ITHACA, N.Y. – Ithaca native Martha Robertson is up for re-election this year after 16 years working for Tompkins County Legislature.
Originally from Baltimore, Robertson came to Ithaca as a transfer student at Cornell University. Upon graduating, Robertson left Cornell with a degree in early childhood education which she took to East Hill Elementary and a daycare center downtown where she taught young children. Robertson later moved to Cleveland with her husband, where they lived for 11 years before returning to Ithaca for good in 1988.
She now lives in Dryden and is running for the 13th district on Democratic and Working Families lines.
Robertson represents District 13, which covers the western part of the Town of Dryden. She chairs the Planning, Development, and Environmental Quality Committee and is a member of the Public Safety, Old Library and Jail Study committees.
Ithaca Voice reporter Alyvia Covert sat down with Robertson to discuss issues of affordable housing, renewable energy and re-entry in Tompkins County.
What brought you to local government?
I’ve been involved in the community even as a student back in the ’70s. Coming back here, my kids were in public schools so I was involved in that way, but I first got involved in the issues that touch county government after a new highway was proposed in the late 90’s that was supposed to be built from The Shops at Ithaca Mall to Route 79, from the northeastern side of the county around the city.
I got a group organized and we figured out this would really create sprawl. Nobody was talking about sprawl, we were educating ourselves on what that meant and we successfully made the case that the road wasn’t needed and it would hurt downtown. This was at a time when downtown was really struggling and it was a better idea to invest in public transit etc., and that lead to someone suggesting that I should run for Legislature, so I did in 2000.
What are the biggest issues facing your constituency and Tompkins County?
Facing my constituency, the biggest issue is probably the cost and scarcity of housing which affects everybody. The fact that other people don’t have access to affordable housing means they’re driving from long distances to get to work or services, and there are many social costs that go along with unaffordable or unstable housing for people – that affects everybody whether they realize it or not. Even if they’re satisfied with their current situation if affects the entire community. It’s part of the challenge related to equity, social ability, equality and environmental sustainability as well. You can’t fight climate change if people are forced to drive from farther and farther away no matter how much we try and make our TCAT or bus systems to be better, which is also very hard to afford,
We will never succeed in getting all the people who commute to Tompkins County for work every day out of their cars. More than half of them have told us in a survey that they would like to live in Tompkins County if they had the option. There is a huge opportunity for us to bring people here so they’re not just contributing during their daytime working hours but they can actually become part of the community. Those are issues that are really all connected for me.
Equity issues and environmental sustainability are also big in Tompkins County. County government in New York State, in particular, is really the provider for many social services. Whether it’s heating assistance for low-income people, providing food stamps, foster care, or just basic public support – those are all costs that are borne by a great degree by local taxpayers and those are the programs that the county runs, so that’s a big issue. The better able families can support themselves, the less the taxpayer has to do that. The issues of sustainability are really 0ver-riding – we have to move away from fossil fuels and we’ve been working on that a lot. In Dryden, the pipeline has become a huge issue and that connects to issues in Lansing, which then really involves the entire county.
I think we have a huge opportunity to show that we can have economic development, growth and a rapid movement away from fossil fuels, and I think we can be leaders in the state on 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?
If the salt production goes away, then all of us are affected since the salt would have to come from somewhere else and we can’t get away without from salt in the winter. It would be a lot of trucks on the road, the loss of taxpayers, a loss of jobs. I believe that the DEC are the experts here. They have been listening to the public. I do not agree that it should be shut down. It is a viable business which is well-regulated and I respectfully disagree with some people in my own party on this and I think we should support the business.
Do you think there are any voices or communities that are underrepresented on Tompkins County Legislature?
We always feel that certain people corral a lot of attention and some aren’t heard from. Specifically back to housing, we feel that renters are really not considered in the equation. You hear over and over again that local communities are opposed to rentals and new rental projects because we want stability and homeownership. That is great, but we also need rental units and we have a lot of very deserving people who are stable and rentals should not be equated with things like crime which gets thrown into that bucket.
We see a lot of families really struggling to get started and wanting to contribute to the community and they may just be in a time in their lives when they’re not ready to buy or they’re saving to buy. Frankly, we don’t have enough rentals or home ownership units available. I would say that maybe it’s baked into the system if someone is a renter they may feel less empowered. I would encourage them to step up, pay attention, come to our meetings and respond.
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?
We have a whole housing strategy and I was a leader in putting together the housing summit last year. We’re really trying to elevate the conversation and make sure people are aware that they really have a need for more supply overall. The market seems to be doing pretty well at supplying housing for higher priced units, rentals, and homeownership. What’s not being met is everything from mid-price and down. It’s very hard to find housing and homes to buy for less than $200,000 – that’s a lot of money. Given the fact that we’re seeing the price of housing go up but we haven’t seen any rise in wages. This is a national story. What’s really missing is middle-income, mid-priced homes to buy and desperately needed is everything below that as well.
Our housing strategy showed that we have a very serious affordability problem below the median income for rentals and at the midpoint and below for homeownership as well.
We have also been looking into housing for seniors. What seniors are saying is that they would like to downsize, in many cases they would like to be in a walkable community, some are okay with being in an apartment building, but many would like to be in a home that has access to the outdoors, etc. we’re not building those kinds of things.
All but the very wealthy are being left behind. We’ve heard of employers who have recruited people to come here for jobs and have even taken the job, then come here unable to find an affordable place to live, meaning they have to turn the job down. We’re talking about professional people not being able to find what they’re looking for as well as people who are filling entry-level jobs. We like the kids who grew up here and went to school here to be able to stay, but it’s very often hard for them to get started in their own places.
The folks returning from jail or prison – the numbers aren’t as large as the numbers of low-income people overall or working families, but that is a particular niche which is really important, and there’s also a public role in that where we really need to move forward.
Are you in favor of having a living wage in Tompkins County?
We don’t have the authority to set a minimum wage, we have to ask the state for that authority. It may sound great on paper, but we just don’t have a big enough economy to make that work. Big cities like Seattle, LA and San Francisco have tried things like that and frankly, they are seeing negative effects. It’s important for us to watch and see how it’s working. But the logic isn’t there – it’s not productive to create a micro-climate for wage standards. I think it would hurt people overall.
I think it would really damage our non-profits, for example. We have a great non-profit community that we all depend on, that the people we’re talking about depend on. We already saw that at the state level when they put in a higher minimum wage but didn’t supply the funding for non-profit workers to get paid that higher wage. You have to do something if you’re not getting higher reimbursements but required to pay a higher wage. I think it would damage a number of our non-profits, some of them would collapse altogether, others would have to constrain, and that doesn’t seem like a win to me at all. I think we’re worried about small businesses, and obviously, we would like to have people earning a living wage, but I just think we’re too small an economy for that to work – the downsides would be too significant.
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?
It’s wonderful news that crunching all the data, looking at the demographics and the programs that we already have and the opportunity to improve on all those programs suggested that we don’t need to build more beds. They expect the jail population to go down. That might be overly optimistic, but I also like to be conservative and plan for the not-so optimistic alternative. The first thing we have to do is go to commission and say we need our variances to be extended so that we can put these programs in place. It will be up to the legislature to decide where those investments should go. Personally, I think criminal justice coordinators are important, new nurses in the jail, and really improving the situation of housing and treatment for people moving out of the jail with substance abuse and mental health issues.
I think that the committee process has been really productive and really thoughtful. The public safety committee and the jail study committee has really led us through a process. We could have hired the consultants and sat back and waited for them. Rich John brought in people from all different sides, we heard from the public for many hours, we really made sure we were considering all the options and educating ourselves at the same time. I wanted to thank him and recognize his efforts, and I know he’s really dedicated to finding the right solution for everybody.
These things take time, and in order to be sustainable we just have to wait for the funding from the state. There’s a really important role that the local justice courts have to play here. Our district attorney has already told us that he is recommending release on recognizance as the default, which means no bail unless there’s a specific case which requires it. However we’re still seeing bail set for nonviolent offenses. For example, there are several people in the jail right now with $250 set for bail. If somebody is not able to pay 250 dollars to bail themselves out, it’s a poverty situation, it’s not safety or criminal justice. There remain too many people incarcerated because they can’t pay $250, that’s not right. I hope that activists will pay attention to the justices that are up for election this year – these are elected officials. Bail is supposed to ensure that somebody comes back to court. If someone is part of the community and they’re not a flight risk, that doesn’t make sense.
Read more about Robertson on her legislator bio page.
Featured photo: File photo