ITHACA, N.Y. —The Tompkins County Legislature met on Tuesday to tackle issues at the district attorney’s office stemming from criminal justice reforms, discuss ongoing concerns with the looming state budget’s Medicaid changes and the approval of an update to the county’s tourism strategy.

For folks who like to follow along, the agenda can be found here and a video of the meeting can be found here.

Contingent Funds Approved for Evidence Testing

The legislature unanimously approved a request by Tompkins County District Attorney Matthew Van Houten for $10,000 so his office can send narcotics evidence to a private laboratory. This was one of several resolutions approved Tuesday aimed at adjusting operations at the DA’s office affected by new statutes on the discovery process for prosecutors which went into effect on Jan. 1.

Prior to the new statutes, Van Houten says he could use a field evaluation of evidence to press charges for misdemeanor drug-related offenses. Van Houten told the legislature that his focus isn’t on actually prosecuting misdemeanor drug offenses, but he has to file formal charges in order to direct individuals into the county’s drug treatment court so they can receive help to combat addiction and abuse. He says, under the new statutes in order to press charges, he needs a full laboratory analysis and the New York State Police laboratory won’t test evidence for misdemeanor drug offenses.

“It’s something I want to do very selectively,” Van Houten told the legislature. “I don’t want to go out and start charging people with controlled substance charges willy-nilly, but there people who need to get into treatment court so if I had the ability to test those drugs through a private lab in Pennsylvania, I want to to do that in order to be able to get those people into the treatment courts.”

He said it would cost just over $400 to process each test kit, and that the $10,000 appropriated by the legislature from its contingency fund might not be enough.

The legislature also approved a resolution to allocate almost $5,000 from its contingency fund to set up a separate dedicated internet service for the District Attorney’s office to transfer data under the new discovery requirements. According to the legislation, the DA’s office alone has used nearly all of the county internet service’s bandwidth transferring evidence, usually in the form of large body camera footage files, over the internet as required under the new discovery statute.

“This is one of the knock-on effects of the discovery changes,” chair of the Public Safety Committee Rich John said about the legislation. Legislator Martha Robertson called the expense an example of another unfunded mandate forced on the county by the state.

Medicaid

County legislators briefly discussed ongoing budget deliberations at the state level regarding a nearly $6.1 billion budget gap, most of which is due to spending on Medicaid. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed several measures to reel in the program and make up for the gap, most of which penalize counties.

Several county legislators have lobbied in Albany over the Medicaid situation, which could cost Tompkins County about $1.54 million according to an estimate by County Administrator Jason Molino.

[Read more of our coverage of the state’s Medicaid debate and how local officials are reacting HERE.]

Coronavirus Update

County Administrator Jason Molino said that he’s been in touch with health officials, including representatives from Cornell and Ithaca College. Both institutions are in the process of bringing back students from high-risk areas abroad and setting up isolation environments either in those students’ hometowns or in Ithaca.

Read more of our coverage on the response to the coronavirus here.

Distinguished Youth Award

Distinguished youth award presented to Groton student 10-year old Hudson Scaglione. Who’s started his own business growing produce, and donating a portion of his proceeds to Groton Central School District. His most recent contribution was put towards setting up a fish tank as part of a program by Trout Unlimited to teach students conservation through raising trout in the classroom.

Tourism Strategic Plan Approved

The legislature unanimously approved the 2021-2027 strategic tourism plan, which seeks to take steps towards keeping tourists in Ithaca longer and providing opportunities for them to spend more. The 42-page plan was put together by the Strategic Tourism Planning board with assistance from other private and public stakeholders from around the county.

Vaughn Golden

Vaughn Golden is a freelance radio and print reporter covering politics around the southern tier and central New York. He authors the weekly "Capitol Watch" watchdog report on Ithaca's representatives...