ITHACA, N.Y. — Tompkins County Legislator and Ithaca native Rich John is seeking re-election this year. In the two years he has been on Legislature, he said he’s made a positive difference and would like to continue.
John lives on East Hill and grew up in Ithaca. He went to Ithaca High School and then to Cornell University. He left Ithaca to go to Notre Dame for law school but decided to come back to Ithaca and practice in town.
Outside of Legislature, John works with Ports of New York, teaches at Cornell Law School and he’s also involved in a Florida business start-up involving the certification of inspections of houses for energy efficiency and water conservation.
Ithaca Voice Reporter Alyvia Covert spoke with John about issues of housing, transportation, and incarceration in Tompkins County.
What brought you to local government?
I had left Intertech in 2015 and was deciding what I wanted to do next and a vacancy opened up when Nate Shinagawa moved from one district to the next. So, I decided I’d always wanted to run. I’ve always been involved in the community and it seemed like a good opportunity to try, so I ran. I ran on fairly short notice and it was a pretty quick decision but I’ve been there for two years and I’ve learned a lot, but I’ve really enjoyed it. I feel like I’ve made a positive difference and I’d like to continue.
What are the biggest issues facing your constituency and Tompkins County?
Certainly, inside the 4th district, we are seeing a tremendous amount of change with all the development around The Commons which I think is largely positive, but it’s certainly changing the look and feel of our downtown. We’re going to bring a lot more people into the Commons area which I think it needs. And we’re going to be able to do more things to make it much more vibrant.
I’ve been involved in the project to purchase the Trust Company building and to put the History Center in there, and I think it’s seven other non-profits are going to join them. It’s just going to be great, and I think we’ll be able to do something really positive there which will bring in more people downtown which will help the stores and restaurants that are here. It will also keep it very lively which is all good. We’re seeing the same kind of thing in Collegetown, at the other end of my district, where the property values are going up dramatically and the buildings are going up in the air. We’re seeing five- to six-story buildings on a regular basis — that’s good and bad. There will he high-quality student housing there and that’s a good thing, but it’s changing the character a bit and we really have to think about what it’s doing.
Certainly, parking in Ithaca is always a challenge — adding more people and parking will be even more of a challenge. We have the garages downtown and studies have suggested that we can absorb that amount of growth. Collegetown is different, it’s probably going to involve a lot of the students keeping cars remotely or not having cars. And how you accomplish that? I’m not sure yet.
Housing is a huge issue. There are about 15,000 people that commute into Tompkins County to work every day. While studies have said our population will go down over time, I don’t think that’s true because if you have that much pressure on people coming here to work, if somebody leaves, others are going to move into that house or apartment. I don’t think our population is going to get any smaller, and I think that we’ll see growth here in Tompkins County. That’s what we’re seeing now, but that isn’t what that studies seem to suggest about upstate in general. We have identified housing as an issue – we just passed a housing strategy which is a very ambitious document in terms of the amount of housing that we want to see developed.
We have the Energy Roadmap. Our goal is to hit some very ambitious energy goals in reducing the emissions of carbon fuels reducing consumption and it’s not easy but we are seeing real trends with more solar. There was a chance for a wind project in Tompkins County and I’d love to see that come back in some way.
What we’re seeing in Washington is such a radical shift in ideas about government that will come down to the local level. We’ve always had issues with New York State and the federal government giving us mandates, and I think we’re going to see more of those. Some of the social safety net programs that we were partly responsible for organizing, I’m not sure they’re going to hold up their end and when you think about what that might do locally, we’re still going to be here and see the direct impacts of not being able to fund programs that have been there for years.
We’re going to have to be really innovative, careful with money and we’re going to try and help people with really limited resources. That’s my fear, maybe it won’t happen,
Do you think there are any voices or communities that are underrepresented on Tompkins County Legislature?
There are a lot of people who don’t come and talk to us. We get a lot of public interest, but beneath that, we have people who talk to you indirectly — emails, letters, etc. There are a lot of avenues for input, and in addition to that, members of the community are constantly talking to the departments. You’re getting input from all different directions and we’re fortunate here that people do engage. I’m sure there are people who just don’t think to come talk to us, so it’s hard to get a full spectrum.
Are you in favor of having a living wage in Tompkins County?
I’m certainly in favor of a living wage, who isn’t? But I certainly have some concerns, how do you get there? I worry about Tompkins County going at it alone.
I don’t want to create a situation where we’re at an economic disadvantage to our neighbors. You also see if you’re going to suddenly raise wages for everybody, you put tremendous pressure on local businesses if they’re marginally in business. The reactions to that can be higher levels of efficiency, raising prices when people don’t want to pay high prices or you can hire fewer people and lessen hours, but I don’t think we’re going to advance like that.
We have to think about that and decide what we want as a community. We also have certain groups of the community that won’t be able to afford higher prices of things. If you’re going to raise prices to pay a living wage, then somebody had to pay that. A large segment of our community is in that category as students. We have a lot of students here with fixed budgets and if you’re raising the cost of food and all the essentials of daily life it will be more expensive to go to school here. Maybe that’s a reasonable price to pay to afford a living wage, but we have to think about that.
Cargill has continued to be a source of contention for many in the community, from the tax abatement in the fall to now environmental concerns about mining under Cayuga Lake. What are your thoughts on Cargill generally? Do you think concerns about mining under the lake are well founded?
The recent decision to put the second shaft down is a good conversation to have. We want to make sure our lake is safe and at the same time, we have to decide if we have a mine we have to make sure the miners are safe. They travel so far underground that having a second mine is a serious safety issue for them. I understand there is a concern if the geological structure will withstand the shaft. We haven’t had any problems with the mine which is there now. But with my training as a lawyer, I have no idea, I’m not a geologist.
I’ve been told from New York State, the DEC and the miners that they are confident they can put this shaft in and it will not have dire environmental consequences. I think it’s important as a community to have the conversation and also recognize that there are a lot of jobs out there. It’s easy to say close the mine, but you have to look those people in the eye who have their livelihoods tied up in the mine and tell them that we’re doing it anyway. I’m not prepared to say that without a lot of studies. These are specialized and highly paid jobs. I’m not aware of anything that they could do without re-training or have to go back to school. We would have to face the fact that we are taking jobs from a lot of people.
What do you think the biggest gaps in housing are in Tompkins County? Who is getting left behind? And how can Tompkins County Legislature make progress in the area of housing?
I’ve been able to vote on a lot of the big projects which have come through recently. I know tax abatements have been a huge issue. I think they can be a good tool and we’ve been able to use them to transform our downtown. We’ve added a lot of housing – we need housing. If you look at where the buildings are being built, we haven’t taken away anything, it’s been all to the good. Hancock Plaza was an empty grocery store. … Where we need to get more creative is in affordable housing and it’s not just low-income, but low to moderate. It would be great if we could have people who work at Cornell and IC to live in the community. We would save so much in energy costs and transportation every day. You’d also have a much stronger community, so we need to figure out how we can make a difference.
I think there’s a lot we can do to make it a better environment for developers to come in, but we need partners and it’s easy to say that we need housing and stick it to the landlords, but I don’t think that will work very well. It’s going to take a lot of time and a lot more money that we have accumulated in the past.
To some extent, we don’t do land-use planning at the county level. We can encourage zoning decisions that would make it easier for housing to go in place, but we’re not directly involved. This is an area where to some extent we are a secondary player
Low-income housing is always a challenge and we need a lot of public support to make that happen. I think with our current administration, it will be harder and harder to get that support.
Tompkins County recently received the results from the Jail Study. What do you think the biggest takeaways from the report are? What steps do you think Tompkins County should take in the future regarding jail population and the Tompkins County Jail?
We definitely have an engaged community on this issue. Fortunately, we do have other options for this. The report was a little optimistic. This study and further improvement on our jail is going to cost money and that’s okay, it’s an investment in our community, particularly if we can keep people from coming back. We have these established patterns where the same people keep coming back, and if we can help them, that’s really positive. The social damage from that is extreme.
I also think as taxpayers we have to consider a capital program with the jail. It doesn’t look like we will need to expand, but even without new beds, it has come to my attention that we don’t have an adequate medical facility, the kitchen is fully depreciated, there are no rooms available for education programs that should be available, there aren’t good meeting rooms for (Alcoholics Anonymous) or (Narcotics Anonymous) and for other meeting or treatments. We’re hoping to amp up our mental health program in the jail, but we need space to do it.
It’s important if we’re going to take it to a better level and do a better job.
What are your views on the LEAD program and what can the legislature do to address the opioid crisis?
The city is taking the lead on LEAD. I think it’s really worth trying and we’ll have this up and running hopefully soon. Seeing a path from someone who has just been released from jail and straight into treatment, I would certainly favor shortening a sentence if someone would agree to go straight from the jail and into treatment. We are very close to getting a detox center n the county, which is something we don’t have, and that one is really important.
I would love to have more communication between the committee and local courts. I would love to have a better understanding of how bail decisions are made. I would like to know the tools we have to do something other than put someone in jail.
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