TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — The Tompkins County Legislature presented updated COVID-19 demographic data and discussed finances in light of the upcoming budget season at its Sept. 15 meeting.

The agenda of the meeting can be found here.

COVID-19 Update

County Administrator Jason Molino and Frank Kruppa, Tompkins County public health director presented updated COVID-19 demographics from county cases. When the last data set was presented in July, Kruppa said that the positive cases were not concentrated among students, but rather community members. However, the recent data shows an increase of cases among the 10–19 age range. For this age range, the numbers spiked from 6% of the total cases to 25% of the total cases. The 20–29 age range also jumped from 30% of the total cases to 36% of the total cases. 

“That makes sense when we’re talking about higher education-centered clusters,” Kruppa said. “What we have found is our clusters have been driven by newer students to higher education, so freshmen students that are in that 17, 18, 19 age range.”

With higher education being the biggest driver of positive cases, the City of Ithaca has seen the largest increase in cases, jumping from 58 in July to 202 in September since the beginning of the pandemic. Legislator Martha Robertson asked for more communication between the City of Ithaca Common Council receiving information about the number of responses the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office makes for large gatherings. 

The Village of Trumansburg still only has one reported case since the beginning of the pandemic. The other municipalities had slight increases, but mostly remained the same as two months ago.

“We have not seen a community case that is related to a cluster,” Kruppa said. “Clusters are among friend groups and individuals, not people in the community they had a happenstance interaction with.”

There have been 110 new cases since the last legislature meeting at the beginning of the month, signifying the largest spike in cases in the county since the pandemic began. The two previously reported clusters contributed to this rise. The first cluster involved 48 positives — 44% of new cases and 13% of total cases — and 81 contacts placed in quarantine. The second cluster involved 14 positives and 38 contacts placed in quarantine. Many of these positive cases were already in mandatory quarantine and did not contribute to further spread. However, Kruppa said that many of these individuals have recovered and there are now under 50 active cases in the county.

The other demographics for cases in the county, including race and ethnicity, remained consistent. Kruppa also said that the majority of cases have not been connected to travel outside of the county.

Joel Malina, vice president of university relations at Cornell University, spoke to the legislature about Cornell’s COVID-19 response. He said that the number of positive cases at Cornell is below 50% of where the university expected it to be.

All three local higher education institutions have COVID dashboards. Cornell University’s dashboard has seen some inconsistencies and lag time with the county data, as reported by the Cornell Daily Sun.

“That delay is very much with the need in mind to make sure we’re posting accurate numbers,” he said.

Kruppa said it is difficult to align the data because the department and the university are presenting different numbers at different points in time.

“We’re trying to coordinate as best as we can so it’s clear,” Kruppa said. “Our data, as soon as we confirm a case is a case, in our evening recording it’s being posted. We wait to ask Cornell until a case is confirmed before they report it, that creates another lag for them. The lag for the date the test is given to the day it’s reported allows for it to be reported to the health department, for our case investigators to do their case investigation, and then we report it to Cornell to report out on their dashboard. We don’t want to report something as a case and then determine it’s not a case.”

Since the legislature approved funding for COVID-19 tests for residents of the county, Cayuga Health System has reported 747 tests conducted since Sept. 1. The county has spent $432,734 in COVID-19 related expenses, and Molino said that the county is preparing to submit its first reimbursement for some of these costs.

Finances

Finance director Rick Snyder said he did not have an update on sales tax numbers, but should by the next legislature meeting. In previous meetings over the last few months, concerns have been raised over the county’s sales tax revenue for this year, which has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In August, the county was down 15.05% in sales tax compared to last year, or $3,279,181. Snyder said that one of the more optimistic projections estimates $3.34 million less than the budget for sales tax this year, although some of the projections can range up to a $12 million deficit.

The county’s proposed budget was released Sept. 15. Molino presented the budget to the New York Association of Counties and said that it was reassuring to see that the county’s choices with the budget were similar to those of other counties.

“We weren’t far off in terms of our approach in minimizing expenditures this year, minimizing the impact of the budget this year,” he said.

Molino said that the Health Care Consortium Audit and Finance Committee recommended a 5% increase in health care premiums, which is what the county budgeted. He also said they recommended a one-month holiday for payment, which is about $937,000 for the county.

“That would definitely help us minimize some shortfall that we will probably experience at the end of this year,” he said.

Hotel Room Occupancy Tax Law

A public meeting was held in regard to amending the county’s Hotel Room Occupancy Tax Law, in which guests of properties with 10 or fewer rooms pay 3% of the room rental fee, and guests of properties with 11 or more rooms pay 5% of the room rental fee. The amendment would remove the exemption for bed-and-breakfast-inns. 

At previous legislature meetings, Snyder stated that the county is anticipating around an 82% drop in room tax revenues for the second quarter. The hotel industry is one of the hardest-hit sectors during the pandemic.

No members of the public spoke at the public meeting. 

Legislator Anna Kelles withdrew the resolution, citing the need for more time before the legislature votes on it. Another public meeting will not be held.

“I’d like to withdraw it to give a bit of space between when we had the public hearing and when we vote on this, and it will also give time to circulate a survey that the Department of Planning and Sustainability put together,” she said. “And that is being sent around to short-term rental lodging and all rental lodging with ten rooms or less, and it will also give time for our county attorney to connect with an update to short term rental platforms like Airbnb that currently automatically collect the fee for the county.”

Other Business

The legislature unanimously passed resolutions authorizing the Highway Department to authorize a contract to begin work on Ellis Hollow Road in the Town of Ithaca, make a budget adjustment for the funding received through the CARES ACT for expenses incurred during the June 2020 Primary and adopt the New York State Archives Retention and Disposition Schedule for New York Local Government Records. Additionally, the legislature approved appropriations from the Contingent Fund to the Public Safety Committee and the Facilities and Infrastructure Committee, as well as amendments to rules of the legislature regarding majority votes.

Molino said that the county is still in the process of working with the smaller municipalities for the Reinvent Public Safety Task Force initiative between the county, city, villages and towns.

“Our intent was to involve everyone in a community discussion,” Molino said. “To be frank, trying to start collectively has been a challenge in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of budget processes that are not aligned, at the tail end of summers where you had some people taking time off. It’s been a very difficult thing to schedule and get collectively on the same page at the same time.”

Deanna Carrithers, the county’s first Chief Equity and Diversity Officer, introduced herself to the legislature. She began her role earlier in the month.

The Chief Equity and Diversity Officer is in charge of gathering data on inequality in Tompkins and providing guidance to department heads, management and elected officials on equity and social justice issues affecting county programs and practices based on their research and analysis amongst other things.

“I look forward to helping you meet the moment,” she said to the legislature. “Meeting people from the bottom up or the top down, where do we meet in the middle? This work is about all of us. .. Diversity, equity, inclusion and justice belongs to all of us. I’m going to be counting on you as leaders to provide the policy, providing the support and momentum.”

Chair Leslyn McBean-Clairborne read a proclamation for Latinx Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. 

“It’s immensely satisfying and rewarding for us to be recognized in this manner,” said Patricia Fernández de Castro Martinez, president of the Latino Civic Association of Tompkins County. “We thank Tompkins County for being such a welcoming place for us.”

The legislature unanimously passed a resolution urging that the U.S. Senate passes and the president signs legislation to extend deadlines for the census bureau until Oct. 31, 2020, for enumeration and April 30, 2021, for data analysis and reconciliation.

Legislator Mike Lane said that as of Sept. 14, the county’s self-response rate for the census is 62.7%, which is ahead of the 2010 response rate. Overall, New York state’s self-response rate is about 62.3%. The state’s response rate, including those census workers have followed up on, is 91.3%. This county figure is not available, but is estimated to be around this percentage. The last day to respond to the census is Sept. 30.

The meeting ended with the legislature going into executive session for personnel matters. 

Madison Fernandez

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