DRYDEN, N.Y. — Lifelong Dryden resident Mike Lane is seeking re-election to Tompkins County Legislature.

Lane represents District 14, which covers the eastern part of the Town of Dryden. Lane has chaired the Legislature for the past four years. He also chairs the Transportation and Old Library Committees.

Lane, a Democrat, has been a part of local government for decades. He was first elected to Legislature in 1993 and served three consecutive terms, took a one-term hiatus and returned to the Legislature, where he has served since. Lane has also served as mayor of the Village of Dryden and village trustee.

In addition to serving on Legislature, Lane has a full-time legal practice in Dryden. He has practiced law for more than 40 years.

Lane has one challenger for the District 14 seat, Republican candidate Nathan Busby.

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Ithaca Voice Reporter Kelsey O’Connor spoke with Lane about his experience in local government, why he is seeking another term and what his thoughts are on issues of housing, incarceration and transportation.

Why are you seeking re-election to Tompkins County Legislature?

I think I have a lot of experience. I think that I still have a lot of good ideas moving forward.

We’re having a significant change in the Legislature next year. … Some of the folks that are running don’t have any background on the Legislature, in town or city government, or village, or school boards or other elected offices. And so they’re coming into it fairly cold with a lot of enthusiasm, I’m sure, but it’s going to be a year of transition coming. And I think it’s really important that those of us that hope to stay on the Legislature, and it’s up to our constituents, it’s not our choice, we’re seeking re-election, but I think you need the carry over of the experience for this term because of so many changes. A lot of people are excited about running for the Legislature. They’re agitated, I don’t know if agitated is the word for it, but they’re anxious about the national government and a lot of things happening and what might affect the county. Although we’re pretty much about local things, we do tend to a sound board for folks who want to come in and talk to us. And we sometimes send out resolutions of our opinion about things to say to the federal government even though they have no strength other than to talk about what is our opinion about things. But it’s important people have that local place to talk. The county level seems to be that because there is an opportunity at the state level or the federal level for them.

… There’s still work I’d like to accomplish and the fact that I think I have something to offer.

Why do you think it’s important to bring people back on who have a lot of experience and institutional knowledge?

I came on in 1994, originally, and I came after 12 years experience in village government. I had been a trustee and the mayor in Dryden for 10 years. I found it was a lot different than I thought. I found it was  quite a steep learning curve. For the first year I felt a little bit inadequate. And I said. ‘My gosh, am I up to this?’ Mainly because so much was new and the process was different. Coming in without any background in local government means you got that extra step. You’ve got to learn how government operates, how meetings are conducted, what all the acronyms are that we use all the time, who the players are among the 700 people that work for us. What the budget limitations we have (are) … they have the best intentions but they might find themselves frustrated when they find out what the processes actually are and what the limitations are that we are able to do because we can only do what the state government allows us to do, and those limitations are substantial when you have legal limitations on what you can do and financial limitations on what you can do and other people who don’t agree with what you might want to do. They’re all things you have to learn to deal with and if there’s one thing I think you need as a quality, certainly in county government, that’s patience. I don’t mean you just have to ignore everything that comes along or not want to move forward, but you have to be patient with the things that may take a lot longer.

What do you think are the biggest issues facing Tompkins County right now. And what can legislators do about them?

Certainly economic development and how we afford to be the community which we want to be, how we afford to be able to make changes we would like to make.

You take, for example, all that’s going on with the jail right now and the potential loss of variances, or the fact that we would have to board out even more prisoners to other counties and that expense. We have a whole group of people who don’t want to see an expansion of the jail. We just had a major study that talked about things we can do hold the population down in the jail, but on the other hand we are the one county in the area expanding population. And when you have more people, you have more demand for public safety services, including the jail. So how do we do that in a way we can afford? We’ve got an awful lot of alternatives to incarceration programs for example. We’re probably a leader in that. Some of them have worked pretty well. The things that we haven’t done are the really expensive things. We may have to spend several hundred thousand dollars next year to try to talk about better mental health services in the jail, for example. Re-entry services that we can help people with, and all the time remembering that it is a county jail and not a state penitentiary. The length of time we have for the prisoners who are there, sometimes the sentence is very short.

And because of the classifications of prisoners, I think there are, last I knew there were 11 classifications of prisoners. You can’t always fill the jail, you never can essentially. …We still continue to board women particularly out, and I think that’s a travesty. I don’t blame the jail. I don’t blame our processes. I blame the fact that we don’t have the capacity and probably women are the ones who ought to be here to be able to have access to their family.

Coming back to economic development, if you don’t have jobs producing the income here, you don’t have the tax money to be able to do the things, to be a leader in alternatives to incarceration, for example. Housing is big. We need to continue to put resources toward housing. Do I believe we will ever catch up? I think it will be hit and miss.

If you don’t have the jobs producing the income here. You don’t have the tax money to be able to do the things, to be a leader in alternatives to incarceration for example. Housing is big. We need to continue to put some resources toward housing. Do I believe we will ever catch up? I think it will be hit and miss, and I think we need to continue to try provide more local housing in the affordable category, but most developers are going toward market value housing. We have a real shortage of single-family houses. When you try to hire quality people, whether it’s private sector, the universities, the colleges, or even in government, when you try to bring people in from outside, one of the factors that they have a difficulty with is where do I find a house? And believe it or not, I don’t mean anything bad about the city and their efforts, but not everybody wants to live downtown in an apartment on the Commons — especially with issues of parking and transportation and crime.

Why did you want to form the transportation committee two years ago? 

Because I wanted some focus – we have ITTC (Ithaca Tompkins Transportation Council) – but we need to have some political discussions with (the Department of Transportation) and our elected state representatives and others about how do we do more than just maintain what we’ve got? How do we do things like make traffic flow better through the City of Ithaca, stoplights and timings and things, how do we address the overlap, being clogged up on Route 13 between NYSEG and the turnoff there in the morning. … You can’t grow and not have the infrastructure to serve people. Water and sewer so bigger houses can be built. People worry about sprawl. Well we’re pretty sprawl and sprawl here isn’t what sprawl is Boston or Miami or Washington, D.C. They might think that when  you add a subdivision somewhere that that’s sprawl, maybe on the term, but I’ve never felt that we have a huge issue with sprawl.

What are the biggest issues for your constituents in Dryden?

The pipeline. The solar issue is big. My part of the district is very unhappy with some of the commercial solar, which is industrial solar, proposals and where they are proposed – not so much that they are proposed. I think about when TC3 put in 10 acres of solar next to it on the foundation land, no one had any problem with that. It’s not visible. But where the solar is in my district is being proposed near the cemetery, which is a historic cemetery. Probably one of the best, if not the best, kept cemeteries in Tompkins County. People aren’t happy because it’s so close and there’s a wonderful view across our valley that you see through that area that they’re concerned about. So that’s got people concerned.

Transportation remains a big thing. I know when (there was) the awful accident at Simeon’s, the city was out there saying we’ve got to divert all the traffic on Route 79 through Dryden. Well that was not a popular thing to do. Dryden already suffers from Route 38 and 13 heavy truck traffic. We have all of the salt trucks that come through heading south on 38 in the winter, we have all day long, the Weitsman scrap metal trucks, giant scrap metal trucks, going back and forth heading down to Owego to the big scrap processing center that they have down there. Plus all of the trucks – I won’t say all of it – but a huge amount of the traffic that comes into Ithaca carrying goods and services comes through Dryden. So transportation is important to my community.

The systems with policing, we’re talking about, we’ve had a police consolidation study and Dryden’s been a part of it. Freeville worries about traffic and they worry about things like speeding and public safety. Freeville no longer has a police department, hasn’t for quite a few years, and relies on the sheriff’s department, so it’s important for folks out there to know that the sheriffs are available when they need them. And the sheriff assists Dryden. Dryden has a police department but it’s a pretty expensive thing for a small village to have, as large as we have.

Affordable housing has come to my village. Poet’s Landing. And that’s a lot of new people. They’ve got the second phase of that going in. We saw an increase in the population of the Village of Dryden by about 200 and we’ll probably see that again with the new lower, moderate-income housing that’s going in there.

We haven’t experienced the growth like you’re seeing in the southwest for the city in Dryden. We have some businesses, we have some Main Street businesses that aren’t doing so well that really, storefronts went down in 2008 when we had the recession and have struggled to come back. So that’s an issue. Agriculture. We worry about our farms and farmers. That’s why they look to gas leases and solar to supplement their income. Dairy prices are down. They don’t know always whether to add more cows or whether to ride it out. That’s something that the county pays attention to is agriculture.

We’ve talked about affordable housing a bit already, but is there anything you would like to add on the topic of that issue?

It is so hard. And what is affordable? That’s the other thing. There is a need for smaller units for folks. Not everybody is going to be able to afford $800 a month. Sometimes that can be in the “affordable range.” In this place, and with the living wage thing too, it used to be that people would start out, they’d have a room somewhere, maybe they’d have a roommate, then maybe they’d got involved and got married or formed a relationship with someone and moved in, got an apartment and then eventually would head for the American dream of having a house. That’s all in flux, all of those things at this point. But, the younger generations, maybe patience isn’t the right word, but they’re kind of expecting to have these things pretty quick and it takes some time for people to get the car, get the house, get the furniture, get the ring, get the apartment and get the furniture and still be able to pay for it, especially with the competition we have with student housing keeping the rents up.

We have efforts that we’ve talked to Cornell University, they’re making efforts to do more campus-based housing. Maple Ave is a good example – we’re going to have those beds up there for Cornell University grad students and yet they’re still going to be taxable. That was a really community-based conception Cornell made by hiring a developer to develop. They’re also a lot of private landlords out there that don’t charge as high rent as some of the brand new, first-class apartments. And people want affordable housing are still going to look to those. We have to make sure that they’re safe, they’re inspected, that we aren’t just putting the people who can’t afford it into the towns and villages because they can’t afford to live in the city. All of that factors into affordable housing.

If there’s one thing that I can say about all these issues is you can’t be a single issue person and think all you gotta do is X and Y will happen. All the other factors come into play. Tax base, what developers need to make a profit, tax credits at the federal and state level, money to help for installation of solar or geothermal or other kinds of thing like that.

We need to pay more attention to the rural issues at the county level. It’s awfully easy to spend a lot of time thinking about Ithaca but we can’t ignore the Newfields, the Grotons and the Drydens and the Ulysses.

A number of people lately have raised concerns about Cargill mining under Cayuga Lake and have called for a moratorium on expansions. What are your thoughts on the issue?

Cargill employs a lot of people. It’s been a responsible business in Tompkins County. It has a pretty good safety record. It needs to be able to continue to service our area with the production of road salt particularly. In order to do that it needs to be able to sink a new shaft and to be able to mine some areas that we can’t reach now because the … because of things like fresh air that have to be brought into the mine.

I guess it comes down to – the county has no authority to regulate it. That’s all through the Division of Mining’s and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. It comes down to an issue of do you trust DEC or not? Folks that don’t trust the review process of DEC will say that they don’t. This issue came to us when the review process had been going on for a substantial length of time at the DEC. We had some people come to our meetings here, well we should tell DEC to stop and to redo everything. Then the issue came up – should they be able to mine under the lake because of the possibilities of what might happen. A geologist has come to talk about the potential risks. At this point, I’m perfectly content with allowing DEC to handle the handle the environmental review of this process.

Do you think a moratorium on expansion — would that hurt their business you think? 

It probably wouldn’t hurt its business for the next, for the foreseeable few years, but eventually they will run out of area to mine and they will need to move north and then they have to make a decision whether it’s more expensive, rather to try to, if they have no place to go, they have to close the mine. But their biggest market for the road salt is for New York State roads. If we don’t have the mine, where do we bring the salt in from? And you add to that all the cost for transportation. We don’t have a very good railway system in Tompkins County. We could lose the railroad if you don’t have coal coming into the power plant and salt coming out from Cargill, how’s the railroad going to survive?

Read more about Lane on his Tompkins County Legislator bio page.

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.