ITHACA, N.Y. — The Tompkins County Legislature passed a resolution at July’s meeting asking the federal government to provide direct state and local government aid in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The agenda and the video of the July 7 meeting can be found here.

COVID-19 Update

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act established the $150 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund for state, local and tribal governments. New York State was allocated $7,543,325,288.30 to be used for units of local government with populations over 500,000. Tompkins County has a population of approximately 102,000.

The current guidance states that funds are to be used for necessary expenditures incurred due to the pandemic, were not accounted for in the budget approved as of March 27, 2020 and were incurred between March 1 and December 30, 2020. The resolution, proposed by Legislator Martha Robertson, is calling for more direct aid for the county.

“We are asking that the next COVID bill should include substantial, direct, unrestricted aid to state and local government based on population, cumulative COVID-19 impact since the beginning of the pandemic and lost revenue due to the recession,” Robertson said. “We hope that the Senate can get behind that.”

The legislature unanimously voted for the resolution.

Tompkins County Director of Public Health Frank Kruppa and County Administrator Jason Molino provided updates on the COVID-19 pandemic in the county. As of July 6, the county has faced $298,757 in COVID-related expenses. 

Although Gov. Andrew Cuomo has announced expanded free testing for New Yorkers, Kruppa said that testing through Cayuga Medical Center can only be done if the individual is showing symptoms or meets the other specific qualifications for testing. The closest New York State testing sites where the tests are free for anyone, with or without symptoms, are in Onondaga or Broome counties.

“Reimbursement for non-medically necessary testing and government-mandated testing is a question we’ve been trying to get an answer, and it’s starting to become more clear that everyone getting tested who wants it for free had a lot of caveats to it,” Kruppa said. “We are partnering with [Cayuga Medical Center] to advocate with the state for more clarity and to make sure that there’s as much testing as can be available here in Tompkins County.”

As of July 7, 17,529 people have taken a COVID-19 test in the county.

The health department is currently working with Cornell University, Ithaca College and Tompkins Cortland Community College, all of which have released plans to bring students back to Ithaca in some capacity for the fall semester, to work on enforcing social distancing measures for students, especially off-campus.

Kruppa said that because the county’s COVID-19 numbers are so low, it is hard to draw conclusions or patterns from such a small set of data. He also said that the small data set complicates releasing demographics for those infected with the virus, but is working to provide demographic information for those who have been tested.

Finances

Molino said there is a county-wide deficit between $5 million and $11 million, and over the next two weeks the county will be deciding if staff will continue to be furloughed and if there will be further expense reductions.

“We’re going to run an operating deficit this year into the multi-millions, so continuing to make some fourth-quarter adjustments is probably something to consider,” he said. “The truth is, I have no idea how the next month is going to react, or the month after, based on anything that’s going on around us. I think the best thing we can do is do this on a monthly basis.”

Finance director Rick Snyder that the county’s contingency fund, which is used to take care of items that were not originally budgeted for, has been about 41% used. The year started with a $900,000 contingency balance, and there have been 11 items that constituted $336,000 in spending. He said this is positive, because it is about halfway through the year.

Snyder said that at this point last year, the county collected $1,138,00 in room tax. This year to date, the city collected $390,000, which is about one-third of where the county was last year. In the first quarter, out of 29 hotels, three did not pay nor send in returns, and one paid half of the amount that was due. The second quarter, which just ended, had four hotels that did not send in returns nor payments, and three sent in returns, but no payments. However, many of the hotels who did “pay in full” this quarter had a revenue of zero due to the COVID-19 pandemic. About $3,000 from the second quarter was from bed and breakfasts and short-term rentals. He said there will be adjustments to the budget in the upcoming months.

“In general over the years you’ve seen some accelerated replacement of hotel rooms by the Airbnbs and short term rentals,” Molino said. 

The hotel industry is one of the hardest-hit sectors during the pandemic. None of the hotels in the county have officially said that they are closing, but Snyder said he expects that some of them are at high risk of closing. 

Other Business

The legislature also unanimously approved a payment of $26,637.75 to fund the passenger boarding bridge at Gate 3 at the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport.

Legislator Michael Lane, chair of the Census Complete Count Committee, expressed concern regarding the undercounting of students for the census, and is planning on drafting a letter to the state and federal government to help rectify the issue in college towns.

Robertson said that the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency is working to require housing developers who want IDA abatements for housing to pay $5,000 per unit of housing, or set aside a minimum of 20% of
the units available for households earning 80% or less of area median income. That money will go to the Community Housing Development Fund to create more affordable housing projects.

There were also discussions regarding gorge and swimming safety, as the weather is getting warmer but libraries and malls are not open for people to take advantage of the air conditioning. The Ithaca Fire Department has had to respond to six rescue missions at gorges in June. Legislator Anna Kelles noted that the area around East Shore Park needs to be made safer, as when parking fills up people tend to park in the road.

Madison Fernandez

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