October 2023 TCCOG Report

Monthly Report

Tompkins County Council of Governments

for October 11, 2023

by Councilperson Robert Lynch

Enfield TCCOG Representative

The Tompkins County Council of Governments (TCCOG) met on September 28.  Following a robust, more than 20-minute debate, TCCOG voted to support a resolution I’d sponsored that urges Governor Kathy Hochul to veto bills passed by the State Senate and Assembly in June that would move to even-numbered years most county and town municipal elections for public office. The TCCOG vote was 9-4.  On June 20th, the Tompkins County Legislature, by a similar margin, 10 to 4, had also urged the Hochul veto.  You may recall that also in June, the Enfield Town Board declined to urge similar action.  As of this date, the bills to alter election years have not yet been presented to the Governor for her action.

Principal arguments made before TCCOG in support of a Hochul veto were that the change would: (1) diminish the importance of local elections if scheduled in a year when more prominent races are also on the ballot; (2) overwhelm local boards of elections in even-numbered years while leaving their staffs with little to do odd-numbered years; and (3) make for candidate petitioning nightmares when petitioners might need to collect signatures for scores of federal, state, and local offices simultaneously.  Supporters of the pending legislation countered that holding local elections in even-numbered years would expand voter turnout for local offices.

“Yes, in years when the Governor is on the ballot, or the President is on the ballot, more people may vote,” I told TCCOG.  “A lot of them may not even vote down-ballot for town offices,” I added.  “Furthermore,” I said, “the messaging of any candidate for Supervisor, for Town Councilperson, for Highway Superintendent, it’s going to be lost in the mass confusion of all the politics being waged for those higher offices.”

Ithaca City Alderperson Cynthia Brock, now locked in a tight reelection race, spoke perhaps most thoughtfully of the wisdom for keeping local elections where they are.

“From my personal experience,” Brock told TCCOG, “I do fear that in a community such as ours, (for) down-ticket elections; that our issues would get lost if all the bandwidth is really focused on the national issues.” 

“People will tend to think on very broad issues,” Brock continued.  “They won’t be thinking so granularly on how local representatives will be campaigning on how their issues pertain to… the things around them.  I think it will get lost in the national fervor.  That’s where the money is. That’s where the attention will go.”

Dryden Councilperson Dan Lamb took the other side of the argument.  He spoke in favor of the Legislature’s initiative to move local elections to even-numbered years.

“Increased turnout does validate candidates running for local elections,” Lamb told TCCOG.  Lamb said that in certain urban areas where local elections were voluntarily moved to even years, voter participation has risen by as much as 400 per cent.  “You get people elected with a much more representative portion of the voters, and you don’t have these elections where just 18 per cent or 10 per cent of local voters turn out in odd years,” Lamb told us.  “And those tend to be skewed toward older, whiter property owners, as opposed to the broader coalition of people that turn out in even years.”

“I know what you’re saying,” Brock responded.  “Definitely the participation is there.  If participation is the only measure that you’re looking at, I would agree with you.  But I don’t know that it’s going to lead to better government.”

Broadband:  Two representatives of Tompkins County’s Broadband consultant, ECC Technologies of Penfield, NY, updated TCCOG on their progress in our county’s filling in the gaps of underserved populations who lack high-speed Internet.  To serve those estimated 1200 households, approximately 121 miles of new cable would need to be strung.

ECC representatives last updated TCCOG in May.  And when they did, some municipal representatives gave the consultant’s initial recommendation a chilly reception.  ECC and cost-conscious Tompkins County officials at the time—as they still do to this day—favored the less-ambitious, least-expensive initiative to serve those unserved local residences.  In May, many in TCCOG urged a more ambitious plan; a countywide, governmentally-owned municipal system that would compete directly with Charter-Spectrum and other commercial providers. 

Since their presentation in May, ECC has calculated the countywide municipal system could cost between $95-100 Million to construct and $13 Million annually for Tompkins County to operate.  By contrast, ECC’s recommended course of action, namely Tompkins County’s issuing Requests for Proposals from private firms to extend service to fill-in gaps, would cost perhaps only $7.3 Million.  Outside of TCCOG, the more ambitious “County-Owned Fiber to the Home Broadband Network” holds little political support.

But support for the “public option” remains alive and well within TCCOG, although perhaps now a bit more tempered by reality.  Danby’s Joel Gagnon and Caroline’s Mark Witmer both spoke in favor of a County-owned alternative.  Yet ECC’s Mark Meyerhofer cautioned not to overestimate a governmental system’s ability to steal customers from private providers.  “Despite the fact that there’s a lot of disgruntled customers of the major broadband provider in Tompkins County,” Meyerhofer said, “it’s not as easy as others think to draw those customers away.  Sure, you’ll get 20-30 per cent who might jump at the chance right away, but you’re not going to be 60-80 per cent.”

The Town of Dryden is already constructing its own municipal system, “Dryden Fiber.”  And Dryden Councilperson Dan Lamb raised before TCCOG a new problem.  Lamb warned that the Request for Proposals (RFP) that Tompkins County has circulated, the one to extend service to the unserved, could put a private firm in direct competition with Dryden’s own fledgling system.  Lamb argued the County should “carve out” an exception to exclude Dryden from any private firm’s service request.  It appears the County will not.

“There’s a lot on the line for the Town of Dryden taxpayers,” Lamb warned.  “We’ve wanted a carve-out all along. I’m not sure we’re getting one…. If you’re awarding this RFP to someone who wants to serve the Town of Dryden, then we have a problem.”  Lamb foresaw the scenario whereby both a commercial RFP recipient and Dryden Fiber would compete for the same federal USDA Interconnect money.  “For intermunicipal cooperation; intergovernmental relations, this is a disaster in the making,” Lamb told TCCOG.

Katie Borgella, Tompkins County’s Commissioner of Planning and Sustainability, said she was aware of what she called Dryden’s “tricky situation. ” She said those reviewing the RFP would recognize it.  Yet Borgella made Lamb no promises of a carve-out, and Lamb ended the meeting’s discussion less than satisfied.

“If you come up with a decision that harms the Town, we’re going to be in a really bad position ourself,” Lamb warned.  “If you go with a countywide provider and they want to serve the Town of Dryden, that would be a disaster for our project,” he predicted.

“Ultimately, it’s a legislative decision,” Borgella replied.  She deflected any final decision to the full Tompkins County Legislature at some future time.

Dryden Village Mayor Michael Murphy took a strong stand in favor of any County-approved extension of service insisting on use of fiber-optic cable only.  Murphy maintained that coaxial cable technology is outdated, and that any County-authorized system should demand state-of-the-art infrastructure.  County officials cautioned that the RFP has already been circulated, it provides for coax as an option, and that the fiber-only requirement was not inserted likely for reasons of cost.

“Can’t we restrict it to fiber?” Murphy asked.  “We’ve waited for all these people not getting anything.”  Why can’t the rules be rewritten, he asked.  “This is a better way; let’s change.” County Planning officials said it’s likely too late in the process to alter the rules.

TCCOG next meets December 7th.

Respectfully submitted,

Robert Lynch, Councilperson  

Enfield TCCOG Representative