TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — Tompkins County Administrator Jason Molino has been on the job for nearly six months.
The Ithaca Voice caught up with Molino to discuss his past experience, what stepping into the role of county administrator has been like and what he sees as priorities and top issues for Tompkins County.
Molino comes to the county after working at city manager for the City of Batavia for 12 years. He was also in the Coast Guard Reserve for seven years. Since taking the job in Tompkins County, Molino has moved to Trumansburg with his wife and children.
As county administrator, Molino serves as the county’s chief executive officer and is appointed by Tompkins County Legislature. Molino is the sixth person to serve in the position since it was created in 1973.
When it was announced that Molino would be leaving Batavia, the local news outlet The Daily News said Molino had earned the reputation of a “strong administrator — both in terms of taking on large projects within city government and maintaining his central role in decision-making and setting an agenda for appointed and elected officials.”
Molino took over the position from Joe Mareane, who retired in November. Mareane had served in the position since 2008, right around the Great Recession. Today, finances in Tompkins County are sounder than when Mareane stepped into the role. When Molino began working in Batavia, he also inherited a difficult financial situation and uncovered a financial crisis.
“The crisis was that they had a fund balance deficit,” Molino said. “They had about six or seven years of operating deficits in all their funds. They had massive cash restraints to the point where they probably weren’t going to make payroll in a few months. So we had to do some immediate, emergency measures to improve our cash position and just to be able to get through the fiscal year and then develop a budget that was not going to have an operating deficit. So that was kind of the first accomplishment that first year that was balanced and that generated a slight surplus.”
Asked why he was interested in becoming a county administrator and managing a local government’s finances, Molino said he likes that variety that comes with the job.
“Every day is a new day which is exciting,” Molino said. “The service is rewarding being able to work with constituents and helping them with concerns or issues they have, helping advance the community forward.”
Coming to Tompkins County, Molino is working in a bigger organization with more employees and a bigger budget. As administrator, Molino is responsible for the county’s $179 million budget — a big jump from Batavia’s $25 million budget.
Compared to the fiscal situation Molino came into in Batavia, Tompkins County is more stable and is in more of a “sustainable and growth situation,” Molino said.
“So there’s a little different mindset and a little different leadership perspective that you take I think in this circumstance,” Molino said. “You’re coming into an organization that’s financially stable, has some very good processes in place, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for improvement, but there’s good stable processes in place. You have a very proactive and engaging legislative body, which is very good. They’re committed to investment, they’re committed to maybe even taking some risk on things which adds for you know a progressive approach on items which isn’t always there.”
Having a stable foundation, Molino said, leaves room for creative and innovative approaches.
For example, he said the approach the county has been taking with finding alternatives to incarceration and reducing recidivism is more progressive than other places where the solution is to build a bigger jail.
“I think the approaches the county takes with alternatives to incarceration is not typical of most upstate counties, where when they’re having constraints with their jail population, their solution is to build a bigger jail. I think that approach is an investment of money in alternatives is risky, but it’s innovative, it’s progressive and it’s saying we want to provide some different approaches to things that provide better service to people that need it,” Molino said.
The transition to Tompkins County hasn’t been entirely smooth. Molino came at the end of a process of examining the Tompkins County Office of Human Rights’ former director Karen Baer, and ultimately chose to fire her. Throughout the process, from being suspended to investigated in a hearing, Baer had strong and continues to have supporters in the community.
After the decision to dismiss her, several people spoke out at a recent committee meeting, unhappy with the decision to fire her, especially since the hearing officer had not recommended she be dismissed. One person who spoke during public comment also called the tone of Molino’s letter to Baer “aggressive.”
The office is currently being reviewed. Though in the past, the county had the power to enforce NYS Human Rights Law, it does not anymore. Baer had wanted to bring local enforcement back.
However, Molino said state officials now prefer that local residents are referred to them to file complaints to avoid duplicating the process.
Molino said the conversation has shifted to “What can we do to help the complainant in this case?”
Moving ahead, big priorities for the county will be creating the 2019 budget. Tompkins County Legislature recently passed a resolution setting the 2019 financial goal. Molino also said infrastructure improvements will also be a big topic, including at the sheriff’s office and the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport, which is officially undergoing a $24 million redevelopment project.
Featured image: Tompkins County Administrator Jason Molino. (Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)