ITHACA, N.Y. — With two members joining digitally, the Tompkins County Legislature held a meeting of a different kind on Tuesday.
Gov. Cuomo announced earlier in the week a suspension of open meeting laws, allowing the county to close meetings to in-person attendees, instead allowing for emailed comments. The meeting was live streamed as always.
Legislators opened the meeting by approving a proclamation Celebrating Women’s History Month and the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment before moving into the first email-submitted public comment section, included two comments in favor of the convention center and two comments in opposition, before heading to the privilege of the floor portion of the meeting.
Legislature Martha Robertson commemorated former Congressman Richard Hanna, who was a representative of parts of Tompkins County. He passed away TK
Rich John also took a moment to commemorate Jim Case, a member of the athletics staff at Cornell University, who passed away over the weekend.
Finally, thanks were expressed by the legislature to the county administration and their swift response to the COVID-19 crisis unfolding around the world.
Both County Administrator Jason Molino and Public Health Director Frank Kruppa provided updates to the Legislature on the COVID-19 crisis for more than an hour.
Molino called the pandemic “unprecedented,” and unlike other emergencies, “we can’t necessarily see what the future holds, or when it will end. We’re in the very early stages of our response, and it will most certainly ramp up as we move forward.”
Kruppa explained to legislators the process used to test for a suspected case of COVID-19 and responded to complaints from some in the public that not enough information is being shared about positive cases. Kruppa stressed that, while people want this information, he also said that “Frankly, sharing that additional information doesn’t change what the general public should do.”
Kruppa did say that, if it were necessary, then they would release more info, but that given the current situation in Tompkins County, it is not currently necessary.
“If we had a situation where we had a case and say they went to a party in the city of Ithaca and we didn’t know who was at the party, we would tell the community,” Kruppa told the legislature. “That may happen, it’s happened before, this is what we do…It’s not because we want to withhold information from people.”
He also clarified that, while sampling — taking a nasal swab for testing — the actual testing is done in labs outside of the county. Kruppa also detailed the procedure for a contact investigation, which is conducted when a positive test result comes back.
Nurses from TCHD will talk with the patient that has tested positive to understand when they began to present symptoms and then they examine the two days prior to that to try and understand who that patient may have come in contact with to determine who they need to reach out to. The county has already had to bring nurses in from other departments to help meet the needs of the county’s response.
That response, according to Kruppa, has gone well, compared to other areas of the state that have quickly found their health care system’s ability to respond overloaded.
“One of the reasons we were so far ahead is because we have so much international travel,” said Kruppa. “We have been monitoring people who traveled since the end of January and quarantining people since February.”
On the administrative side of things, in keeping with Gov. Cuomo’s order to reduce municipal workforces by 50% for the next two weeks, Molino said the County has been able to reach 60% in reductions in staff working in-person.
All employees affected by the workforce reductions will be paid during that time period.
Legislator Deb Dawson asked Kruppa about critical care capacity in the county. He had said during a panel held by WRFI on Monday evening that Tompkins had a capacity of 25 beds for critical care patients, an assertion challenged afterward. Kruppa clarified that, while Cayuga Medical Center does not have 25 ICU beds, he was refering to the resources available within the county to take care of critical patients.
The Legislature voted 10-4 in favor of a resolution committing to financial terms between the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County in support of a community conference center.
The center would be part of the Green Street Garage redevelopment project in downtown Ithaca.
The agreement would commit 4% of the county’s hotel room occupancy tax revenues each year from 2021 through 2050, or until the space is no longer used as a conference center.
Housing and Economic Development Committee Chair Anna Kelles (D-Ithaca) recognized the current COVID-19 crisis will create a financial strain, but she urged her colleagues to look toward the future.
“This is an opportunity to help boost the room tax revenue by drawing more visitors for meetings and conferences,” said Kelles. She added the County would not be taking on the risk for the project. Which Legislator Dave McKenna noted as the reason he chose to support the project, after initially expressing reservations in previous meetings that the county property taxpayers could end up on the hook.
In the discussion prior to the vote, Legislator Henry Granison countered, “It is all about risk,” pointing to studies of the Saratoga Springs conference center that showed operating expenses doubled that of revenue generated. He said he didn’t see any downside should the project not move forward, as more affordable housing would take the conference center’s place on the site.
Legislator Shawna Black said it’s ‘the hardest vote she’s had to make” during her two and a half years on the Legislature. Citing the uncertainty around COVID-19, Black said she’s voting ‘no’ because the timing doesn’t feel right for her.
Legislator Rich John said “We have to look beyond COVID-19, and look at the long-term economic health of the County.”
Legislators Glenn Morey, Shawna Black, Amanda Champion and Henry Granison voted against the agreement.
The Legislature voted 11-3 to update the County’s Administrative Policy Manual to prohibit the possession of weapons, explosives and firearms on County property. Legislator Mike Sigler said he couldn’t understand why the policy was even being considered, adding “we should not prevent our own employees from defending themselves should they feel threatened.”
Legislators Mike Sigler, Glenn Morey and Dave McKenna voting against.