ITHACA, N.Y. – Mike Koplinka-Loehr is no stranger to local government – formerly a representative in the Town of Ithaca, Koplinka-Loehr spent three terms as a legislator before moving into a new home in Lansing, outside his district.
Now living in a home designed by Cornell students and completely functioning on solar power, Koplinka-Loehr said he did not initially plan on running for legislature after moving to Lansing. However, he shortly changed his mind and decided now was a better time than ever to run as the Lansing representative. He is a registered Democrat running against candidate Mike Sigler for the District 6 seat.
Outside of legislature, Koplinka-Loehr works at TST BOCES, advising schools throughout the region about energy plans. He also works part-time interviewing individuals for the U.S. Census.
Ithaca Voice reporter Alyvia Covert sat down with Koplinka-Loehr to discuss issues such as economic inequality, planning in the city, taxes, and other issues facing his constituency.
What brought you to local government?
When I was in my teen years, I remember Matt McCue was visiting our house. He was a family friend, and I remember telling myself that I would never run for public office. Mainly because it just felt like so much work and external pressure. I felt internally that there was a possibility of compromising yourself and I just didn’t want that – I totally discounted it.
I remember coming back and registering my kids in Ithaca city schools and walking through the halls. A person who we knew from Ithaca asked if I had ever thought about running for school board – I had never thought about it, but because we now had kids in the school I thought, maybe.
So I ran for school board in 1996, we had 4 young children, and I did not win, but someone stepped down in December and I was asked to fill in. It was the perfect chance to get six months of a trial versus three years since I was working two jobs and my wife was also working, but it did work out and I realized it was manageable.
I had just begun thinking that I was really enjoying this role when someone asked me if I had ever considered running for legislature.
The main reason I decided to stay in local politics is largely that we have a friend with ALS. He has 5-7 years to live, he’s a doctor and he knows and is very clear about the impact. So that led me to think what I would be doing if I only had 5-7 years to live and out of my mouth popped “I would run for legislature.” I think the main reason was that it was very fulfilling. I use all my skills, every single day is different, you’re learning all the time and balancing things, meeting people’s needs – it was very gratifying and fulfilling to my skill set. All those things combined made it a very meaningful contribution.
What are the biggest issues facing your constituency and Tompkins County?
I would say the biggest issue overall is keeping taxes low. I think if I drilled down beyond the overall umbrella of that, the two biggest issues are the jail and affordable housing in the county.
People can’t afford to live here that work here – that’s not okay. We’ve had 12 solid years working on this issue. We have an excellent planning department, but we are not in charge of zoning. I also do think people are quite aware of the general inequity in our county. There are lots and lots of Ph.D.’s out there who are fighting for jobs and lots of people competing without PHD’s.
Within my district, which is most of the Town of Lansing, I think there are a few significant and challenging issues. We’ve got issues related to natural gas, issues with the salt mine, issues with the power plant and in general we’ve got issues with the roads. A lot of people in Lansing are really worried about taxes and especially in regards to the power plant. If you were to ask what I think the biggest three issues are within my constituency at this moment, I would say the salt mine, the power plant and not enough natural gas.
Do you think any voices or communities are underrepresented in Tompkins County?
For most of my adult life, I have been involved with helping people in the margins. I’m always looking at who’s in the margins and issues of economic inequality and who is not being heard whether it be rural white and urban, issues of diversity and discrimination across the board, transgender issues, housing issues, employment issues and all the other issues from people across the county whose voices are not at the table.
Tompkins has the beginning of the attempt at awareness – I can’t tell you how many forums or responses to incidents in our community where people have gathered and been determined to tackle an issue but after a year or so it fizzles because of the staying power of it all.
We have some great organizations like Building Bridges or the Multicultural Resource Center that really look toward the long term. Most people like you and I, we have enough attention for a year or two to follow an issue, we might even support a candidate, but we’re going to return to our lives, but it’s really hard to sustain something and even look beyond four years. Most of these problems, if you look beyond four years, the biggest thing is trying to get the entire community to focus on an issue.
When you do take stands of any kinds, liberal, conservative, you’re gonna have people firing at you and disagreeing. You have to answer questions. My degree in planning has helped me to see the big picture of things and I can explain to people and listen deeply and help educate. I have learned a lot about good public policy and human dynamics around it.
What some people are very upset about may not be a core central concern for the entire public. Or there may be issues that no one is paying attention to that may be very important for the public good. That’s always been very interesting to me from a planning perspective what you’re putting attention on as human beings. What are we putting our attention on and are we choosing more awarely or unawarely what we decided and as a legislator, it’s very important to me to help guide the best thinking in the community around key issues and not necessarily be swayed by the fad of the day.
Cargill has been a source of contention for many in the community lately, from the tax abatement in the Fall to now environmental concerns about mining under Cayuga Lake. What are your thoughts on Cargill generally?
This is a tricky, highly nuanced issue, but I think my opponent is trying to paint me as anti-salt mine and that’s totally incorrect. If any once citizen has worked harder and put more on the table publicly for the salt mine, it’s myself. There is no one else who has been to a public hearing who has been thinking of giving Cargill a sales tax abatement – I spoke in favor of giving them an abatement for all the supplies for their new shaft.
I am a big supporter of Cargill, I’ve worked with them extensively and I really do want them to succeed for another hundred years. I do realize there is an environmental concern and I think that everyone has to have a voice in addressing those environmental concerns – I think that Cargill is the very first entity to say that they don’t want the mine to go. The short answer is that I’m probably the biggest fan of the salt mine. I know both of the mine managers, I’ve talked with both of them about
The short answer is that I’m probably the biggest fan of the salt mine. I know both of the mine managers, I’ve talked with both of them about
I know both of the mine managers, I’ve talked with both of them about this before, and I speak with them regularly. Our property is one of the most significantly impacted property to that shaft in Lansing. We have 60 acres of land, and Cargill bought 52 acres to build the shaft – we are going to be very impacted by this. The second they proposed it, we met with them because my wife and I had concerns. We talked to friends and environmental consultants and approached them with 18 concerns we had in regards to the shaft. Several Cargill reps met with us in our kitchen and went through all 18 points and addressed all of our concerns. I think they’re very community minded. To say that I’m anti-Cargill I think is a little bit twisted.
I think, wisely, its easier for Cargill to mine where they are. If they mine under the lake, they only have one person to negotiate with and its New York State. If they are forced to mine under land, they have to negotiate with all the landowners, it takes a lot of time and its hard to keep track of everything and they have to negotiate more leases than just one. But, I am not a geologist and I don’t know the benefits of mining under the lake versus under land.
Affordable housing has been a big topic of conversation in Tompkins County for a long time. What do you think the biggest gaps in housing are in Tompkins County?
I’m a big planner and I’m a huge fan of our planning department. They’ve done a great job in building the affordable housing plan which has been adopted by legislature which identifies what the gaps are and what we can do to address them. How we get more incentives for developers and more structures going up in certain areas. My wife and I are looking at aging in place – I’m 60 years old, I’m looking ahead. My parents are still alive, her parents are still alive but we see the need for aging in place and there’s a gap there. If there are people who want to downsize and still want to live in the community we need to find a way that they can afford to do that on a limited income.
The biggest gap is providing affordable housing for those who are not making close to minimum or a living wage, seniors, families, and all those strategies are in that plan. We do have to educate people that housing developments and subsidized living situations are beneficial to the community because I think a lot of people are very opposed to it.
We recently got the results of the Jail Study. What do you think some of the biggest takeaways from the report were?
We have to convince the state that his report is solid. I think we’re way ahead of most other counties. WE’re at the cutting edge of decreasing more space. It used to be a mindset of ‘if you build it, they will come,’ and counties would incentivize building more jail space to meet their own needs but build extra cells to bring in people from surrounding counties.
I think we’re on the cusp of investing more into alternatives to incarceration which we’ve been doing for over 20 years and then decreasing the jail population but making your community healthier. Years and years ago, a study was conducted to see what exactly can influence a decrease in the jail population. the results proved that we needed to invest in alternatives to incarceration.
What do we believe in? What values do we want within our community? We are ahead of many counties in the state as far as alternatives go. Why do we have people in jail with such high bails set for non-violent crimes? They could be at home with their families, bettering themselves, working on building restitution and saving our tax dollars. We still have people languishing.
In general, one of the biggest takeaways, of all the agencies, lets beef up mental health agencies and re-entry programs. We really need to have support and plans in place for people who are in jail.
Do you support a living wage?
This could be a big hit. We’re not sure we can afford this. I’ve always advocated having every single employer in the county be required to pay a living wage, but I’m not there yet. I do also think about the region. We looked at this issue 12 years ago – first of all, is it legal, and second, what did we think was going to happen. If the counties around us don’t require a living wage, businesses could re-locate. Employees whoa re working here who live elsewhere might go somewhere else. There are a lot of repercussions to that.
Many people are working for poverty-level wages, I work two jobs to make ends meet, so I understand that point, but I think as a county, we are not there yet. I don’t think we’re at the point where a living wage is a contract, and it could have consequences that we’re not even aware of.