TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — Moving into budget season, reducing the jail population and addressing the housing crisis are on the “front burner” of priorities for next year. A new revenue stream from casinos may help Tompkins County reach some of its budget priorities.

Tompkins County Administrator Joe Mareane has released details of the $179 million 2018 Recommended Budget. The budget includes a tax levy increase of 2.4 percent, but a property tax rate decrease.

An increase in the county’s tax base by 3.1 percent has helped lower the property tax rate to $6.58 per $1,000. For the owner of a median-valued $178,000 home in Tompkins County, a homeowner’s property tax bill would increase $12.

In addition to jail population and housing, the county also has standard priorities to maintain current levels of service, maintain fiscal strength and sustain investment in facilities and infrastructure.

“We want to make sure that whatever we do doesn’t compromise our underlying fiscal strength,” Mareane said. “It’s really important because we know times are good in some periods and they’re really bad in others. We want to maintain our good fiscal health. We want to make sure we keep investing in our infrastructure … and we want to address these urgent priorities, which again we’re identifying as the jail population reduction and housing and homelessness, things that have really gone to the front burner over the past year.”

The 2018 budget is benefiting from a new revenue stream, something that doesn’t happen often. Tompkins County is conservatively projected to receive about $1.2 million from casino revenue in 2018. That might ring bells as odd since Tompkins County does not have a casino, but the county happens to fall in a region with two casinos —Lago Resort & Casino and Tioga Downs. So far in 2017, the county has collected $800,000 in casino revenue.

Though the additional casino revenue is welcome addition to the budget, it is also risky to rely on. Other risks include sales tax revenue and the federal budget, especially regarding Medicaid, Mareane said.

The local economy has remained strong, with unemployment at pre-recession levels and consumer confidence high. However, local consumer spending has remained “erratic and unpredictable,” Mareane said in a news release, but he said he is optimistic that the county’s two-year decline in sales tax revenue has “bottomed-out” and stability will resume in 2018.

Jail population and housing make priority list

Reducing the jail population is a budget priority for Tompkins County in 2018, with a total request for $782,000 to implement recommendations from recently released criminal justice and jail study report.

The requests — which will need approval from legislators — include:

  • A criminal justice coordinator
  • An additional probation officer to expand the department’s capacity to manage more people through electronic monitoring rather than incarceration
  • Two mental health workers
  • Two assistant district attorneys to expedite cases
  • An additional jail nurse
  • OAR College and Endeavor House projects
  • A re-entry-related project called “Sequential Intercept Mapping.” The SIM project will be a workshop to help the community identify how people with mental illness and often substance abuse disorders come in contact with the local criminal justice system.

Related: Tompkins jail population expected to drop

New York has continued to renew a variance allow extra beds at the Tompkins County Jail for the past year, saving the county from costly board outs. If the county does not act on recommendations from the report, the state could revoke the variance.

“The costs associated with our jail will likely be going up regardless of the path we choose,” Mareane said. “If the state were to do anything with our variance, board out costs could go up. And frankly if we don’t do anything proactively on these recommendations from CGR, the state could do that.”

With the new casino revenue stream, Mareane said the county is fortunate the jail population expenses will not have to be financed through property taxes.

“This new revenue source from casinos will be there to help pay for those costs. The same thing is true with the housing and homelessness priority. Something has to be done. We have a situation that most people characterize as a crisis,” Mareane said.

Housing and homelessness is another priority area in the budget, which requests a senior housing planner to focus on implementing the Housing Strategy, added support for Continuum of Care staffing and to resume weekend hours at the Friendship Center. The requests come to about $247,000.

Learn more

The detailed budget is available here.

Public copies of the Recommended Budget are also available for review at the County Administration office, 125 E. Court St., third floor. Copies are also available at the Office of the County Legislature, 121 E. Court St.

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at koconnor@ithacavoice.com and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.