TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — During Tuesday night’s monthly meeting of the Tompkins County Legislature a resolution was passed to fund COVID-19 surveillance testing for county residents, as well as other several changes to county taxes.
The agenda and the video of the Aug. 18 meeting can be found here. Read our full recap of the meeting below.
Since the last legislature meeting in July, there have been 34 new cases of COVID-19 in the county. Also since the last meeting, the county has spent $53,000 more in COVID-related funds for a total of $397,005.
According to the Cayuga Health System (CHS), as of July 1, when all New York residents were deemed eligible for testing per Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the major health insurance carriers represented in the county, including Excellus, Aetna, MVP and United, issued policies disallowing payment for more than 40% of COVID-19 testing with retroactive dates going back as far as the beginning of the COVID pandemic. The change in the insurance policy means that health insurance carriers are not required to reimburse testing costs related to New York State’s expansion of testing criteria, including essential workers, protesters and travelers, which places a financial burden on CHS. No state or federal funding has been provided to assist CHS in its testing efforts.
Earlier this month, the CHS’ COVID-19 testing site at The Shops at Ithaca Mall switched to an appointment-only system. Those who do not meet the criteria for a test — the criteria being that the individual shows symptoms, has been exposed to someone with COVID-19, has an upcoming procedure at Cayuga Medical Center (CMC), or is receiving the test through a contract between CMC and the individual’s employer, school or other organization — can receive a test for $99. About 40–50% of CMC tests are for individuals who do not medically require it, county administrator Jason Molino said.
The resolution, which passed unanimously, allows the legislature to take $300,000 from the contingent fund to execute a contract with CHS to mitigate the cost for Tompkins County residents who do not meet the criteria, but want to receive a COVID-19 test, over a 10 week testing period.
“Isolation and quarantine in disease management is foundational, and the only way we can do that successfully is if we know who’s positive,” Tompkins County Director of Public Health Frank Kruppa said. “We demonstrated our early ability to do that has put us in the position that we’re in and we would be taking steps backwards if testing availability became limited in the community.”
Molino said that the county will be responsible for paying on a cost-per-test basis and will also submit the reimbursement to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is a 75% reimbursement of the cost of the test. The county would also be responsible for submitting a reimbursement to the state, which would cover 12.5% of the remaining 25% of the test, so the amount the county would pay per test is 12.5%. However, the state has not committed to that reimbursement.
CMC estimates to conduct between 750 and 1,500 tests weekly. For a 10 week testing period from Sept. 1 to Nov. 10, assuming that the maximum number of tests within that range are conducted, the county will be paying either $300,000 if the state does not provide reimbursement, or $150,000 if the state does provide reimbursement.
“Right now is one of the worst times for us to spend a lot of money, but I think we can all see what the testing has done for our community,” legislator Shawna Black said.
The county will track weekly activity and will report on the numbers of tests, Molino said. Based on this data, the county will decide if they will continue this funding after 10 weeks.
“I think we’ve all been pussyfooting around the position we’re in,” legislator Martha Robertson said. “The federal government should have been doing this since March, and we’re paying for it, and taxpayers are paying for it. This is a failure of the federal government. We’re going to do the right thing, Cayuga Health System has been doing the right thing, thank god. This is what the science says we should do.”
Tax Cap and Finances
Molino said that the projected tax cap a few months ago was 3.79%. Now, it has dropped to 0.73%, although he said it is still a draft number.
“We have sales tax credits that have to be accounted for in terms of sales tax that other municipalities use to decrease their county tax rate in their municipality,” he said. “As there is a projected decrease for next year, that has a negative impact on our tax cap. … Not the greatest news.”
The legislature voted on a resolution for the county to override the tax levy limit for 2021. All voted in favor of the resolution except legislator Glenn Morey.
Robertson said that this law does not mean that the county will necessarily go beyond the tax cap, but that it provides them with the flexibility to do so as the numbers become more concrete.
“I’m starting to think we should start lobbying the state about some kind of pause on the tax cap,” she said.
Finance director Rick Snyder said that the county’s sales tax report, provided by the New York State Association of Counties (NYSAC), shows that the sales tax for July is signifying recovery. Year to date, the county is down 15.05% in sales tax compared to last year, or $3,279,181.
In January, the county had a positive 8% gain over the previous January, with about the same gain in February. The first decrease was in March, which was down 3.8% compared to the previous March. April was down 27.2%, May was down 33.8%, June was down 33%, and July was down 13.19%.
The report showed the top 20 categories for the quarterly period that make up the sales tax and how much each category went up or down. The categories that were in the top 20 and dropped due to the pandemic include travel accommodations, administration of economic programs, direct selling establishments, hobby, music and sports sports stores, and electronic and appliance stores. The report also showed an increase in electronics and alcohol sales.
Legislator Anna Kelles said that the most concerning change is the large drop in clothing stores and restaurants.
“Our brick and mortar stores and restaurants are the ones that are hurting the most,” she said. “Anyone who has any disposable income left, it’s good to note.”
Snyder also said that the county is anticipating around an 82% drop in room tax revenues for the second period. In terms of mortgage reporting tax, Snyder said that compared to last year in the first seven months of the year, there is only a $30,000 difference — $558,000 in 2019 compared to $528,600 this year — which he attributes to refinancing.
The legislature unanimously passed a resolution to extend the additional 1% sales tax on certain services for three years. This is not a new or increased tax — the county has had this tax level since 1992 and requires periodic reapproval from the state.
The legislature also unanimously approved holding a public hearing for the Tompkins Cortland Community College operating budget. The meeting will take place Sept. 1 at 5:30 p.m.
Additionally, the legislature unanimously passed a resolution to encourage the federal government to support the United States Postal Service, as well as reverse any changes that have been made to the service since the beginning of the pandemic.
In light of racial justice protests both locally and nationally, the Tompkins County Human Rights Commission (TCHRC) has met with local authorities, including the Ithaca Police Department, the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office and the Department of Social Services, to discuss racial biases in the community. Based on these conversations, the commission has created a statement to help provide an actionable agenda for the commission to work on to combat racism in the community. The statement also provides recommendations for law enforcement agencies and organizations in the community.
“The goal is that together, we want to take concrete steps in building what has been well called the dream of the beloved community, in which Black people and other people of color are free from all forms of racist violence and injustices, whether from police, public agencies or private individuals,” TCHRC Commissioner Peyi Soyinka-Aierewele said.
In order to promote trust, the TCHRC has recommended increased transparency, community oversight, systems of accountability, more resources for advocacy support systems, legal support for vulnerable populations and more trained social service workers rather than armed officials.
“The experiences of Black people with police violence doesn’t always start with direct contact with the police,” Soyinka-Aierewele said. “It often starts in other institutions within our community, and so we decided to focus on that pipeline that creates that arena for discrimination and violent enounters.”
The legislature showed its support for the TCHRC’s efforts and working together with the local authorities to address police reform.
“Especially at a time like now when so much is at stake in our country, particularly for people of color, we really do appreciate all of your work,” chair Leslyn McBean-Clairborne said. “Tompkins County has been a leader and always will be a leader in issues related to humanness, and having you all do this is really commendable.”
McBean-Clairborne also read a proclamation recognizing the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which prohibits governments from barring people from the right to vote based on sex. The proclamation acknowledged that while this was an important step, the amendment did not guarantee suffrage for all women, including many women of color.
“Voting is necessary, but not sufficient to protect our democracy,” Robertson said. “It’s just one step toward securing equal rights for all, and the right to vote is certainly not the same as equality. … Let’s not miss a beat here, let’s not take anything for granted. We can see everyday that equal access to the ballot box and confidence that your vote will be counted and counted accurately are things we need to be vigilant about.”