TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — Budget season has begun. On Tuesday, Tompkins County Administrator Jason Molino released his proposed $191.8 million budget for 2020. Again this year, the tax levy has increased, but the tax rate has gone down.

A key initiative outlined in next year’s budget is laying the groundwork to achieve a goal of net-zero emissions in county operations by 2035. Over the next 15 years, the county intends to invest $100 million to get as close to eliminating greenhouse gas emissions as possible.

Before getting into the details — how will the budget impact local taxpayers? Again this year, the budget includes a property tax levy increase and a property tax decrease. The proposed tax levy increase is 2.76%. Meanwhile, the tax rate has decreased for the sixth year to $6.31 per $1,000 of assessed property. So, the owner of a median-valued single-family home of $190,000 in Tompkins County would see an increase in their property tax bill of $12.86. The budget also recommends a solid waste annual fee increase of $2, which would bring it up to $60.

An increase in development in recent years has helped the tax base grow, keeping the tax rate down. According to Molino, the tax base increased by 4.2% last year. Since 2015, the tax base has increased by 17%. As of July 2019, the total taxable base in Tompkins County is $8.1 billion, up from $7.7 billion the previous year.

Molino said the budget continues to benefit from a strong local economy, saying for the fifth year, the budgeted cost of mandated human services programs has remained manageable “in part, because of an economy that is creating opportunities for employment.”

Tompkins County legislators and the public got a first look at the proposed 2020 budget Tuesday at the Tompkins County Legislature meeting. From here, legislators will dive deeper into the budget and listen to department leaders and members of the community before making any final decisions. The process usually takes more than a month. More information on the budget and process is available from the county here at the 2020 Budget Page.

The recommended budget increases funding for some programs, builds on existing projects and includes some new ones to meet the county’s “space management, emergency services, informational technology, energy, and other needs” over the next 15 years. According to the proposed budget, some of those include:

  • Developing a downtown facility — Legislators recently approved the purchase of property on North Tioga and Sears streets for $1.8 million. Currently, the county estimates it will cost up to $22 million to construct a new 37,000 to 47,000 square-foot building.
  • $30 million for public safety building improvements.
  • $2 million for emergency response improvements and $4.5 million to establish a backup dispatch center
  • $32 million over the 15-year period to make “needed improvements to existing county facilities with the goal of achieving net-zero emissions – and $200,000 for engineering related to those projects.
  • $2 million to convert the county’s 70-vehicle passenger fleet to electric vehicles.
  • $1.8 million continuing annually for capital improvements to roads and bridges.

With the 15-year plan and significant funding proposed over that period, the county is investing in climate goals it has committed to over the years.

“We’re probably one of the first communities to really take a step towards minimizing greenhouse gas emissions, a real step, not adopting a resolution of support or intent,” Molino said.

Over the years, Tompkins County has shown support for sustainability and addressing climate change. In 2017, the county pledged support for the Paris Climate Accords after President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation named Tompkins County a “Certified Climate Smart Community” after the county reduced government operations greenhouse gas emissions by 53% and community greenhouse gas initiatives by 21%.

In 2016, Tompkins County planners presented a roadmap which aspires to achieve an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The roadmap consisted of initiatives to create energy efficiency in buildings, transition from grid-supplied electricity to local renewable energy, shift from natural gas to heat pumps and biomass heating, move towards electric vehicles and reduce the overall miles driven in the county. During that year, the county invested in hybrid electric vehicles, more bike racks, and the reduction of food scraps and other waste. LED lighting was also added to several of the county’s facilities like the reception area of the Mental Health Building as well as the exteriors of the Health Department and Recycling and Solid Waste Center.

The county most recently updated its energy strategy in Aug. 2019. The updated strategy included an analysis to see if the county can commit to net-zero emissions in the shortest timeframe possible which could be 2030, 2040 or 2050. Tompkins County also plans to conduct more feasibility studies to aid in reducing emissions, host an “Energy Summit” to discuss climate and sustainability in the community, and continue to support programs like the Business Energy Advisors Program that can help businesses and non-profits reduce their buildings’ greenhouse gas emissions.

The budget does include some risks and expenses the county may encounter in 2020, including recycling and materials management and the airport. Recycling revenue has continued to decline sharply while expenses increase. The county is expecting to end 2019 with a $400,000 operating deficit. The Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport is also soon wrapping up a major renovation, which cost about $37 million. Though $27 million has been covered with reimbursables, Molino said, about $10 million in non-reimbursable costs will be locally bonded and initial costs for a new customs facility are estimated to be about $150,000 to $250,000.

The county will also have to allocate funding to keep up with a few unfunded mandates, including early voting and criminal justice reform. Medicaid remains the largest single cost in the county’s budget at $11.8 million.

A few tidbits after a first glance at the budget:

  • The budget includes a 5% increase in sponsor contribution for Tompkins Cortland Community College, bring the county’s contribution to $3.13 million for the 2020-21 academic year
  • In previous years, criminal justice reform and alternatives to incarceration have key talking and funding points in the budget. The proposed 2020 budget still includes some programs and initiatives, including investing in the outdated public safety building. As The Ithaca Voice recently reported, the jail population has continued to decrease and was actually boarding in inmates this summer. The proposed budget includes $110,000 for the College Initiative Upstate Program.
  • Last year during budget season, the community voiced strong support for the county to increase funding for a local outreach worker program that helps people in distress in Tompkins County. The proposed 2020 budget includes increased funding of $40,000 for another full-time outreach worker.
  • With the presidential election coming up in 2020 along with early voting changes, the Tompkins County Board of Elections has requested $160,000 in additional one-time funding to support aspects of conducting the 2020 elections and early voting.

Legislator Mike Lane, who chairs the budget, capital, and personnel committee, said Tompkins County is a center for growth in the region, and as such has to respond to many different demands for service.

“We need to continue to make this the kind of community that people want to come to, to stay, to raise their families in, and to educate them here, and we’re proud of our community and we’re proud of the work our county does for all municipalities. I think this budget reflects a lot of work and a lot of understanding of that goal,” Lane said.

The proposed budget will be available for review at www.TompkinsCountyNY.gov/ctyadmin/2020budget. Legislators will begin reviewing the budget in detail at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 5. Public copies of the budget are available for review at the county administration office, 125 E. Court St., third floor, and at the office of Tompkins County Legislature, 121 E. Court St., Ithaca.

Check back for more updates as the budget discussions continue. Is there a topic area you would really like to see covered related to the budget? Or is there a question you would like answered? Email Kelsey O’Connor at koconnor@ithacavoice.com.

Ithaca Voice Contributor Meghna Maharishi contributed to this report.

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.