Letter to the editor.
This is a letter to the editor from Tompkins County Legislator and candidate for NYS Assembly District 125 Anna Kelles. To submit opinion letters, please review our letters policy here and submit them to Managing Editor Thomas Giery Pudney at tgpudney@ithacavoice.com.

Recently, I have received questions about my work on housing and development, my priorities during the COVID-19 crisis, and my voting record on several community projects. I thought it would be helpful to provide answers as well as insights into the legislative process, and to do so publicly in the interest of full transparency.

There was a question, for example about funding for the comprehensive project to improve the airport. I am happy to report that no local taxpayer dollars were spent from our community to benefit from $34 million in major improvements – $10 million of which came from a federal grant from the FAA with another $14 million from an additional state grant with the remaining $10 million as a bond to be paid for by passenger facility charges. Both grants came from support programs specifically earmarked for air travel improvements and the passenger fees can only be used for airport debt service. By law, they could not have been used for other purposes outside of the airport.

I believe the expansion will support many small scale businesses and startups that provide local jobs and help us diversify our economy. Limiting the international service to charter and private flights and building the customs facility on the secure side of the airport grounds also minimize engagement with customs.

There also have been questions regarding the conference center to be built in downtown Ithaca. The conference center project has been many years in the making following countless public meetings and discussions to carefully and deliberately determine the need, scope, and nature of the project. Only the final approval vote took place concurrently with the COVID-19 period. The question on the table was not whether to build a conference center or nothing at all, but whether to incorporate a conference center into the Green Street Development project selected by the City of Ithaca. I supported the conference center after a commitment was made to pay center workers a living wage. Additionally, my vote was based on many hours talking to downtown hourly wage workers from restaurants, stores, and the hotels. Workers I spoke to unanimously urged us to support the addition of the conference center because it would ensure more stable hours and increase access to benefits. Filling rooms and dining tables during the historically slow mid-week periods is key to their financial well-being, and that’s what this conference center will deliver.

The county funds to operate the conference center are not derived from local taxpayers, but rather from room occupancy taxes. Visitors from outside our community pay these taxes when they stay in our local hotels and lodging properties. In this sense, tourism is very much like an export for our community. It brings dollars earned elsewhere into our area to support local labor, associated businesses, and arts & culture. Again, like the airport grants being earmarked for airport improvements, the revenues produced by the room-occupancy taxes are legally restricted to their intended purpose and cannot be used in any other way. Additionally, beyond the economic boost that the increased occupancy will provide, the project will create hundreds of new affordable housing units in walking distance to the fair-wage jobs that I made sure the project guaranteed.

I also have been asked about my role on the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency (TCIDA or IDA). I have never served on the IDA. Nor does my role in the county legislature or on the Tompkins County Area Development (TCAD) board give me oversight of the IDA, which by law is an independent voting body. True to my priorities however last year I did help found and co-chair a living wage taskforce in partnership with the TC Workers Center and successfully championed a countywide residential tax abatement program for additions to a home that increase the house’s value. For anyone who wants to augment their home (like an additional room for an aging parent), the added taxes will increase gradually over a 10-year period rather than happening all at once the subsequent tax year.

I have been committed to serving the public good for my whole career – for the past five years as a county legislator, as an activist before that who was arrested on Mother’s Day protesting the fracking industry, and as a Ph.D scientist in public health including service as a teacher and practitioner. I’m proud of the priorities I have made during the COVID crisis, whether doing my best to share information and resources with the public via regular email digests or helping to develop the Food Hub at the former Greenstar’s The Space.

In order to further my work for our community, I need to take my efforts beyond Tompkins County. I am ready to fight for the public good in the New York State Assembly

Anna Kelles

Tompkins County Legislator and candidate for NYS Assembly District 125