October 2023 Reporting Archives

News Briefs:

Budget set; Tax Hike shaved

(Oct 25):  In the final of three budget sessions, the Enfield Town Board Wednesday handed up a nearly $2.3 Million Preliminary Budget for 2024, Town Board members making a series of minor cuts to lower the projected tax increase to just under seven per cent.

The Board action left intact the five per cent raises given the Town Clerk, Highway Superintendent and Highway staff at an earlier meeting.  Key to cutting the levy increase Wednesday, the Board suspended for one year the Town’s annual professional audit, a $17,000 saving.

But the Board rejected Councilperson Robert Lynch’s (this writer’s) request to cut still deeper.  Lynch would have cut $30,000 from the Highway Superintendent’s equipment account, as Superintendent Barry “Buddy” Rollins had said at the last meeting he may use the funds at issue to buy for his office a new pickup truck to drive.

Rollins defended on financial grounds his preferred practice of swapping departmental pickups every 3-4 years.  Lynch said taxpayers don’t understand why the Superintendent gets a better vehicle than they, themselves, can afford.

The Preliminary Budget’s projected 6.97 per cent tax levy increase is down from the 11.44 per cent rise that Enfield Supervisor Stephanie Redmond had proposed in her initial Tentative Budget October second.  The Town Board set a Public Hearing on the revised budget for November 8th.


Fire Budget up 24% post-Hearing

(Oct. 23):  Only four days after Enfield residents were supposed to have had their final say at a Public Hearing, the Enfield Fire District’s Board of Commissioners Monday raised the estimated total of next year’s fire budget by a whopping 24 per cent.  Commissioners conceded they’d underestimated likely expenditures, especially the cost of bonding two fire trucks.

“If we bump this (budget) up 25 per cent, is this still valid?” Commissioner Marcus Gingerich questioned.

“Yes, you didn’t bind yourself to this number,” attorney Zach Longstreth said, the lawyer referring to the previously-announced budget total presented at the hearing.

“It’s affecting the reality we encountered, and we’re doing it in public,” Commissioners Chair Jim Mathews said, defending the change.

Whereas the proposed 2024 tentative fire budget Commissioners aired in public last Thursday totaled close to what Enfield spends on fire protection for the current year, the revised number has grown to $483,691.  And whereas prior estimates had assumed apparatus loan payments of $65,000 next year—assuming voters next week approve bonding two trucks—the revised budget pegs the bonding cost at just under $100,000.

An estimated hike in attorney’s fees from $15,000 to $40,000 also contributed to the increase.

Commissioners won’t act on the budget until November 2nd.  And if the bonding vote were to fail, totals could rise still higher.


Hooray for Hart

(Oct. 23):  Trumansburg Mayor Rordan Hart did his part last week to promote full Tompkins County funding of the planned “Rapid Response Medical Team,” the three-vehicle network of “flycars” that would speed EMS response to medical emergencies as soon as next year.

Persuaded; Veronica Pillar

“I would encourage the Legislature as much as you’re willing to consider… that you entertain the notion of (the system) being a County-run program that’s entirely funded from the tax base,” Hart told the Legislature’s Public Safety Committee October 19.  The T-Burg mayor asserted  that all would benefit from the plan, even those in the City of Ithaca, who have paid first-responders.

City legislator Veronica Pillar became a convert.  “I think Mayor Hart more or less sold me on his proposal,” Pillar told the committee.  Ulysses’ Anne Koreman also backed County funding, saying the cost-sharing models proposed by some would make it too difficult “trying to parse this out.”

Not convinced, however, is City legislator and committee Chair Rich John.  He said the flycars will primarily improve response times in rural areas, not the City.  “And that’s a great thing.” John acknowledged.  But as for the towns, “They should pay for that,” he said, John favoring funding options that could see towns like Enfield paying up to $58,000 annually for the service.


Mathews: Fire Truck Surrender Possible

(Oct. 19):  Stated for the first time openly at a Public Hearing Thursday, Enfield Board of Fire Commissioners Chair Jim Mathews acknowledged that if voters fail to approve bonding for a new, $830,000 pumper truck in a referendum October 31st, the Fire District might need to “give back the pumper,” to the truck’s manufacturer or to the bank.

Enfield’s new fire truck (for now)

It’s a “profoundly stupid option,” Mathews told the hearing.  But “that option does exist.”

The Chairman and other Commissioners strongly endorse bonding the pumper and a less-expensive tanker truck in a quickly-called Halloween referendum.  The bond principal itself would total $1.05 Million.  The pumper would be paid off over two decades.

“That truck ain’t going back,” Enfield Volunteer Fire Company (EVFC) President Dennis Hubbell predicted.  The EVFC purchased the latest apparatus, without any needed voter approval, late last year.  But because the Enfield Town Board last February endorsed interest-free financing for the purchase, it’s possible that should the EVFC default, the bank could pursue the Town for the unpaid debt.

“Don’t mortgage the future to salvage the moment,” this Councilperson, Robert Lynch, told the hearing.  Lynch conceded concern about taxpayer liability in the event of a default.  But he also requested side-by-side comparisons of the truck’s total cost under bonding, versus the EVFC’s existing 9-year loan.

Chairman Mathews, in support of the bonding option, warned that keeping both the truck and the current bank financing in place could raise next year’s Enfield fire tax by 37 per cent. / RL


T.C. Tax Hike now up to 2%

Chair Shawna Black; Don’t “spend every dime that we have.”

(Oct. 18):  Reversing much of what it had done in committee just five days earlier, the Tompkins County Legislature Tuesday endorsed a tentative 2024 budget that would hike the countywide tax levy by two per cent, the first increase of its kind in three years.

“I would ask my colleagues not to spend every dime that we have,” Legislature Chair Shawna Black pleaded with fellow members as she supported a higher levy rather than drawing budget fund balances too low.

After first failing in a tie vote to leave the fund balance untapped and impose a more than 2.6 per cent levy increase, lawmakers settled on  Dryden legislator Mike Lane’s compromise that reduced the fund balance by only a fraction of the nearly $1.4 Million first proposed in committee and made up the difference by raising the levy by two per cent.

Newfield-Enfield’s Randy Brown voted against both the changes and the amended budget, a plan that could be revised still further after a late-month Public Hearing.

“People are changing their habits… buying less; but paying more,” Brown cautioned legislators.  Holding the tax levy unchanged, he said, “is an opportunity for the Legislature to tell people, we hear you; we see you.”

Two per cent was the levy increase legislators had told budget writers to plan for last spring.  But the projected tax increase had grown in recent weeks as lawmakers tacked on more spending.


T.C Committee Zeros-out Tax Increase

(Oct. 13):  We knew this would likely happen.  And it did.

During a chaotic final hour of  the third budget meeting in as many days, a committee comprised of the full Tompkins County Legislature voted late Thursday to cut to zero an otherwise 2.55 percent increase in the County’s proposed 2024 property tax levy by tapping more than $1.3 Million in projected fund balances to do it.

Dawson: “Just one bad decision away…”

The vote was close.  Even though the committee voted 9-4 on the final package, only a plurality of seven legislators—not a clear majority—supported the tax levy change.  It means the committee decision could face a challenge when the full Legislature next meets.

Legislature Chair Shawna Black and Budget Committee Chair Deborah Dawson each opposed the final draft because of the levy reduction.  In fact, Dawson took those final, tumultuous minutes to rant against what her colleagues were doing.

“We’re just one bad decision from being up the creek,” Dawson warned.  “And bad decisions… can be made with really good intentions,” she added.  “But the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.  When is it enough for you people?”

Dawson pointedly directed criticism at Danby’s Dan Klein, who fired back.

“Every year we hear the same conversation, and yet where is the disaster?” Klein asked.  “We haven’t had a bad year yet in 15 years.”  Fund balances have grown each year, he said.  Should that bad year happen, that’s when the tax rate should go up, not before, Klein argued.

Newfield-Enfield’s Randy Brown co-sponsored the tax levy reduction.  Enfield’s other legislator, Anne Koreman, opposed it.


EMS: Delay on who’ll pay

(Oct. 11):  A key committee of the Tompkins County Legislature Tuesday sidestepped the touchy question of whether local towns must share the cost of what’s best known as the County’s proposed “Flycar” service.

Klein: “Towns do budgets, too.”

By a unanimous vote, the Expanded Budget Committee of the Legislature added into next year’s County Budget more than a half-Million dollars to set up and operate the three-vehicle “Rapid Medical Response Program,” setting aside enough money for the program to proceed even in towns can’t be coaxed to contribute.

“The towns, just as we are, are doing their budgets right now,” Danby’s Dan Klein pointed out.  “They cannot put in a dollar figure for 2024 unless we ask them to,” the legislator cautioned.  With grant applications pending, he said, contribution costs could change.

It was only last week that County officials indicated that towns might be asked to contribute half the service’s operational expense.  That could cost Enfield between $29,000 and $58,000 annually depending on the formula used.

Since the committee comprises the full Legislature, its recommendation effectively seals the deal on funding.  But the committee structured its approval in such a way that enables cost sharing to be negotiated later.

“If you do this,” legislator Mike Lane said of the compromise reached, “I have real concern that you’ll never hammer out an agreement with all of the towns.”


Fire Truck Bonding likely to cost Enfield more

(Oct. 9):  The attorney’s description for current Fire Apparatus bonding rates:  “They Suck.”

Enfield’s Board of Fire Commissioners

Brad Pinsky, attorney for Enfield’s newly-former Fire District, cautioned its Board of Commissioners Monday that should the District bond two unpaid fire trucks, as the Commissioners recommend, the bonding rates for those two vehicles could be at five per cent or more.  “It depends upon the term” of the bond, Pinsky advised.

Compare that with traditional financing the current owner, the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company (EVFC), already has negotiated.  EVFC President Dennis Hubbell told Commissioners Monday that current rates on both units are “under four per cent right now.”

However, the Fire Company’s loans are for shorter duration.  And with a $825,000 pumper just added to the fleet, looming higher debt service could weigh down next year’s fire budget by nearly $185,000. Commissioners would rather spread the payments out and ease the short-term pain.

The Board will ask voters on Halloween to bond the two trucks and incur $1.05 Million in long-term debt.  Still, until voters decide, the Fire District can’t finalize its budget.

Racing against the clock and legal deadlines, the Commissioners set October 19th—more than a week before the referendum—for a budget hearing.  Yet if the bonding vote fails, the hearing’s numbers will matter little.  They’ll need a reworking. / RL


Cornell, you owe us, too

(Oct. 5):  This is how good ideas take root.

Cayuga Heights Mayor Woodard

In a monthly municipal Zoom roundtable Thursday, Cayuga Heights Mayor Linda Woodard noted the ongoing renegotiation of a Memo of Understanding (MOU) between the City of Ithaca and Cornell under which the university contributes voluntarily to the City in lieu of paying taxes.

Is there any similar negotiation between Tompkins County and Cornell, Woodard asked?   A Deputy County Administrator responded there wasn’t.

“Why not?” Woodard shot back.  “There is so much exempt property in Tompkins County.”

Dryden Councilperson Dan Lamb intervened, recalling that the MOU was born three decades ago when Ithaca found leverage over Cornell by threatening to withhold building permits.  “You, Tompkins County, don’t have that ability,” Lamb pointed out.

Cornell has negotiated increasing its annual payment to the City from $1.6 Million to $4 Million.  The offer’s drawn fire as being too stingy.

But Tompkins County provides services, too.  And face it, Cornell is a business.  And businesses should pay property tax.  Yet so far, no one in County Government dares poke the Big Red Bear.  From a distance, Mayor Woodard Thursday took the first poke.

“I’m glad to hear, Linda, you’re quietly stirring the pot,” another municipal official remarked. / RL


TC/CMC Seal Deal, they say

(Oct. 3):  It’s a disclosure that leaves many questions unanswered; most particularly, whether someone’s put cart before horse.

Klein: “The contract has been signed.”

But Dan Klein, Vice-Chair  of the Tompkins County Legislature, Tuesday confirmed that County Government and Cayuga Medical Center have now signed the contract the will bring $1.5 Million in Community Recovery Funds to CMC to build what’s supposed to be a “Crisis Stabilization Center” at the Shops at Ithaca Mall.

Klein confirmed the signing during his otherwise-routine report to the Legislature.  But he would not say whether CMC has made specific progress since the hospital’s CEO told Klein’s committee September 18th that New York State had twice rejected proposals CMC had made for the Stabilization Center.  The CEO then said that the only thing regulators would consider was a psychiatric emergency room, something much different.

Pressed by another legislator Tuesday on whether a contract signing green-lights what CMC had first proposed, Klein stayed guarded.

“The contract has been signed, meaning they’ve met all our requirements and all the contracting requirements,” Klein answered.

Legislator Rich John reported that at a meeting of a different committee just last week, two hospital officials had said “they’re in the process of dealing with New York State, and they think they’re getting through this thing.”

Yet the Recovery Fund set strict rules.  It only funds what applicants explicitly ask for. And too much deviation by CMC could forfeit the fund’s largest grant for someone else to snatch.

“It sounds like they don’t know exactly what they’re doing yet,” Klein conceded regarding CMC’s saga.  “They certainly haven’t told us.  But they’re progressing,” he said.


Towns could bear 50% of flycar cost

Dept. of Emergency Response Director Michael Stitley

(Oct. 3): In their first public disclosure, five separate cost-sharing options for a new, Countywide Rapid Medical Response system were presented the Tompkins County Legislature Tuesday.  Most plans would have rural towns share up to half the expense for positioning three “Flycar” units around Tompkins County for daytime-only rescue services.

Four of the options, detailed by County Department of Emergency Response staff, would cost Enfield between about $19,000 and $58,000 annually. (Newfield would be assessed similarly.)  In only the fifth of those options would Tompkins County shoulder 100% of the cost.

Potential local expense, then unknown, prompted the Rapid Response model to face withering attack at a public hearing in Newfield September 28th.  Critics then questioned whether they’d need to pay more local money than they’d receive in benefits.

Several County legislators made clear Tuesday they’d support requesting local towns to share the cost.


11% Tax Hike in Draft Enfield Budget

(Oct. 2):  The Town of Enfield would ask residents to fork over 11.4% more in property taxes under a Tentative Budget Supervisor Stephanie Redmond released to her Town Board Monday night.

Supervisor Stephanie Redmond (file photo)

In a brief meeting called to comply with a state-mandated fiscal timetable, Redmond unveiled her proposed $2.33 Million Tentative Budget for 2024.  It would raise Town General and Highway appropriations by a combined 9.3 per cent and pull in just over $200,000 in added revenues from property owners.

There were “increases across the board in everything,” Redmond told Board members, stating that no one item caused the budget to grow by so much.  Whereas last year, the Town Board granted 12 per cent pay increases to the Highway Superintendent and his staff, this year Redmond confined those raises to just four per cent.  Other employees, including the Board and the Supervisor, would see three per cent pay hikes.

To prevent an even higher tax hit, the Tentative Budget draws $60,000 from fund balances, money raised in part from building permit fees charged the Norbut Solar Farm.  Drivers of higher spending include a larger Highway Department equipment line, steeper health insurance premiums, and a variety of professional fees.

Redmond’s release marked the first step in a three-stage budget process.  The Enfield Town Board reserved any deeper dive into the numbers until October 11. / RL