ITHACA, N.Y. — The City of Ithaca Common Council’s July meeting drew lengthy conversations about the rollout of 5G in the city, as well as the construction of an intersection at Route 13 and Fifth Street.

The agenda for this month’s meeting can be found here.

5G Rollout

More than 80 people submitted comments in opposition to the implementation of 5G in the city. During its May meeting, the common council approved the resolution to enter an agreement with Verizon to install small cell or wireless facilities with 4G and 5G capabilities. Most of the public comments had to do with health concerns relating to the impact of 5G on humans. Research has not proven that there are adverse health effects with wireless technologies, nor 5G in particular. 

Many of the comments called to rescind or nullify the resolution that passed at the May meeting.

Alderperson Deb Mohlenhoff, who is serving as acting mayor for this resolution because Mayor Svante Myrick recused himself on account of a potential perception of a conflict of interest since his relative works for Verizon, clarified the process for which the 5G rollout would happen. The common council was presented with a master license agreement (MLA) written in April, which was what was voted on in May. However, the MLA is not signed, nor will it be executed, until the design guidelines are drafted and approved by common council.

City staff will draft the design guidelines and present them to the City Administration Committee during the August meeting, at the earliest. It will take about two months for the guidelines to go through the committee and back to the common council to be voted on, which would be in October the earliest. Mohlenhoff said that while this topic does not call for a formal public hearing, the public is welcome to continue to weigh in at any of these meetings.

Mohlenhoff also said that she is coordinating with the Town of Ithaca and the Tompkins County Council of Governments to host an information session about 5G on July 21 for legislators of all municipalities in the county, which will be livestreamed.

“I just wanted to be very clear and clarify that this did go through the normal process of government, whatever normal is right now,” she said. “It’s been very challenging for us to migrate to what this new Zoom process is. We hear that several people have concerns, and I do not believe that there is an underlying fast track to do this. We’re really trying to do our due diligence with this issue and we welcome you to engage in the several additional steps along the way.”

Alderperson Cynthia Brock filed a resolution to amend the 5G resolution approved at the May meeting. Brock proposed updating the previously approved resolve, “Resolved, That the Acting Mayor, subject to the advice of the City Attorney, is authorized to enter into an agreement substantially similar to the Master License Agreement included herewith requiring that Verizon comply with the included preliminary design guidelines, which guidelines may be updated at any time on the determination of the Director of Planning,” with, “Resolved, that to adequately prepare the city of Ithaca for the implementation of 4G and 5G small cell facilities in a manner that thoughtfully and reasonably mitigates the aesthetic impacts of such installations, the City of Ithaca shall undertake the development of design criteria for small wireless facilities and poles in which small wireless facilities are attached. And be it further resolved that the design criteria shall be approved by Common Council prior to the authorization of a master license agreement with any licensee.”

Brock said that she wants the MLA to be able to be updated in accordance with updated circuit district court decisions involving 5G, which have not come out yet, and to be applicable to any licensee, not just Verizon.

“Given all of these moving parts, it seems in the best interest in terms of working together and in terms of educating ourselves and our community to bring [approving the MLA and design guidelines] up at the same time, which is my ultimate intent,” she said.

There was some confusion between what was being amended, because the design guidelines need to be approved by the council before the MLA can be executed. If there are substantial changes — either because of external conditions or because the council wants to make amendments — to the MLA that the council previously approved, then it would be brought back to the council to be approved again. Additionally, the design guidelines would be applicable to any contractor who wishes to install 5G in the city, not exclusively Verizon. City Attorney Ari Lavine explained that Verizon was the only company that has expressed interest to the city about the installation, which is why the resolution was specific to them.

“We don’t have to come back to council with the MLA the way that it stands now. All we have to do is work on the design guidelines and it can go forward,” Mohelnhoff said. “We’re trying to not duplicate if necessary.”

Lavine said that city staff will likely maintain an MLA that is close to the one that was already approved to avoid having it reapproved.

“Clearly on a topic like this one, I think staff is going to be very careful, and the acting mayor I suspect, is going to be very careful, not to pursue anything that would be anything that would be anything other than very clearly substantially similar to the MLA you already authorized,” he said.

He further explained that even if the council concludes that 5G should not be in Ithaca and does not approve design guidelines, Verizon can still roll out 5G in Ithaca with its own design guidelines.

Brock said that her proposed revision sends a clear message to the community that the city is not working on Verizon’s timeline or in Verizon’s interest, a sentiment that many constituents shared in their public comments.

“I want to be clear that the city is not intentionally speeding anything through because of a push by any outside entity,” Mohlenhoff responded.

Alderperson Stephen Smith said that this proposal still does not address the concerns that the public has expressed about 5G.

“What they’re asking for tonight is rescinding everything we’ve done, and I feel like by going this route, where we’re passing something that’s a distinction without a difference,” he said. “By doing this, we’re almost sending the wrong signal to these folks that we are significantly changing our process. The reality is, we have slowed it down, we are bringing in more experts so that we can have an open community discussion. We have fail-safes. We’ve already done this and debated it once for a decent amount of time, something that’s going to give people the impression that we’ve done something we aren’t actually doing.”

Alderperson Donna Fleming agreed, saying, “Whether we pass this or we keep with our original agreement, we aren’t doing what these people want us to do, which is ban 5G altogether. I think we’re being very transparent, we’re being deliberate, we’re educating ourselves, but I don’t think, either way, we’re doing what they want.”

The resolution failed 6-4, with Brock, George McGonigal, Seph Murtagh and Graham Kerslick in favor and Ducson Nguyen, Rob Gearhart, Fleming, Smith, Mohelnhoff and Laura Lewis opposed. The resolution that was approved at the May meeting still stands.

Planning and Economic Development Committee

The Planning and Economic Development Committee posed the resolution to authorize a break-in-access on Route 13 and Fifth Street. The break-in-access in question is either a three-way or four-way intersection, which will provide greater access between the west and east sides of the route.

“We really need to knit the city back together across Route 13. I think that was a foundational mistake to carve the city in two like that,” Myrick said. “It’s led to all sorts of horrible conditions, including continued segregation and continued economic stratification.”

The PEDC recommended the four-way intersection, but Murtagh said that he is concerned with the traffic impact of implementing such a large intersection off of Route 13, given that it is already a high-density area and there are many children and families who live there.

“I think it comes down to a … practical question of whether you think an intersection makes sense there, and the arguments in favor is that it improves the overall grid of the city and helps traffic move more efficiently through the city,” Murtagh said. “I just continue to be really concerned about that street in particular. … The consensus of the neighborhood is in overwhelming favor of the three-way.”

If the council was to approve the three-way intersection and then change it to a four-way intersection later, it would have to go through the process of requesting an additional break-in-access. However, if it was to approve the four-way, it would be able to change it to a three-way by putting barriers up without further approval.

The first vote in favor of the four-way intersection failed 6-4, with Brock, Gearhart, Smith and Mohlenhoff in favor and McGonigal, Nguyen, Murtagh, Fleming, Kerslick and Lewis opposed. Myrick recused himself from the vote.

Following the vote, there was some confusion as to if the vote meant that there was no support for the break-in-access at all, or if it meant that it would default to a three-way intersection. The council then voted a second time in favor of a three-way intersection, which resulted in a tie. McGonigal, Murtagh, Fleming, Kerslick and Lewis voted in favor, and Brock, Nguyen, Gearhart, Smith and Mohlenhoff were opposed. Myrick voted in favor of the three-way to break the tie.

“My deep, deep preference is for a four-way,” Myrick said. “I think it will make all of the subsequent inner sections better and safer, it’ll slow down an entire boulevard. But knowing the council just voted against that, the three-way break is the next best one, so I’ll vote in favor of the three-way break. But I do think, just on the record, that this is a mistake. I think it’s poor urban planning.”

The council unanimously approved the Second Allocation of Funds from The Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Security (CARES) Act, which contracts the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency (IURA) to administer, implement and monitor the city’s HUD Entitlement.

City Administration Committee

The council also unanimously approved a project with the Department of Transportation for the Elmira Road overlay and signal replacement, which is to be 80% funded by federal funds and 20% non-federal funds. A concern was raised regarding if the city does not receive the federal funding and the city will have to put up the rest of the funds itself, but City Controller Steven Thayer said that in the past, receiving funding has not been an issue.

“We fully expect that these funds are committed and we would expect that they would be received,” he said.

Mohlenhoff said that the city has received 541 responses on the community survey about the 2021 budget. The responses will be reviewed at the July 27 budget meeting, and she is planning to release a second version of the budget basics document to break down other relevant parts of the budget. The first pamphlet that was released focused on funding for the Ithaca Police Department and youth and community programs.

Thayer presented the 2020 assessment data for the 2021 budget. There is a 7.29% increase in taxable assessments, about $2.2 billion in assessed value, which was altered after the public expressed grievances about a 8.26% increase in taxable assessments. Thayer said that this number will likely still fluctuate from now until the budget is approved in November.

The tax assessment against the current tax rate of $11.77 will give an additional $1.7 million in tax revenue. The consumer price index is 1.3% for year to date, and April and May have been at 0.3% and 0.1%. The allowable growth levy factor is lower this year, at 0.19% compared to 2020 with 1.69%, 2019 with 1.04% and 2018 with 0.97%. Thayer said that this will factor into the 2021 tax cap number, which will be lower as a result.

Sales tax has gone down 14.1% compared to the same time period last year. Since March, the city is down about $1,068,000 in sales tax revenue. With the losses in sales tax, parking and other revenue sources, the city has surpassed $2 million in revenue loss related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I would expect further reductions of around 15 to 20 percent, but generally I don’t think, unless there’s another COVID spike down the line, I wouldn’t foresee that going back into the negative 40 percent range for the rest of the year,” he said.

Thayer said he is still waiting to hear about federal and state aid. City furloughs have saved about $500,000 in expenses to date.

Madison Fernandez

Madison Fernandez is a contributing reporter at the Ithaca Voice. You can reach her by email at mfernandez@ithacavoice.com.