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Highlights of the October 11 and 13, 2022 Expanded Budget Committee meeting of the Tompkins County Legislature

Legislature Considers Proposed Budget Amendments, Moves Forward Resolution with 0% Tax Levy Increase

An amendment from Legislator Rich John (D-Ithaca) to support grant-writing activities at the one-time cost of $100,000 passed unanimously, 14-0. The amendment was brought forth following a revision that would retain the services of a consultant through County Administration, and to gauge effectiveness. Legislator Anne Koreman (D-Ulysses) stated, “I think this is a great idea, taking advantage of the money available.” A consultant will be sought and retained in 2023 to research available federal and state grants, consult with departments and prepare application materials. Legislator Randy Brown (R-Newfield) asked if this could someday be a shared service available to other local municipalities, Legislator John remarked that if this first-year pilot works there will likely be energy for future activities across the County. It was also discussed that this program will likely pay for itself with costs being covered by grants that are successfully received.

A collaborative venture housed at Cornell Cooperative Extension, titled the “Career Pathways Program,” was supported in an amendment approved unanimously, 14-0. Legislator Rich John (D-Ithaca) proposed the $85,000 amendment and shared that this is the second year of the program, so far in the first year the program served around 20 individuals with more anticipated. Chairwoman Shawna Black (D-Ithaca) inquired about what the individuals are now doing following the program, and staff from Cornell Cooperative Extension responded that nearly all of the participants have been placed in jobs locally, with all participants having an opportunity for paid work through the ReUse Center. Staff lead Aloja Airewele commented that many of the jobs are green energy jobs, and much of the training is around careers in the sustainability fields, which are growing locally. Airewele also commented that other ongoing funding supports are being pursued.

An amendment supporting a Homeless Coordinator position for three years passed 11-3 (Legislators Mike Lane (D-Dryden), Mike Sigler (R-Lansing), and Dawson (D-Lansing) opposed). The amendment was approved following Legislator Greg Mezey (D-Dryden) moving that the position be supported at $100,000 for three years at the County, rather than collaborative with the City, which passed 8-6 (Legislators Brown (R-Newfield), Klein, Lane, Shurtleff, Sigler, Dawson Opposed). Chairwoman Black (D-Ithaca) stated that conversations are still ongoing, with Mayor Laura Lewis having a different vision of supporting an additional community outreach worker. Black detailed that this position could be a liaison between organizations, the County Administration team, and the unhoused population. This may also lead the County to better insights addressing issues faced by the unhoused population, including considering the TIDES proposal being discussed by both the City and County. There was discussion on the best approach, as well as the timeline to consider potential actions, with Legislator Mike Sigler (R-Lansing) sharing his opinion that swift action to address the issues must be taken. Legislator Mike Lane (D-Dryden) stated that “This is a city problem, but it is also a County problem because of the need for County services.” Legislator Greg Mezey (D-Dryden) shared that he feels this position should be Tompkins County’s, giving “direction and insight” relevant to the County, and that if this was spread thin it may “lose the impact.” Legislator Randy Brown (R-Newfield) stated, “In the political world we need to think about how to work together no matter who we are… if they (the City) don’t take this on we need to figure out how to do it ourselves.” Legislator Lee Shurtleff (R-Groton) asked if there is any one person or agency that is a lead on the unhoused problem, and if this is a strategy that could pull different ideas together into one strategy – Chairwoman Black responded that “we rely quite a bit on the Human Services Coalition… my vision for this was to have the leadership, and the policy component that they don’t necessarily specialize in.” Cindy Wilcox, Executive Director of the Coalition stated, “the continuum of care (COC) is a federally funded program. Our role is to mitigate homelessness, for us our goal is to make it rare, brief, and one-time. We gather multi-disciplinary (government, not for profits, advocates, etc.) groups of folks involved in services to achieve this mission… I think one of the values of the COC in the last year has been the homeless and housing assessment that was jointly sponsored by the City and the County.” Wilcox continued, “we identified five priorities to mitigate homelessness in Tompkins County – the value of Shawna’s recommendation is the policy component… how to align the City and County’s philosophy from a policy perspective. There is an opportunity for this person to work closely with the COC, and bringing the County’s departments together… and bringing the City in.” Legislator Veronica Pillar (D-Ithaca) commented that “the problem of homelessness is very longstanding… if you’re rushing to something that’s not going to solve anything that’s not helpful either.” Pillar also talked about how homelessness isn’t limited to just the encampment area in the City of Ithaca, but rather it is present across the County.

A $20,000 amendment to further study designs for capital improvements in the Public Safety Building housing the Tompkins County Jail passed 10-3 (Legislators Black (D-Ithaca), Granison (D-Ithaca), and Dawson (D-Lansing) opposed and Legislator Brooks (D-Ithaca) excused). Legislator John (D-Ithaca) stated that the Public Safety Committee (and the Facilities and Infrastructure Committee) would further discuss how best to use the additional funding, and to resurrect plans that were completed before the pandemic with consideration given the current environment after some recent renovations. Chairwoman Black (D-Ithaca) said “we spent three years ago $80,000… and debated back and forth the estimated cost of $40 million (to build a pod system at the jail),” Black further commented that the trend is that facilities are being regionalized.

An amendment for $100,000 to be held in contingency to potentially support “Homeless Initiatives” that could include TIDES (The Ithaca Designated Encampment Site) or similar proposals coming from a to-be-determined proposal process passed 12-2 (Legislators Pillar (D-Ithaca) and Lane (D-Dryden) opposed). Legislator Rich John (D-Ithaca) spoke about how as a property owner in the West End of Ithaca, he sees the issues up close. John said, “the City needs to be the first mover here,” and that this funding would be a “signal” to the City that the County is serious, and that the City should come forward with a plan and ready to collaborate further. John also said that it doesn’t have to be TIDES, and that he is eager for other or potentially better proposals. Legislator Veronica Pillar stated, “I think forcing people out of their homes is bad, even if that is tents in a marsh. That is what the TIDES proposal includes..” and that they cannot support this on that basis. 

An amendment adding $172,413 to budget for revenues expected from a New York State grant to support ongoing activities related to prevention and response to domestic terrorism, as called out in New York State Executive Order 18 passed 13-1 (Legislator Randy Brown (R-Newfield) opposed). Each county in the state is expected to receive a similar amount of grant funding to support their plans, due to the state by the end of 2022. Legislator Randy Brown (R-Newfield) stated that he objects to the definition and focus on domestic terrorism and voted against it on that basis.

Legislator Mike Lane (D-Dryden) proposed an amendment to remove funding for $20,000 for the income tax program traditionally run by Alternatives Federal Credit Union. It was discussed that potentially another agency in the community could take on the work for 2024; however, since Alternatives will no longer be offering the program, it will not be included for 2023. The amendment passed unanimously 13-0 (Legislator Mezey (D-Dryden) excused).

Two potential amendments related to Southside Community Center’s hot meals program were discussed, with one to fund the program at the original $54,000 requested failing and another to increase recommended funding by $2,000 on the basis of the cost of the meals passing. Legislator Travis Brooks (D-Ithaca), in support of a $2,000 addition to the County Administrator’s recommended $25,000 funding, stated that he ran some numbers on reimbursement for meals is around $4, adding that Southside could add more meals with a similar rate. The proposed additional $2,000  passed unanimously, 14-0.  Legislator Veronica Pillar (D-Ithaca) had proposed that the full initial cost be supported, at $54,000, stating that “they have one staff member who already cooks for 60+ people every day,” in addition to there being a very small kitchen at the Southside building. Pillar continued that “I think we may as well for one year do it this way, using existing relationships they (Southside) already have with restaurants. I think the valuable thing about Southside is that it is a longstanding institution,” with many community connections, and that some people fed through this program are not fed at other venues. Pillar’s motion failed 1-13 (Legislator Pillar in favor) following arguments that the best way to move forward is to reduce cost so that more people may be served. Kayla Matos, Deputy Director of Southside Community Center spoke about the increased need that can’t be fully supported by the food bank system and that there is greater dignity in serving higher-quality meals from established local restaurants.”

An amendment to pay the salary of the Principal Planner/Tourism Program Director from the County’s 10% share of room tax revenues so that more funding can be put into the Strategic Tourism budget, proposed by Legislator Greg Mezey (D-Dryden) failed 6-8 (Legislators Black (D-Ithaca), Brown (R-Newfield), Champion (D-Ithaca), Klein (D-Danby), Koreman (D-Ulysses), Lane (D-Dryden), Sigler (R-Lansing), and Dawson (D-Lansing) opposed).

An amendment to support security at the Tompkins County Public Library for a one-time total of $57,000 passed 8-6 (Legislators Black (D-Ithaca), Champion (D-Ithaca), Klein (D-Danby), Koreman (D-Ulysses), Pillar (D-Ithaca), Sigler (R-Lansing) opposed). It was a one-time request because more developments are yet to come on additional building security assessments ongoing across all Tompkins County facilities. Chairwoman Black (D-Ithaca) advocated for the funding to be target, due to the ongoing needs anticipated moving forward. Ingrid Jensen, a Co-President of the Library’s Board of Trustees stated, “Libraries are unique because they are often under threat,” adding that this year local TCPL employees received threats in response to LGBTQ+ programming.

An amendment to remove funding that had been recommended in the County Administrator’s budget ($279,863) for three permanent positions was moved by Legislator Greg Mezey (D-Dryden), so that the incoming Library Director can “make a full assessment on the needs and direction of the Library moving forward.” Current Acting Director of the Library, Teresa Vadakin detailed that the organization is trying to get back to pre-pandemic staffing levels with the building required to be open 60 hours per week. Several Legislators spoke about the necessity of library services, and the challenges libraries face coming out of the pandemic. The amendment failed 11-2 (Legislators Mezey (D-Dryden), Shurtleff (R-Groton), opposed, and Legislator Granison (D-Ithaca) excused).

An amendment to reduce funding for speakers invited to participate in the Office of Human Rights educational series from $40,000 to $20,000 passed unanimously. Chairwoman Shawna Black (D-Ithaca) spoke about how some of the speakers in series put on by the Office are paid large amounts, and that she doesn’t feel that’s the best use of taxpayer dollars. Legislator Koreman (D-Ulysses) asked that more assorted programming come from the department, and that less money spent on the speaker series makes sense. Director of the Office, Dr. Ken Clarke spoke about his upcoming initiatives to diversify programming, and that he would be able to run programming at the new level.

The amendment brought forth in the October 3 meeting to support two additional deputies for the Sheriff’s Office, totaling $236,476 was brought back for discussion and passed 12-1 (Legislator Pillar (D-Ithaca) opposed, and Legislator Granison (D-Ithaca) excused). In support of the amendment, Legislator Rich John (D-Ithaca) stated, “I think there’s some real value in this, not just in the impact on overtime expense, but also in the overall capability of the Sheriff’s Office.” Legislator Veronica Pillar (D-Ithaca) stated, “we’re already recommending requests for three other deputy sheriffs, and a clerk for work that would otherwise be done by deputy sheriffs… we’re already hiring a bunch of extra deputies… unless I’m not understanding, those are not to do more work, one is to staff the Human Services Building and the others are to cover in different ways what they’re already doing. Hiring five more seems like too much.” It was clarified that the security at the Human Services Building will be outsourced, one deputy would be working on the mental health co-response program, and a civil deputy would be covered by a State grant. Undersheriff Jenn Olin stated that “a lot of people think we’re just out there filling our patrol zones, but a lot of people forget that we have to provide staffing 16 hours a day at the Airport, which is often done with support of road patrol deputies.” Olin added that 1,500 hours of support at the Airport has been done by road patrol deputies, with 800 of those hours being supported by overtime work.

Amendments to address anticipated electricity costs totaling $100,000 of target funding and $45,000 one-time funding both passed unanimously 11-0 (Legislators Travis Brooks (D-Ithaca), Henry Granison (D-Ithaca), and Deborah Dawson (D-Lansing) excused).

An amendment to add funding to the Contingent Fund to support a REACH Medical Behavioral Outreach Nurse for $87,860 each year for two years passed unanimously, 11-0 (Legislators Travis Brooks (D-Ithaca), Henry Granison (D-Ithaca), and Deborah Dawson (D-Lansing) excused). Legislator Dan Klein (D-Danby) spoke about the efforts and unique approaches of the organization, and Public Health Director and Mental Health Commissioner Frank Kruppa spoke in support of the amendment and funding. Chairwoman Shawna Black (D-Ithaca) spoke about how REACH is a provider that is trusted amongst the local population experiencing homelessness, and that “expanding this program could see a direct impact.” Black also spoke about how the total program is estimated to cost over $1 million, and that this funding is one portion of their larger project.

An amendment to add a staff member and additional equipment to the Weights and Measures Department for a total of $50,000, with the funding to be placed in contingency and potentially used in the second half of 2023 following review of department needs and activities passed 11-0 (Legislators Travis Brooks (D-Ithaca), Henry Granison (D-Ithaca), and Deborah Dawson (D-Lansing) excused). After a question from Legislator Anne Koreman (D-Ulysses), County Administrator Lisa Holmes shared that her initial plan was to look into any shifts needed for the department in 2023, and whether administrative support could be gleaned from another office. Director of the Department Aaron Becker stated that there is more package checking that could be done so that tare weights are more accurate across the County, and that more follow ups could be completed after violations are cited.

Legislator Randy Brown (R-Newfield) moved an amendment that would provide $40,000 for expanded youth services. Brown cited that this funding could help address mental health needs for youth, and that it would give the Youth Services Department the ability to do additional coordination. The budget includes $5,000 for transportation for youth to bring them to programming. Chairwoman Shawna Black (D-Ithaca) shared that “we often underestimate the work being done by our Mental Health Department in schools,” adding that she doesn’t want to see services duplicated – she concluded by asking that at least quarterly reports on progress be given. The amendment passed 8-3, (Legislators Champion (D-Ithaca), Mezey (D-Dryden), Sigler (R-Lansing) opposed).

An amendment to support an EMS Coordinator position at the Department of Emergency Response was brought forth by Legislator Rich John (D-Ithaca) and passed unanimously 11-0 (Legislators Travis Brooks (D-Ithaca), Henry Granison (D-Ithaca), and Deborah Dawson (D-Lansing) excused). John stated, “this is an area where historically the County has not been involved… this represents a pretty significant policy shift if we say yes,” carrying on that in upstate New York there is an increasing crisis around ambulance service, for example there are areas in Tompkins County where response times are “too long.” John added that he hopes the County can be measured in its approach so that the responsibility doesn’t just transfer to the County away from existing services, but that those services are supported in meaningful ways. Director of the Department of Emergency Response, Mike Stitley, shared that he was in support of this approach. The position would be “expected to assist in the formulation of policies and includes overseeing and scheduling the activities of emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and Paramedics; maintaining employee and Department licenses, certifications and accreditations; maintaining compliance with Regional EMS and NY State DOH requirements; and collaborating with neighboring agencies and departments on the efficient provision of Emergency Medical Services.” Chairwoman Black (D-Ithaca) shared that she is glad to see the Legislature taking this seriously and that the County is taking action, adding that she has received positive feedback from interested parties. Legislator Mike Sigler (R-Lansing) thanked those who helped to make this happen, including that Trumansburg Mayor Rordan Hart and other local municipal officials have convened around support of this issue. Legislator Dan Klein (D-Danby) spoke about his interest for this position to participate in educational activities for the community and to help the legislature make recommendations to New York State on what changes might be helpful.

A $63,750 amendment to adjust for revenue from New York State that can be used for staffing to support veterans passed unanimously, 11-0 (Legislators Travis Brooks (D-Ithaca), Henry Granison (D-Ithaca), and Deborah Dawson (D-Lansing) excused). Services are set to expand at the Veterans Services Department, with this new funding from the state set to support local staffing and programming.

An amendment that effectively removes funding from the Sheriff’s budget to providing security at the Human Services Building, but maintains funding for private security in the Department of Social Services passed unanimously, 11-0 (Legislators Travis Brooks (D-Ithaca), Henry Granison (D-Ithaca), and Deborah Dawson (D-Lansing) excused).

An amendment brought forth by Legislator Mike Sigler (R-Lansing) to add $25,000 to support Lansing Lunchbox programming, which supports around 100 children every two weeks passed unanimously 11-0 (Legislators Travis Brooks (D-Ithaca), Henry Granison (D-Ithaca), and Deborah Dawson (D-Lansing) excused). Chairwoman Black (D-Ithaca) shared that this program has been going for over two years, it is volunteer run, and that it is a growing program. Legislator Amanda Champion (D-Ithaca) reminded her colleagues that this is coming out of fund balance, and reiterated that many organizations such as this one should be asking for funding through the Community Recovery Fund (applications are open through October 31, 2022). County Administrator Lisa Holmes also added that all communities with food pantries receive funding through the Human Services Coalition funding process, though this amendment is in addition to the other food pantries already receiving funding.

An amendment to support a teen coordinator position at the Southside Community Center for $25,000 passed 10-1 (Legislator Champion (D-Ithaca) opposed, and Legislators Travis Brooks (D-Ithaca), Henry Granison (D-Ithaca), and Deborah Dawson (D-Lansing) excused). Legislator Anne Koreman (D-Ulysses) stated that this is an historically underfunded organization, and that this is a chance for the County to lean into its diversity, equity, and inclusion goals as the organization (Southside) states that it “unapologetically supports young Black and brown people in the community.” It was also discussed that this is one-time funding to kick start their efforts. There was debate that this request should have gone through the Human Services Coalition, though Kayla Matos, Deputy Director of Southside Community Center shared that their priority through that process was the previously discussed hot meals program. Matos also shared that this position would help alleviate her time so she can seek out more grants and funding through other avenues. Following some debate of whether the City should take on more funding of Southside, Matos clarified that Southside also serves many people who live outside of the City of Ithaca, many of whom have been pushed out of the City due to unaffordability of housing.

Legislator Dan Klein (D-Danby) moved that $490,000 be taken out of fund balance to bring the tax levy change to zero. The motion passed 8-3 (Legislators Black (D-Ithaca), Champion (D-Ithaca), and Lane (D-Dryden) opposed, Legislators Travis Brooks (D-Ithaca), Henry Granison (D-Ithaca), and Deborah Dawson (D-Lansing) excused). Klein stated that “the County is in excellent financial shape and this would give a little bit back to the property tax payer,” continuing “I do not believe that this is a particularly risky move to make.” Legislator Mike Lane (D-Dryden) opposed the motion, stating “every year our costs at the County increase, we settled our labor contracts with at least 3%+ increases, we have increases for electricity, fuel, asphalt, police cars… we’re looking right now at a tax levy increase that is half of what we asked our County Administrator to look at… I think its honest to say to the taxpayers in my district that costs go up.” Legislator Randy Brown (R-Newfield) shared that when looking at the County’s fund balance he “sees it as the people’s money. The County even during the pandemic increased its fund balance. If you look at the last ten years I think the County has always increased its fund balance.” Legislator Rich John (D-Ithaca) said “we’re likely to see some economic change in 2023 that may not be good, but right at present it seems that casino revenue and sales tax revenue are going to add to our fund balance at the end of this year. I feel pretty confident that we can fund this $490,000.” Legislator Greg Mezey (D-Dryden) stated, “I think when you look at our risk you have to look at the risk of our constituents in the County. They’re at risk because they’re not sitting on 18% reserve… or the ability to borrow money at a much healthier rate than we can or readily available credit rating like we have the ability to.” Chairwoman Shawna Black (D-Ithaca) shared that in this budget she feels that “we have been very generous, and every time that we add something to take out of our fund balance, we see that number go down,” adding that part of the calculation is that the County has to keep a certain amount to retain its credit rating, which allows for the great interest rates cited by Legislator Mezey.

After the amendments it is expected that the tax levy will increase 0%, to $52,397,521 with the Countywide average tax rate being $5.65 per $1,000 of assessed property value, which is a decrease of 7.5%. While the tax rate is decreasing, the property tax increase for a median priced home ($225,000 in 2022) is expected to be around $113, with the total County property taxes for that median home amounting to approximately $1,271 (local property assessments are expected to increase across the County). A resolution reflecting these details passed unanimously, 11-0 (Legislators Travis Brooks (D-Ithaca), Henry Granison (D-Ithaca), and Deborah Dawson (D-Lansing) excused). An amended tentative budget will be presented at the November 7 meeting of the legislature.

For more information on the recommended 2023 Tompkins County Budget, visit: https://tompkinscountyny.gov/news/highlights-september-6-2022-meeting-tompkins-county-legislature