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Highlights of the January 3, 2023 meeting of the Tompkins County Legislature

Shawna Black Re-Elected Chair, Dan Klein Elected Vice Chair

Legislator Shawna Black (D-Ithaca) was unanimously elected to a second term as Chairwoman of the Tompkins County Legislature. Black was elected to the Legislature in 2017 and represents portions of the Town of Ithaca.

Legislator Mike Lane (D-Dryden) served as Temporary Chair to preside over the Chair’s nomination and election. Lane celebrated the County’s process, stating, “53 years ago some forward-thinking people in Tompkins County decided to ask the voters to approve a Charter – our Constitution at a local level that we use to guide us in our day-to-day activities. One of the best things in my opinion that they did was that leadership would be voted on every year, not just at the beginning of every four-year term… it gives some fresh perspective to issues that come before us.”

Legislator Greg Mezey (D-Dryden) nominated Black and commended her for her leadership, “I think Shawna has done a great job… I look forward to another year with her in the leadership position.” Legislator Amanda Champion (D-Ithaca) seconded Black’s nomination, stating, “I’ve worked with Shawna for five years now, she’s been a smart and compassionate leader.”

Chairwoman Black stated, “I would like to take the time this evening to thank Greg Mezey and Amanda Champion for their kind words. I would also like to offer my appreciation to this full legislature. I’d also like to thank Deborah Dawson for being a wonderful Vice Chair. This past year has been a huge learning experience and I’ve been humbled at times. I have seen this group of colleagues come together to discuss difficult issues and find solutions. It’s truly been an honor to be your chair. Once again, I thank you for trusting me electing me to lead this Legislature into 2023.”

Legislator Dan Klein (D-Danby) was elected Vice Chair by a vote of 12-1 (Legislator Randy Brown (R-Newfield) opposed). Klein has served on the Legislature since 2013 and represents Danby.

Outgoing Vice Chair Deborah Dawson (D-Lansing) noted Klein’s leadership and advocacy for the “County’s best interests,” commending him for his past chairmanship of committees including the 2022 Community Recovery Fund process, remarking that he “handled it with patience, care, and transparency.” Legislator Lee Shurtleff (R-Groton) described Klein as thoughtful and thorough, collaborative and considerate, and added that he believes Klein advances a broad array of issues as a rural Legislator.

Resolution Passes Advocating for Universal Access to Free Meals for Students In Grades K-12

A resolution penned by Legislator Randy Brown (R-Newfield) calling upon the state Legislature to adopt and the Governor to sign legislation to address student hunger through guaranteeing universal access to free meals for students in grades K-12 passed as part of the unanimously approved consent agenda.

The resolution cites the success of the federal program implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic that gave schools nationwide a waiver to provide free lunch for all students and that the program expired in June 2022 – meaning that now caregivers must apply and qualify for free or reduced student meals. The states of Massachusetts, Nevada, Vermont, California, and Maine have adopted legislation to further access to free meals for students.

The resolution also details the existing USDA Community Eligibility Provision, which allows any schools or districts with 40% or more children eligible for free meals to offer the meals and receive a reimbursement. According to available Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) data for Tompkins County School Districts, TST BOCES, Newfield Central School District, Enfield Elementary School, Beverly J. Martin Elementary School, and Dryden Central School District are currently qualified for a CEP program, all other school districts in Tompkins County have between 30% and 40% of students that qualify for assistance.

If the state were to pass such legislation, over 2,000 schools and 800,000 students would be impacted in New York, with universal access to free meals.

Chairwoman Details 2022 Legislature Achievements

Chairwoman Shawna Black (D-Ithaca) offered the following as achievements of the Legislature in 2022:

  • The recovery fund, over $6 million will be invested in our community
  • We passed our Budget, with a solid maintenance of effort and several new investments to the organization and community
  • Local redistricting was completed, which will increase the Legislature by two Legislators in the next election
  • We took a firm stand on supporting the people of Ukraine and continue to fly their flag in our chambers
  • We welcomed five new colleagues, all of whom have contributed greatly
  • Juneteenth became a County paid holiday, and we had another successful year of honoring the date and Black history in our County
  • We approved and kicked off the Green Facilities capital project and passed our Green Fleet policy, furthering our investments in sustainability
  • Lisa Holmes was appointed County Administrator, the first woman to hold the permanent post
  • We advocated for further childcare investments at the State Level and saw historic actions taken by the Governor in her budget, we’ve advertised new programs to the community
  • The Community Justice Center contract was signed, and the work of Reimagining Public Safety is moving forward
  • We accepted the Food Systems Plan, and Legislators became even more aware of these issues
  • The Transportation Agreement was negotiated and signed by all parties, ensuring a future for TCAT, although challenges persist and will require our attention moving forward
  • The Charter revision approving the merger of Public and Mental Health was approved
  • We heard community concerns regarding EMS services and the challenges they face, and approved a coordinator position in our budget to show that this is a priority for the County

Among Other Business

Residents of Second Wind Cottages, a cottage community serving men who have experienced homelessness located in Newfield, spoke during public comment regarding the organization’s Community Recovery Fund application for an additional 25 cabin units. Resident Rupert Robbins presented an anecdote about his experience as a former chef and eventually falling into hard times and experiencing homelessness before moving to Second Wind and being enrolled at Tompkins Cortland Community College where he expects to graduate this semester with a degree in Substance Abuse Counseling. Robbins added that there is a ripple effect when people receive support through programs like Second Wind. Curtis Simmons, also a resident, added his reflection on the impact that Second Wind has had on him, helping to build community and friendship and achieve sobriety. Legislator Greg Mezey (D-Dryden) thanked the folks from Second Wind for coming to speak to the Legislature and sharing their stories, his sentiment was echoed by Legislator Anne Koreman (D-Ulysses) and Chairwoman Shawna Black (D-Ithaca). The final approval of the funding for Second Wind Cottages will follow environmental review and a future vote by the entire Legislature.

Legislator Randy Brown (R-Newfield) spoke during Legislature Privilege of the Floor about his concerns on the County’s process to grant Community Recovery Funds, opining that there are some organizations that could be supported through the regular County Budget process and others cannot – therefore different considerations should have been made. Brown added commentary on his concerns about Newfield and Enfield not receiving direct funding through the process and of further community concern in Newfield erupting because of the Second Wind Cottages proposal.

Brown added that he hopes further use of the County’s fund balance be considered to fund worthy organizations and opportunities in the community. Brown commented, “I’m going to look at some Legislators differently who voted against Newfield and Enfield” and voiced further concern that the County doesn’t reach or adequately support people in his district. Legislator Rich John (D-Ithaca) refuted that he sees it as “I represent a City District, but I’m here because we are one County,” adding an example of the County looking at emergency and ambulance services across the County, whereas where he is in the City there are better response times for services. Klein responded to commentary that those in Newfield and Enfield feel disregarded, “it wasn’t just one town singled out – we did not take geography into account. We did not ignore those towns or any towns. We looked across the entire County. As an example, last year we gave $70,000 for increasing broadband access to around 180 homes in Newfield.” Klein concluded that some of the grant funding (estimated to be 40%) are County-wide, including suicide prevention, the Farmers Market that supports farms in Newfield, tax counseling for seniors, funding for Tompkins Cortland Community College, and food programming that cover the entire County. Klein concluded, “I guarantee that residents in every town in Tompkins County will receive benefit.”

Chairwoman Black gave a shoutout to the Highway Department, “for their support to Erie County following the historic and tragically deadly blizzard. 8 of our employees brought equipment and assisted with snow removal operations – all without disruption of our own operations. It was great to see Highway folks step up right away to support another community in New York.”