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Four Votes… or You’re Overboard

Consultant’s, Committee’s Bright-Lines could kill most Recovery Fund requests

by Robert Lynch, November 25, 2022

It’s akin to a college admissions committee’s rejecting your child’s application based on her SAT scores alone, and without ever having granted her the opportunity for an interview.

Question, please: Can the full Legislature approve what the committee rejects? Answer: “Yes.” Enfield-Newfield’s Brown.

Buttressed by an out-of-town consultant’s coldly-objective, rigidly mechanistic evaluation of applicant paperwork, and following a frenetically-paced gleaning of those filings earlier this month by only a handful of lawmakers, a Tompkins County advisory committee stood poised this week to toss aside a full 62 per cent of the 212 applications filed by local businesses, charities, and governments that want to tap $6.5 Million in federal assistance to be funneled through Tompkins County’s Community Recovery Fund.

And contrary to earlier expectations, the applicants initially rejected during first-round committee review may find little, if any opportunity to revive their submissions prior to when the full County Legislature casts its only vote on final funding likely five days before Christmas.

The committee’s chosen four-vote-to-two line of demarcation would exclude from further review all but one Enfield funding application, that of the Enfield Community Council for an addition to its Community Center. Proposals by the Enfield Food Pantry and the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company, as well as several Enfield Town initiatives would each be denied any further review.

“There’s no way around having to say ‘no;’ the only way is through it” Chair Dan Klein stated at the start of a three-hour November 21st meeting of the Legislature’s Community Recovery Fund Advisory Committee.

“So we need to get this program across the finish line,” the Danby legislator continued.  “The individual results are not going to be what everyone wanted, but I am confident that the overall effort of our decisions is going to be worthwhile and result in positive impacts to our county.”

Klein sounds confident.  But others may not be so sure. 

“So we’ll get this program across the finish line.” But just how? Committee Chair Klein.

The six-member Advisory Committee’s triage of the $32 Million of funding applications this month has so far provided little evidence to instill public confidence.  In first-round vetting of the program’s bigger-ticket items November 15th, charitable initiatives occasionally topping One Million dollars were routinely dispatched in minutes, if not seconds.  Rules did not require legislators to explain their votes.  Most usually did not. 

And left undefended, member preferences, for lack of any other reason, appeared to rest on Rochester-based MRB Group’s scoring of applicant submissions utilizing the consultant’s multi-category, 70-point scale. MRB staff, zooming into committees meetings, never explained their rationale to the committee or to us.

What’s more, the whole evaluation process laid bare the exceeding amount of influence accorded just one or two members of Tompkins County’s current, 13-person Legislature; that is, anyone who was lucky enough to gain a committee appointment.  Adhering to guidelines apparently set by MRB and tacitly embraced last Monday by the committee, a full two-thirds super-majority of the committee, four votes out of six, becomes necessary to keep an application alive for further consideration. Anything less—even a tied 3-3 vote—will not.  The rule became firm only last Monday.  But the committee cast most of its acceptance votes a full six days earlier.

Yes, it resembles the mid-point of a golf tournament.  But in this case, where only a minority of the judgment team gets to decide how many golfers get cut.

“Can you define what ‘Yes’ means, at what ‘approved’ means?” Klein asked MRB’s Michael N’Dolo nearly two-thirds way into Monday’s meeting, Klein and legislator Anne Koreman still confused over where MRB arbitrarily struck its bright line.  N’Dolo replied it had set four-votes-of-six as the threshold.

“We just lopped off 20 Million, and we only have eight (Million) more to go,” Klein reacted in a moment of understated glee, Klein’s remark coming after N’Dolo’s team had advised him that by limiting review to only the 80 submissions scoring four votes or higher, a more than $30 Million application total had been trimmed to just $14 Million.  “That’s progress.  That, to me, is encouraging that the end is in sight here,” Klein remarked. “We can do this.”

Maybe we can.  But at what cost?  And with what level of discretion, compassion, and nuance?  Note how Klein’s comment remained dollar-focused and not need-focused.  And is it right that any one or two legislators get to hold effective veto-power; to become an application’s executioner, especially when that single lawmaker may seek to supplant community-wide value with personal preference?  A rogue legislator can put her thumb on the scales of balanced need.  The heart can also yield to the checkbook.

“I want to be sure that… we’re all agreed that the only ones that we are going to be voting on are the four-or-more,” Legislature Chair Shawna Black sought to clarify, as MRB’s staff outlined a complex interactive computer program it will provide committee members to rank-choice certain funding applications. “And that no one’s going to bring back a ‘three’ or a ‘two’ or a ‘one’ because that would skew all of the other votes,” Black explained. 

“Just to be sure: No more three’s, two’s or one’s. Right?” Shawna Black (left) with Deborah Dawson.

Reaffirming the consultant’s self-assumed role in the driver’s seat, MRB’s N’Dolo confirmed that only the 80, top-ranked candidates would remain “live” on its Excel pages.  So as the committee fiddles with figures in the weeks ahead, assume projects like the Food Pantry and the Enfield Fire Company will become effectively forgotten.

But maybe not forever.  Newfield-Enfield’s Randy Brown, the only non-committee member attending Monday’s meeting, zoomed-in and raised his hand, Brown noticeably skeptical of the committee’s inordinate power to deny.

“If something didn’t make it past your committee, can it be brought up by the total Legislature,” Brown asked.

“The answer is yes,” Klein responded.  “We’ve designed into the process that when it gets to the full Legislature, any legislator can pull out any application for discussion.”

Then Brown threw out a second question, one to which he found an answer less to his liking.  The Newfield rep requested that all legislators, not just committee members, be given copies of MRB’s Excel spreadsheet so they, too, can manipulate the numbers.

Klein polled the committee.  Legislature Chair Black and Budget Committee Chair Deborah Dawson were heard to shout “no” off-camera. There would be no wider sharing.

“Well, I would like to do my own,” Brown rebutted concerning the committee’s self-confined game of budgetary musical chairs.  “I would think all of the legislators should have opportunity to be part of the process.”

Those words tell us much. If Enfield or Newfield interests gained short shrift in the committee’s and consultant’s paring of priorities this month—as it appears they have—expect Randy Brown to step in and lobby for those local interests December 20th when the full Legislature will likely vote on the final funding package.

****

“I have increasingly come to understand for myself that there’s an emotional component to this process that we’re engaged in,” Klein acknowledged as the November 21st meeting had just begun its three-hour journey.  “It’s difficult to say no.”

Klein’s statement rings true, for sure.  But it also may ring hollow if agencies and their supporters come to conclude that the decision process has become skewed, arbitrary, and callous, while it concentrates excessive power in the hands and minds of too few and with those too distant from Ithaca and its unique mindset.  Klein acknowledged one applicant emailed him earlier in the day to describe the committee’s rejection of its own agency’s request as “devastating.”

Nonetheless, the chairmen did little to placate critics’ fears or welcome their participation.  “We are not having privilege of the floor for this meeting,” Klein said resolvedly Monday, thereby dismissing an unnamed number of citizen requests he admitted some had filed.

So the Star Chamber nature of the Community Recovery Fund Advisory Committee continues.  Members set their next meeting for December fifth.  A final recommendation may issue that day.  But expect neither Enfield Food Distribution’s ambitious $1.6 Million building plan nor the Enfield Fire Company’s lesser-priced offering to be put on any list the committee prepares.  The Pantry and Fire Company failed to make the cut.  MRB’s highly-paid talent wants no more talk of them.  Their only hope lies when final legislative votes get cast five days before Christmas.

That latter meeting could prove long.  It could be contentious as well.  Bright lines tend to do that. Randy Brown will be there.

###

Rocco Speaks; Shawna Bristles 

Deidra’s Firing Returns to the Legislature

“You’re Done; Thank You; Next Item.” A stern, defiant Shawna Black at the end of Rocco Lucente’s rant.

by Robert Lynch, November 18, 2022

Rordangate—yes, this writer’s term, and the name by which many around Trumansburg, we’re advised, now call this controversy—roared back into the Tompkins County’s Legislature’s chambers November 15th   But the roar lasted for only three minutes.  And the meeting’s Chair made certain it would not last for even one second more.

Rocco Lucente, the Ithaca builder and conservative activist whose interview allegedly prompted reporter Deidra Cross’s firing last summer, zoomed in at the start of the Legislature’s biweekly meeting and promptly launched into a blistering, staccato-paced critique of the Legislature in general, legislator Veronica Pillar in particular, and the County’s Director of Communications, Dominick Recckio, only by inference.  You never saw Rocco’s face.  But you could not have avoided Lucente’s voice… or his vitriol.

“We now live in a county where employees pressure publications to fire people for the crime of covering an activist with an opposing view, and County legislators support it,” Lucente scolded lawmakers. “I condemn County leadership for their defense of this heinous conduct—.”

“You’re done.  Thank you.  Anyone else here for public comment this evening?” a  visibly shaken and audibly incensed Legislature Chair Shawna Black shouted into the room as she cut Lucente mic upon his final, 180th second of allowed privilege.  For a brief moment, the room fell silent.  Then the meeting resumed.  No one talked further of the exchange.

And since Veronica Pillar had arrived late, taking her seat in the midst of Lucente’s rant, one would need to ask whether she, the prime target of Rocco’s rage, ever knew in real time what had just happened.  Without a doubt, she knows by now.

“Veronica Pillar blatantly libeled me with several false, defamatory statements,” Rocco Lucente railed.  “She called me a white supremacist, accused me of Alt-Right rhetoric, and displaying hate symbols.  She claimed that I do not recognize people’s humanity.  All of these claims are vicious lies.”

Freshman legislator Pillar drew Lucente’s ire for her own floor statements made two weeks earlier. At the Legislature’s November 1st meeting, the left-of-center Ithaca City representative commended government employees like Communications Director Recckio for taking the initiative to “push back and shut down” what she then termed “harmful, Alt-Right rhetoric,” as well as criticism that fails to  “recognize everyone’s humanity.”

For the record, during her comments that earlier night, Pillar had never mentioned Rocco Lucente by name.

The Rordangate controversy began last April when reporter Cross interviewed Lucente about his pro-Trump activism, Cross then an employee of the print and online publication, Tompkins Weekly.  After the Lucente story ran—and as revealed through a subsequent FOIL disclosure—Recckio contacted Tompkins Weekly’s editor to express his concerns about criticisms Lucente had made. 

Then, in August, after Cross subsequently interviewed Trumansburg Mayor Rordan Hart and Hart had expressed his own opinions critical of the Ithaca City-Tompkins County Reimagining Public Safety collaborative, Recckio complained again.  And after this second complaint, Tompkins Weekly fired Deidra Cross.

Tompkins County’s government-paid attorney in September cleared Recckio of any ethical wrongdoing. Tompkins Weekly has put distance between the Communications Director’s comments and the reporter’s firing.  Yet at the November 1st session, Republican legislator Mike Sigler called for an outside counsel to investigate the matter.  And Deidra Cross, for her part, has threatened to sue just about everyone.

Rocco’s prime target; Legislator Veronica Pillar (Nov 1.)

Yet, Lucente’s Tuesday night monologue targeted legislator Pillar for its harshest rebuke.  Lucente referenced the then-private citizen’s alleged participation as a purported member of Ithaca’s Democratic Socialists of America in an October 16, 2020 standoff with Donald Trump supporters at local Republican Headquarters on Ithaca’s Meadow Street.  In the incident, some campaign paraphernalia was burned, and according to Lucente, two women received minor injuries.

Media reports at the time cited Lucente as one organizer of the Trump side of the dueling demonstrations.  Those reports neither quote nor picture Pillar as a participant.

“Make no mistake about it.  The Ithaca Trump Rally Riot was our January 6th, and Veronica Pillar was the guy outside standing at the guillotine yelling ‘Hang Mike Pence,’” Lucente alleged in his statement to the Legislature. “Her rhetoric is designed to silence those who disagree with her, to motivate violence against them.  That is exactly what it has done when conservatives have attempted to peacefully gather in our area,” Lucente continued.

But only when Lucente veered away from Pillar’s alleged conduct and focused his attack on Recckio’s actions in allegedly influencing Tompkins Weekly’s coverage, did Shawna Black intervene.  Black reprimanded the Republican activist for his ever-so-close-to-the-line prohibited criticism of a named County employee.  Lucente carefully had never referenced the Communications Director by name or by title.

“Bigotry against those who disagree with Democrats has become the norm,” Lucente stated midway through his critique.  “The individual consequences against those who dare speak out in favor of conservative values has become the standard.  This is why Deidra Cross was fired at the direction of the County.  This is why your employee libeled me in an email to Tompkins Weekly.  And this is why Veronica Pillar deployed vicious lies designed to motivate violence against me and people like me.”

Shortly thereafter, Shawna Black interrupted. “You’re coming close to the line about speaking with (sic) our County employees,” the Legislature’s Chair warned.

“You’re taking up my time, and I didn’t mention an employee, so I don’t appreciate interruption,” Lucente fired back to the presiding officer.

The conservative firebrand said a sentence or two more.  But soon his time ran out and Shawna Black shut him down.  It marked the end of Tuesday’s wake-me-up, three minute moment.

****

The remainder of the Legislature’s November 15th meeting proved bland by comparison.

The Budget:  By a 12-1 vote, legislators adopted Tompkins County’s more than $200 Million 2023 Budget.  Thanks to prior committee tinkering, the budget’s tax levy remains unchanged from that of the current year.  And while the tax rate will fall, local spending will rise by nearly 6.7 per cent.  Inflation-driven property assessments over the year will in many instances increase the bite on the average homeowner, but only slightly.

“I can’t support this budget,” Budget Committee Chair Deborah Dawson said in casting her lone dissenting vote.  “After staff started to whittle down (the County’s oversized) fund balance judiciously,” said Dawson, “we just piled on.”

“There were a lot of ‘Christmas Tree Ornaments,’” Dawson complained, punctuating her words with flippant hand and facial gestures. 

“There were Christmas Tree Ornaments attached to the budget.” Deborah Dawson

“I like this program; give me some money,” Dawson mocked her colleagues, accusing many for bending the budget to suit their own fancy.  “And I have a problem with doing that,” she concluded.

“I don’t think there’s a person here who’s totally happy with all aspects of the budget,” Dryden’s Mike Lane admitted before casting his supportive vote.  “But when you design a horse by committee, you may not get the tail in the right place.”  Still, Lane added, “We did a good job.”

The Newspaper: Exercising its annual vote of frustration at the Gannett Press for its never-more covering local news, the Legislature grudgingly once again designated The Ithaca Journal, the only qualifying local daily, as its official newspaper for publishing legal notices.

“Why not call the State’s bluff?” Mike Sigler

But this year, the action brought a twist.  On its first round ballot, and with one legislative seat vacant, only seven voted to designate the paper.  That’s one vote shy of a true majority.

“I’d kinda’ would like to see what the state does to us,” Mike Sigler, the Journal’s perpetual critic, said.  He suggested the County Legislature call Albany’s bluff and refuse to fulfill its legal obligation.

Cooler heads then prevailed.  The Legislature reconsidered and designated The Journal by a 10 to 3 vote.

###

Enfield Apps. on the Edge

Pantry comes up short in county’s first-round review

by Robert Lynch, November 17, 2022

“Identify long-term needs and identifiable service gaps.” Deborah Dawson (right) with Legislature Chair Shawna Black, Tuesday in committee.

“It’s something, I hope, we can come back to knowing that our non-profits need structural help, but not under this program.”

Groton’s Lee Shurtleff drew a bright line against bricks-and-mortar.  And because of that insistence, Shurtleff joined in a four-vote-to-two committee vote Tuesday to reject the ambitious request by Enfield Food Distribution (EFD) for moneys under Tompkins County’s Community Recovery Fund to replace EFD’s aged and undersized Food Pantry on the first floor of the Enfield Courthouse.

EFD’s $1.66 Million request is reportedly the largest single qualifying application of the 211 received countywide seeking a chunk of the $6.5 Million Tompkins County seeks to distribute to agencies, businesses and local governments as pass-through appropriations from the federal American Rescue Plan.  Tompkins County received requests seeking five times the amount of money it has available to give.

Tuesday’s initial rejection of the Enfield Food Pantry’s request stands as only the first of several votes.  The six-member legislative committee will revisit its initial funding recommendations as soon as November 21st.  Final decisions rest with the full 13-member County Legislature.  Its members will likely pick winners and losers in December.

But overall, Tuesday was not a good day for Enfield applicants.  During its fast-paced battery of votes, recommendations often made without discussion of an application’s particularized merits, the Community Recovery Fund Advisory Committee voted 5-1 in each instance against the Town of Enfield’s own trio of requests, including its “Main street Revitalization Project.”  The committee split 3-3 on the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company’s consolidated application, which would include money to construct a volunteer “bunk room” and to buy training apparatus.

The only Enfield application to secure majority committee support Tuesday was the Enfield Community Council’s $206,000 request to replace a water-damaged modular add-on at its new Community Center with a permanent “Mental Health and Community Services Wing.”  Without discussion, ECC’s application passed four votes to two.  Nonetheless, the committee may later shave money from the Council’s request.

“We all agreed that these are all good projects,” Committee Chair Dan Klein acknowledged as the Enfield Pantry’s big-dollar appeal came up for review.  “We wish we could fund them all.  We must cut 80 percent,”

Aided by a consultant’s scorecard, Tuesday’s meeting took the form of a first-round triage.  “We don’t ask questions today,” Klein lectured committee colleagues at the meeting’s start.  “The bigger questions we don’t have time for.”

Indeed, efficiency ruled the moment.  The committee rendered its opinion on as many as 141 funding requests within a three hour span.  It will take up the remaining 69 applications next Monday.  Each of those remaining 69 falls into the smallest of three funding categories, with applicants seeking $25,000 or less.

Despite its down-to-business approach to an application pile ready to tip over, as well as a discomforting voting procedure that placed expediency over finality, Tuesday’s meeting was not without its dramatic moments.

Most notably, near the session’s start, Budget Committee Chair Deborah Dawson and Enfield-Ulysses legislator Anne Koreman, usually political allies, sparred over to what extent members should place their own personal priorities over the program’s earlier-established funding guidelines.

“I think we should be held to a higher standard and not vote personal priorities,” Koreman told committee members. “We should stick more with the program priorities and judge applicants on their merits.”

“Hold us to a higher standard. Judge applicants on their merits.” Legislator Anne Koreman

“The present priorities are pretty broad,” Dawson countered.  To Dawson, priorities rising to her highest importance are those that address “long-term critical needs and identified gaps in local services,” like child care, affordable housing, broadband, and climate change.

“We may have different ideas about what’s important,”   Dawson asserted, at that point targeting her words directly at Koreman.  “But don’t suggest, as you have, that if somebody doesn’t view it your way they are acting unethically.  That’s really crappy.”

“I didn’t say that,” Koreman rebutted, seeking to clarify. 

“That’s the implication,” Dawson muttered under her breath.

For her part, Koreman voted to support the vast majority of funding requests, including each of those affecting Enfield.  Indeed, Koreman supplied the lone affirmative vote on each of Enfield’s municipal funding requests.

****

As for Enfield Food Distribution’s endangered application, not only may its fund-depleting dollar amount have brought it an unexpectedly low score, but so may have its quest for construction moneys, as opposed to those for more intangible soft-dollar program subsidies that many on the Advisory Committee—or perhaps its consultants—seemed to favor.

“We believe in the merit of all these applications,” Groton’s Shurtleff acknowledged, prior to voting his opposition to EFD’s funding.  “But you will find me voting ‘No’ on almost all of these that involve any construction.”   

Given majority opposition to the Pantry’s request—EFD has allowed it could accept as little as $1.2 Million and still move forward—one should question whether the committee will even reconsider EFD’s application during its subsequent second-round review.  Among the 21 top-dollar applications asking for $250,000 or more, EFD’s sits alongside proposals that secured far-better, if not unanimous committee approval.

Supported top-tier proposals include those of Sustainable Finger Lakes to retrofit mobile homes with heat pumps (6-0 approval), the Human Services Coalition for homelessness assistance (6-0 vote), and a $1.5 Million request by seemingly-flush Cayuga Medical Center for an “Intensive Crisis Stabilization Center” (5-1 support).  CMC supposedly claims it could not proceed with the center without full-dollar funding.

The committee ended Tuesday’s meeting a bit undecided as to how it would make further cuts.  Chair Klein closed the meeting suggesting that each of the six committee members might “put out a top-20 or top-30 list.”  Or, he said, a committee subset could assemble “a package to put before the whole committee.”  The process quite obviously remains unstructured.  And of course, the full Legislature could eventually upend the committee’s preferences.

Later Tuesday, before the full County Legislature, Klein reported that the committee’s first-round triage had trimmed away as much as 60 per cent of the 80 percent reduction in funding requests needed to be made.  But Klein did not clarify as to whether the reduced amount only included those requests which received a majority vote, namely of 4-2 or better.  If that’s the case, for Enfield, only the ECC request would remain in the running.

“These are all good projects. But we must cut 80%. Committee Chair Dan Klein.

What about proposals, like the Enfield Fire Company’s, where the committee split 3-3?  Klein said at one point to the committee regarding its split votes, “Technically, they did not pass.  So we have to sort through them one more time.  They can be brought up again…. I assume we’re going to look at the ones that have a lot of support.  They don’t disappear.”

But the daunting task of culling out the “good” applications from the “truly great” ones appeared to bewilder the Advisory Committee during its assembly line review.  Votes sometimes defied reason to the objective, outside observer.  Explanations proved few.  Without having a scorecard in hand from the County’s paid consultants, decisions, at times, became arbitrary. 

Legislator Koreman initially hesitated even to vote on the 120 mid-range applications, stating she’d only received the consultants’ report on Sunday night, some 36 hours earlier.  But Klein forced the voting anyway, fearing delay could push final decisions into January.  

With just its first round finished, and all 13 legislators holding the final decision, there’s a danger in inserting too much certainty into the committee process at this early point.  A majority of lawmakers have yet to weigh in.  And public pressure from disgruntled losers could measurably alter the outcome.

Yet, with so much money to cut, committee members found it easier Tuesday just to say “no” than to affirm questionable spending.

“If I start voting ‘yes’ on projects involving construction,” Shurtleff said, referring to the Pantry project, “we’re going to be worn out pretty quick.”

Given that attitude, it may take a miracle to secure Community Recovery Fund money for a new Enfield Food Pantry.  Same goes for the Enfield Fire Company bunk room, if not the ECC’s addition as well. 

Too many requests for too little money.  Perhaps, lobbyists rule.  They often do.  Stay tuned.

###

Headline:  Riley Beats Hochul

Josh Outpolled Governor despite losing NY-19 Race

by Robert Lynch, posted November 11, 2022

A win, but from its back bumper? The Lee Zeldin campaign VW Microbus, owned by Lansing Legislator Mike Sigler.

Governor Kathy Hochul will take the oath to a new term of office January first.  Congressional candidate Josh Riley will not.  Both are Democrats.  Both secured strong support of their like-minded base.  But Riley’s 19th Congressional District includes just eleven of New York’s 62 counties, many of them rural—and red.  Governor Hochul’s running field encompassed all 62 of them, including Democratic-deep New York City.  That made the difference.

Josh Riley fell short Tuesday in his bid for Congress.  Republican Marc Molinaro beat him, unofficially, by more than 6,000 votes and by a couple of percentage points districtwide.  The results surprised many a Democrat.  But in retrospect, they shouldn’t have.  Molinaro had help; help from the political shadows.  Most likely, he rode to victory by clinging to coattails, the coattails of Lee Zeldin.

But give Riley some credit.  He cut those coattails a bit in county after county.  In fact, based on State Board of Elections figures, Riley outperformed Governor Hochul, percentagewise, in each of the NY-19 District’s eleven counties.  Put another way, Marc Molinaro proved a weaker candidate for Congress in each of those counties than Lee Zeldin demonstrated as a candidate for Governor.

Lee Zeldin ran surprisingly well upstate.  In eight of the NY-19’s counties, Zeldin beat Hochul in the governor’s race.  And the Republican Long Island Congressman proved to be the most formidable opponent a Democratic New York Governor has faced in many election cycles. 

“The Republican surge in New York, which also rattled Democrats’ hold on state races, did not result in an upset in the contest for governor.” Nicholas Fandos of  The New York Times wrote the morning after elections.   “But Gov. Kathy Hochul’s five-point victory over Representative Lee Zeldin, a Trump-backed Republican, seemed paradoxically to have a coattail effect for Republicans, who won in areas where Mr. Zeldin performed well.”

Those coattails may have pulled Marc Molinaro across the finish line.  Yet the post-election tallies indicate some voters who circled the ballot for Zeldin just couldn’t bring themselves to do the same for the Dutchess County Executive, now Congressman-Elect.

For starters, let’s take Tompkins County, admittedly the bluest outlier of the NY-19 eleven.

Governor Hochul swept Tompkins County with lopsided majorities, Hochul winning 72.1 per cent of the gubernatorial votes cast.  But Josh Riley did better.  He gained 73.3 per cent of the county’s vote in his own race, 287 votes more than Hochul, according to the state’s numbers posted Thursday. That’s 287 local residents who while voting for Lee Zeldin for Governor, just couldn’t support Molinaro.

Similarly in Cortland:  It went “Red” for Zeldin, who secured 57.8 per cent of the gubernatorial vote.  But 503 fewer Cortland County voters supported Molinaro than those who did Zeldin.  And 395 more backed Riley than voted for Hochul.

The underperformance of Molinaro, percentagewise—and usually in raw numbers—was repeated in county after county:

Broome County:  Hochul, 43.5%;  Riley, 48.4%

Chenango County:  Hochul, 29.5%;  Riley, 34.5%

Columbia County:  Hochul, 53.7%;  Riley, 54.0%

Cortland County:  Hochul, 42.2%;  Riley, 45.0%

Delaware County:  Hochul, 34.8%;  Riley, 37.9%

Greene County:             Hochul, 37.8%;   Riley, 38.4%

Otsego County (part)*;  Hochul, 39.9%;  Riley, 46.0%

Sullivan County:  Hochul, 39.6%;  Riley, 40.2%

Tioga County:  Hochul, 32.0%;  Riley, 36.7%

Tompkins County:  Hochul, 72.1%;   Riley, 73.3%

Ulster County (part)*:  Hochul, 57.0%;  Riley, 57.6%

*Part-County components of the 19th Congressional District show gubernatorial percentages for the entire county.

True, the Riley advantage may have shown only at the margins, but it proved consistent throughout the district.  Draw this conclusion:  Lee Zeldin ran better for Governor than Molinaro did for Congress.  And Josh Riley may have lost Tuesday night only because of the political headwinds blowing across upstate.

Typically nasty. A Democratic Party-sponsored, anti-Molinaro mailing.

One additional observation:  Josh Riley underperformed on his home turf.  Despite its urban flavor, Broome County is not Tompkins.  The results indicate a Binghamton-metro political culture that’s more blended.  Endicott-native Riley won less than half (48.4%) of the Broome County vote.  Marc Molinaro polled at 51.6%.  And Lee Zeldin won the county with 56.5 per cent of votes cast.

Democratic candidate mailings in the 19th District hammered Marc Molinaro on his alleged—Molinaro might question it—opposition to abortion rights.  Lee Zeldin faced similar accusations.  But Democrats’ more single-issue focus against the Dutchess Executive may have driven pro-choice voters decisively to Riley’s side.

****

After initially declining to concede the race until all unreceived absentee ballots had arrived at boards of elections, Josh Riley called it quits Wednesday afternoon, congratulating Molinaro on his win and declaring his quest for Congress over.

“With the ballots cast, votes counted, and campaign ended, it’s important to set aside our divisions and do our best to unite.  It’s in that spirit that I wish Marc success as he goes to Washington to serve us and represent us,” Riley’s statement said, striking a conciliatory tone.

As disappointing returns came in. Josh Riley, election night. (Credit: Heather Ainsworth/ Associated Press/New York Times)

The statement continued, “This is not the result we had hoped for, and I’ll be honest:  I’m disappointed.  But I’m not discouraged.  In fact, quite the opposite: this campaign has inspired me. It has been the privilege of my career to build this campaign with all of you and take it across Upstate New York, meeting with so many people who have given me hope.”

Perhaps seeking to draw the abortion fight to an end—or perhaps prodding Molinaro to live up to his promises—the defeated Democratic nominee extended his appreciation for Molinaro’s “commitment to opposing a national abortion ban,” as he did Molinaro’s pledge to create “good upstate jobs,” the issue that had stood as the centerpiece of Riley’s unsuccessful campaign.

“I’m honored to have earned the trust of more than 100,000 voters, and I will work every day to be a worthy member of Congress for both those who did, and did not vote for me,” Marc Molinaro said in a post-victory statement.  District residents, Molinaro said, “just want to feed their families, heat their homes, and feel safe in their communities.”

Molinaro’s is a common Republican theme in this Empire State.  And it sounds a lot like Lee Zeldin’s.

The 19th Congressional District remains politically competitive.  Last spring’s tortured New York redistricting process made it that way.  Marc Molinaro will likely face a tough reelection fight two years from now.  At that time, a presidential nominee will top the New York ballot.  Lee Zeldin will be only a political memory.  And in 2024, the coattail effect from which Molinaro benefited this year will be anyone’s guess.

###

Race Over; Riley Concedes

Updated Wednesday evening, November 9, 2022

Democrat Josh Riley will not be going to Congress.

After falling behind when all counties in the newly-redrawn (and drawn again) New York 19th Congressional District were counted, the Endicott native Democratic nominee conceded the House race to Republican Marc Molinaro late Wednesday.

More optimistic times; Josh Riley when Assemblymember Anna Kelles endorsed him in May.

“I’ve called Marc Molinaro to congratulate him on his hard-fought victory, to wish him all the best in Congress, and to thank his family for the sacrifices they’ve made in the spirit of public service,” Riley said in a prepared statement released by his campaign. “With the ballots cast, votes counted, and campaign ended, it’s important to set aside our divisions and do our best to unite. It’s in that spirit that I wish Marc success as he goes to Washington to serve us and represent us.”

Riley’s statement continued, “This is not the result we had hoped for, and I’ll be honest: I’m disappointed. But I’m not discouraged. In fact, quite the opposite: this campaign has inspired me. It has been the privilege of my career to build this campaign with all of you and take it across Upstate New York, meeting with so many people who have given me hope.”

The Associated Press early Wednesday called the 19th District Congressional contest for Republican Marc Molinaro. Riley rolled up a big lead in deep-blue Tompkins County. But in a judicially-redrawn district that spread from Enfield to the Massachusetts border, Riley failed to hold back Molinaro by equally sizeable margins elsewhere.

Results and Graphic courtesy of the New York Times.

As for Molinaro, confidence ruled:

“The people of upstate New York, they want their voices heard. We want a government that respects us and one that will work to protect us and together we will deliver that for the people of the 19th District,” Molinaro said addressing Republicans gathered to watch returns in the City of Binghamton election night.

Josh Riley began this 2022 campaign running for Congress in an entirely different district, the New York 22nd, a more compact district stretching from Tompkins County to Syracuse. But that was a district that Albany politicians drew. Republicans challenged the legislatively-crafted lines as a Democratic gerrymander. The courts threw them out.

So instead of competing in territory far-removed from his Binghamton-centered base, and one that had placed him in a crowded Syracuse free-for-all, Riley found himself competing in a two-way primary contest against the Hudson Valley’s Jamie Cheney. Riley won that primary handily, but Molinaro proved a tougher General Election candidate than was first thought. Riley ended Tuesday night trailing Molinaro by more than two percentage points.

Some outstanding absentee ballots remain to be counted. But from Wednesday’s concession, it appears the Riley camp saw the odds to victory as just too long.

[Reporter Vaughn Golden of WSKG contributed to this story.]

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Posted previously:

Tompkins Election; Blue, if not Bluer

Posted November 8, 2022; Updated, November 9, 2022 @ 12:35 AM

Democrats had a good night with state and Congressional elections in Tompkins County. Yet as of late- evening it remained to be seen whether the county’s blue dominance would be sufficient to put its voters’ favorite for Congress on top.

Likely State Senator-Elect Lea Webb

Countywide unofficial tallies released Tuesday evening by the Tompkins County Board of Elections showed Democratic nominees for Congress, Governor and State Senate winning by healthy local margins of over or above 70 per cent. 

However, partial district-wide tallies in the hotly-contested New York 19th Congressional District showed a very tight contest.  With 634 of the 19th District’s 642 districts reporting shortly before midnight, Republican Marc Molinaro led Democrat Josh Riley 140,580 votes (50.09%) to Riley’s 135,365 (48.23%), slightly more than a 5,000 vote difference. 

Other media sources, however, claimed Riley was slightly ahead.

In the three-county 52nd State Senate District, meanwhile, Tompkins County’s Democratic dominance may prove sufficient to carry the Democratic nominee to victory.  With 217 of the 52nd District’s 222 election districts reporting near Midnight, Democrat Lea Webb led Republican Rich David 51,027 votes (50.1%) to David’s 49,034 votes (48.14%). 

The Tompkins County margins alone put Congressional candidate Riley on top countywide with 73.3 per cent of the vote to Molinaro’s 26.7 per cent.  Lea Webb took Tompkins County with 71.5 per cent of the vote, compared to David’s 28.4 per cent.

All vote tallies remain unofficial, and yet-to-be-received absentee ballots could alter the close election night tallies.

Tompkins County joined New York State as a whole in providing Governor Kathy Hochul a full, four year term.  In Tompkins County, unofficial tallies gave Democrat Hochul nearly 72 per cent of the vote; Republican Lee Zeldin 27.8 per cent.

Tompkins favorite, but fate uncertain; Josh Riley.

The evening results did not break down the vote counts town by town.

In the City of Ithaca, voters continued Democrat Laura Lewis as their mayor, Lewis to finish out the remainder of Svante Myrick’s uncompleted term.  With all 14 of the City’s districts reporting, Lewis secured 65.3 per cent of the vote; progressive Katie Sims came in second at 25.3 per cent; Republican Zachary Winn trailed with just 8.6 per cent of the vote.

Ithaca City voters also approved overwhelmingly transition to a city manager form of government, approving a ballot proposition to make the change with nearly eight out of ten voters voting to do so. Supporters of the change numbered 4,380 (79.0%); opponents 1,167 (21.0%).

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“Henry… You’ll be Remembered”

Granison Tribute Punctuates County Budget Hearing

By Robert Lynch, November 8, 2022

It was a Tompkins County Budget Hearing like none held before, and no doubt, like none to be held ever after.

Choking back tears; Legislator Dawson recalling her colleague and friend.

Having received two approving comments, one spoken and another written, on small nuggets of Tompkins County’s proposed $200 Million-plus spending plan, Tompkins County legislators Monday turned away from their budget and took the remainder of their brief hearing down an unorthodox, yet totally understandable path.

For the remaining half of their 18-minute session, legislators shared memories of their departed colleague, Ithaca legislator Henry Granison, who died the prior Saturday, November 5th, of cancer at age 60.

“Henry’s valuable commitment to integrity, trust and diversity will be sorely missed,” Budget Committee Chair Deborah Dawson said from the podium as the evening’s presiding officer.  Dawson chaired the Public Hearing in the absence of Legislature Chair Shawna Black, whose own grandfather, by tragic coincidence, had died earlier that day.

Bidding farewell on the day he resigned; Legislator Henry Granison, October 18.

Dawson recalled how she, Shawna Black, and legislators Granison, Amanda Champion, and Anne Koreman—all Democrats and all first elected in 2017—had coalesced as friends and colleagues during their campaigns and when they’d joined the Legislature.

“We got together regularly,” Dawson remembered.  “We were pretty excited and very full of ourselves and we were probably pretty obnoxious.  We even christened ourselves the ‘Fab Five,’” the Budget Committee Chair continued.  “And yes, we were obnoxious.”

Yet Dawson appeared to single out Henry Granison as the most level-headed of the bunch.

“Today, we’re just the ‘Forlorn Four,’ I guess” Dawson said, “because Henry’s passing is a painful loss for us, just as it is for all the County legislators and staff  who worked with him over these past five years.”

As she increasing choked back the tears, Dawson ended, “We all send our deepest sympathies to his family, and we hope that their many, many fond memories of Henry will see them through this painful time.”

The two other attending members of that ‘Fab Five,” Legislature members Koreman and Champion, also paid tribute, as did Dryden’s Mike Lane, the County Legislature’s longest-tenured member.

“Frankly I was in awe,” Lane remarked.  Lane said he’d learned so much more about Henry upon having read Granison’s obituary and its recounting of his departed colleague’s accomplishments as a lawyer, law school admissions counselor, and instructor of paralegal students at TC3.

“I’m very, very sorry that we’ve lost Henry,” Lane said, Lane admitting he’d not known Granison before Henry joined the Legislature in January 2018.  “Since I’ve been on the Legislature,” Lane continued, “I can’t think of anyone we’ve lost who was seated at the time.  And it leaves a big hole for all of us.  Henry Granison, you’ll be remembered.”

On Lane’s motion, and adopted by consensus, the County Legislature agreed Monday to fly all County Government flags at half-staff in recognition of Granison’s service and mourning his departure.

Mike Lane on Granison’s departure: “It leaves a big hole for all of us.”

Anne Koreman recalled, “Henry knew what was important:  Inclusion, Trust, and Integrity.  And he didn’t waiver in that in his whole time.”

“I’m really glad we got just a little slice of his life to spend with him and to be schooled, to learn from him, and to work together,” Koreman added.  “Because working together; it’s not something to be taken for granted.”

Koreman said she was grateful that Granison, who tendered his resignation from the Legislature in a tearful parting appearance October 18, got time in his final days to spend it with his family, his dogs, and his favorite sports team, the New York Mets.

Granison’s Third District seat on the County Legislature, a district covering portions of Ithaca’s East and South Hills, will remain vacant pending the outcome of a special legislative election scheduled for January.

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T.C. Recovery Fund Requests Hit $34 Million

Applications Top 5X the Amount Budgeted

by Robert Lynch,  November 1, 2022; additional reporting Nov. 2, 2022

There’s a funny thing about free money.  When you give it away, people tend to want it.  With its Community Recovery Fund, Tompkins County is finding that out.

“We’re going to have to say no to a lot of people,” Tompkins County legislator Rich John warned Tuesday, as lawmakers learned that applicant requests under the County’s Community Recovery Fund have reached $34 Million, more than five times the amount of grant money available.

Some applicants may need to accept less money; others may get turned down; Dan Klein

“We’re looking at way, way over the 6.6 Million that we have to give out,” Dan Klein, the legislator whose committee will oversee the community funding requests, told the Legislature’s Tuesday meeting.

With the filing deadline having closed on Halloween, Klein reported that 231 non-profit organizations, qualifying businesses and local governments had applied for the program’s money.  23 of those filed for the highest of the three funding categories, each of them seeking over $250,000.

On Monday, the Enfield Food Pantry’s parent organization announced it is seeking more than $1.6 Million from the Recovery Fund to construct a new food distribution center to replace its existing cramped facilities.  Last week, the Enfield Community Council confirmed it’s asked for $206,000 to build a “Mental Health and Community Services Wing” at its community center.

The Enfield Volunteer Fire Company and the Town of Enfield itself have also expressed interest in the Community Recovery Fund, Tompkins County’s funding vehicle for moneys Washington promised it under the American Rescue Plan (ARPA).

A County-paid consultant accepted applications from qualifying businesses, non-profit agencies and local governments throughout October.  That consultant, the Rochester-based MRB Group, will now review and score applicant requests according to a complex, multi-criteria formula.  MRB’s rankings will then be presented legislator Klein’s committee in a series of 3-hour meetings beginning November 14. 

The County Legislature had planned to make the final funding decisions in early-December.  Klein suggested Tuesday that the crush of applications may require additional committee review sessions and an extension of the award timetable.

Those legislators who spoke to the matter Tuesday admitted tough decisions—and saddened faces—lie ahead.

“Some of the applicants said we would accept less money,” Klein reported, “and either do a smaller project, or look for money elsewhere.”  But the Danby legislator also conceded the inevitable alternative.  “Or we’re going to go through some other kind of process where we’re just going to eliminate projects and narrow it down.”

“Can we buy a lottery ticket for power ball,” quipped Mike Lane, a legislator not known for cracking jokes.

“I don’t believe ARPA regulations permit that,” Klein answered dryly.  “Next question please.”

Somebody chuckled.  But for those whose applications lie in the hopper and whose hopes hang in the balance, Lane’s attempt at subtle humor may have backfired.

Of the 231 applicants who met the October 31st deadline, Klein reported 80 had filed for the lowest funding category, $25,000 or less.  The largest number, 128, sought mid-range funding of $25,000 to $250,000.  23, including the Enfield Food Pantry’s parent, are reaching for the highest totals, a Quarter-Million Dollars or more.

Klein said that the applicant field could be narrowed as MRB’s consultants may throw out some candidates who don’t legally qualify.  He estimated perhaps 200 would remain eligible.

Be careful of what you wish for.” Rich John’s take on the application flood.

In the summer of 2021, federal authorities awarded nearly $20 Million to Tompkins County Government through the American Rescue Plan.  Initially, thrift-conscious leaders planned to divert all of the Washington windfall to “government operations,” with as much as half of it for future capital construction.  Pressured by community groups, some liberal lawmakers, and the public, the Legislature set aside nearly $7 Million for charitable funding as an afterthought.  And for a while, the Recovery Fund hand-outs were to be paid from the County’s own fund balance, not ARPA.

While legislators Tuesday mourned the fact that demand for Recovery Fund moneys had far outstripped supply, no one suggested that legislators revisit the funding total or allocate more of Uncle Sam’s money to satisfy burgeoning demand.  Earlier talk of successive funding rounds has been largely forgotten.

“I think we’ve struck a nerve in the community,” Rich John observed.  “Be careful for what you ask for.  We’re going to have to say ‘No’ to a lot of people and organizations and that’s going to be hard.”

Yet the Ithaca City legislator also attempted to paint an optimistic smile on news that could be met in many circles with a collective frown.

“I think we’ve triggered something really, really useful  in getting the grass roots community organizations and individuals to think about where they want  us to go and how we could be a better county,” John observed.  “And that could be really, really exciting.”

“Yes, it’s always exciting looking forward to disappointing people,” interjected Budget Committee Chair and fiscal hawk Deborah Dawson, who ran Tuesday night’s meeting in Legislature Chair Shawna Black’s absence.

Rich John smiled. Legislators chuckled.  Yet, again, for some, the joke may have fallen flat.

****

“It’s a big one,” Enfield Councilperson Robert Lynch (this writer) acknowledged earlier in the meeting as he advised the Legislature of Enfield Food Distribution’s $1.66 Million Recovery Fund application to construct an expanded Food Pantry with ample parking, a demo kitchen, and 6,800 square feet of space.

“We are cramped,” said Lynch, a Pantry volunteer.  “During most times of the year, we have to distribute our produce outdoors because we have no room inside to distribute it…. I’m there Mondays.  I’m distributing food, and sometimes we all get rained on.”

Lynch to the Legislature: “We’re cramped. We get rained on. We need a bigger Pantry.”

In addressing the dilemma likely to face top-tier applicants, Enfield Food Distribution’s hefty financial filing adopts a fallback position.  “With design adjustments,” its application states, “we believe it will be possible, though not ideal, to complete the project with an award of 1.2 million dollars.”

Enfield Food Distribution’s ambitious plans call for acquiring a new site, starting the new pantry as soon as next February, and completing it by July 2024.

“Rather than addressing the growing need for our services by only increasing the amount of food we provide,” the group’s application states, “we want to expand and provide other services with the aim of addressing the root causes of food insecurity.  We are evolving from a charity model to one of empowerment.”

As Tuesday’s discussion of the Recovery Fund’s overflowing inbox proceeded toward its close, Lansing’s Mike Sigler suggested a potential safety valve:  the enlisting of Congressional or State legislative staffers to identify alternate funding sources.

“Robert Lynch was talking about the Food (Pantry),” Sigler reminded colleagues.  Congressional staffers, he said, “may think, yeah, food pantries are in this pot of money.  I don’t know that’s the case, don’t quote me on that, but there may be stuff like that.”

Sigler was reminded that combined applicant paperwork already totals several thousand pages, and that confidentiality rules may restrict sharing.  Yet the Lansing rep remained undeterred.

“I’m not saying they need to evaluate each proposal,” Sigler stated.  “But they may just on its face go, ‘yes, that actually fits into this.’”

Ulysses’ Anne Koreman suggested what she called a “hybrid” process whereby experts could help applicants denied Recovery Fund assistance tap other sources.

“Let’s hold your hand and connect you to where you could get more funding,” Koreman suggested.

In other legislative business Tuesday:

Although it probably stood as the evening’s most significant action, a change in the Charter merging the County’s Public Health and Mental Health Departments into the “Department of Whole Health” breezed to approval almost without notice.  The merger was first conceived more than five years—and two County Administrators—ago, when Joe Mareane was Administrator.  COVID-19 sidelined its formal approval for much of the interim.

Officials view the departmental merger as a nod to efficiency. With no Mental Health Commissioner on the payroll, Public Health Commissioner Frank Kruppa will likely oversee the newly-combined department.  No brick-and-mortar changes are planned. 

The lone obstacle to final action Tuesday proved strictly semantic.  A Public Hearing commenter faulted the drafted new language for failing a test of political correctness.  Legislators rushed to the ready, changing the scripted term “mentally disabled” to the less judgmental “those with mental health conditions.”

 “I would agree that that is outdated language, but it is language that is used in the Mental Hygiene Law, unfortunately,” Kruppa said of the non-P.C. classifier.

Embracing the progressive substitute, yet fearing legal repercussions unless and until Albany’s wordsmiths grow in enlightenment, the Legislature substituted the new phrase in the Charter, yet kept the older term in parentheses and quotes.

“Yeah, lawyers ruin everything,” meeting Chair Deborah Dawson observed.

There was a second action that could have prompted debate, but didn’t.   Legislators approved another annual increase in the countywide solid waste disposal fee, raising the charge from $75 to $80 per household beginning next year.   

Some complain that the solid waste charge has become a stealth, regressive tax.  It’s been rising by about $5.00 per year for a while.  Dryden’s Mike Lane often objects to the increases.  Although he again did so this year during budget deliberations, Lane said nothing about it Tuesday, and he joined in the unanimous vote to up the charge.

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A Turnout Crowd for Turnout Gear

Fire Volunteers Press Town Board for Budget Change

by Robert Lynch, October 31, 2022

“The volunteers ask for very little.  We don’t get paid… We don’t ask for health insurance.  All we ask for is for the Town to provide us with the gear and equipment to be safe and do our job.”

Dennis Hubbell, President of the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company, Oct. 26.

****

Modern-day budget hearings often induce slumber.  Tompkins County annually spends over $200 Million.  Yet its downtown lawmakers often find themselves sitting in an empty chamber when they place their spending plan before the public each November.

Last Wednesday night in Enfield, the Town Board held a budget hearing that clearly had a pulse.  Well over a dozen volunteers of the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company (EVFC) filled visitor’s chairs or zoomed-in online to press their Town Board to increase next year’s spending for “Structural Firefighting Protective Equipment”—better known as “Turnout Gear”—so as to make that budget line the same next year as it’s been for this year and for the year before, namely $35,000 annually.

In a roundabout way, EVFC volunteers got what they wanted, but not the way they had wanted it.  Instead of upping the Turnout Gear spending line by $25,000 in the budget, the Board’s majority left it at only $10,000 and snared the balance, $25,000, from federally-awarded American Rescue Plan (ARPA) funds.

Because they did, Supervisor Stephanie Redmond’s Tentative Budget, which had been elevated to Preliminary Budget status with only minor changes October 12, remained intact.  The Town Board beat back proposed changes both to the firefighters’ account and to the Highway Superintendent’s salary line.  Highway staff will get 12 per cent pay raises.  The combined Town and Fire Protection levy will rise by nearly eight-point-five per cent. 

“Not perfect, but aye,” Councilperson Robert Lynch (this writer) said as he cast his vote to make budget approval unanimous.  Lynch was not the only one Wednesday left less than satisfied.

“It’s not going to kill anybody to really pay a little bit extra to make sure all the firefighters are protected so they can possibly save  their lives and their families’ lives, Dennis Hubbell, President of the EVFC, told Enfield Board members that night in lobbying for a budgeted increase.

“The least that can be done for them is to provide them with gear that will hopefully prevent them from getting a horrible disease down the line or getting injured or burned,” said volunteer Monique Morris, whose husband and son also volunteer for the EVFC.  Morris described volunteer dedication as “incredible.”

Wednesday’s Enfield Budget Hearing lasted nearly two hours.  More than a dozen people spoke, often repeatedly.  The Turnout Gear increase dominated the discussion.  Only Town Supervisor Stephanie Redmond and Councilperson Jude Lemke offered any significant pushback.  A motion by Lynch to increase the budget by the funds the Fire Company had requested failed with only his vote in its favor. 

“I think that the $25,000 is money well spent to keep our people safe,” Lynch said after the hearing had ended and his motion found itself headed toward defeat. 

And addressing the Board’s preferred alternative of tapping ARPA moneys for the turnout gear’s purchase, Lynch asked the Board, “And what are we denying them by doing that?  We’re denying them other moneys that they need for other purposes, are we not?”

After defeating Lynch’s motion to add the $25,000 in equipment purchases to the budget, the Board then unanimously pledged to tap the ARPA money for the gear.  A formal, follow-up resolution in November will likely affirm the Board’s intent.

EVFC leaders suggested Wednesday that they’d have preferred the ARPA moneys had been set aside for such things as purchase of portable radios or maybe a more expensive project, construction of a volunteer bunk room.

Firefighter turnout gear no longer comes cheap.  A complete set—helmet and hood to boots—costs about $5,000 per volunteer.  Those fighting fires inside buildings ideally need two sets of outerwear, since the gear must be cleaned before it’s used again.  A second fire could always erupt in the interim.  Hubbell advised the Board that the EFVC has about 50 members.  Thirteen people have newly-joined, he said, and eight of those still wear outdated gear.

The EVFC President said turnout gear protects firefighters from carcinogens that could become airborne during a blaze.  During Wednesday’s discussion, Hubbell pointed to an older company member, Jim Whittaker, sitting a few chairs away, whose neck clearly bore the signs of cancer surgery.

“Did we cause that?” Hubbell asked rhetorically.  “I don’t know.  But he’s a cancer survivor… I just want you to look at that man!”

After its first, more focused hour, the Public Hearing’s second half grew increasingly contentious.  Talk turned away from the outerwear firefighters needed and toward a $41,000 truck, a “Command Vehicle,” that the Company had wanted and bought.  Purchased for quick response during an emergency, the vehicle sometimes sits in the fire chief’s driveway.

Supervisor Redmond, critical of the truck’s acquisition, referenced a “straw poll” she’d allegedly commissioned, one with neither Board authorization or with respondents’ names mentioned.

“They were very concerned that money was spent on a truck, instead of turnout gear,” Redmond claimed she’d heard from the poll’s anonymous respondents, “a truck that wasn’t needed when turnout gear was needed.”

Redmond viewed the fire company’s financial choices as a tradeoff.  “Obviously, the gear is more important than the truck.  It just is,” Redmond insisted.

“If anybody wants to say the Fire Company’s incompetent by (buying the truck), so be it,” Hubbell responded.  “But we purchased it.  We have it.  It’s not going away now.  So we’re not going to sell it to buy turnout gear.”

Fire Chief Greg Stevenson reminded the Board that the Town’s three-year contract requires the EVFC to provide modern equipment; “suitable and adequate fire-fighting apparatus,” as the contract puts it.

“We can’t eliminate a truck in favor of a steamer and a couple of horses, or a hand-drawn pumper,” Stevenson reminded the Board.

A second concern, raised by Councilperson Jude Lemke, was the EVFC’s annual banquet and its $7,500 cost. 

“$7,500 for a banquet.  Maybe we could do that for a lot less,” Lemke opined.

“I think it’s important to have these kinds of discussions to be able to understand both perspectives,” Redmond responded, a continued nod to contrary viewpoints.  But then she inserted an ill-timed barb:  “It’s a sign of intelligence, really, to be able to see other perspectives other than your own.”

Redmond’s comment struck a nerve and caused volunteer Robyn Wishna, to bristle.

“I think it’s really disrespectful and rude and offensive to suggest that there was a lack of education—”

 “I didn’t mean it like that,” Redmond interrupted.  The Supervisor apologized. The hearing went on.

But President Hubbell, a 47-year EVFC veteran, observed that convincing elected leaders of his fire company’s worth is nothing new.  It tends to recur with each election cycle.

“Every single time we change a Town Board, every single time, we have to go through this whole thing, all over again; re-educate everybody about the fire service,” Hubbell said.  “So I’m going through this process once again.  And in four years I can guarantee probably none of you will be here again, and I’ll go through it again… and again… and again until I die.”

Inserting dedicated spending for protective equipment into the budget was Beth McGee’s idea.  The former Town Supervisor placed that special line item in the 2021 Town Budget.  The current three-year Fire Contract, negotiated for the Town largely by Supervisor Redmond and Councilperson Lynch, set aside $35,000 for the gear purchases in both 2021 and 2022, but decreased it to $10,000 for the contract’s final, third year. Had the Town Board Wednesday put the added spending into the budget, the contract would have required renegotiation.

****

Gaining far less comment, yet still significant—and maybe equally controversial—the Enfield Board, later rejected Councilperson Lynch’s attempt to scale back Highway Superintendent Barry “Buddy” Rollins’ pay raise.  The Preliminary Budget had called for both Rollins and all of his subordinates to receive 12 per cent increases next year.  The Board’s majority maintained that the job market’s current state requires above inflation-rate increases to avoid Highway staff resigning for more lucrative jobs and to keep Rollins’ compensation in line with superintendents in neighboring towns. 

“Not in Congress. Not here.” Cortney Bailey (2021 campaign photo)

Addressing the hearing, Cortney Bailey, last year’s write-in candidate for Town Supervisor, took a different view.  Bailey argued that the Highway Superintendent should settle for the $64,000 salary set for the job when he ran for it last year.  She opposed the higher, budgeted rate of $71,680.

“Congress, on the national level, needs to stop giving themselves raises,” Bailey complained.  “That’s not right.  That’s not fair.  I don’t want to see it happening in our town,” Bailey added, bringing her wider argument home.

After the Public Hearing, but before the final budget vote was called, Lynch moved to trim Rollins’ next year’s pay to first $69,000 (a 7.8% increase), and then $70,000 (a 9.375% increase).  Lynch called it a compromise.  Councilperson Cassandra Hinkle supported Lynch’s latter option, but no one else did.  Rollins’ salary will carry the 12 per cent increase that Redmond had recommended.

The Supervisor argued that Rollins’ deserved the double-digit raise partly due to the work he performs, partly to assure that he earns at least as much as do his overtime-eligible subordinates, and partly to “recognize his senior status” in the Highway Department.  Faulting Lynch’s philosophical reservations about a mid-term pay raise— Lynch’s concerns mirroring Bailey’s—Redmond also pointed to Lynch’s having backed a more than nine percent mid-term raise for Town Clerk Mary Cornell, one approved at a prior Board meeting.

Lynch said he’d supported Clerk Cornell’s increase for a different reason; to help elevate the Clerk’s compensation to a living wage, a newly-established salary of $35,000.

“The Highway Superintendent earns a Living Wage and then some,” Lynch stated.  “He also has a Town-paid truck, for good reason.  He has full benefits, which the Town Clerk does not have.  There is a difference.”

“But he has a CDL (driver’s license) and years of experience.  And I think you’re talking about hazard pay and things like that,” Redmond pushed back, the Supervisor attempting to contrast Rollins’ heavy equipment labors with the office duties of Clerk Cornell.

“And I dare say there is one member of this community who would say that is quintessential pink-collaring,” Lynch rebutted. 

“Pink-collaring” is a phrase former Town Clerk Ellen Woods employed in her previous Enfield complaints involving gender equity.

Redmond conceded that the equity argument was “valid to a certain extent.”  But she did not retreat from her asserting that Rollins deserved a larger percentage raise than Clerk Cornell did.

Enfield’s Final 2023 Budget, approved that night, tops $2.5 Million in total spending.  The combined Town and Fire Protection District tax levy would increase by 8.49 per cent, nearly three times the State’s, highly symbolic “tax cap.”  But because of double-digit rises in property assessments affecting Town taxes, the tax rate on local property would actually decrease slightly.  Aside from the heftier increases given Highway staff, most Town salaries would increase by a more modest two per cent.

In other Enfield Board business October 26th:

  • The Board endorsed a Resolution authored by Councilperson Lynch that urges Tompkins County continue its long-standing practice of convening Local Advisory Boards of Assessment Review to accept springtime complaints concerning assessment increases.  County Assessment staffers propose eliminating the review boards after having suspended them for several previous years and then bringing them back this past spring. Town Board members pointed to planned County changes in assessment procedures as heightening the need for the local boards.
  • And with one dissent, the Town Board endorsed an application by the non-profit ”Sustainable Finger Lakes” for what could be a $750,000 grant under Tompkins County’s Community Recovery Fund.  The grant would retrofit mobile homes with heat pumps.  Councilperson Lynch voted against the endorsement only because he knew too little about how it compared with all the other funding requests.  Lynch said he didn’t want to “put the thumb on the scales” and jeopardize more worthy applicants.

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Second Acts Hinted for County-owned Buildings thought Doomed

by Robert Lynch, October 23, 2022

The idea may hold the lifespan of a crimson tree in October.  Then, again, Lee Shurtleff may have stumbled onto something.

“I don’t know that we have really looked yet at the potential of what the existing buildings might have for us over there on the corner,” Shurtleff told a County legislative committee Thursday at a meeting called not to talk about the Key Bank and Wiggins Office Buildings near the corner of Buffalo and Tioga Streets, but rather the fate of a little old frame house down on the next block.

“The properties over there, could we use them?” Lee Shurtleff to the committee.

Up until now, the only future for the Key Bank and Wiggins buildings has involved their presumed close encounter with the wrecking ball.  Tompkins County bought the properties last year.  And once current tenants had vacated, plans have always envisioned razing both 1960’s-era buildings and planting a Center of Government—County offices—in their place.  No one has talked seriously about giving those structures on the Key Bank Corner a second life, or even a short-term reprieve.  Not until Shurtleff suggested it this week.

“Could the bank building be used for the County Clerk’s Office?” the Groton legislator opined.  “It’s probably a bigger space than what they’ve got today—and a lot nicer.”

Shurtleff then wandered his mind’s eye next door to the Wiggins’ building.

“Could the law offices be used perhaps for the District Attorney’s Office?  Well, you look at the front of the building.  There’s 16 names of attorneys that are housed in the building.  That tells me that there’s at least 16 offices, support staff and conference rooms that have been good enough for Wally Wiggins over the decades.  Perhaps that’s a good place for the District Attorney?”

Shurtleff also said that “between the two” one might find “space for some of the offices and departments that are leasing downtown.”  That, in itself, would satisfy one prime rationale for a more pricey Center of Government.

Heritage Lost, Ithaca City Hall, 1844-1966. (Courtesy: The History Center)

Lee Shurtleff was thinking creatively.  It’s something government officials are notoriously not known for.  Slash, burn, and rebuild is more their style.  Go back to Ithaca’s elegant Old City Hall—you know, the one that lives today only in dusty photos at The History Center or in fading septuagenarian minds.  With zero forethought, LBJ’s Urban Renewal tore down old City Hall in 1966 to make way for nothing more elegant than a parking ramp.  Tompkins County’s Old Library was once eyed for government offices.  Nope, the County sold it for a song, and down it came too.

When, late last year, after nearly 24 months of secret negotiations, Tompkins County closed on the Key Bank and Wiggins purchases, the only question became how soon those newly-bought buildings would become rubble, never whether they might remain standing.

The corner-lot purchases were Jason Molino’s baby.  The former County Administrator was known not to like the County’s first-chosen Center of Government site, the so-called “Baker Dental Building” and its adjoining acreage that the dentists had arrogantly stripped bare of the homes that once stood there. 

Molino wanted something better than what we’d bought. He found it with the Key Bank and Wiggins properties nearer to the Courthouse.  Tompkins County had shelled out $1.8 Million for the Baker lot in 2019.  With closing costs, buildings on the Key Bank Corner cost taxpayers another $3 Million.  Molino left before the public ever learned of the latter purchase.

“Between the two areas we’ve got $5 Million invested here, and still probably a long ways away from a long term plan,” Shurtleff told the County Legislature’s Facilities and Infrastructure Committee Thursday.

Molino’s successor, Lisa Holmes, admitted to the committee that constructive reuse of the bank and Wiggins buildings had never been studied.  Shurtleff’s idea may have caught her by surprise.

“We have not thoroughly looked into the square footage available in those spaces and the cost of renovating those, if necessary, as an interim step,” Holmes told the committee.

Today’s “Key” to tomorrow’s “Clerk?” Tompkins County owns it.

It was with good reason that Shurtleff had suggested the County Clerk and District Attorney as prospective tenants of the buildings always thought doomed.  Even though County Government owns and maintains the Courthouse, the State Office of Court Administration gets to pull rank and is telling both the Clerk and D.A. to vacate.  Up until now, a new Center of Government had been seen as those offices’ next home.  But with construction costs rising, and lawmakers facing an uncertain economy, no one dares set a timetable for that new, larger building’s groundbreaking.  If only as a temporary stopover, the bank and Wiggins’ offices might become an expedient solution to an all-too-likely eviction.

Committee Chair Mike Lane described as an “interesting thought” Shurtleff’s suggestion for relocating the County Clerk to the bank building.  “Perhaps that’s something that we need to discuss,” he said.

And as a clear step back from Jason Molino’s one-time, gung-ho, build-it-now enthusiasm, Lane, like many who currently populate the Legislature, stood reluctant to take that big gulp and move ahead with the Center of Government right now.

“I’m not seeing us building a Center of Government next year,” Lane said.  “I’m still worried, as so many of us are, about what the economy’s going to do.  That’s a big project.  That’s a lot of money; over $20 Million.”

Actually Lane low-balled the price.  With land acquisition and design work, next year’s Capital Plan pegs the Center of Government’s total cost at $30.6 Million.

“16 lawyers on the nameplate,” says Lee. Could the D.A. be next?

“It’s always nice to have new offices if you can,” Lane conceded.  “But you know, we get along with what we have for now, and it can go on a little longer.”

Though Lane showed initial interest in his Groton colleague’s idea, it sparked little discussion from the five other legislators who, together with Shurtleff and Lane, attended Thursday’s meeting.  “As far as what Lee’s talking about… I’m not ready to talk about that,” Newfield’s Randy Brown said bluntly.

****

The Key Bank and Wiggins buildings were never intended to be talked about by the committee Thursday.  Instead, the “Red House” was.  And the take-away from the committee’s 45-minute discussion that morning was that County government should hold onto the two-story Victorian structure for now, mothball it for winter, and decide later whether to put it on the market, use it in some way, or ever-more-likely, simply tear it down.

Living on the edge; The “Red House.”

To Shurtleff,  the Red House’s future fits carefully into his “broader” view, one he stressed to the committee.  Utilizing what already sits on the Key Bank Corner makes it more likely that a Center of Government will someday sit on the Baker site.  And if the “Red House” portion of the Baker lot were to be split off and sold, there might be too little land left to build an office building on whatever remained.

“So it’s really not about the house.  It’s about the land that it sits on,” Shurtleff said.  “And that’s my concern.  I don’t want to see us make a quick move that removes that broader property from being an option for us to look at in the years ahead.”

The “Red House,” a residence-turned-offices at 408 North Tioga Street, has largely stood vacant since the County acquired it as part of the larger lot in 2019.  Like any empty building, it’s fallen victim to elements and animals.  Renovation estimates have led legislators’ jaws to drop.  But facing reality, and failing to reach any consensus on a path forward, the committee agreed Thursday to do whatever little needs to be done to preserve the house until spring.

“You’re going to have to mothball the house through the winter no matter what you do,” Brown said.

Beyond winter though, the “Red House’s” lifespan looks increasingly brief.  A few months ago, the building’s sale appeared to be legislators’ preference.  Now, however, they lean increasing toward demolition—that is, if preservationist interests will let them get away with it.  The house does stand within the DeWitt Park Historic District.

“I’d like to see the (cost) numbers for deconstruction,” Legislature Chair Shawna Black told the committee.  “If we go through with plans to build a Center of Government, we’re going to need parking…. If we were to deconstruct the building, we could actually start with a clean slate and figure out where we want to go from there.”

Mind you, when Administrator Molino presented the Legislature three years ago as many as ten alternate design options for county offices on the Baker site, most had included, in one form or another, incorporating the “Red House” into the office design.  True, since that time, legislators have sold off the rear, Sears Street portion of the larger lot for housing.  But offloading one or more Sears Street lots had also been contemplated in some of Molino’s scenarios.

Dryden legislator Greg Mezey would rather architects forget those earlier, Molino suggestions that would have attached an aging, wooden house to a more modern brick building.

“I think based on what we’ve seen for rehabilitation cost, I don’t see how we can justify spending that much money of taxpayer dollars for such a small space to be renovated and preserved and salvaged.  It seems cost prohibitive,” Mezey said.

Ulysses-Enfield legislator Anne Koreman is among those whose mind is changing; moving away from sale and toward either expensive renovation or, as she called it, “careful deconstruction.”

“The worst thing that we can do is to hold onto it and not take care of it,” Koreman, a building inspector, warned.

Saving the Red House seems “cost-prohibitive.” Greg Mezey.

But expect a fight—maybe an intermunicipal one—should Tompkins County take sledgehammer in hand, pre-empt the City of Ithaca’s Historic Designation, and dismember piece by piece the one-time home at 408 North Tioga.

“The idea of tearing down the Red House—I can understand that has some attraction for making the land more flexible for our own uses.  But I also think we would get tremendous pushback from the historic preservation element in the city,” legislator Rich John warned.  His district includes the Red House. 

“If we just tried to tear it down, we would suffer a lot of criticism,” John predicted. “We should be prepared for that.” 

“We really shouldn’t underestimate the viewpoint that we’ll be seeing and hearing from the City-side in tearing town an historic building,” John later cautioned.

Some, however, saw demolition as a risk worth taking.

“I think we have to weigh the benefit to the much broader community,” legislator Mezey told the committee, “and the impact on the amount of tax dollars (renovation) will take.”

To placate critics, County officials may schedule a Red House walk-through with representatives of Historic Ithaca.  They may  invite City officials along too.

Procedural obstacles also complicate demolition.  State-mandated environmental assessments performed to date have always assumed the Red House would remain standing.  County Commissioner of Planning Katie Borgella cautioned the committee that demolition would require yet another environmental review.  “It’s going to be a tricky one,” Borgella said of any report that seeks to remove a slice of history.

Rich John, may be among the few who still favor putting the Red House onto the market.  “Somebody could with a lot of love and care make this into a grand house,” John predicted. 

Not all agreed.

“I think we’re a little naïve to think that it’s going to be turned into some grand historic preservation project,” Mezey remarked.  “I don’t see enough of that happening in the community.”

“I don’t see that house being purchased by a wealthy landowner who’s going to move his family in there,” Mike Lane added.  “I don’t think that’s going to happen.  Those kind of homes seem to be out in Lansing or up on the hills in some of the other parts of the county… or on the lake.”

“We have to think about the county as a whole,” Lane continued, perhaps tipping his hat, albeit reluctantly, to those who favor the wrecking claw.  “And we have to think about what we’re doing long-term, at least 50 years down the road, not just for what’s tomorrow.”

Insightful; but also atypical.  Elected officials seldom think that way.  Perhaps if they did, Ithaca’s classic Old City Hall might still be on Tioga Street at East Seneca and not just in The History Center’s archives.

###

Sigler Stands Alone: Local Sales Tax to Stay on Heating Fuel

by Robert Lynch; October 20, 2022

“I don’t know if it will pass or not,” Lansing’s Mike Sigler said Tuesday as he placed onto the floor of the Tompkins County Legislature his appeal to eliminate the local four per cent sales tax on home heating fuel.  “Let’s find out.”

“Fundamental Question: Do you tax things that people need to live?” Lansing’s Sigler

Sigler did find out.  And his idea didn’t fly.

In what all too closely resembled the response given a certain (unnamed) Enfield Town Councilperson at times, Sigler’s individually-filed resolution to end local sales taxes on heating fuel, natural gas, wood products—and now also propane and electricity–lost, one vote to 12.  (The resigning legislator Henry Granison had already left the room).  Only Sigler voted in favor of his own resolution.

“It’s not a question of people struggling,” Sigler said, pushing back on one colleague’s criticism that a fuel tax exemption should be means-tested.  “The fundamental question is do we tax things that people need to live, and I don’t think that we should.”

Sigler claimed that most neighboring counties already waive the local sales tax on heating fuel.  New York State also declines to impose its portion of the sales tax.

But any local waiver would cost Tompkins County’s treasury a bundle.  Legislators were told that even without including Sigler’s late-added tax waivers on propane and home electricity, the tax’s elimination would cut County tax revenues by at least $2.4 Million.  And that, critics argued, would redirect financial burden to property owners.

“I think this is a little half-baked,” Dryden legislator Greg Mezey said of Sigler’s proposal.  Mezey said he’d prefer a wordier resolution, one based on “more substance and with more of an actual plan.”

“I know your heart’s in the right place,” Dryden’s other legislator, Mike Lane, told Sigler.  “None of us like to tax people.  But I think it doesn’t make sense to move forward with your suggestion.”

Lane pointed out that a disproportionate share of Tompkins County property is tax-exempt.  And that, he said, places a heavy burden upon the remaining owners who pay the property tax.  Lane estimated the property levy could have risen this year by as much as 4.5 per cent had the heating fuel sales tax gone off.

“Yes, it would be loaded onto the property tax, which, yes, is kind of a means test,” Sigler conceded.   “The bigger the house you own, if you live on the lake, your taxes are probably going to go up a little bit. If you live in Cayuga Heights, your property tax is going to go up a little bit.  But you’re going to save it on your heating tax,” the Lansing Republican reasoned.

“I think we have a population that feels that it’s entitled to services without paying for them,” Lansing’s Deborah Dawson, the Legislature’s most hard-nosed budget hawk, chimed in. 

And to Sigler’s claim that heating fuel deserves a carve-out based on need, Dawson had an answer.  The property levy also taxes necessity.

“Let’s face it, everybody needs a place to live,” said Dawson.  “This (your home) is a need, why are we taxing it? she asked.”

I think the idea is “a little half-baked.” Dryden’s Greg Mezey.

“I wish we would express  the fact that this burdensome economy is as burdensome to us as a provider of services as it is to our taxpayers,” Dawson complained, “and we can’t keep giving them a break at our expense.”

Sigler told legislators that his proposal to eliminate the sales tax on heating fuel has earned him more positive response than “pretty much anything I’ve brought forward in the last year.” 

Nonetheless, county lawmakers did not join the throng.  Enfield-Newfield’s Randy Brown seconded Sigler’s motion, maybe just to get it onto the floor.  Yet when the clerk called the roll, Brown voted no.  So did Enfield’s other County legislator, Anne Koreman.

At a Budget Committee meeting October 11th, where he’d first offered his idea, Sigler had proposed the sales tax suspension sunset at the end of the heating season, on May first.  But on the Legislature’s floor, Sigler dropped the sunset provision.

In addition to the property tax implications, legislative critics Tuesday cited a second obstacle.  Albany’s micromanagement requires State legislation to make it legal.  With the State Legislature in recess, any waiver wouldn’t have begun until winter had almost ended.

Sigler signaled he may offer his measure again—perhaps as often as once every three months.

****

Though the emotional sadness surrounding member Henry Granison’s surprise resignation clouded much of Tuesday’s meeting, the Legislature did take time to address other business.  And in clearing what’s often a routine procedural gate in the County’s elongated budgeting process, Budget Committee Chair Deborah Dawson found herself standing alone as a contrarian.  Arguing that lawmaker spending and tax-cutting fervor had gone farther than it should have, Dawson voted against  tacking a slew of amendments onto the County Administration’s 2023 Budget proposal before  sending it on to a November 7th Public Hearing.  The measure passed, but without her vote.

“I can’t support this budget,” Dawson said.  “It is in my opinion fiscally irresponsible and unsustainable to build a budget that creates an operating deficit with the intention of funding it with six-and-one-half million dollars of one-time money.” With that comment Dawson, no doubt, pointed to proceeds from the federal American Rescue Plan. 

Dawson: “I can’t support this budget;” it’s “fiscally irresponsible” to build it this way.

Dawson, a frequent financial pessimist, sees storm clouds building.  She forecast the worst: “12-18 months of a severe global recession,” the result of what she termed the Federal Reserve’s “ill-advised monetary policy.”

And no doubt, Dawson’s dissent also targeted the Expanded Budget Committee’s final action—taken in her absence—to reduce the property tax levy’s increase to zero by drawing nearly a half-million dollars from Tompkins County’s bulging fund balance.  Raiding that fund was the idea of Danby’s Dan Klein.

“I don’t think this dooms us to anything” Klein said in answer to Dawson’s fears.   “If the worst case scenario does come to pass, we can correct it next year.  If it doesn’t come to pass, then we did a really good thing.”

Addressing both Dawson’s recession-prone worries and Klein’s suggested remedy, Ithaca’s Rich John remarked, “I hope we have the fortitude to take these actions when we have to, if we have to.”

One financial exigency that demanded immediate attention from lawmakers Tuesday was the $6.5 Million Community Recovery Fund, County Government’s way of parceling out federal American Rescue Plan appropriations to needy applicants.  Quite simply, applicant demand has wildly exceeded expectations, and the out-of-town consultant needs a fatter commission to process all of the filings.

Legislators earlier this year had set aside just $72,000 for the MRB Group to accept, screen and prioritize what some then thought would be just 30 inquiries.  Instead, as of meeting night, as many as 100 applications had already been filed; 150 inquiries received.  Filings will continue until month’s end.  And MRB’s contract calls for per-inquiry compensation.

“This is because of us,” legislator Dan Klein admitted.  “We originally contracted for a very low number.  We just didn’t know.”

The resolution originally vetted in committee would have assigned an extra $112,500 toward MRB’s commission.  But before Tuesday’s vote, from the floor, Klein pumped the figure up to $196,000, meaning that MRB will get more than a quarter million dollars to do its task.

Only legislator Sigler opposed the extra MRB money.

###

Legislator Granison Resigns; Illness Cited

Posted October 18, 2022

“Cancer treatment requires my full attention.” Legislator Henry Granison, in Chambers, Resigning Tuesday.

In an announcement that startled and saddened his colleagues—and quickly draped a cloak of solemnity over much of the meeting—second-term Tompkins County Legislator Henry Granison announced Tuesday his plans to resign the County Legislature at month’s end.

It came as the County Legislature had barely gotten down to business in its twice-monthly meeting.

“As some of you know, said Granison, one of the Legislature’s two African-American members, “I’m going through intensive treatment for cancer, and my treatment requires my full attention.”

It was undoubtedly the most poignant moment in the Tompkins County Legislature’s recent history.  An exceedingly frail Granison, his voice wavering, the legislator at times barely able to vocalize his words, sat in a wheelchair at his legislative desk, flanked by people identified as his family.  The resignation message lasted less than two and a half minutes.  When finished, Granison asked to be excused to, in his words, “just to go home to my family and my constituents.”

After the departing legislator spoke, his colleagues stood and gave Granison a round of applause.  Legislature Chair Shawna Black bowed her head.  Shortly thereafter, Black called a five-minute recess allowing legislators to compose themselves before addressing other matters.

Marking the moment; Shawna Black (c) with legislative clerks

Granison, a County legislator since early-2018, represents District 3 on Ithaca’s East and South Hills. 

“The constituents in District 3 are smart and thoughtful,” Granison told legislators in his departing message.  “I’ve learned—I love learning from them and serving them.”

Granison had more praise to hand out. 

“While my cancer treatment prevents me from completing my term, I ‘m grateful that all the good work… will continue both because of my colleagues and my constituents. That’s really all I have to say.”

“Henry, we just want to thank you for your dedication, to the County and your constituents” Black said after Granison concluded his remarks and before he left for home.  “It’s been an absolute pleasure serving with you, and I think each of us—we could probably go around the circle.  Every one of us has a ‘Henry story’ we could share.”

“But,” Black added, “we want you to know that we’re thinking of you.  Our prayers go with you and your family, and we wish you certainly the best there is.  So thank you.”

After their brief recess, most members of the County Legislature took a pass on whatever they’d earlier intended to talk about.  Enfield-Ulysses’ Anne Koreman stood as the exception, perhaps reflecting a special bond she may have held with her resigning Ithaca colleague.  Granison joined the Legislature the same year as Koreman did.

“I just want to say to Henry and his family that really it’s been a true pleasure working with him,” Koreman said.  “He’s put a lot of time and effort into really reaching out to his constituents better than most any legislator that I’ve known.”

Bidding farewell; Henry Granison leaving Legislative Chambers.

“I’m glad he’s going to able to spend some more time with his family right now,” Koreman concluded, the lawmaker at times appearing to choke back the tears.  “I wish him the best on his treatment.”

“We’re going to miss Henry Granison,” Shawna Black said, hers the final word before the Legislature moved ahead with its agenda.  “I know everyone’s feeling that tonight.”

Once Henry Granison’s resignation takes effect October 31st, a special election in his Ithaca City district will be held to choose a replacement.  The vote will come sometime during the winter.

Briefly, in other business Tuesday:

  • Lansing Legislator Mike Sigler cast the only vote in favor in his resolution that would have ended the imposition of local sales tax on heating fuel. Because only he did, the measure lost.  Republican Sigler had argued fairness demanded the tax’s ending.  He said fuel is a necessity, just like food.
  • With one dissent, that of Budget Committee Chair Deborah Dawson, the Legislature approved and sent forward to an early-November Public Hearing, the County’s Tentative 2023 Budget and multi-year Capital Program.
  • And without discussion, the Legislature approved deploying private security guards, rather than Sheriff’s Deputies, to speed up deployment of improved security measures at the County’s Human Services Building on West State Street.  Sheriffs’ contract negotiations have held up the use of deputies as guards.

###

Zero-Increase Levy now in Tompkins ’23 Budget

by Robert Lynch, October 13, 2022; expanded reporting October 14, 2022

Former Enfield legislator Jim Dennis did it years ago.  Now Danby’s Dan Klein has taken over the task.

“This isn’t our money. It’s the people’s.” Legislator Brown defending a zero-levy increase.

At the end of a six-week string of multiple meetings adjusting—and mostly adding to—Tompkins County’s proposed 2023 Budget, Klein offered the final amendment at a meeting attended by most County legislators Thursday night.  As he has done so often at a similar moment, the tax-conscious rural Klein this time requested that $490,000 be drawn out of the County’s bulging fund balance and repurposed to reduce the new budget’s tax levy increase to zero per cent.  It passed.

“The County is in excellent financial shape,” Klein said, defending his vote before he cast it. “This would give a little bit back to the property taxpayer.”

Yes, it would.  But perhaps in the overall scheme of things, it almost becomes for County Government a rounding error.  Without Klein’s amendment to the base number on which your County Tax Bill is calculated, the tax levy would have risen by nine tenths of one per cent.  As amended—and now likely to stay that way—the levy would rise not at all.

Nonetheless, whether or not the budget had been amended that night, Tompkins County’s component of the property tax bill you pay in January is likely to climb higher.  The culprit is the rapid rise in property assessments.  On average, in just this past year, the median-priced home in Tompkins County has climbed in value from $205,000 to $225,000.  That means a cut in the tax rate, or the tax levy, can give one a false illusion of savings.

As it had stood before Klein’s amendment passed the County Legislature’s Expanded Budget Committee Thursday, the County portion of the average homeowner’s tax bill would have totaled $1,282.  After his amendment passed, it fell to $1,271.  The Danby lawmaker just saved his average constituent a mere eleven bucks.  Still, because of those pesky new assessments, the 2023 tax bill would still come in $113 higher than it did last winter.

Thursday’s session of the Expanded Budget Committee—in effect, it’s the entire County Legislature meeting as a committee-of-the-whole—completed lawmakers’ overly-long, and some would say unnecessarily complex annual sojourn through departmental PowerPoint presentations and last-minute add-ons; agency gifting that sometimes resembles the legislative equivalent of stuffing a Christmas turkey.

Among the last-minute budget revisions Thursday was one that particularly welcomed Enfield’s leadership.  The request breezed through the committee and afterward earned itself a round of applause.  Legislators endorsed a so-called “Over Target Request” to establish within their Department of Emergency Response a new position of EMS Coordinator.  The Enfield Town Board had the night before specifically adopted a Resolution that urged the position’s inclusion.

The EMS Coordinator, with first-year salary and benefits of over $110,000, would lay the groundwork for establishing Tompkins County’s first rapid-response emergency medical service.  Under the program’s model, the County would staff and equip a specially-equipped SUV, a “flycar,” to respond to medical emergencies whenever a private or municipal ambulance might otherwise prove unavailable.

But back to the overall budget itself. If history charts the future, the Budget Committee’s final actions Thursday ended all of the Legislature’s heavy lifting.  The next stop, a Public Hearing November 7th, will be lucky to elicit a comment or two.  The County Legislature’s final budget adoption would come later next month.

In Thursday’s climactic, albeit predictable, move, Klein’s zero-increase amendment to the tax levy passed by an 8-3 vote.  Another three of the Legislature’s 14 members were excused.  The margin of passage stands large enough to assure final legislative approval, providing no one changes his or her mind.

“This isn’t our money.  This is the people’s money,” Enfield-Newfield legislator Randy Brown said in supporting Klein’s initiative.  “If you look at the last ten years, I think the County always increases fund balance.  It’s not our money.  That’s why I support Dan.”

Brown said he was surprised the Legislature wasn’t decreasing the levy even more.

Enfield’s other legislator, Anne Koreman, also backed the levy-trimming plan, though more cautiously.

“I do hear a lot of concerns about inflation, and those are real concerns to me,” Koreman said.  “$490,000 (the fund balance’s reduction), that’s something I feel comfortable with, trying to keep our taxes down, even if just a little bit.”

Other voices joined in.

Comfortable trying to keep our taxes down.” Anne Koreman

 “I’m fully on board with supporting this,” freshman legislator Greg Mezey said in support of Klein’s zero-increase amendment.  “We’ve over-collected and I think it’s time to send a little bit back.”

Mezey added, “And I don’t think that there’s a better time or more of a time of need than our current economic condition that we’re in.”

“Without a true reduction in the tax rate,” said Groton’s Lee Shurtleff, who chaired the Budget Committee Thursday in Chair Deborah Dawson’s absence, “these increases in the assessments translate into pretty much an automatic tax increase.”

But expect Dawson, when she returns, to join the three legislators who opposed Dan Klein’s drop to zero.  Dawson, a fiscally pessimistic budget hawk, opposed last year’s similar levy reduction.  And during a committee meeting earlier in the week, the Lansing Democrat commented on Klein’s intended action, “OK, so let’s run down that fund balance so we don’t have the cushion.”

Legislature Chair Shawna Black was among those who opposed drawing down the fund balance during Thursday’s voting, as was Dryden’s Mike Lane and Ithaca’s Amanda Champion.   

“The problem I’m having right now,” Black told legislators, “is the fact that the stock market continues to be extremely volatile, the interest rate is all over the place, and I do think that we’re in for some hard times.  So this is the one year I’m not going to support it.”

“We have increases for electricity, for fuel, for asphalt, for police cars, for pencils,” said Lane, who fights year after year to protect the County’s fund balance from a tax-cutting raid like Klein’s.  Lane admitted his Republican opponent in last year’s close race attacked him on the very point he now defends.

“Sorry, but I think it’s honest with my taxpayers in my district to say that our costs are up,” Lane said Thursday.  So as to the fund balance, he continued, “I think we ought to leave it where it is.”

 The revised tentative Tompkins County 2023 Budget, now sent to the November hearing, tops $200 Million.  Financial administrators credit higher-than-predicted sales tax revenues and casino income for easing the burden on property taxpayers, even apart from the increased assessments that keep rates down.

****

The 11-0 vote Thursday in support of the new position of EMS Coordinator, a top priority not only for the Enfield Town Board, but for most rural emergency agencies countywide, came with it only praise, including commendation for members of the Enfield Board that had passed a Resolution supporting its creation the night before.

“This is one of the most important things that we’re going to vote on for this budget,” Legislature Chair Shawna Black said of the EMS position.  Whether residents live in Ithaca or in the lesser-served rural expanses, “they’re all of our constituents,” Black said.  And answering medical calls promptly “is definitely the difference between life and death—minutes.”

“I think this is a much-needed service for the community,” Director of Emergency Response Michael Stitley told the committee.  “It’s a really great way of supplying the community-based services to help support particularly the volunteer agencies that sometimes struggle, especially during the day, to respond to some of these calls.”

“I think this is a much needed service.” The Emergency Response Director supporting the the flycar plan.

Stitley told the committee that the EMS Coordinator, once hired, would spend much of 2023 planning the rapid response service.  But he or she might also staff the vehicle once the flycar becomes operational, perhaps in 2024.

Meanwhile, on an unrelated matter, Budget Committee members spent an unexpectedly long time Thursday—some 35 minutes—on a much less costly, though one could argue far more controversial budget add-on. 

At the recommendation of Enfield-Ulysses legislator Koreman and Ithaca’s Veronica Pillar, Ithaca’s Southside Community Center requested—and secured—a last-minute $25,000 funding award to hire a Teen Coordinator to enable Southside’s Deputy Director, Kayla Matos, to relinquish her program responsibilities temporarily and hunt for grant funding that would underwrite the Southside Center’s programs.  Koreman called it “priming the pump.”

What made the otherwise somnolent request dicey was a point that no legislator chose—or perhaps, dared—to raise.  During her hurried presentation to the committee, and her somewhat-testy exchange with Lansing’s Mike Sigler, Matos defined Southside as an organization “unapologetically serving people of color.”  When Matos did, one might infer the Deputy Director had also suggested that Southside’s governmentally-subsidized community programs categorically exclude other races.

“Mam,” Sigler responded, “I would suggest that the County is unapologetically serving people of color.”

“However,” Matos rebutted, “we can be more explicit about our actions and who we are serving.  And we are serving people of color in Lansing; we are serving people of color in Dryden, in Freeville; in the County.  Actually, we are serving people of color in those places more than we are serving people of color in the City due to gentrification.”

Legislators Koreman and Pillar, in their own defense of the agency’s request, also stressed the Southside Center’s racial focus.  If there was an implied bias, no one explored it.  Southside got its $25 Grand.

###

Highway Wins; Fire Company Loses; Enfield Prelim Budget Set

Clarification (Oct. 14):  Contrary to what members of the Enfield Town Board were led to believe during their October 12th meeting, adoption of the Town’s Preliminary Budget that night does not preclude them from reducing—but not increasing—an elected official’s salary subsequent to the Preliminary Budget’s adoption and posting.

Enfield Supervisor Stephanie Redmond clarified state law to Town Board members the day after their meeting.  Though neither Supervisor Redmond nor this writer is an attorney, Section 27 of New York’s Town Law makes the distinction clear that only elected officers’ salaries “in excess of the amounts respectively specified in the notice of (budget) hearing” are impacted by the statutory prohibition, absent the Board’s subsequent adoption of a local law carving out an exception.

Therefore, the level of Highway Superintendent’s pay—or that for any other elected officer—specified in the adopted Enfield Preliminary Budget could be reduced, though not increased, by the Town Board after the October 26 Public Hearing.  Nothing in state law prohibits the Board from adjusting, either upward or downward, rates of pay for non-elected Town employees after the Preliminary Budget’s adoption. / RL

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by Robert Lynch, October 12, 2022

Enfield Highway Superintendent Barry “Buddy” Rollins’ salary will rise from $64,000 to more than $71,000—a 12 per cent increase—under a 2023 Tentative Budget elevated to Preliminary status by the Enfield Town Board Wednesday night.  Rollins’ four departmental subordinates, each of them paid less than the Superintendent, would also receive 12 per cent raises under the spending plan.

Where’ll those who’ll get the big raises work; the Enfield Highway Department.

Though some budget lines—including perhaps non-elected employees’ wages—could be changed before the Enfield plan becomes final, the Superintendent’s raise is effectively locked in by the Town Board’s Wednesday action.  State law prohibits a Town Board from changing elected officials’ compensation once a budget moves this first step up the ladder toward adoption.

Meanwhile, the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company (EVFC) failed in its effort to secure a requested $25,000 to fund additional protective clothing purchases for its firefighters. 

Councilperson Robert Lynch (this writer) moved the requested EVFC additional appropriation.  If approved, the money would have kept so-called “turnout gear” spending the same as for 2021 and 2022, namely at $35,000.  No one seconded Lynch’s motion.  His amendment died.  EVFC Secretary and former Town Clerk Ellen Woods later expressed frustration at the defeat.

The Town Board’s decisions Wednesday made no change in the spending or tax figures that emerged from the Board’s earlier budget work session last Friday.  As it now stands, the Preliminary 2023 Enfield Budget would total $2,512,441, with appropriations up by more than $181,000, or 7.2 per cent, from the current year’s budget.  The total Town and Fire Fund moneys to be raised by taxes would increase by nearly 8.5 per cent.  That’s 2.9 times the State-determined, largely symbolic “tax cap.”

Though General and Highway Fund expenditures and tax levies would rise, spending and taxation in the Fire Fund would actually go down, in each instance by just over five per cent.

Wednesday’s Board vote on the Preliminary Budget was unanimous, even though at least one member had misgivings.  Councilperson Lynch coupled his affirmative vote with his stated regret that the fire clothing line had not been kept at earlier levels.

Lynch also voiced reservations about the size of the raises given the Highway staff and the Superintendent.  Yet he acknowledged that all others on the five-person Board had already that night voiced support for the 12 per cent increases.  He saw little need to wage a futile fight against the majority.

“We have to bring them up to where other municipalities are,” Supervisor Stephanie Redmond said as she argued for hiking Highway pay by double-digits, even though others on the Enfield payroll—including Town Board members and Redmond, herself—would receive raises of as little as two per cent.

Redmond cited concerns about employee retention among existing Highway Department staff.  She also noted that one position on the department’s roster remains vacant, and Rollins has been unable to fill it.

Board members have so far done little tinkering with the spending document that Supervisor Redmond unveiled as her Tentative Budget on September 28th.  The principal change Board members made—relatively minor in the overall scheme of things—was their decision at a working meeting last Friday to raise Mary Cornell’s combined Town Clerk’s and Tax Collector’s salary from $32,000 to $35,000, a just over nine per cent increase.  The adjustment holds minimal impact overall.

Not so lucky budget night. The Fire Company failed to get its $25 Grand.

Town Board members also last Friday, at Councilperson Lynch’s request, directed 10,000 more dollars into the catch-all Contingent Fund.  Lynch sought the additional rainy-day moneys to guard against unexpected interest rate hikes in financing Enfield’s new salt barn.

“We only have three more years on the Highway Garage,” Redmond exclaimed as the budget moved toward preliminary adoption.  The Supervisor took note that both salt barn financing and that for a Highway facility now nearly two decades old has hit Town debt service with a one-two punch. 

The salt and sand storage facility, constructed earlier this year, stands financed at present with only Bond Anticipation Notes. Given rapidly-rising interest rates, those notes’ conversion to more permanent financing, perhaps sometime next year, could carry a cost that’s simply anyone’s guess.

After it elevated Redmond’s tentative spending plan to a Preliminary Budget Wednesday, the Town Board set October 26th, two weeks thereafter, for a Public Hearing on the spending document.  After that late-month hearing, the Board could make additional, albeit more restricted, financial changes.  Or it could simply adopt un-amended what sat on the table at the end of Wednesday’s meeting.

In a brief moment of unsuccessful magnanimity, Councilperson Jude Lemke, who has since her appointment to the Board declined to take a Town salary, offered to transfer $2,000 of her budgeted Councilperson’s pay so as to increase Supervisor Redmond’s salary by an equivalent amount.  Lemke maintained that no one works harder in Enfield government for her pay than Redmond does.

The Supervisor might have accepted the gift, but was stopped short by Town Bookkeeper Blixy Taetzsch, who questioned the gratuitous transfer’s legality.

“The salary goes with the position, not the person,” Lynch reminded the Board.  “Were Jude to resign,” he observed, “we’d need the money to pay her successor.”

Lynch, and quickly thereafter Councilperson Cassandra Hinkle, promised to donate their meager $72 (2%) Councilperson’s raise to the Town’s cemetery fund as a symbolic goodwill gesture of frugality.

Though he lost on a couple points, Councilperson Lynch thanked his fellow Board members, both at the close of Wednesday’s budget discussions and then at meeting’s end, for keeping the evening’s discussions collegial and tempers at bay.

Wednesday’s Town Board session was among the shortest of Enfield regular monthly meetings in recent memory.  It ran for little more than 90 minutes, including a sparsely-attended 15-minute public hearing on an unrelated matter at the meeting’s start.  The budget discussions themselves took only 20 minutes.

“We had disagreements tonight,” Lynch conceded.  “But we settled them under Robert’s Rules of Order…. We did OK.”

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Please, Put it in Writing:

Big Changes Coming (Again) as County Reval Plans Evolve

by Robert Lynch; October 11, 2022

Tompkins County Director of Assessment Jay Franklin said inspiration hit when he’d least expected it.

“Finally, one Saturday morning, I woke up, got my coffee, went out on my deck, and I finally found the benefits of remote work,” Franklin told the County Legislature’s Government Operations Committee October 6th.

“Our our doors aren’t going to be locked. But still…” Assessment Director Franklin outlining new paper-partial protest procedures.

True, a few among us might have wished the Director had stayed in bed.

Franklin’s caffeine-stoked inspiration—he told the committee that “lightbulbs went off” in his head—led him to turn about-face on a recommendation he’d made to that same group of lawmakers just one month earlier. 

Gone now are the Assessment Department’s plans to revalue Tompkins County properties only once every three years and to couple that “triannual” reassessment with a fractional valuation plan that the Director conceded was “just misleading” and “non-transparent.”

Instead, Franklin’s revised strategy would have the department revisit everyone’s assessment each and every year.  As such, it would likely increase most everyone’s valuations yearly as long as home values keep spiraling upward.  Given his office’s limited staff and work space, the only way annual revaluation remains possible is through “sampling,”  the Director told the committee.

In its most brutal, sledgehammer sense, “sampling” would have County staff revise your own property’s value not based on a particularized curbside inspection of your own home, but rather on what they might see at your neighbor’s property down the road.

And while assessors would attempt to distinguish his mansion from your hovel, the “trending” component inherent in the sampling methodology could still contaminate a home’s actual worth, despite everyone’s best intentions.

And there’d be a second change; a procedural one.  Because of the mountains of new paperwork that universal annual reassessment would entail—and the flood of resident complaints that would likely follow—Franklin plans to rewrite the complaint procedures in a way that could frustrate many an aggrieved homeowner.  No longer would the phone call or an office visit become the first opportunity for protest.  Instead, an owner would first need to fill out a form and explain to assessment staff in writing why they believe their home was wrongly valued.

“Rather than allow in-person or telephonic appointments, we will only accommodate online/paper submissions,” Franklin wrote the County Legislature in a September 28th memo. “We have found that the in-person or telephonic appointments do not present us with any more information and in fact these appointments typically present less information than the appointments that are filed online/paper,” the Director wrote.

Owners will “be able to provide something to us,” Franklin told the committee in defense of the paper-first complaint process.  “Right now, they’d come in, and talk to us and provide us with nothing.  That’s a wasted ten-minute appointment.”

A personal visit could come later, Franklin assured the committee at its meeting.  But a shuffling of paper back-and forth would need to happen first.  In fact, it’s possible the owner might not meet with anyone face-to-face until Grievance Day at the end of May.

“There are people out there, many of them senior citizens, many of them whose verbal skills are not their strong suit, who can’t really write a letter,” Enfield Councilperson Robert Lynch (this writer) told the Government Operations Committee prior to Jay Franklin’s presentation.  “But you know what they can do?  They can come down Wednesday morning to that Assessor’s Office on Buffalo Street, look the person in the eye and say, ‘With all due respect, sir or madam, you’ve got it wrong.  My property was overvalued by you, and here’s the reason why.’”

In his later remarks to the committee—and somewhat in conflict with his less compromising earlier-written statements—Franklin walked back his insistence on written-only communication.

“Our doors aren’t going to be locked. ” Franklin assured the committee.  “Let’s dispel that misconception. We’re still going to be here…. The public can always call us up and say, ‘Hey, Jay, I think I’m over-valued.’”

“So we’re taking those phone calls and we’re going to review them,’ the Assessment Director told committee members.  “We’re always more than willing to sit down with a property owner whenever they have questions about their assessment.” 

Yet Franklin also held firm to his streamlined stipulations, “(With) that first step, we want to screen property owners and make sure that their time is valuable and useful and our time` is valuable and useful.”

In other words, homeowners, do your homework first.

As for the adoption of assessment sampling, a technique the Director said the State routinely undertakes, Franklin promised committee members his people won’t inflate everyone’s values equally.

“We’re looking at (properties) by town; by neighborhood,” Franklin said.  “We’re sampling parcels through different building styles, land sizes, building condition, building grade, value ranges in order for us to try to find where the market is moving and be able to accurately adjust those values.”

Franklin added that the “better-condition houses” those that are “move-in ready” have escalated in price faster than have “lower-end, poorer condition houses.”  Yet in many cases, assessments would move up and down by class under the new procedures.  Nuance might escape the process.

Last year, after a several-year hiatus, Tompkins County resumed its more than half-century tradition of assembling Local Boards of Assessment Review in each of its towns, enabling local people to hear local complaints.  Local Review Boards can only recommend assessment changes; they cannot demand them.  Last spring, only two owners grieved at the one-day local review in Enfield.  Franklin recommends that local sessions again be cast aside.

“These Boards were put in place back in 1968 when we went county-wide assessment,” Franklin explained to the committee.  “This was back when people didn’t want to come down to the City of Ithaca.  We put these in to allow them to go out and see a local face, and then that local face should be able to provide a recommendation to the (County) Board of Assessment Review.”

In some towns, Franklin claimed, no one this year showed up.  He termed the local boards “just not worth the time, the cost, and the effort.”

What’s more, the Director said, “It’s misleading to the property owners too.” 

“If they go before someone, they think that they can affect that change, but unfortunately that’s not how these work,” the Director cautioned.

Interjecting her own comment, Ulysses-Enfield legislator Anne Koreman said she’d support the Local Boards’ abolition.  Koreman argued local boards draw Assessment Department staff away from other, more pressing assignments. Enfield’s other County legislator, Randy Brown, Tuesday indicated his continued support for the Local Boards.

****

If given more personnel, the shortcuts the Assessment Director envisions could be avoided.  Yet Franklin showed no interest to the committee for enlarging his staff.  County Assessment once had 19 people.  It now claims only ten.  It’s given over part of its floor of offices to Information Technology.  So if the County were to hire more people—and if Franklin were able to fill the slots—he’d have little place to put them.

County Legislator Mike Lane is among those who would give the Assessment Director more people to do the job right.  Yet no one else on the Government Operations Committee openly shared the Dryden legislator’s sentiment.  Lane also disputed Franklin’s claim that the Local Boards are a waste.

“I would think that it would look kind of weird to the public to do away with them,” said Lane, among those legislators who pull one-day stints as local reviewers.  “I don’t think it’s a waste of legislators’ time.  We’re there.  We’re available….  And they get to look at us, and they’ve got somebody listening to them.”

“We’re there. We’re available. Why not let the Local Boards continue?” Legislator Lane.

Exactly how much power the County Legislature holds to impose its will over Franklin’s department remains unclear.  The Legislature could authorize increased staff.  It could also mandate the local hearing boards.  However, it will likely do neither.  As such, the Director of Assessment’s revisions will likely become a baked-in change.

“What I’m urging you today to do is to hold off on endorsing the Director of Assessment’s recommendations,” Enfield Councilperson Lynch told the legislative committee, a delaying action it subsequently declined to take.  “I think they need more study.  I think the public needs to weigh in.  I think Town Boards like ours need to weigh in. “

Lynch also suggested the committee seriously consider legislator Lane’s suggestion for increased departmental staffing.  “Let’s give the Assessment Department all the resources it needs to conduct annualized assessments with face-to-face meetings just like it’s always been done…. I think we’ve got the money in the budget, thanks to increased assessments.  We’ve got money to spend on this.  And I think we should.”

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Deidra to TC:  “See You in Court.”

Fired Reimagining-critical reporter takes her complaint to the Legislature

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“This is a government official who’s impeded on my employment.” Deidra Cross, before the County Legislature Thursday.

by Robert Lynch, October 6, 2022

Former Tompkins Weekly reporter Deidra Cross, out of work and angry, took her grievance against one County official’s alleged First Amendment meddling to the floor of the Tompkins County Legislature Thursday.  Cross made it clear she blames County Communications Director Dominick Recckio for her firing, though she never mentioned Recckio by his full name during her time-limited Privilege-of-the-Floor comment. 

Legislature Vice-Chair Deborah Dawson, presiding at Thursday’s meeting, tried to shut Cross down.  Cross would have none of it.  Dawson was not pleased.  But neither was Cross.  I wasn’t pretty.

Cross:  “This is a government official (Recckio) that has impeded on my employment, my opinion, and now my termination.”

Dawson:  “You know, Ms. Cross, you are skating dangerously close to violating the rules of your public forum here, so…”

Cross (interrupting):  “Public statement from your own commission (sic)…”

Dawson:  “But you are not allowed to use this forum to comment on the performance of a named employee.  That’s clear in our rules, because that’s the condition of using public…”

Cross (again interrupting):  “I didn’t name anyone.  I followed your guidelines.  I didn’t name anyone.”

Dawson:  “Well, we can debate that.  Your three minutes are up.  Thank you very much.”

Cross:  “It was not three minutes.” (Actually nearly four minutes’ time had elapsed.)

Dawson (after checking with the clerk):  “Yes, it was.”

Cross (after a pause):  “See you in court.”

Dawson“I look forward to it.

Cross, (exiting):  “So do I, actually”

Dawson:  “Good bye.”

Yes, for a brief view few moments Thursday, a spark of life and anger—mutual antipathy, to be blunt— illuminated an otherwise hum-drum County Legislature meeting, one of the briefest—and dullest—of its type in months, maybe years.

And when Deborah Dawson bid Deidra Cross her snarky farewell, Legislature Chair Shawna Black—zooming-in from home and nursing a case of COVID—was shown on the split screen briefly cracking a smile.

Quite obviously, Tompkins County lawmakers, at least the body’s liberal majority, are circling the wagons in support of their Communications Director and his intervention with a local publication in furtherance of his mission to defend Reimagining Public Safety and Tompkins County’s role in it.

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“I look forward to it,” Dawson said of a lawsuit. Shawna Black, from COVID quarantine, reacts.

Though the publication might dispute the causal connection, Deidra Cross maintains Tompkins Weekly fired her because of two articles she wrote, both of them profiles of local notables openly critical of the County/City of Ithaca collaborative to reform local policing.  Most recently, Cross profiled Trumansburg Mayor Rordan Hart.  Last April, she interviewed builder and conservative activist Rocco Lucente. 

As she began her remarks, the fired journalist quoted Recckio’s previously-released criticism of Cross’ Lucente article.  Cross read a reported email to Tompkins Weekly Editor Jessica Wickham, one that generated from the editor a transparently ingratiating—if not fawning—reply.

Recckio (as quoted by Cross to the Legislature):  “Jessica, I’m sharing with you that I’m concerned about this week’s (Tompkins Weekly profile of Lucente.)  This is peppered with lies, misleading statements and unfounded attacks on several topics under the guise of featuring a harmless activist and writer…. I expect there will be others upset by this piece.  I just want to make you aware of these concerns.”

Wickham, in reply (again, as quoted in Cross’ comments):  “Thank you for reaching out.  I will say that I had similar concerns myself without going into it….”

Wickham, later in that quoted email:  “My sincerest apologies if the article’s subject upsets you or anyone else.  If you or anyone finds anything that is a statement of fact that is misleading or false in nature in the article, please don’t hesitate to let me know…. Also, feel free to refer anyone who is upset with the article to me.  If there is considerable backlash, I will talk with my publisher about these opinions.”

****

“So,” Deidra Cross told the Legislature as she finished her quotes, “that is a government official weighing in on an article that was already vetted and published for the sixth time regarding RPS (the Reimagining effort) in the publication I’ve now been terminated from.”

Cross has threatened to sue over the County’s intervention, alleging it cost her job.  Ithaca City Alderperson Jeffrey Barken, who first exposed Recckio’s efforts during his own floor comments to Ithaca’s Common Council September 7th meeting,  has alleged the Communications Director infringed on Cross’ and the paper’s First Amendment freedoms. 

Tompkins County Attorney William Troy, in a statement released the day following Barken’s disclosure, cleared Recckio of any impropriety. “At no time was any threat made directly or indirectly against anyone,” Troy wrote of Recckio’s actions.

Dominick Recckio, for his part, has declined public comment on the matter.  And aside from the ex-reporter’s floor statement, Thursday’s County Legislature meeting dealt little with the lingering Reimagining controversy or Recckio’s involvement in it.

Shawna Black, who at the Legislature’s previous meeting had offered a full-throated defense of Recckio and of Reimagining, and who had then criticized Barken’s statements as “defamatory and uninformed accusations,” remained mum on the issue Thursday.

Reimagining’s defense, instead, came at Thursday’s meeting from one source; Ulysses-Enfield legislator Anne Koreman.  Though she declined to wade directly into the Communications Director’s flap, Koreman defended police reform in concept.  She also pushed back gently on Mayor Hart’s comments, those earlier quoted by Cross, that Reimagining’s alleged demoralization of Ithaca’s police has thinned IPD’s ranks and placed heavier burdens upon medical first responders, like Trumansburg’s.

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Are we doing everything right? No. But Reimagining’s heading in the right direction. Legislator Koreman

“Might we not be doing everything right the first time?” Koreman asked rhetorically.  “Yes, I do agree.  We’re not going to do it perfect.”  Koreman continued, “Might there be unintended consequences?  Yes.”

Nonetheless, Koreman added, “I do believe that we are headed in the right direction.  So I think it’s very important that we continue to do that (Reimagining) as best we can.”

By the time Koreman spoke, Deidra Cross had already left the room.  Had she remained, she might have had something to say—providing, of course, that Deborah Dawson would have let her say it.  No love lost.

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Draft Enfield Budget would hike levy near 8 %

Levy increase more than 2.5x Tax Cap; Highway pay would rise 12%

by Robert Lynch, September 28, 2022

Times have changed in Enfield budgeting.  Two years ago, former Town Supervisor Beth McGee darned near starved the Enfield Highway Department.  McGee pushed through her Town Board a budget that cut Highway staff by one and denied those who remained on the job any raise in pay.

But this Wednesday night, McGee’s successor, Stephanie Redmond, presented her Town Board a much-different spending plan.  Redmond’s Tentative Budget—subject to Board refinement at future meetings—would grant both Highway Superintendent Barry “Buddy” Rollins and his four workmen raises of 12 per cent or more.  The size of the proposed increase surprised some Board members.

Part of the increase, but just a part. Financing the Enfield Salt Barn.

The Highway raises came as part of Redmond’s proposed nearly $2.5 Million combined Town and Fire Protection District 2023 Tentative Budget, a spending plan that would raise $2.115 Million in taxes, up 7.78 per cent from the current year’s budget. The increase is 2.66 times the state’s largely-symbolic 2.92 per cent tax cap.

If the largely-contractual Fire Company budget is ignored, the increase is even greater.  The levy attributed to General and Highway Fund expenses would rise by over 11 per cent.

Enfield Highway Department salaries are “significantly below surrounding municipalities,” Redmond told her Town Board at Wednesday’s Special Meeting, where she made her proposal public.  It’s “fair” to do this, she said of the 12 per cent raises.  “We could have retention problems if we did not do this.”

The Enfield Highway Department is already down one worker.

By contrast to the Highway salary increases, Redmond’s Tentative Budget provides only a two per cent pay raise for most other Town employees, including the Town Clerk/Tax Collector, Town Board members, and for the Supervisor, herself. 

Under the proposed spending plan, Highway Superintendent Rollins’ annual salary would jump from $64,000 to $71,680.  By contrast, Town Clerk/Tax Collector Mary Cornell, technically only part-time, would earn only $32,640, up $640 over the year.

Rollins has benefits, like health insurance.  Cornell does not.

Town Board members said little about the budget during Wednesday’s session, preferring to save their comments for another special meeting they’ve set for October 7th.  In part prompting their hesitancy, members first wanted a legal opinion on whether state law requires discussion of employee rates of pay in open session or whether members can ponder them behind closed doors, as Redmond said she’d prefer.

“I think we need to address the equity issues underlying these divergent increases,” Town Councilperson Robert Lynch (this writer) said after Wednesday’s meeting.  “Of course, every employee deserves higher pay” Lynch added.  “But we’ve got a proposed budget here with a double-digit rise in the Town-controlled tax levy.  We must consider that, too.”

At the start of Wednesday’s session, Lynch read a letter from Dennis Hubbell, President of the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company (EVFC), requesting that the Town honor the Fire Company’s request for a $25,000 additional appropriation to cover purchase of so-called “Turnout Gear” for volunteer firefighters.

In quarterly meetings between EVFC officials and Town Board members during recent months, Hubbell had pushed for the $25,000 supplement to the Town’s otherwise-contractual obligation to the company so as to cope with other cost increases impacting the EVFC.  Redmond’s Tentative Budget did not include the $25,000 appropriation.

Disclosing that a new Fire Engine is likely to be delivered sooner than first thought and that its financial underwriter has expressed concerns about the apparatus’ increased cost, Hubbell wrote the Board that the underwriters “would feel much more comfortable” if the turnout gear money were approved, and that the appropriation “would make things go a whole lot smoother, I believe.”

Now, the EVFC President must await the outcome of further Board discussions.

We had “almost a Half-Million Dollars in asks,” Redmond told the Board Wednesday regarding departmental submissions for increased spending. Those requests were “all valid and necessary, but impossible to meet,” she said.

In past years, Redmond, like her predecessor, McGee, has regarded New York’s administratively-calculated tax cap—notoriously oblivious to real-world inflation—as the Holy Grail of town budgeting.  At meetings during the McGee era, fingers would fly across calculators to tweak a budget so as to fall just within the cap’s precision.  But this year, the Supervisor admitted she gave up hope of ever holding the tax levy within the cap’s constraints.

“I did what I thought was fair,” Redmond said.

One factor that evades the Albany bean-counters’ attention would make this year’s exceeding the State’s tax cap much easier for the Town Board to justify.  Enfield this year built a new salt and sand storage shed.  And its projected financing cost adds $47,500 to the General Fund’s spending line.

Salt barn debt service cost this year is a “guesstimate,” Town Bookkeeper Blixy Taetzsch warned.  Taetzsch assisted Redmond extensively in the budget’s preparation.  The financing right now is temporary; permanent bonds for the project won’t issue until sometime next year.  Taetzsch based her calculation on a best-guess bonding rate of 4.5 per cent.

“Who knows what that rate is going to be?” Councilperson Lynch cautioned, noting that the Federal Reserve is continually increasing interest rates in attempts to slow the inflationary economy.

In part to address bonding cost volatility, Lynch suggested the Town increase its contingent fund beyond the $20,000 Redmond had budgeted.  The $20,000 contingent fund would be the same as for the present year.

Though the Tentative Budget’s General and Highway Fund tax levy would rise by 11 per cent, Enfield, like Tompkins County as a whole, would wash out all of that increase on next year’s tax bills thanks to rapidly-increasing property assessments.

Since the Town’s tax base has risen by as much as 16 per cent over the year—mostly due to the reassessment of existing properties—the projected non-fire tax rate included in the Supervisor’s budget would actually fall by 4.28 per cent for that portion of the bill devoted to General and Highway Fund expenses. The fire rate would fall by even more.

Supervisor Redmond’s Wednesday release of her 2023 Tentative Budget stands as only the first step in the Town’s state-mandated, multi-stage annual budgeting process.  After Town Board review and possible revision, the Board must elevate the Tentative Budget to a “Preliminary Budget.”   In Enfield’s case, such a vote could come as soon as mid-October.  Next, the Board must hold a Budget Hearing by November 10.  It must then adopt the resulting “Final Budget” by late-November.

Back in 2020, Beth McGee adopted a budget much sooner, hers on the last day of September.  Then she resigned that same night.  That was then.

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The end of County Redistricting’s twisting journey

by Robert Lynch, September 25, 2022

By this writer’s count, the Tompkins County Independent Redistricting Commission held a dozen meetings—its first one last December 14th, and the most recent one in late August.  Its singular mission was to re-divide districts for the Tompkins County Legislature.  It took on the task to satisfy the Supreme Court’s long-standing one-person, one-vote mandate as well as New York State’s now even more stringent criterion, one twice as rigid as what SCOTUS demands.

The Commission had to deal with “45 Rubik’s Cubes at one time,” legislator Deborah Dawson famously remarked during a redistricting discussion in July.

“I can’t say I agree with the outcome, but that’s the way it works.” Redistricting plan critic Mike Lane.

The Commission did its job.  But the wide latitude given it by the Tompkins County Charter also empowered the citizen board to recommend changes in the number of county legislators.  It could also decide whether that number would be odd or even.

It was those two questions that proved the sticking points this year.  And it explained why a bare majority of the current 14-member Legislature this summer tossed the Commission’s first submission back to it for a revisit.  The Commission liked what it first tendered and tossed its recommendation back to the Legislature unchanged.  Grudgingly or not, the Legislature last Tuesday ratified the Commission’s first and only line-drawing submission.  Frankly, as the Charter stands written, the Legislature had little choice.

“I can’t say I agree with the outcome,” said Dryden legislator Mike Lane, for much of this year the redistricting proposal’s most ardent critic. “But that’s the way it works.”

“When you share power, which is what we have done here, instead of keeping this as our own decision as most counties do, I think sometimes you end up with things that you didn’t expect or may be better or may not be better.”

The County Legislature’s membership is an even number now.  The Commission’s plan would keep the number even, yet still increase it by two, raising membership to 16.  Commission members have maintained that nothing else really worked.  State law currently permits only a five per cent population deviation between the smallest district and the largest.  And any different headcount, Commission members argued, wreaked havoc with keeping communities—including Enfield and Newfield—from being chopped to bits. 

Enfield has been, and will continue to be, split between two legislative districts.  At least one alternative map would have increased the Enfield district number to three.  Newfield has traditionally enjoyed representation by just one legislator.  Some alternatives considered this year would have split Newfield; often joining the town’s eastern side to a district centered in Danby.  And for Enfield, one considered redesign would have removed southern Enfield from the Newfield district now represented by Randy Brown and given it to the Town of Ithaca district served by Amanda Champion.

Nonetheless, a couple of  latter submissions—one for a 13-member Legislature, and another for just 11 members—would have combined all of Enfield into a single district, merging it with Anne Koreman’s Ulysses district.

The Commission tossed aside all of the competing options, holding firm to its 16-member favorite, one that really wouldn’t change either town’s representation much at all until the next decade.  Mecklenburg Road, Route 79, will remain, with some changes, the rough dividing line between Brown’s district and Koreman’s.  Barring an unexpected court challenge, voters will not witness the change until the next legislative election in 2025.

Unlike in many other places and in a transparent attempt to insulate line-drawing from gerrymandered political manipulation, Tompkins County’s Charter gives the Commission, not the County Legislature, the final say.  Lawmakers can only seek Commission reconsideration once.  Barring a lawsuit, last Tuesday’s acceptance was something lawmakers couldn’t avoid.  Still, two legislators voted against the Commission’s proposal.  Newfield-Enfield’s Randy Brown was one of them.

“I think it’s a waste of money, Brown said of the Commission’s 16-member recommendation.  “I don’t see the value in adding two legislators.”

Brown also argued that by the time the redistricting plan actually gets implemented, it’ll already violate New York’s equal-population mandate, even though the law may be blind to that flaw.

Two more legislators is “a waste of money.” Randy Brown.

“I think that you’re going to find that by 2025, the five per cent (requirement) is going to be out of whack right away, and we’re going to be dealing with that for ten more years after that,” said Brown.   “I don’t think it’s fair.”

In reality, the time frame may become more like eight years, as the 2030 census could be employed for legislative elections in 2033.

Ithaca’s Henry Granison, African-American, provided Tuesday’s other objection to the redistricting plan, but declined to explain his vote.  The Legislature’s second person of color, Travis Brooks, could have been expected to join Granison in objecting, but didn’t.  Though he voted to affirm the plan, Brooks took aim at the proposal’s racial impact.  He said that the plan, intentionally or not, would pack low income residents and minorities into a single City district, namely his.

“To me,” said Brooks, “we did the opposite of what we’re supposed to be doing, and we disenfranchised the minority voices even more by putting all low-income housing in one district.  That’s giving one vote for minority, low-income folk in the county.”

Shortly after Brooks said those words, others prompted him to walk them back.  One-by-one, legislative colleagues piled on to note that their districts, too, have at least some low-income housing. 

But Brooks viewed the issue more broadly.  And his argument took one side in a redistricting debate that’s confounded many in this nation for decades.  Does one advance minority interests by consolidating communities of color and thus insuring that the sub-group elects at least one of its own?  Or are ethnic groups better served by splitting minority members among several districts, thereby giving them a less-probable, though still viable option to elect multiple representatives?

****

The Tompkins County redistricting debate may not be settled.  Twists and turns may remain.  Legislator Lane, having lost his earlier effort to shorten current legislative terms so as to implement the 2020 Census data sooner, may yet move to implement weighted voting in the County Legislature for the years before 2026.  And looking longer-term, Lane hinted Tuesday that Tompkins County may want to curb the Redistricting Commission’s future power in determining legislative numbers, and permit it only to define those districts’ shape.

“We’re disenfranchising minority voices.” Travis Brooks

“Probably we need to look at the criteria that we suggest to the Independent Commission in the Charter again… not tomorrow, but we need to do it eventually,” said Lane.  He did not get more specific.

Mike Lane dislikes tie votes.  Multiple times during the redistricting debate, he’s resurrected the protracted leadership stalemate of 2020, when legislators tied seven-seven in repeated votes during successive meetings before finally deciding upon a permanent Chair.  Lane also argues Tompkins County, by its latest action, has bucked a regional, if not national trend.

“I think we probably will be the only county that…will be going up in the number of legislators,” Lane said.  “Most counties are going down.”  And about those other legislatures, he added, “I don’t know how many have an even number of legislators. I would be surprised if there are very many.”  

“The problems we have seen in the past will arise because there will be divided votes, 50/50,” the Legislature’s most senior member warned.

By 2026, Lane cautioned, as many as nine people will be needed to pass a resolution in the Legislature.

[Full disclosure:  This writer’s sister, Marcia Lynch, sat this year on the Independent Redistricting Commission; and this writer has spoken multiple times, to both the Commission at the County Legislature, in favor of the redistricting proposal adopted.]

In other action at the Legislature’s September 20th meeting:

  • With little advance notice, the Legislature adopted member Deborah Dawson’s last-minute Resolution extending a multi-year financial agreement between the County, the City of Ithaca, and Cornell University for the operation of the TCAT transit service.  Discussion prior to the unanimous voted skirted two hot-button TCAT controversies; namely whether transit ridership should become fare-free for all, and whether Cornell should increase its subsidies.
  • The Legislature, with little discussion, authorized an increase the in partial property tax exemptions granted senior citizens and the disabled.  Under its action, the maximum income for a 50 per cent reduction in County—but not Town, City, or School—taxes would rise from $29,000 to $35,000.  The Enfield Town Board will consider its own possible exemption eligibility increase in future weeks. 
  • Meanwhile, Government Operations Committee Chair Amanda Champion pulled a committee-debated proposal that would have moved Tompkins County from a one-year to a three-year reassessment cycle.  Champion gave no explanation for her action.

###

Chair Black Defends P.R. Chief amid 1st Amendment Flap

They were “defamatory and uninformed accusations made against our Communications Director;” Legislature Chair Shawna Black, flanked by legislative clerks., September 20.

Analysis by Robert Lynch, September 23, 2022

This week’s comments by the Chair of the Tompkins County Legislature made one point perfectly clear:  To some in County Government, the most politically incorrect thing you can do is to criticize the City-County Reimagining Public Safety collaborative.

And Shawna Black’s provocative statement September 20th underscored yet a second point:  The only person likely to pay a price for what now might be called “Rordangate” is one poorly-paid, bottom-rung—and now, unemployed—community journalist who had the audacity to report what the mayor of Trumansburg actually, candidly had told her.

“Recently there have been defamatory and uninformed accusations made against our County Communications Director related to his relationship with the local press,” Chairwoman Black stated Tuesday night before the County Legislature in defense of Dominick Recckio, the governmental spokesman that Ithaca Alderperson Jeffrey Barken has accused of “exercising improper influence” over a local weekly newspaper’s reporting of Reimagining-critical comments uttered by Trumansburg Mayor Rordan Hart.

“Reimagining Public Safety is an investment in better, more transparent, and more equitable way of policing,” Shawna Black insisted, continuing with her rambling, defensive, nearly 700-word monologue that most observers would find not in her character.  Reimagining Public Safety, Black maintained, is “an investment in finding ways to meet our community’s increasing needs while freeing up law enforcement officers to handle serious and criminal issues. It is not an anti-police or defund the police measure.”

On the job, scribing just before Shawna Black’s statement; Communications Director Recckio.

Still, in some way or another, the otherwise-innocuous August third profile of Mayor Hart reflecting upon his village’s 150th anniversary cost reporter Deidra Cross her job.  Following Recckio’s pushback on the alleged “inaccuracies” concerning Hart’s embedded comments on Reimagining, Cross’s employer, Tompkins Weekly, terminated her.

In what most would regard as little more than a hometown puff-piece about a village’s youngest-in-a-half-century mayor, Cross never got to Hart’s criticism of Ithaca’s policing reforms or its impact on T-Burg until her eighth paragraph.  Had Recckio not become involved in the matter or had Barken not faulted him for doing so, probably few would have noticed.

For its part, according to media quotes, Tompkins Weekly executives minimize the causal connection between the story and the firing.  And they downplay Recckio’s role in all of it.

The Ithaca Voice quotes Tompkins weekly editor Jessica Wickham as saying the termination “was in relation to Cross’ conduct, not the August column.”  Nonetheless, Deidra Cross has hired a lawyer, and she intends to sue.

The Voice also quotes Wickham as saying the editor “had never felt threatened by Recckio at any point in their working relationship.”

But, influence, however subtle, coming from the administrative mouthpiece of County Government can have an overpowering—even, intimidating—impact.

Among the trove of exchanges between Recckio and various media organizations, released under New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), Matt Butler of The Voice on September 21st quoted an email from the County Communications Director to Wickham’s paper, one more specifically directed at an earlier Deidra Cross Tompkins Weekly article, an April 13th profile of builder, Ithaca Police supporter and Donald Trump partisan, Rocco Lucente:

Out of work and preparing to sue. Deidra Cross (Photo courtesy Tompkins Weekly)

“I am sharing with you that I am concerned with this week’s ‘Trumansburg Connections’ column in Tompkins Weekly,” Recckio reportedly wrote.  “This is peppered with lies, misleading statements and unfounded attacks on several topics, under the guise of featuring a harmless ‘activist and writer’ (namely, Lucente.)”

Did Dominick Recckio step over the line?  Perhaps not.  But the Communications Director, down just a couple of steps from the County Administrator on the organizational chart, certainly tiptoed close to it. 

The argument could be made—and indeed, has been made to this writer—that the official voice of government could better have respected the First Amendment by offering only a counterpoint statement to balance the article or else requesting that the paper reserve space for a County official to provide his or her own Op-Ed perspective.   Quite clearly, Dominick Recckio went farther than that.

One must always remember that the First Amendment’s explicit purpose is to avoid infringement of Free Speech by Government and Government actors, and by no one else.

Neither the April nor August Tompkins Weekly articles, nor their official critiques, had gained much traction until Alderperson Barken took his grievance before his Ithaca Common Council September 7th.

“It has come to my attention that a county administrator has, for some time now, been exercising improper influence over a local publication,” Barken said in a floor statement that continued for some eight minutes.  “We do not yet know for how long this official misconduct went on, if the problem extends to other news outlets, but a pattern of abuse is strongly suggested.”

Barken that night did not mention Recckio by name, but later acknowledged it was the Communications Director to whom he referred.

“Mayor Hart makes some pretty bold assertions backed up by the columnist that are undermining our efforts,” Barken attributed to the then-unnamed county official.

The man who made this all news; Ithaca Alderperson Jeffrey Barken

So, what did Rordan Hart tell Deidra Cross that so inflamed certain players in the Reimagining process?  Indeed, the T-Burg Mayor’s words were those you might commonly hear, but only well outside the circle of ultra-liberal activism, that segment which holds disproportionate grip on much of Ithaca-centric politics.

“What we have seen as a result of (Reimagining’s) initiative is the willful dismantling of necessary services,” Deidra Cross quoted Mayor Hart as saying about the City-County policing reform initiative.

“To me, the unthinkable was the end goal, and that was to end law enforcement as we know it,” Rordan Hart opined in words Deidra Cross scrupulously reported.  “There’s the mistaken belief by officials on the local level that the effects in their towns exist in a silo.  These effects impact all emergency services in the county.  You still need the assistance of local agencies.  The ripple effect has become evident.”

Rordan Hart is a staunch defender of his village’s tiny police department and T-Burg’s equally-modest ambulance service.  And however valid his rationale is, it is this:  When Ithaca seeks to turn its uniformed police force into just another civilian-led bureaucracy under Reimagining, officers get demoralized; they quit; no one replaces them; squad cars can’t answer calls; and EMS squads like his village’s have to handle public safety matters instead.

Not only that.  As transmitted through Deidra Cross’ pen, Mayor Hart worries that his village’s own uniformed officers may be commandeered to pick up Ithaca’s slack.

“So, if IPD needs more assistance,” Cross wrote, “it has to call on groups like the Trumansburg, Ithaca College and Cornell University police departments, as well as the Tompkins Country Sheriff’s Departments.”  Continuing to summarize Hart’s words, the reporter wrote, “In those situations where Trumansburg’s assistance is needed, that would leave the village with no law enforcement.”

It’s a valid concern.  And Rordan Hart has every right to speak it. And Deidra Cross has every right to report it.  At no point, to anyone’s knowledge, has Mayor Hart retracted his words or complained that he was misquoted.  No, rather what makes people like Shawna Black and others in the “Reimagining Blob” bristle is that the mayor said those words at all or that suburban reporters like Cross put them onto paper.

Casual and Candid; T-Burg Mayor Rordan Hart (courtesy Deidra Cross and Tompkins Weekly)

“Unfortunately, Reimagining has become a flashpoint for our community,” Shawna Black told the Legislature Tuesday night, a fact of which no member needed to be reminded.  “Some groups automatically and loudly claim that Reimagining is anti-police, or entail defunding the police—but let me be very clear, regardless of politics or party lines, that could not be further from the truth.”

And the dare-you-challenge-our-good-intentions monologue continued.

“Associating other difficult challenges facing our communities with Reimagining isn’t helping us solve problems either,” the Chair told legislators. “Instead, it’s making challenges more political and harder to address—it’s also making it much harder to communicate the truth of what is actually happening and included under Reimagining.”

“Correcting the record of what is and isn’t under Reimagining is the work of this County, just as (is) supporting our law enforcement agencies and emergency services,” Black continued, in a line that should send a chill down the back of any card-carrying ACLU member.  One wonders if Shawna Black is one. 

Juxtapose those words with what Black stated at the top of her prepared remarks, “Let me state clearly that Tompkins County unequivocally supports freedom of the press and free speech.”

Sadly, oil and water do not mix.  Actions do speak louder than words.

One day after Alderperson Barken accused Tompkins County of “exercising improper influence” over Tompkins Weekly and its now-jobless reporter, Tompkins County Attorney William Troy cleared Dominick Recckio of any wrongdoing.

 “I have reviewed the facts of the incident in question as the Chief Legal Officer of the County. I have concluded that no violation of the law, much less a breach of anyone’s constitutional rights, has occurred,” Troy wrote in a memorandum addressed to local media outlets.

“After review, I found no threat of suppression of the Tompkins Weekly newspaper or any other publication. I found no evidence of improper influence, misconduct, or abuse of Mr. Recckio’s position,” Tompkins County’s top lawyer continued.

Effectively, the County Attorney provided the Communications Director a wider berth of discretion than some might find comfortable.

Troy’s statement continued, “Tompkins County values the right of anyone to speak openly about public issues. There is also an equal right to disagree with someone’s opinion.  Here Mr. Recckio, as the Communications Director of Tompkins County, suggested to the editor of that newspaper that the column in question contained some inaccuracies.  At no time was any threat made directly or indirectly against anyone. In fact, upon reviewing Mr. Recckio’s comments the editor of the newspaper undertook a review of the column and made corrections.”

To that point, what were the “inaccuracies?”  And what were the “corrections?”  Is Rordan Hart entitled to his opinions about Reimagining Public Safety, or is he not?  Many line officers at IPD dislike how their department is being transformed.  Many have quit or retired.  IPD ranks are down in number by perhaps a dozen.  And when Ithaca’s cops have thinned to the point that they can’t respond to emergencies, someone else must.  Otherwise crime runs amok.

****

Astute observers may suspect that Tompkins County’s Communications Director—and perhaps its Legislature’s Chair as well—were doing the dirty work for someone else, someone behind Reimagining’s controversial curtain.  Shawna Black sounded not herself last Tuesday night. Let’s hope she was just having an unartful moment.  Each of us is entitled to one now and then.  But a government official touching First Amendment freedoms is akin to you touching that power line outside your house.  Don’t attempt it without learned skill and well-insulated gloves.

Rordangate has not produced Tompkins County’s finest hour.  Last Tuesday night was not the Legislature Chair’s finest moment.  And if I were still in media, I’d offer Deidra Cross a job on the spot. And send her to cover the County Legislature.

###

Downtown “Red House” debate puts Center of Government siting into question

Reporting and Analysis by Robert Lynch, September 19, 2022

It started last Thursday morning as a discussion about whether to sell or repurpose—or even potentially demolish—the “Red House,” a Victorian, wood-frame structure Tompkins County bought three years ago as part of a $1.8 Million land deal to secure Tioga Street property for its much-wanted “Center of Government.”

But within months of that April 2019 purchase, and in deliberations well-hidden from public view, plans changed.  Nearly two years of subsequent, secretive negotiations and closed-door County Legislature meetings led to an August 2021 unveiling of a new building site. It was the Key Bank and Wiggins Office parcels at Buffalo and Tioga Streets, lots adjacent to the Courthouse.  And for those buildings, County Government shelled out another $3 Million.

Aging, empty and on life support; North Tioga Street’s “Red House.”

At the moment legislators bought the new land, the “Red House” became surplus.  And the September 15th meeting of the Legislature’s Facilities and Infrastructure Committee was supposed to see a vote on whether to put the 408 North Tioga Street structure—just a piece of the total site—onto the market, maybe to sell it as only a ground lease.

But the vote never happened.  The authorizing resolutions got pulled.  And instead, legislators engaged in 40 minutes of roundabout discussions not only about the “Red House’s” fate, but also about the downtown office project in general.   Members wondered aloud whether a Center of Government should best be built on the new site, or maybe on the old site, or maybe on neither site at all.  Without answering the larger question, the “Red House’s” future became an ever-more unanswered question… at least until the committee meets again next month.

Yet please take a step back, and be aware of the context.  A seasoned observer Thursday could have spotted something else:  an evolution in thought within the Governor Daniel D. Tompkins Building, the Legislature’s home.  The shadows of a once-powerful former County Administrator, as well as those of a few long-time legislators, now retired, have grown longer.  And the brick-and-mortar assumptions that dictated the past may not necessarily chart the future.  A new “Downtown Campus” for the Center of Government may no longer be a foregone conclusion.  Yes, offices may be built, but not necessarily where they were planned.  If one takes that longer view, the “Red House” debate of Thursday could be seen as much more than about just one little old frame building.

“I’m of the opinion that we do have a plan,” a somewhat hesitant County Administrator Lisa Holmes told the committee.  Holmes referred to a revised multi-office space study recently completed, and stated, “Looking at those square footage needs leads me to think that… the square footage needs  would be best met on that parcel (the Key Bank/Wiggins lot) and not on the parcel in the Fall Creek neighborhood,” namely the land the County bought first.

The “Plan” was to go this way, not that other way, wasn’t it? County Administrator Lisa Holmes.

“I feel we’re not all on the same page on that most basic thing,” legislator Amanda Champion observed, addressing legislators’ past purported preference of the Key Bank/Wiggins office site, “even though that was Lisa’s understanding when we bought this property.  That was the idea.”

“It was one person’s idea,” committee Chair Mike Lane bluntly replied.  “That was Jason Molino’s idea.”

Jason Molino, Tompkins County Administrator until May 2021 and Holmes’ immediate predecessor, was, according to sources, the driving force between the Key Bank and Wiggins office purchases and the one person in County Government who clamped the tightest lid of secrecy over the acquisition’s seemingly endless negotiations.

“Well, but we agreed to buy it, and there was a lot of people who agreed with him,” Amanda Champion responded, answering Lane’s reference to Molino. 

Former County Administrator Jason Molino

“I agreed,” Ulysses-Enfield’s Anne Koreman chimed in, concurring with Amanda and with the purchase.

“So, I don’t think that’s fair, Mike,” Champion continued, questioning Lane’s suggestion that the Key Bank/Wiggins purchase was a one-man initiative.

Evidenced by the exchange, many Molino supporters still sit on the County Legislature.  But two of the Buffalo and Tioga Street land deal’s wildest legislative cheerleaders have now left.  Former Downtown Facilities Committee Chair David McKenna of Newfield and Dryden legislator Martha Robertson both retired last December.  Robertson once said that buying the Key Bank and Wiggins buildings fulfilled for her a 20-year dream.

But some recent legislative arrivals adopt a more pragmatic view.

“Why are we putting a Center of Government in a place that’s incredibly inaccessible to get to with vehicles when we have such a challenge with parking and cars and things like that?” Dryden’s Greg Mezey, Robertson’s successor, asked the committee Thursday.  Mezey has talked in the past about creative Center of Government options like repurposing a part of the ailing Shops at Ithaca Mall.

“I’m not sure that it’s going to be cost productive to go on that corner,” remarked another legislative newcomer, Groton’s Lee Shurtleff.  “I still have difficulty investing money, millions of dollars, into the City (of Ithaca), when the City can’t get a handle on the public safety issues down here.”

“I wouldn’t invest anything at this point,” Shurtleff continued, referencing Ithaca’s increased downtown crime, “until we see some things happen in these local neighborhoods.”

****

But back to the “Red House,” where the September 15th discussion was expected to have started and ended.  The aging, vacant, two-story structure stands on the edge, yet still well within, the protected DeWitt Park Historic District.  Most private owners couldn’t alter its façade, let alone demolish the building.  But Tompkins County could legally pull rank on the City and pre-empt the historic preservation law.  Any preservationist should grow disturbed that few legislators Thursday gave much of a passing thought to any ethical obligation to preserve history.  Many saw little value in the “Red House” and would just as soon it go away, piece by piece.

What might be sold is in the blue box; the “Red House” plot on the County’s Tioga Street land.

“I can’t support selling this,” Mezey told the committee, the Dryden lawmaker among those who worried that if the” Red House” were sold, too little of the remaining lot would be left.  “I would be in favor of deconstructing (tearing down) that building and then also studying that space and saying ‘what could we do?’”  Mezey suggested maybe a day care center or housing.

Ignoring the broader Center of Government issue for the moment and focusing on the “Red House” itself, legislators saw three paths forward.  Either they could sell the building with or without the land beneath it; tear it down now to enlarge the vacant tract; or else mothball the structure until the County figures out what to do.  The County could use the building for offices someday, whether or not a Center of Government finds the 408-412 North Tioga Street lot its chosen landing spot; if, that is, the County paid a steep price to renovate it.

“You’re foreclosing doing anything with this property moving forward,” Groton’s Shurtleff warned as he argued against the building’s sale.  “You can’t build much on what’s going to be left.  It takes this area off the table for anything practical moving forward.”

“I wouldn’t to invest anything” downtown until the City gets a handle on public safety; Groton’s Lee Shurtleff

But committee chair Mike Lane supported immediate sale, as did Ulysses’ Anne Koreman.

“If we’re not going to do anything with that in the near future,” Koreman said of the building, “I am for selling it on for somebody else to take care of.”

“A vacant property, observed Koreman, a building inspector by trade, “is open for vandalism—water, critters, other things.  The house is deteriorating, any empty building is; it’s deteriorating very quickly.”

And to those who might say, “What if a Center of Government goes there?” Koreman had an answer.

“If we build a Center of Government, it’s not going to be there,” Koreman asserted.

Retrofitting the aging, though historic, “Red House” would prove expensive.  County Director of Facilities Arel LeMaro conceded that just mothballing the building wouldn’t cost much, perhaps $20,000 in continued insurance.  A “basement abatement,” the lowest-level upgrade, would cost $49,000, LeMaro said.  But retrofitting it for permanent government offices could cost $1.17 Million.

Committee Chair Lane predicted code compliance would require adding sprinklers and an elevator.  The elevator might need to go on the building’s outside.

Improvements would probably cost “more than the building would be worth when you’re done,” Newfield’s Randy Brown predicted. 

“If you don’t sell it,” Brown said, “I would support deconstructing it and keeping the property.”

“Water, critters, all sorts of things. the Red House is deteriorating quickly. Sell it!” Anne Koreman

But with lawmakers unsure of even where to build a Center of Government, little seems more certain than that for now, what lies to the west and north of 408 North Tioga—including the County-owned former Baker Dental Building, soon, itself, to be deconstructed—will remain just a bare, employee parking lot.

“I don’t have a problem with this being a parking lot half a block away from our county campus,” Mike Lane told the committee he chairs.  Lane wants to keep County offices downtown, near the Courthouse. So he views an overflow lot as something essential.  “I don’t think that’s something we have any apologies for,” Lane said.  Too many County employees, he maintained, have no place to park.

Yet both Amanda Champion and Danby legislator Dan Klein recognized what might have become the most conspicuous take-away from Thursday’s discussion; indecision and an absence of vision concerning the “Red House’s” future.

“We’re doing things piecemeal without a plan,” Klein maintained. 

“If we decide not to sell it, we need to have a better plan,” Champion insisted.  “We can’t just say we’re not going to sell it and let it sit for three more years.”

Champion was referring to the “Red House.”  But she could just as easily have referred to the Center of Government itself.  The meeting could have used a Jason Molino.  He, most definitely, would have had a plan—whether you’d like that plan or not.

###

Senior Break:  Enfield Board ponders elder taxes; counting dogs

by Robert Lynch, September 17, 2022

It wouldn’t take hold until the January 2024 tax bills.  But judging from members’ September 14th discussions, the Enfield Town Board will likely raise the income ceiling that allows qualifying senior citizens and the disabled to claim a 50 per cent reduction in their town property taxes.

Wednesday’s Board tax talk came in response to a new state law that nearly doubles the allowable exemption municipalities can approve.  It also follows a recent committee recommendation downtown that would increase the senior exemption for Tompkins County’s share of the property tax.

Director of Assessment Jay Franklin, at a recent Tompkins County committee meeting

“It’s due time that they (the state) at least provided the option for local municipalities to do what’s right for their community,” Jay Franklin, Tompkins County’s Director of Assessment, told the Enfield Board. 

“I’m not here advocating for or against these exemptions,” Franklin stressed. “I’m just here to provide the information that you need to make that decision.”

Based on Wednesday’s discussion, it’s all but certain that the Town Board will elevate Enfield’s senior citizens’ exemption beyond the $24,000 where it stands at present.  The question remaining unanswered is how much higher the exemption might rise.

Franklin said Enfield last raised its senior exemption in 2016.  The Town’s cutoff presently falls $5,000 below County Government’s own $29,000 limit.  But based on a resolution drafted in committee earlier this month and set for approval by the full County Legislature September 20th, the Tompkins County threshold would rise to $35,000.  One County legislator, in committee, said he’d support raising the figure to $40,000. 

The state law adopted this year raised the exemption’s allowable New York income limit from $29,000 to $50,000.  Franklin suggested the uppermost limit of the income ceiling was likely aimed to address pricier downstate properties on Long Island and in Rockland County.  Under the State’s formula, seniors earning slightly above the 50 per cent exemption ceiling could obtain reductions of a lesser percentage.

“I wouldn’t want to go any lower than 29 (thousand),” Supervisor Stephanie Redmond said of the Enfield senior exemption.  Her statement would set a floor that would be $5,000 above its present level.

“I think we have to go up from what it is at present,” Councilperson Robert Lynch (this writer) responded.  “Whether we go to 35; whether we go higher, I think we need a range of options,” Lynch added.

At the Town Board’s request, Franklin will predict the financial impact of various options: of raising the exemption limit to $29,000, to $35,000, or even to $40,000.

When the senior citizens’ exemption rises, of course, younger taxpayers must make up the revenue difference.  The Assessment Director said that based on his initial estimates, raising the exemption from $24,000 to $29,000 would make 25 more Enfield residents eligible, 105 people in total.  Were that to occur, Franklin said, the Enfield tax base would fall by $2,366,000, producing an eight cent per thousand rise in the Town tax rate and a $14 tax increase on the average Enfield home.

The Town Board need not decide the exemption rate right away.  Seniors would have until next March 1st to file for it.  Franklin would prefer the Town act before December.

Lynch suggested the Town Board at a future meeting `set aside time for the public to weigh in.  “We might hear from seniors or non-seniors about what we should do,” the Councilperson said.

****

Enfield dog owners will soon hear from the Town—at their door.

For the first time in a dozen years, and upon Town Clerk Mary Cornell’s recommendation, Enfield will conduct a house-by-house enumeration of dogs, primarily to detect which canines’ owners have not licensed them.

“Hopefully, people will be honest,” Lynch said as the Town Board Wednesday set terms for the enumerator’s compensation.  “Don’t say you don’t have a dog if the dog is jumping up on the storm door,” Lynch joked.

Cute! From Clerk Cornell’s license-your-dog flyer

Upon Clerk Cornell’s recommendation, the Board assigned Enfield resident Pat Baker as the enumerator.  The key discussion Wednesday involved how much Baker should be paid.

Enfield’s last dog enumeration occurred in 2010.  Back then, the Town paid the enumerator $2.00 per dog and 50 cents per mile traveled.  Inflation would now elevate that compensation to $2.72 per dog, and the IRS mileage rate has risen from 50 to 62.5 cents, a mileage increase Cornell recommended, and the Board accepted.

But somewhat resembling an impromptu auction, Board members tossed about various figures for the per-head snout count.

Supervisor Redmond first suggested $3.00 per dog.  Lynch agreed.  But Councilperson James Ricks wanted a higher payment, as much as $5.00 for each dog found.

Ricks warned of 100 pound pit bulls, not to mention their ornery owners.

“I think this is a pretty challenging job,” Ricks remarked, “not just dealing with the dog, but with the people.”

In the end, the Town Board split the difference, setting the enumerator’s compensation at $4.00 per dog. 

With the last count having found about 800 Enfield dogs, Cornell estimated each dollar increase in the enumerator’s compensation would cost the town nearly $1,000.  Yet the count is somewhat self-compensating, since the owner of an unlicensed dog found in an enumeration is subject not only to a licensing fee, but also a $10.00 per dog surcharge.

“This has to be done,” Lynch acknowledged.  “There are probably some people out there that wish the dog enumerator would not knock on their door.  But we have to do it to be fair to those who responsibly license their dogs.”

In other Town Board business at the September 14th meeting:

  • After a public hearing that brought forth only a couple of resident questions and no objections, the Town Board adopted a local law and its accompanying policy statement that permits a Board member to attend a meeting—and vote—via teleconference, but only under “extraordinary circumstances,” emergencies such as illness, disability or caregiving responsibilities.  A quorum of Board members would still need to convene at a fixed location where the public was also invited to attend.  The policy differs from that permitted during the past couple of years, when state-declared COVID-19 emergencies enabled the entire Town Board to meet remotely.
  • Supervisor Redmond reported that the New York State Department of Transportation has granted the Town’s request to lower the posted speed limit on a two-mile stretch of Mecklenburg Road, NY Route 79, from 50 to 45 miles per hour, effective immediately.  By the following weekend, the lower limit signs had already been posted.  NYSDOT, nonetheless, declined the Town’s request to construct sidewalks on that same route near Miller’s Corners.  It means that if the Town wants sidewalks, it will need to build them itself.
  • And for over an hour, Paul Fenn of the firm Local Power LLC, held an online give-and-take discussion with the Board concerning the Town and City of Ithaca’s efforts toward establishing a Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) program for the bulk-purchase of electrical energy on behalf of municipal residents.  Following Fenn’s presentation, the Enfield Board took no action on whether to join the Ithaca CCA. (Expect the later posting of a separate story concerning this discussion.)

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CPE’s Foot-Dragging delays release of Reimagining docs

by Robert Lynch, September 12, 2022

Former Mayor Svante Myrick has reportedly responded.  So has Ithaca Acting Mayor Laura Lewis, in her case, likely through the City Attorney.  Two key advisors in the City-County effort to restructure local policing have also supposedly answered an ethics panel’s call for information.  But because one lone, high-profile holdout implicated in the controversial Reimagining Public Safety initiative is dragging its feet, the panel investigating City Hall’s alleged ethics violations surrounding policing reform decided Monday to delay making public anyone’s written responses… but only for about a week.

If we don’t hear from them by week’s end, “we hit go.” Ethics Advisory Board member Kathleen Walpole, with Chair Rich John.

Rich John, Chair of the Tompkins County Ethics Advisory Board, disclosed at the Board’s brief meeting Monday that only the Center for Policing Equity (CPE), a Yale University-based, police-critical non-profit that played a central role in the 2020-21 Reimagining Plan’s drafting, has delayed its requested responses to questions the panel posed to address the ethics complaint brought this spring by Ithaca Alderperson Cynthia Brock.

John initially gave CPE officials an extended August 31st response deadline to answer the questions his panel had posed. 

But CPE officials, according to John, first told the chairman they’d need “a couple more days” to finish their response.   Then CPE pushed it off for another week—until this week.  Yet nothing was in hand by Monday morning.  “I don’t know where that stands right now,” John said of CPE’s dilatory response.

Without having CPE’s explanation of its own role in Reimagining, and not wanting CPE to dovetail its answers with those of Myrick, Lewis and others, the Ethics Board Monday altered its original intention to release the other written responses perhaps as soon as that day’s meeting.  Instead, the Board opted to delay release until CPE’s comment comes in, but in no instance, to withhold disclosure beyond the end of the week.

“If we don’t hear from CPE by the end of the week, we hit go,” Advisory Board member Kathleen Walpole said.

Though the written comments received to date were discussed by the Board in closed session following Monday’s 25-minute open meeting, they have yet to be made public.  Nonetheless, a diligent party could retrieve them even now via a Freedom of Information Law request.

CPE, which both City and County severed all ties with in June, served as a key player in assembling the data and writing the overly-ambitious, 96-page Reimagining Public Safety collaborative report, a document that both Ithaca  and Tompkins County submitted New York State in April 2021 in answer to former Governor Andrew Cuomo’s command after the George Floyd killing.  Cuomo did nothing more than put the exhaustive and expensive local document on a shelf.  Yet, Ithaca officials used it as a blueprint for sweeping changes in local policing, including recasting the Ithaca Police Department into a civilian-led agency.

Because, in part, from CPE’s involvement, and from the financial transactions involving both it and local Reimagining advisors Karen Yearwood and Eric Rosario, Alderperson Brock authored a complaint which this spring landed before the Ethics Board.  The Board, in response, sent out a series of letters to Reimagining’s key players in June.  Many of those contacted delayed compliance throughout the summer, including officials like Acting Mayor Lewis, whose responses were funneled through the City Attorney, Ari Lavine.  Yet to date, according to John, only CPE’s answers remain unreceived.

“Given this is a public investigation and it’s dragged on since the spring, I am concerned that we are waiting too long,” John told the Ethics Board Monday in urging that written responses, still secret, be made public as soon as possible.

“There might be some issue with helping witnesses to prepare,” John acknowledged, noting that the Board’s making written responses public could guide others’ comments in subsequent interviews.  “But because of the actual substance of what we’re investigating, which was really a secretive process,” he added, “I don’t want us to be accused of that either.”

For a time Monday, Ethics Board member Brian Eden held out for keeping all written replies secret until the Board had finished its interviews.

“I wouldn’t want to release these documents piecemeal,” said Eden.  He said it “might give an unfavorable impression of one submission or another.”

Eden suggested the Board’s ethics inquiry mirror that of Congress’ January 6th Committee.  First would come written responses and then interviews where one witness doesn’t know what another might have said.

“You don’t want to put any cards on the table before you talk to people,” Rich John said in agreement.  “But I’m not that concerned that the witnesses we’ll talk to are going to gain any real information that will help anybody obscure the facts when they talk to us.”

Nonetheless, some of the statements Advisory Board members will eventually release may bear those familiar black lines of redaction.  The edits were recommended Monday by the Board’s attorney, Dan Rose.

“I can think of at least one open question that I’ve seen,” Rose said, “that those interview questions, those answers might change in order to bring the stories in line.”  Rose did not elaborate.  Given the Ethics Board’s final resolution, expect all respondents’ answers to face vetting in executive sessions before those responses—unless accessed through FOIL—are shared with the public.

“I don’t think we’re going to get gold stars from everybody, no matter what we do,” Rich John conceded.  “Somebody is going to tell us we didn’t do a very good job.  And I think we kind of have to ignore that and follow our best judgment and do the best we can.”

The Ethics Advisory Board agreed to next meet September 21st.  No precise plans for comment disclosures prior to that meeting were discussed.

###

Enfield Planners bypass “zoning” in land use talks

Analysis by Councilperson Robert Lynch, September 8, 2022

At the end of a more than 90-minute discussion of possible new land use controls Wednesday, Enfield Planning Board member Mike Carpenter asked the question most demanding an answer: Are we talking about writing a zoning ordinance here, he said.

Planning Board Chair Dan Walker offered a ready answer:  No

Easy Does It. Enfield Planning Board members deliberating land use policy September 7. (Two more attended remotely.)

“We’re not creating a zoning ordinance,” Walker responded. “We’re just looking at land uses”

Two members of the Enfield Town Board attended the September 7th meeting.  Supervisor Stephanie Redmond participated minimally as she ran the hybrid meeting’s electronics.  Redmond voiced no objections to Walker’s assessment.  I, one of Enfield’s four Councilpersons, remained silent.  But I wholeheartedly support the Chairman’s conclusion.

Zoning, the “dreaded Z-word” as some like me call it, has bounced around all summer in Town Board and Planning Board meetings.  It’s come up as an option to consider as Enfield’s leaders, most notably Redmond, have discussed the need for tighter land use controls.  They see the need to regulate heretofore undetected, not-yet-seen invaders to our town, interlopers like a massive apartment complex or a commercial landfill.  Zoning’s never been tried in Enfield.  And I sense many hope it never will be.

But the Planning Board, to whom Redmond has deferred in seeking Enfield’s best line of defense, spoke little of the zoning option Wednesday.  Members mentioned the word with only glancing attention, usually as an adjective, preferring instead to talk of controls already well within Enfield’s arsenal; restraints like our Subdivision Regulations and Site Plan Review Law.

“Large commercial development is probably the biggest question we can deal with in the Site Plan Review Law,” Chair Walker told the Planning Board.  And before the discussion had ended, Walker had penciled-in a few potential changes of his own.

“Large commercial development”—never defined in any more specific terms—stands among five areas of developmental incursion that the Supervisor has feared could despoil Enfield’s rural character.  The remaining categories, identified at a Town Board meeting August 10, are a possible landfill, the proliferation of too many solar farms, large housing developments, and “noxious industries.”

The landfill threat (real or imagined) gained little Planning Board attention Wednesday.  Walker waved off the solar farm question for the evening, suggesting those controls are best kept within the Town’s Solar Law, currently undergoing a separate overhaul.

Wednesday’s regulatory discussion—it was the only topic on the Board’s agenda—brought forth no immediate recommendations.  But those talks did signal a sense-of-the-body consensus that a low-key, go-slow approach to regulatory reform will work best.  A Planning Board review of the subdivision and site plan codes began months ago.  Expect it to continue for months to come.

“The world has changed,” Board member Mike Carpenter remarked during the discussion. Carpenter said he’d already found “five or six significant questions” that the Town’s regulations needed to address. One of his concerns, similarly shared by others on the Planning Board, was where to draw the line between “agricultural” and “commercial” activities.  The former often evade control through state or local laws.  The latter better lend themselves to enhanced hometown oversight.

“If you have a cow up-front in your facility that manufactures shoes,” where does it fall? Carpenter asked. Is that “agricultural?”

And for that matter, one wondered, is the Cornell Vet School considered agricultural or commercial?

“It depends on the size of the animal,” Board member Ann Chaffee fired back.

Planners pondered this dividing line as they asked whether Enfield holds any control over the shuttered Genex artificial breeding facility off Sheffield Road.  Genex was built before Enfield enacted site plan review.  Now closed for more than a year, Genex’s eventual buyer could face Planning Board oversight for any future use it intended.  The Site Plan Law’s one-year “abandonment” clause, Walker suggested, could enable the Town to review a future owner’s plans.

Yet the limits offered an agricultural classification could become tested in other ways. 

Do we get to review what’s next? The mothballed Genex Lab.

“Are animal feeding lots protected under agricultural law?” Carpenter asked.  What if spread manure falls dangerously close to residential wells and runoff contaminates them?    “It’s an understood law that water goes downhill,” he said.

“Do we want to have someone come in here and build a 4000-square foot slaughterhouse?” Walker asked.  Or, for that matter, a “100,000 chicken production facility?”

“How do we make it clear what we want and what we don’t want?” the Board Chair questioned.

And to what extent, member Henry Hansteen questioned, can the Planning Board stop something it doesn’t like?  What weight, Hansteen asked, can objections at a public hearing constitute legal grounds for rejection?  How far can the Board go before the Town ends up in court?

But an overly-restrictive law can become ridiculously arbitrary, too.

Chaffee reported that in oppressively-zoned Ulysses, just to Enfield’s north, a dog kennel can be just about anywhere in the town, but a veterinary practice may only locate along the Route 96 corridor.

And as to another of Supervisor Redmond’s concerns, what constitutes a “loud or noxious industry?”

“How do you regulate ‘loud or polluting’ in a legal way,” Carpenter asked.  “I don’t think you can say you can be loud and polluting without having a better definition.”

Indeed, it was the definitional element that bothered Carpenter the most.

“I want to know what we want to regulate,” he inquired, and how the law addresses it?

At times, Carpenter found Supervisor Redmond’s directives short on specifics.  If you want to limit too many solar farms, he said, the question becomes, “too many based on what?”

What little substantive regulation did emerge during planners’ hour-and-a-half roundtable came via Dan Walker’s laptop.  The Board Chair shared his preliminary edits for tightening the Site Plan Review Law’s criteria for when a proposal triggers the Planning Board’s attention.

Walker’s amendment would apply site plan review to “industrial or commercial uses which occupy more than one acre of land,” and also to auto salvage yards, and motor vehicle repair or sales establishments.

The chairman’s changes would also cut the size of any proposed commercial or industrial structure requiring review from 10,000 to 5,000 square feet.  The change would apply to building conversions as well as to new construction.

But while regulations will evolve meeting by meeting, the laid-back nature of Wednesday’s session became the evening’s most significant take-away.  At times in recent months, the Town of Enfield has appeared barreling toward some sort of quickly-drafted zoning law, one that Town constituents had neither requested, nor vetted.  Judging from Wednesday’s more relaxed, inquisitive proceeding, the pressure appears off.  The Planning Board meets but once a month.  A gently-moving barrel only rolls so fast.

###

Tompkins 2023 Budget tops $200 Million

Airport the Big Money Sink

by Robert Lynch, September 6, 2022

It’s great to have a $35 Million new airport terminal.  Now if you only had some planes to fly there, with airlines and their passengers to help pay off the loan.

“Enplanement revenue is insufficient to cover the Airport’s debt;” County Administrator Holmes to the Legislature Tuesday.

With projected airport deficits the big downer of the night, Tompkins County Administrator Lisa Holmes presented the County Legislature Tuesday her projected 2023 Budget.  For the first time the budget’s total—a somewhat misleading figure since it includes many expenses and revenues washed through from other programs—would top $200 Million.  The $207.7 Million projected total would rise some 6.4 per cent from the $194 Million of the current year’s spending plan.

Of that larger total, just over $53 Million would be raised by property taxes.  As Holmes summarized her office’s proposed spending package to the Legislature, even though the tax levy would rise 1.46 per cent over the year, the increase in property assessments far outpaces that increase.  Because taxable assessed values grew by an average eight per cent over the year, the actual per thousand tax rate would actually fall about six per cent.

For the average median family home—now increased in value to $225,000—the proposed budget would actually, according to the County’s estimates, decrease the County tax bill by $83; that is, of course, providing your assessment hasn’t gone up.

Holmes called the economic factors driving her budget “a mixed bag.”  But in that “bag” the softest bad apple is the County’s “International Airport,” an optimistic marketing moniker that’s increasingly sounding a hollow ring.

American Airlines has pulled out.  Passenger traffic has never rebounded from the pandemic.  Yet government has the cost of a $35 Million terminal expansion and modernization to pay back.  Passenger Facility Charges (PFC’s) were supposed to repay the debt.  But sadly, for the foreseeable future, they won’t.

“Current PFC revenue generated by these enplanements is insufficient to cover the Airport’s debt service on the terminal project as previously expected,” Holmes warned legislators.  “The 2023 recommended budget includes $342,481 to pay half the debt service on this project, with the remainder to be covered through PFC revenue.  It is expected that the County will need to cover the debt service at least through the next 3-5 year period until enplanements increase and PFC revenues rebound,” the Administrator said.

The Not-So-Friendly Skies off Warren Road. Budget projections show enplanements down; revenues likely slow to recover.

Of course, that’s the hope.  But that’s just debt service.  There’s also the need to keep the airport’s lights on, while not pricing so-called “ITH” out of the market more than it already has been.  So Lisa Holmes’ budget message brought to legislators more bad news.

“Without assistance to bridge the gap,” caused mostly, Holmes said, by American’s exit, “the Airport cannot offer competitive airline rates and charges to maintain existing airlines or attract new carriers, nor will it be able to balance its operating budget.”  Therefore, for at least the next three years, County taxpayers will need to provide a lifeline.

“The 2023 recommended budget includes a series of three diminishing one-time over target requests to assist the Airport through this period of recovery,” the Administrator said.  Holmes budget sets those projected subsidies at more than $1.3 Million for 2023, $800,000 in 2024 and $300,000 in 2025.

Lansing legislator Mike Sigler had a question: We put aside $7 Million of the County’s nearly $20 Million allotment of American Rescue Plan moneys for the Community Recovery Fund, Sigler acknowledged.  “Is this money (the airport subsidy) coming out of a balance of the ‘ARPA’ funds, or is this just coming straight out of taxpayer dollars,” Sigler questioned Holmes concerning the airport subsidies.  “It really should come out of ARPA funds,” he continued, “This is a pandemic problem.”

Sorry, Mike, the question makes too much sense when you confront federal bureaucracy.

“I don’t think that County ARPA funds could be spent toward the Airport,” said Holmes, “because they’re not allowed to be combined with other payments that entail federal grants.  The Airport did receive its own ARPA funds designated specifically for the Airport.”

Shortly after Holmes answered Sigler’s question, Legislature Chair Shawna Black reminded all who cared to listen what too often happens—and happened here—when government tries to do private enterprise a favor.

With another federal pandemic relief effort, the CARES Program, Black said, “We voted to actually give some of that money back to the airlines, and of course, one of the great airlines left after they received their CARES money.”

Holmes’ nearly hour-long budget presentation to the Legislature revealed that projected County staffing next year, an estimated 750 employees, will regain all of the positions Holmes predecessor, former Administrator Jason Molino, had shed from the County payroll in a cost-cutting move just after COVID-19 hit.  Holmes projects adding 32 new positions in 14 departments, the largest in the Health Department and toward Reimagining Public Safety efforts in various County departments.

The County Legislature will spend much of the next two months scouring the proposed 2023 County Budget line-by-line in what becomes a quintessential exercise in fiscal micro-management.  Department Heads will be summoned to Legislative Chambers in meetings sometimes held several times weekly.  Lawmakers won’t adopt the final County Budget until November.

###

Eight is Enough… Maybe

Indecisive Straw Poll may keep Ithaca School Board seat open

by Robert Lynch, September 6, 2022

Four votes for an open seat… but just four; the Ithaca Board of Education August 23.

The Ithaca Board of Education appears headed toward a decision the Enfield Town Board refused to make 20 months ago, namely to have a resigned Board member’s seat left open until voters have an opportunity to fill it themselves in the next scheduled election.

In a non-binding straw poll whose results neither carry legal weight nor even mustered majority support among those voting, the eight remaining members of the school board balloted late last month not to fill immediately the seat suddenly vacated in early-July by member Nicole LaFave.  LaFave resigned unexpectedly after completing only one year of her three-year term.

Three choices lay before the School Board at its August 23rd session.  Members could have called a special election to fill the LaFave vacancy, filled the vacancy themselves, or simply declined to act, thereby reducing the nine-member board to eight persons until the next regular election in May 2023.

“That indicates to me it’s not a majority, but does speak to me the direction that we’re going,” Board President Dr. Sean Eversley Bradwell said after four members supported keeping the vacancy open, another two indicated they’d favor a board-made appointment, and the remaining two, including Bradwell himself, abstained.

The Board could reverse its position at any future meeting.

The Ithaca School Board’s significant preference for inaction stands in stark contrast to that of the Enfield Town Board following the September 2020 resignation of former Town Supervisor Beth McGee.

Following three months of pressured insistence by some of McGee’s former colleagues, and several subsequent resignations that complicated the process, a pared-down, three-member Enfield Town Board installed former Councilperson Stephanie Redmond as Supervisor in January of last year.  The process left ill will among some Board members that lasted through the November 2021 General Election.

To date, the customarily outspoken LaFave, a minority rights activist who also waged an unsuccessful campaign for the Tompkins County Legislature in 2021, has not spoken out publicly on her reasons for leaving the Board.  Her term would have run through June 2024.

Though a Special Election remained one of the Ithaca School Board’s options at its meeting August 23rd, none of the eight continuing members showed any interest in it.  Cost appeared the reason.  Dr. Bradwell indicated such an election would cost the school district at least $60,000, perhaps nearly $80,000.

The winner of a Special Election would serve out the remainder of LaFave’s term.  A person appointed by the Board would only serve through next spring.

There remains one wild card however.  And it involves the heavy hand of the State.

“Under special circumstances, if the Board does choose to keep the seat vacant, the Commissioner of Education could force us to appoint—command the Board to appoint somebody,” Bradwell cautioned.  “But that has not happened that I’m aware in quite some time.”

Board members appeared willing to call Albany’s bluff on that point. 

But opinion divided on whether it’s best to bring the Board to full strength with an immediate appointment.  Members Eldred Harris and recently-elected member Karen Yearwood supported appointment.

“My instinct,” said Harris, “is to use the opportunity to appoint someone who either has been with us in the trenches before… or use the opportunity to get some new blood as it were—a rising young superstar in the community.”

But Board member Erin Croyle remembered all too clearly the tumultuous, error-laden election of just last May, one where some voters were mistakenly instructed to vote for the wrong number of candidates, polling places occasionally ran out of ballots, and one candidate was disqualified at the last minute with voters at first not accurately informed as to why he was purged from the ballot.

“Given for lack of a better word, the messiness of the election,” said Croyle, “I don’t know who we could appoint that’s out of nowhere, because I don’t feel like the numbers—given everything, it speaks for itself.”

“I wouldn’t be comfortable appointing anyone based on who was voted for in the spring,” Croyle concluded.

Of course, a Board-made appointment need not rely on last spring’s election.  But member Patricia Wasyliw reminded colleagues that the Board has often followed that course in the past.  Wasyliw said that for past vacancies, Board members have usually either appointed the next highest vote getter in the most recent election, or just left the vacancy open.

“The State could come in, though unlikely.” Board President Bradwell

“And I agree with you about the messiness of the last election, Wasyliw told Croyle, “and the real fuzziness around numbers.  I think that’s a significant point of dissatisfaction among the voters”

Nonetheless, Wasyliw added, “I have always been uncomfortable with the idea of eight people choosing someone to be on the Board for even the greater part of the year who hasn’t been voted for.  That seems to me to be less desirable than handing a position to someone who did get votes.

“We have left a position vacant just as often as we’ve filled it,” Wasyliw concluded.  And she joined Croyle, Moira Lang, and Jill Tripp to support keeping LaFave’s vacancy open. 

“I find the reasons for not appointing anyone very compelling,” Tripp said.  A special election costs money, she said.  And a continued vacancy “avoids possible intrafamilial conflict about who the person to appoint should be.”

So for now, at least until the Ithaca School Board’s next meeting, the seat Nicole LaFave vacated July remains empty.

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“Exploding” housing market prompts local Assessment change

by Robert Lynch, September 3, 2022

Consider this year’s Tompkins County race for real estate as lying somewhere between a seller’s market and one for “suckers” only.

“I’ve never seen a real estate market like this,” County Director of Assessment Jay Franklin told a committee of the County Legislature Thursday.  “Realtors and appraisers who’ve been around longer than I’ve been alive have never seen a real estate market like this as well.”

“I’ve never seen a real estate market like this;” Director Franklin

And because of the runaway inflation in housing as well as everything else that sits on land, Franklin is proposing a change in local assessment procedures that neither he nor likely anyone else is bound to like.

First to the runaway values themselves:  Franklin reported to the Legislature’s Government Operations Committee Thursday that residential real estate, by his calculations, has risen 27 per cent this year over last.  For houses that have sold multiple times, without improvements, prices have escalated by an annual 22 per cent since COVID-19 hit.

“That type of increase in the real estate market is something that we’ve never seen here before,” Franklin said.  “Even when other places in our country saw an increase in the early-2000’s, we still trudged along at a mere three-to-five per cent per year.  We didn’t see this sort of explosion.”

Yet even more explosive is the local market for commercial real estate.  It’s become a bidding free-for-all in which irrationality has truly taken over, a market where the cash flow from rent checks may become the last element a manager considers when laying his money down.

“There is not a single commercial sale that makes financial sense that we’re seeing, especially in multi-family housing,” Franklin told the committee.  “We’re seeing out-of-state companies, out-of-country companies that are buying up real estate at values that are not supported by the income that they can produce.”

Why are real estate investors ignoring what most would see as basic economics and sound common sense?  The Assessment Director suspects it involves a combination of ego, status, and tax avoidance.

Commercial real estate managers have “other measures in their mind,” said Franklin.  “They want to become bigger.  They want to gain 200 units in (or more accurately stated, near) an Ivy League school.  They’re trying to hide money.  They’d rather put money in real estate than have it in their bank account.” 

Franklin also said managers can also use sly accounting tools like “accumulated depreciation” to wash away taxes they’d otherwise need to pay.

Amidst all this speculative craziness, the Assessment Director asked of the Government Operations Committee—and received its recommendation—to suspend his Department’s long-standing policy of assessing all properties at 100 per cent of value.  Instead, because the Department lacks staff to revise all properties every year, Tompkins County would temporarily revert to a three-year assessment cycle, coupled with a practice of assessing all parcels at a “uniform percentage of market value,” a figure the Director would set later.  The number Franklin most often mentioned Thursday was 80 percent.

The Government Operations Committee recommended the change by a 4-1 vote, forwarding its Resolution to the full Legislature for a final vote later this month.

It “pains me to bring it to you,” Franklin told committee members of the three-year cycle he’d proposed.  He may have good reason for his reticence… and a memory to match.  Though most other municipalities in New York practice multi-year valuation and employ fractional assessments, Tompkins County has not done so for about 15 years.

Tompkins’ last experimented with fractional assessment in the mid-2000’s.  And when it did so, according to one County point-person, someone no longer in government, it was a “disaster.”  Residents didn’t understand it.  County officials found themselves hard-pressed to convey the rationale.  `And what taxpayers especially couldn’t comprehend—or accept—was when the partial valuation ended and a return to full values led to assessment notice sticker-shock.

Indeed, at Thursday’s meeting, even one member of the legislative committee found it hard to wrap his head around the concept of partial valuation.  Another member had misgivings.

“Then after the third year, they smacked ’em;” Legislator Lane

“This is a sore subject for me,” Dryden legislator Mike Lane told the committee.  Lane was on the Legislature in 2005 when it last authorized a three-year assessment cycle.  He supported it then.  “I argued people needed a break,” Lane said, recalling an earlier era’s housing run-up prior to the Great Recession. 

But then, Lane also remembered, the Assessment Department “just kind of saved it all up, and then after the third year, they smacked ‘em, everybody with a big increase in assessments.”

“Assessments don’t determine taxes; tax levies determine taxes,” Franklin reminded Lane, recognizing that with a constant levy by government, tax bills remain unchanged if all properties rise or fall in taxable value by a constant percentage.

“I don’t disagree with you, Jay,” Lane acknowledged.  “But we know how people think.”

State law demands equitable assessments, but not full-value assessments.  Fractional valuation, in an inflationary housing market, prevents those assessed this year from paying a disproportionately larger percentage of government’s costs compared to those assessed only years earlier, back when home prices were lower.

Lane questioned Franklin on how much additional staff he’d need to institute annually-revalued, 100 per cent assessment.  Franklin said he’d need a lot of people, especially during the year’s first two months, people to schedule informal grievance sessions.  Lane would have given Franklin the necessary manpower.  And the Dryden lawmaker voted against the committee’s resolution for just that reason.

Yet even the Assessment Director recommended against hiring the people and taking the time to do the job the way he’d otherwise prefer it be done.  “Our office is not designed to do a countywide revaluation in a single assessment year,” Franklin wrote the committee.

Annual reappraisal amidst this “crazy” market, Franklin told the committee, would “just cause more confusion, more headaches.”

“If anybody says they know exactly what’s going on in the real estate market, they’re lying to you,” the Director cautioned the committee.

****

And just why are local housing prices rising so high, so fast?

“Our supply of houses just isn’t there,” Franklin remarked.  “The demand is so high and there’s still a lot of money around here.”

What’s more, Franklin acknowledged, there’s “the emotional appeal of houses.”

“Size doesn’t matter anymore,” the Director told the committee.  “It’s more about how does that house appeal to you?   Does it say ‘This is where you want to live’?” 

More value, he said, is being placed these days on exterior spaces—exterior kitchens and patios, green spaces, ponds and creeks.  “People want their private estates again,” Franklin said.  “There’s more that people are looking at.”

That sort of forecast may bode well for Enfield real estate, where fields and ponds lie in ample supply.  Though an “exterior kitchen” might find it hard to survive an Enfield winter.

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A Head Inside the Tent

Competing visions underlie debate over Enfield land use controls

Analysis by Councilperson Robert Lynch; September 1, 2022

Coming to Enfield someday soon? Really? 73 units with 46 apartments and an elevator off Trumansburg’s South Street.

Reasoned disagreement forms the heart of a vibrant democracy.  In America, unlike in many other places, our founding principles grant us political liberty.  We hold the right to elect our representatives.  They, in turn, act on our behalf.  Those we elect exchange their individual, competing visions in open view on how society should advance.  It’s only when our leaders detour onto the rutted road of agenda-centered activism and personal attack that the wheels of constructive debate fly off and democracy’s best hopes veer toward the ditch.  It’s happened in many places, at many times, and at many levels.  It’s happened in Enfield all too often in the past.  Let’s not let it happen now.

Wednesday, August 10th, our Town Board spent five minutes short of a full hour weighing, conceptually, the prospect of new, bold land use controls.  At times, we’d reference our shiny tool of construction as “zoning.”   At other moments, we’d abhor mere mention of the word.  Of the five servants who comprise our Town Board, one of us dominated the discussion.  A couple spoke hardly at all.   I, for one, found our wandering thoughts begging for a well-deserved conclusion.  Repetition resembled a dog chasing its tail.  We talked too long.  We accomplished too little.  And in my opinion, we ended the hour far worse than when we began.

Our Town Supervisor, Stephanie Redmond, fears about Enfield’s future far more than I do.  To her, dangers lurk; dangers others do not see.  To her, rapacious predators of all stripes lie in wait to despoil our town’s quaint, rural character and impose residential and commercial development never before seen in this peaceful, bucolic community. 

Might the sprawling, stinky Seneca Meadows landfill migrate from “Mount Trashmore” in Waterloo to a regulation-free hilltop haven off Harvey Hill Road?  Might the Energizer Bunny suddenly acquire the shuttered Genex lab along Sheffield Road and begin assembling nickel-cadmium batteries there instead of extracting bull semen?  Or might Yvonne Vandemark’s field at Miller’s Corners suddenly spawn an 80-unit apartment complex instead of innocuous shoots of corn and roly-poly bales of hay?  Supervisor Redmond fears each might happen.

Others in Town Government—I, for one—question our Supervisor’s doomsday apprehensions.  Those like me see Enfield as a welcoming, albeit needy, rural outpost positioned just an ever-so-short drive from boomtown Ithaca.  We’re a great community.  But we’re starved for lack of reasonable, common-sense growth.  Persons like me find too much abandoned acreage left to goldenrods and brush; too many wonderful people struggling with substandard housing because that’s all they can afford; too many hardworking families craving a January 31st tax break for which a stronger assessment base would help reduce the bill and soften the blow.  They, unlike Supervisor Redmond, might welcome a McMansion or two… or thirty.

Contrasting perspectives; divergent predictions.  Our varietal visions propel meaningful banter at Grange dinners, in chance encounters at the Dandy Mart, and most importantly, during Town Board deliberations.  At the latter, however, Enfield tradition too often finds someone dribbling drops of gasoline on the table; another lighting a match.  Debate self-destructs.  Once a few years ago, the cops had to be called.

Town Planning Board members have for months plodded through Enfield’s Site Plan Review Law and our Subdivision regulations; in each instance, penciling-in, line by line, carefully-contemplated updates that only hold importance when somebody, someday seeks to apply them.  At these meetings, attention spans seldom last longer than an hour.  Boredom prevails.  A reporter on assignment would be hard-pressed to mine one nugget of news.  But June first proved different.

Supervisor Redmond attended the June meeting.  The minutes record Planning Board member Mike Carpenter having asked Redmond “if the Town Board has considered zoning changes for the Town,” since, Carpenter said, “other surrounding towns are currently going through this process.”  (Of course, one must remember that most, if not all, of those “other towns” have zoning laws; Enfield does not.)  Redmond gleefully glommed onto Carpenter’s out-of-the-blue question.  And she’s run with it ever since.

A typical Planning Board meeting; September 2021

“I do believe it is something we should consider,” the Supervisor answered Carpenter that night, raising the prospect of zoning.  “I will add it as a discussion point for the (Town Board’s June 8th) agenda.”  Redmond did.

Ever since then—at Town Board meetings in June, July and August, as well as during an hour-long Planning Board roundabout August third—Enfield’s Supervisor has found herself mired in a tortured love-hate relationship with that dreaded, politically volatile “Z-Word.”

“I am not a proponent of zoning.  I am not pushing zoning out of the blue.  That is not happening,” Redmond insisted during the waning moments of our August 10 all-too-long Town Board land use discussion.  “The Planning Board asked us to review this.”  (Well, kinda’.).   “That’s what we’re doing.” 

But earlier in the same hour, the Supervisor greeted the Z-Word far more obligingly.

“I don’t want to take zoning off of the table completely as a non-option,” the Supervisor made known, as the land use discussion got rolling, “because it’s like medications.  You want to be able to have all of your options available and not say, ‘hey, don’t use that one because it’s unpopular.’  You want to have all your options available and use the best medication for your situation.”

Before one criticizes Stephanie Redmond too much, remember a truth about representational democracy.  Our Supervisor is an elected public officer, chosen by the voters to administer Enfield and to preside at our meetings.  She holds one of five seats on our Town Board; and casts one vote—just one.  Her opinions hold as much validity and deserve as much respect as mine or anyone else’s.  None of us holds a monopoly on “right.”  Of course, Redmond, like the rest of us, remains answerable to the voters and serves at their pleasure.  Stephanie and I each face reelection next year.

Still, make no mistake.  Supervisor Redmond, and no one else elected or appointed in Enfield, has done more of late to fuel the fire toward restricting how we, the residents of this town, may employ the property we own.  This is her baby.  And Redmond has led the debate at each of our summertime Town Board meetings.  If a first-ever zoning law emerges from any of this, our Supervisor will be its architect.  Were she suddenly to veer in some other direction, talk of controlled development would most likely wither on the vine.

“We are going to be getting housing developments,” Redmond predicted at our most recent August session.   “We’ve seen this move through in Trumansburg and through Ithaca and what not.  And eventually, inevitably we probably will see some sort of large housing development.  What do we want the density to be?  What sort of green space [do] we want?  What sort of regulation [do] we want?  And also we want to protect our aquifer….”

Stephanie Redmond (with son) when she first joined the Town Board; 2020.

Through a decidedly Trumansburg-centric lens, Supervisor Redmond has drawn her gaze to T-Burg’s South Street and the nearly 80-unit Village Grove/Crescent Way mixed use development Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services has shepherded there.  Village Grove, in part, would crowd 46 rental units into a two-story building serviced by an elevator.  The South Street development has not gone over well with some T-Burg locals.  Reading old stories during the project’s five year review, one senses a Not-In-My-Back-Yard-centered resistance.  But parochial controversy aside, the South Street project, to Redmond, presages some comparable development coming soon to a sleepy Enfield road near you.  

“Colorado-west is burning….  Coastal cities are flooding.  The Midwest is flooding.  They’re getting large windstorms and hurricanes all over.   And the reality is this is one of the safest places to live,” Redmond told us August tenth.  “I do think we will continue to face development pressure in the future, and I am concerned what that means.”

The Supervisor urged we talk with Trumansburg village officials, currently mired knee-deep in a rewrite of their zoning law, much of it motivated by their South Street challenge.

“It doesn’t hurt,” I told the Supervisor, “But you know, Enfield would kill for a $75 Million City Centre or a Harold’s Square.”   Both are pricey, Ithaca high-rise housing projects.  “But we’re not going to get it.  For one thing, we don’t have public water.  We don’t have public sewer.  So you’re not going to get an 80-unit apartment complex in one place because you can’t get the water to it and you can’t take care of the waste.  So I don’t think that’s likely to come here… We don’t have the infrastructure for it.”

Our Supervisor was not dissuaded.  “I think these are things we need to take to task early-on as a Town Board and as a Planning Board to think about what development will look like here and how we can protect ourselves from things that we may not want here…”

The Supervisor’s words tell us much.  The Enfield of her vision would be a controlled community we have never seen, and one I believe many of us never want.  Whether you call its enforcement tool zoning or whether you call it Donald Duck, Big Government would micro-manage private decision-making whenever five Board members deemed it wise to do so.  Control might begin only modestly, but then grow incrementally, exponentially over time.  And it would not just be what gets built, but also who gets to build it.

“I don’t want to encourage gentrification,” Redmond opined before the Board.   “I don’t want to price our low-income residents out.  So I want to avoid any sort of ordinances or regulations that would encourage gentrification in that sense….”

My response to that comment was straightforward. 

“My perspective is we don’t have a problem in Enfield with runaway growth.  We have a problem in Enfield with not enough growth.  That’s my perspective.  And I, frankly, would not try to dissuade $700,000 homes coming into this Town.  It would help our tax base immensely.” 

“I don’t think we want to use Trumansburg as our example,” I added.  “I think it’s a bad example to use, and I’ll leave it there.”

“Why shouldn’t we use Trumansburg as an example, just out of curiosity?” asked the Supervisor.

“I don’t think it’s us.”

Maybe too many solar farms? The newest solar site off Podunk Road.

What did our latest merry-go-round ride accomplish?  We, the Town Board, engrained through verbal repetition five supposed perversities of progress to target for future, tighter regulation:  1)  Protecting Enfield from a landfill;  2) Limiting the number and location of solar farms;  3) Regulating housing developments;  4)  Keeping out “loud and noxious industries;” and  5)  Regulating large commercial development.

These, for lack of something better to call them, are the “Redmond Five.”  Our Supervisor would bask in the comfort of thinking that we, the Town Board, set these points of control by consensus.  But no, we did not.  These, truly, are Redmond’s choices. The Supervisor ran the meeting.  She dominated the narrative.  Our Board took no vote.  Some members contributed little to the conversation.    Just remember, our Supervisor is always entitled to her opinion.

“We’ve put a lot of things on the table, and it would be very hard for the Planning Board to address all of them all at one time,” Councilperson Jude Lemke wisely added at our August session, recognizing that demanding too much of our Planning Board Chair Dan Walker would leave him and his Board overwhelmed and bewildered.

Redmond agreed.  She gave Walker marching orders to focus for now on landfill prohibition, limiting noxious industries, and regulating large commercial development.  Solar farms and housing, she concluded, could wait.

Mind you, I don’t want a landfill, either.  Nonetheless, I doubt one will come here, not even for just Tompkins County’s trash.  First off, Enfield’s location and topography doesn’t lend itself to a mammoth dump akin to Mount Trashmore.  And secondly, face it, if New York State wants to site a regional landfill in our town, it will do it regardless of our preference and pre-empt any local law that gets in its way.

Too big for Enfield? “Mount Trashmore,” the mammoth Seneca Meadows landfill

What’s more, I told the Board, “A zoning law won’t necessarily prevent you from having a landfill in our Town.  What it will do is it will say where that landfill has to go.  And that’s a problem.   Because where are you going to put it?  Black Oak Road?  I don’t think so.  And I certainly don’t want it across from my house.  And I don’t think anybody wants it anywhere in Enfield.  And so I don’t know whether a zoning law is the best way to approach these kinds of things that you don’t want anywhere.”

I analogized our Town’s best approach to that of a radio-oncologist out to kill a tumor.  “And he points the laser beam right at that tumor.  He doesn’t point it at the whole body, because it would kill the whole body. “

“If we think that there’s a real problem with a landfill, we should focus on the landfill.  If we think there’s a problem with noxious industries, we should focus on that.  I think that the best way we approach it right now is that we identify a particular problem and go after it with the best regulation we can.”

Those who think they can regulate a community’s land use can easily take the next leap and attempt to construct a commercial economy to wrap around it.

“I’d really like to see our Main Street revitalized,” Redmond told Walker and the Board.  She suggested adding a laundry for those at the mobile home park.  And there could be “a small café, where people can meet and have coffee and a little diner food… or some fresh produce available.  I’d love to see that along our Main Street,” the Supervisor said.

I know; first question:  Where is Main Street?  Is it Route 79, where two stores masquerade as a commercial strip?  Or is it fronting the cluster of homes in Enfield Center? 

But more to the point:  A central planner would like us to think she can wave her wand and a Café d’Enfield suddenly opens.  It doesn’t work that way.  No local law or regulation prevents a diner or carwash from coming our way right now.  The limitation is the economy.  Somebody someplace, no doubt, has already crunched the numbers and concluded a Denny’s or a Dunkin couldn’t survive here, unless, of course, government subsidizes them.  People are too few; commerce too lean.  Reality proves my point.  Enfield needs to grow.  

“Developing ‘Enfield Main’ is an interesting idea.  I think that’s a pretty big thing to bite off right now,” Lemke remarked, putting Downtown Revitalization politely to bed for the evening.

****

As the Supervisor looked toward Trumansburg Village for land use guidance, I recited planner Carpenter’s early-August concerns about tightly-zoned Ulysses within which T-Burg sits.  At that point, our exchange took a curious—and sadly, unfortunate—turn:

Supervisor Redmond:  “I just want to make it clear, Robert, that we’re not looking to actually implement these.  We are merely in a fact-finding mission here.  This is what we’re doing.  We are educating ourselves.  We’re not saying we’re going to do this.  We’re not saying we’re going to implement zoning; that we’re going to implement land use regulations.  We’re seeing what’s out there. What’s the information?  What do we want?  What can we use?  What should we definitely not do?  We can learn from Ulysses.  That’s over-regulation.  That’s a problem.  We can learn from these different….  But if you don’t know; if you just sit there ignorant and whine, you cannot make an enlightened, wise decision about how you want development to go….”

Councilperson Lynch:  “I’m not ignorant.  And I am not whining.  What I am is reflecting on 50 years of observing and covering municipal government as a journalist, as a citizen of this community.  And I know these are the conversations that get your head inside the tent.  And pretty soon you’ve got a zoning law.  And it’s a zoning law that people don’t want.  And that’s my fear is that we are putting our head in the tent tonight.  And I’ll leave it there.”

Redmond:  “That was the best decision; is just not to get the information?”

Lynch:  “Let the Planning Board design and write a Site Plan Review Law.  And then we as a Town Board can review it before we adopt it….”

Our Planning Board meets September seventh.  The Town Board convenes a week later.  Please leave your gas can at home.

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