the April 12th meeting’s start, this Councilperson advised he might introduce a Town Board motion regarding Breezy Meadows. “Does the Board believe we should provide the Planning Board some guidance on this, or should we just keep our powder dry right now?” Lynch asked later after the Town’s Board and top planner had gone back-and-forth. (A Resolution lay at the ready.)
“I’d like to hold off and see what data Dan puts forward at the next meeting,” Supervisor Stephanie Redmond responded. Thus, for the moment, the Town Board’s powder remains dry.
Breezy Meadows is an Enfield controversy not soon to fade away. And it won’t fade away after the Planning Board’s next meeting… or the meeting after that. But the May third session could prove pivotal. We’ll all see what happens then.
And now, more on the Center of Government Dilemma:
Cart before the Horse?
County in a Demo Bind over Center of Government
By Robert Lynch, April 23, 2023
Quite frankly, this was Jason Molino’s baby. But now Molino is gone, and the baby is bawling.
Months before the pandemic, Molino, the former Tompkins County Administrator, caught wind of two prime commercial lots up for sale adjacent to the Courthouse. And even though the County Legislature had months earlier laid down $1.8 Million for a plot of partially-vacant land a block away and tapped it as its intended site for a new multi-story Center of Government, Molino thought this new land looked better, a whole lot better.
For nearly two years, while most of us had COVID-19 on our minds, Molino worked in the shadows. He prodded the County Legislature and its key Downtown Facilities Committee to launch protracted—often tortured—negotiations to purchase both the Key Bank Building on the corner of East Buffalo and North Tioga Streets, and the “Professional Building,” the former Wiggins Law Offices, next to it. All the meetings were secret. I tried to squeeze those in the know to tell me what they knew. They wouldn’t. To whatever was happening behind those locked legislative doors, the public remained blind and deaf to it.
The story finally broke in August 2021, three months after Molino left for another job. It broke only because it had to. Tompkins County was buying the Key Bank Building for $1.7 Million and the Wiggins’ offices for $1.1 Million. The existing buildings would come down. The combined lots would become the new, preferred footprint for a county office building, the Center of Government. Jason Molino’s wish would be fulfilled. The deal closed months later. Earlier this month, Molino’s successor, current County Administrator Lisa Holmes, presented legislators a detailed PowerPoint of where things had been and where they might be headed. She offered little more than the wise among us already knew.
That was then. But now there’s a problem. It came to light when County Administration took its next logical step and drafted a resolution to deconstruct the old Wiggins’ offices as soon as current tenant leases expire next February. The problem is that the City of Ithaca may not let them do it.
“We are essentially saying we are going to deconstruct a building without a plan to construct a Center of Government in its place,” Holmes told the County Legislature’s Facilities and Infrastructure Committee last Thursday. “And that is a little different than where we started, and it runs us afoul of the city’s land use policies.”
The legislative committee took no action on the deconstruction resolution Thursday. Instead, after 45 minutes’ discussion over whether to move forward with the wrecking ball—possibly pre-empting City law—or instead rewriting environmental paperwork, the committee set a special meeting for April 25th to weigh its options further.
Relatively modern—built sometime in the late 1960’s—and not considered a “contributing structure” of any architectural significance, the stylishly-unique law office building lies within the DeWitt Park Historic District. That locational status gives Ithaca Building Department officials heightened scrutiny over what kind of structure would take its place before an owner could do anything to take the Wiggins building down.
Resolutions passed when Tompkins County bought the twin structures two years ago made clear the County’s intent to replace them with a Center of Government. But structural designs have never advanced beyond conceptual sketches. Nothing’s been said about how big or high the building might be or how ugly it might look. Nor, for that matter, has the Legislature passed a firm commitment to build the building at all. And Thursday’s discussion made plain that on that latter point, opinion remains divided.
“I will admit I am probably the least patient person on this Legislature,” Lansing’s Deborah Dawson conceded. “But this has been going on for three years. We need to fish or cut bait.”
Properties get purchased. Environmental assessments get drafted. Capital plans get written, Dawson noted. And in her opinion, when they were performed, “we made a series of commitments to build a Center of Government.” But yet, Dawson lamented, “every time we try to move this thing forward, someone, somewhere says, ‘Oh, no, no, we didn’t make that commitment; no, we need to take more time and consider it more….’ How many times do we make a decision and a commitment and then we back off and change our minds?”
Committee Chair Mike Lane had a ready reply.
“Deb, I know you’re impatient. You’re also the person who talks very strongly about being careful with our budget. I’m not ready personally to leapfrog into a $20-30 Million project at this point.” (Comments at the April 4th legislative meeting suggested the price tag could climb to $40 Million.)
“We haven’t decided to build that building at all,” Lane insisted. “At least I haven’t voted to spend any money to build it.”
“What more do we really need?” Dryden’s Greg Mezey asked. The Dryden Democrat proved impatient to get the wrecking crews moving. “We’re asking to move forward with the first step in the process,” Mezey reasoned, “Because you can’t have a new building with an old building on the site.”
“Do we need architectural drawings? Do we need to have another resolution? What do we need to have before we show that this is our intention?” Mezey asked.
But City rules are City rules. And County Planning Commissioner Katie Borgella suggested that Ithaca’s reluctance to sign off quickly on demolition stems from a City Hall hesitancy to replace an unwanted building with nothing more than a vacant hole.
“If it’s clear that there’s a Center of Government going to be built on that corner, then… I think you could probably move forward with demolition of the buildings on the site because of a higher government purpose,” Borgella told the committee. However, she cautioned, “They do have ordinances that you can’t demolish a building in the City of Ithaca without going through site plan review.”
“If you don’t have a clear County purpose of serving something, then you need to conform with (the City of Ithaca’s) land use rule, and that would require going through the whole demolition process that they have in place,” Borgella said.
Those with long memories will recall Ithaca’s misbegotten experience with Urban Renewal in the 1960’s and 70’s and should understand contemporary reasoning. Quick federal cash then led to the hasty razing of vast swaths of downtown, including landmarks like the old Ithaca Hotel and the former Ithaca City Hall. It left only blocks as vacant dust bowls, unreconstructed for years.
“The problem with the law building,” Borgella told the committee, is that you’re “taking something down with no clear plan for what you’re going to do with it.”
“And that’s the whole point of the City’s ordinances that they have in place,” the planner added. “They don’t want people speculating and just clearing off properties in the hopes that someone develops it in the future.”
“Yea, but we’re not just people, we’re the County,” Lane replied.
“What’s the test? Who’s the adjudicator?” Mezey asked in desperation.
Ultimately, that “adjudicator” could, in fact, be a judge. State law provides counties limited authority to overrule municipal land use restrictions, clout that Tompkins County could exercise at the price of poisoning relations with those in Ithaca’s government. Some at Thursday’s meeting suggested that an attorney specializing in land use law be brought into the conversation.
“All I’m looking for on this building is for us to dot our i’s and cross out t’s to whatever entity may put up a barrier to slowing this thing down.” Enfield-Newfield legislator Randy Brown,” told the committee on which he sits.
But in pointing out the false starts and mixed messages the Legislature has given over the years, Brown acknowledged, “The County’s purchased other buildings and it didn’t work out.”
And again, those sudden, seemingly spontaneous swings in Center of Government site-shopping sentiment can confuse those who review the environmental documents that may decide the “Professional Building’s” immediate fate, documents that’ll likely require a rewrite before the demolition resolution tabled by the committee Thursday ever comes up for a vote. Lane reminded members that both the former- and presently-preferred development sites were at separate times listed as a Center of Government’s prospective home. In neither instance, however, has the Legislature ever put up the money to match some politicians’ mouths.
And unlike some on the Facilities Committee, Randy Brown has yet to relegate the old Wiggins offices to the wrecking crane. He called Thursday for a professional evaluation be conducted first into the building’s potential reuse.
“It costs energy to knock a building down. It costs energy to put a new building up,” Brown said. “So I’d like to know if that’s a structurally sound building. That would help me.”
And Randy Brown also proffered the most novel idea of the morning. What about scattering space-hungry County administrative offices around, quartering them in easily-accessible rural schools, instead of concentrating them in a pricey downtown high-rise?
“There are buildings all over the county,” Brown claimed. “Every school has thousands of square feet of empty space where we could… reimagine how we provide services to our constituents and put them in the schools so they’re there working with the people.”
Brown said such a plan would save commutes to Ithaca, thus advancing the “Green New Deal.” And it would bring governmental services closer to the people. “I think this is a visionary thing,” Randy Brown proclaimed. “And building a building downtown doesn’t make sense to me right now,” he added.
Something tells this writer that Jason Molino would view Randy Brown’s idea as simply a vision step too far. Leaders like to build monuments to themselves. A side office in Enfield Elementary or in Newfield Central might win a national award, but it doesn’t cut it for most in the political class. Nonetheless, the prospect of a $30 Million—maybe $40 Million—downtown office building is giving some in Tompkins’ legislative chambers the jitters. It’s not Jason Molino’s 2019 anymore. Babies do grow up.
From the County Legislature:
TC Leg: “Let the Producers Pay”
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.”
The “Death” of a Good Judge
LaSalle, the Democratic Party, and Me
Analysis and Commentary by Robert Lynch, February 20, 2023
Lea Webb, my State Senator, disappointed me last week. So did 37 of her Democratic Party colleagues, members of New York’s upper chamber. Each of them put politics above principle, innuendo over intelligence, and rejected a skilled, experienced jurist, Hector LaSalle, to become Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, New York’s Highest Court. When they did, dismissing the choice of their own—and my own—party’s governor, Kathy Hochul, they betrayed the public’s trust. And they betrayed mine as well.
With LaSalle’s rejection, I have lost confidence in the majority party that governs our Empire State. The wound that the majority Democrats inflicted on me, and on us, cuts deep. It may never heal. And because the party that holds the votes in Albany to enact our laws and confirm our judges has chosen to walk away from me, I may choose, in time, to walk away from them. The choice of a Chief Judge matters to me. It matters a lot. Hector LaSalle’s rejection may force for me a pivotal course correction.
Governor Hochul, with minimal fanfare, nominated Hector LaSalle to the Court Appeals a few days before Christmas. An expanded State Senate Judiciary Committee, packed last-minute with Hector-hostile partisans, rejected the Chief Judge nominee January 18th. By just one vote, it failed to advance LaSalle’s name to the floor. For weeks, the Majority Leader, Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and her Democratic allies blocked any prospect of bringing the LaSalle nomination to the Senate floor and to allow all 63 Senators to decide the judge’s fate. Republicans sued, arguing the State Constitution demands a floor vote regardless of the committee’s recommendation.
Suddenly, surprisingly, Stewart-Cousins relented. Last Wednesday, Democrats hastily moved the nomination to the Senate floor, and just as hastily, hugging party allegiances, they voted the nomination down. The 20-39 defeat saw all but one of the Democrats present opposing LaSalle. Just one attending Republican opposed his advancement. Hooray for Democrat Senator Monica Martinez of Long Island. She, alone, had the courage to buck her party and support LaSalle. Ms. Martinez, I do not cast you in with the rest of your sorry lot.
“Haven’t we changed the game in Albany?” Senator Brad-Hoylman-Sigal, Chair of the Judiciary Committee, crowed Wednesday during a partisan-poisoned pre-vote debate. “This is a new beginning for the way we review judicial nominations, all nominations, legislation, all matters of public import. I think that’s something we should be proud of.”
Maybe for you, maybe for Democrats, but not for me. Hoylman-Sigal proved particularly hostile to Hector LaSalle during the committee’s January confirmation hearing. He often snarled at the nominee, never smiling, pointedly faulting LaSalle, and doing so particularly harshly, for LaSalle’s accepting cross-endorsement by the New York Conservative Party in a prior campaign for a lower court’s elective office. One suspects Hoylman-Sigal lives for political combat and for little else. I suspect he has more political sycophants than he has genuine friends.
“We can find a better nominee to lead this Court. And we need to do it ASAP.” Hoylman-Sigal said before he cast his vote against Hochul’s nominee, “because we have a court system that is teetering on the brink of disaster.”
His opinion. Not mine.
Senate rejection puts the nomination of Chief Judge back to square one. An advisory panel will come up with a new list of seven finalists for the appointment, from whom Governor Hochul will select a new nominee. Many on that new list could be some on the old list from which Hochul chose LaSalle. The process could take months. Our seven-member Court of Appeals could remain one jurist short into summer. The Court’s remained short-handed since the prior Chief Judge, Janet DiFiore, resigned under an ethics cloud last July.
“Now that the full Senate has taken a vote, I will work toward making a new nomination,” Governor Hochul dictated in a transparently terse three-paragraph statement, spilled from her office’s press room after Wednesday’s vote. It had a lick-your-wounds quality to it; focusing on the majority’s concession to a floor vote, rather than lamenting LaSalle’s rejection.
“This vote is an important victory for the Constitution. But it was not a vote on the merits of Justice LaSalle, who is an overwhelmingly qualified and talented jurist,” Hochul stated. She was right.
Some pundits have suggested that the Senate’s rejection of LaSalle could poison the well of intra-party political discourse in Albany, where Democrats hold veto-proof supermajorities in both the Senate and Assembly, and upcoming budget discussions often devolve to those secretive “three men (and now, women) in a room,” smoke-filled confabs, absent the nicotine.
“There’s other issues where you find common interests,” the Governor told an Albany radio host just prior to Wednesday’s vote. “I think that’s what New Yorkers want to occur. Not to have us in our respective corners with our gloves up and ready to fight.”
We’ll see. New York’s bloated, proposed budget weighs in at $227 Billion. It’s due for adoption April 1.
A “Liberal Lion” is what Senate Democrats seek, I wrote in a January 24th commentary on the nearly five-hour confirmation grilling that led to Hector LaSalle’s rejection by the Judiciary Committee. Legal observers see the Court’s residual bench as evenly-split; three judges confirmed liberals, the remaining trio somewhat to their right. So the Chief Judge appointment, to Democrats, becomes an opportunity for a much-sought lurch-to-the-left.
No doubt, last year’s rejection of the Legislature’s Democratic-gerrymandered redistricting maps is not lost on the majority’s mind. Former Chief Judge DiFiore, a perceived centrist-conservative, cast the deciding vote to invalidate those maps. Liberals want nothing more like that in the future. Their progressive agenda, they’d argue, most deserves a true believer to carry their water.
During that hour and 15-minute Senate debate last Wednesday, the shadows of Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas repeatedly loomed about the chamber.
“We know that at the federal level, our Supreme Court is a complete mess,” downstate Senator Andrew Gounardes asserted. Gun rights have been expanded; abortion rights restricted. “So at a time when this is happening at our national government, it’s even more important that state judiciary, that our state government, be both a bulwark and a beacon, in protecting and advancing the same rights that our federal Supreme Court is so quickly eroding,” Gounardes emphasized.
In Gounardes’ opinion, Hector LaSalle stands too cautious and conservative amidst this legal onslaught. “He saw the law as a narrow tool, and not as an expansive tool, sword and shield to protect the rights of litigants, to protect the rights of workers, to protect the rights of women, and so many others,” the Senator insisted. But note how Gounardes cherry-picks the subset of litigants who matter most to him.
“I met with the judge, and I thought he was extremely nice,” Albany-area Democrat Neil Breslin observed. “I thought he was capable, but he didn’t pass the total test in my estimation.” Breslin, too, voted no.
“There is a context in which the people of this state woke up to realize that judges really matter,” Westchester Democrat Shelly Mayer said in explaining her opposition. “What happened in my district is that people woke up and said, ‘Are you kidding me? Who we pick as a judge really matters.’”
“We’re not asking for a judge who calls balls and strikes,” Mayer tellingly stated, employing the baseball umpire analogy others used. “We’re asking for judges who apply the law and understand the context of what the implication of a decision means for millions of New Yorkers.”
Mayer, like Senator Gounardes, viewed Judge LaSalle’s legal outlook as too narrow. “And a consistently narrow interpretation of the law,” Mayer stated, “really is a risk to our individual constituents.”
Mayer called the day’s decision “impactful and so important.” “We can’t walk away from it because it’s hard; because it’s uncomfortable,” she said. But neither can Mayer, Gounardes or their three dozen fellow Democrats walk away from the political agenda that underlies their action.
Their words clearly amplify intent. They seek not so much a competent, knowledgeable arbiter of legal fairness as they do a loyal judicial lapdog, someone who will stretch statutes like an elastic band regardless of precedent and bend the state Constitution so as to amend it from the bench in ways that liberals find too messy or unpopular to enact through the will of the voters.
And either through ignorance or artifice, LaSalle’s Democratic opponents suggest something else. They seek to hoodwink voters into thinking the New York Court of Appeals holds some magical power to countermand the U.S. Supreme Court. In truth, it works the other way. Yes, a state court may expand constitutional liberties beyond federal standard. (That’s how the Court of Appeals in 2004 invalidated New York’s Death Penalty.) But federal supremacy prevents New York from constricting liberties that the Supreme Court insists the U.S. Constitution protects. The likes of Shelly Mayer may hate the overruling of New York’s concealed carry law. But even if state courts affirm Albany’s patchwork replacement to the law that Justice Thomas and his majority last year struck down, the Supreme Court’s majority could always declare the new law null and void. Mayer doesn’t tell you that, though I’m sure she knows it.
Senator Sean Ryan would impose a straight-jacketed career litmus test upon the next Chief Judge, one Hector LaSalle, a former prosecutor, could never meet. “My prism is someone who’s spent most of his career as a lawyer helping the dispossessed,” the Buffalo-area Democrat told colleagues. “New York State needs a Chief Judge who has a broad vision of the law, has a broad vision of how law affects society, and knows that the decisions of those courts affect everybody in society.”
I’ll credit Senator Ryan for at least being factually correct—albeit evasive—in raising for his rebuke Judge LaSalle’s handling of the one case which liberal critics most distort. It’s Evergreen Association Inc. v. Schneiderman. “The judge went out of their (sic) way to assert the rights of a crisis pregnancy center to somehow give them equal footing to spread disinformation to people in our society,” Ryan stated.
LaSalle’s opponents would like us to think that Evergreen was a holding hostile to abortion rights. When they do, they twist the truth, and it’s time to set the record straight.
When it decided Evergreen in 2017, the mid-level court on which Hector LaSalle sits ruled that the First Amendment’s Right of Association limited the State Attorney General’s reach to subpoena a Christian-aligned crisis pregnancy center’s operational and staffing records in his effort to evict center operations from a medical office building. The Appellate Court’s unanimous holding only limited—it did not block—the A.G.’s efforts to probe whether a volunteer-staffed center that provided sonograms and pregnancy tests amounted to unauthorized practice of medicine.
To assert, as LaSalle’s critics have so brazenly done, that Hector LaSalle’s joining a unanimous bench in this most diminutive crumb of legal procedure somehow makes the nominee anti-choice and unfit to serve, is to steer public sentiment on the basis of a boldfaced lie. Moreover, the strategy postures the anti-LaSalle Senate majority as not so much pro-abortion rights, as actually pro-abortion itself. Taken to its logical conclusion, Senator Sean Ryan and his liberal allies would seem to prefer that medical alternatives to abortion simply should not exist. And by citing LaSalle’s Evergreen holding as a disqualifier for promotion, Senate Democrats imply just that.
Majority Democrats would rather you read only their bumper-sticker, not the case itself. In Evergreen, Judge LaSalle had wisely sought to expand reproductive options, not limit them, albeit on fine-spun procedural grounds.
State Senate Republicans number just 21, their ranks only strong enough to raise a polemic rejoinder. By and large, they backed LaSalle.
“He has applied the law that has been passed by the Legislature,” Nassau County Republican Patricia Canzoneri-Fitzpatrick said in defense of Judge LaSalle and his record. “And that’s the job of the judiciary; to apply the law, not to legislate.”
“I support this nominee. I worked with the nominee. He is an incredible jurist who calls balls and strikes,” Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Anthony Palumbo said in support of LaSalle. “And he’s a plain old liberal Democrat, which apparently isn’t good enough.”
Suffolk County’s Palumbo is the Senator who filed suit to bring LaSalle’s nomination to the floor. The case was argued in court last Friday, with the judge then reserving decision. Some suggest the suit twisted Democratic leadership’s arm just enough to bring about last Wednesday’s vote.
“We seem to have a group of members who think that, well, if we can’t change the Constitution, then let’s change the courts,” Palumbo chided his Democratic opposition. “So we’re now going to pack a court with activists who choose not to follow the law, unlike Justice Hector LaSalle, who simply calls balls and strikes.”
Indeed. “This is a conversation about changing the strike zone, Palumbo’s Long Island Republican colleague Steven Rhoads echoed, Rhoads continuing the debate’s frequent throwback to baseball. “Because what the majority is doing, they’re not interested in somebody calling balls and strikes; they’re interested in somebody who’s going to call balls and strikes the way they want them called.”
Senator Rhoads called the majority’s handling of the LaSalle nomination “an embarrassment.” Staten Island Republican Andrew Lanza agreed.
“I think people are sick of this kind of politics,” Lanza asserted. “I think it’s wise that people back home don’t trust us, any of us, either party, because they see these types of games being played.” The downstate Republican stands wisely aware of how cynical we voters can be.
“We all know why the nominee did not come to the floor” in a timely manner, Lanza continued. “It’s because the nominee refused to give the old wink-and-nod that when he’s on the bench, he would refuse to honor the Constitution, and he would pass and support whatever radical agenda that came to his decision-making desk.”
Democrats Luis Sepulveda of the Bronx and Kevin Thomas of Long Island had each supported LaSalle in committee, yet neither attended Wednesday’s session to cast their votes. Perhaps their absence reveals the power of Andrea Stewart-Cousins to close ranks. Or perhaps it reveals something else. No matter. Even had they been present, Hector LaSalle would have lost.
Binghamton’s Lea Webb, Tompkins County’s State Senator, spoke not a word during the February 15th floor debate, the 52nd District representative casting her vote in opposition to the LaSalle nomination, but offering no statement on her office’s website to elaborate on why she did.
So Hector LaSalle, New York State’s here-today, gone-tomorrow nominee to lead its Highest Court, retreats to relative obscurity. He continues his role as Presiding Justice of the Appellate Division’s Second Department, one of four regional, mid-level appellate courts in the state, LaSalle’s covering part of New York City and the counties surrounding it. LaSalle won’t serve us, except through the overlapping precedents other regional courts may choose to observe.
Senator Palumbo, meanwhile, presses forward with his lawsuit to demand future judicial nominations reach the State Senate’s floor regardless of how Hoylman-Sigal’s committee treats them. Majority leader Stewart-Cousins’ lawyers asserted in court Friday that the issue is now moot and that Palumbo lacks standing to sue. Palumbo’s counsel counters that the case remains alive as Hochul’s next nomination could repeat the process.
News reports say State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Whelan expressed interest in the case during oral arguments Friday. The judge termed it a “constitutional crisis,” assigning the judiciary “the duty and the obligation… to rule on the constitutional solution.” Though Whalen’s ruling on the merits is imminent, an appeal of any decision remains probable. It could rise to the now ideologically-split Court of Appeals.
“Everybody is paying attention, riveted, to who’s sitting in these seats, who’s sitting in the judiciary, who’s making these decisions,” Stewart-Cousins told reporters following the full Senate’s vote. “So it was not inappropriate for us, with the eyes of the nation and the eyes of the state on us, to look for a nominee that was able to lead the court in this really, really critical time.”
But look at a nominee what way? Should a judge be merely a judge? Or must he also serve as a legislator of last resort? New York Democrats count on your inattention and political outrage to permit them to impose their supermajority muscle over a separate branch of State Government, and to do so in a way that weakens the independent judiciary and transforms the courts into a reliable enforcer of liberal will. Separation of powers matters. Democracy matters. Quite plainly, in the war of words February 15th, Republicans made the better argument. The GOP sought blind justice. Democrats revealed they’d prefer that “wink-and-nod” from behind the blindfold.
Hector LaSalle drove up the Hudson from New York City last Wednesday and sat more or less alone in the Senate gallery, high above the floor, to watch the career opportunity of a lifetime evaporate before his eyes. He sat in silence. He declined reporters’ questions afterward. LaSalle knows he fell victim to an ideological agenda engineered by perfectionist zealots within his own party, Governor Hochul’s own party—and sadly, also, my own party. I hope Hector LaSalle took a deep breath of fresh air as he exited the State Capitol that day. Because inside the chamber, the room truly stunk.
Now, What I said about the Community Recovery Fund before the Enfield Town Board:
“It was not a pleasant meeting”
Enfield Councilperson Robert Lynch, addressing the Enfield Town Board during Privilege of the Floor Comments, December 27th, discussing an earlier meeting of the Tompkins County Legislature and its decisions on distribution of Tompkins County’s Community Recovery Fund:
“I just wanted to take a couple minutes to talk about nothing that happened at this Board, but something that happened about six or seven miles away to the east. And that was a week ago, downtown at the Tompkins County Legislature. They had a decision to make, and they made it. They appropriated nearly $6 Million in money under the Community Recovery Program. The Town of Enfield and its agencies that applied didn’t get a thin dime of that.
“And I could sit here and pontificate for three minutes about what that means for Enfield and what that means for what some people in Tompkins County Government and their consultants think of the Town of Enfield. But I’ll just put the words of our—one of our elected County legislators, Randy Brown, on the record. Because he spoke up in favor of Enfield and his own Town of Newfield that also got slighted in many respects
“He (Brown) said at that meeting, I quote, ‘Enfield is completely ignored by the County; Newfield, completely ignored by the County,’ In terms of government funding. He continued, ‘Nothing happens there.’
“Brown told colleagues that in Enfield, quote, ‘They’re pinching pennies every day; the poorest district in the county. They’re buying used equipment ‘cause that’s all they can afford. And yet nothing got funded. In recognition of all the problems in the county, you didn’t even think about Enfield and Newfield in my mind.’
“He went on in that meeting, quote, ‘I respect what the committee did,’ —that is, the Advisory Committee that made its recommendations and did not recommend Enfield be funded—He said, ‘I respect what the committee did, and this is definitely water that’s never been paddled through before,’ Brown told legislators moments before he cast his lone dissenting vote. And he continued, ‘But I feel that the committee didn’t even understand the transformative processes that Newfield and Enfield attempted to do.’
“’Enfield is feeling the exact same way,’ as Newfield is, Brown said. ‘They’re on their own,’ end of quote.
“There may be opportunities for some applicants, probably most likely the Enfield Community Council, to get something, because there’s one big project in Newfield which would draw about $500,000 in Community Recovery funds. It’s the Second Wind Cottages proposal. It’s become controversial down in Newfield. The Newfield Town Board has resolved against funding that particular proposal. I’m not going to get into Second Wind tonight. That’s really not the purpose of what I said. But if there is money left over, if Second Wind is taken out, of if the County Legislature decides later, next year, to put more money in the pot to fund agencies, we may get some funding—for ECC, maybe the Fire Company, and maybe even the Food Pantry. We’ll see.
“That’s all I have to say on this. But it was not a pleasant meeting one week ago. I attended it. And Randy Brown spoke up. And he was about the only one. And I’ll leave it there.”