TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — The Tompkins County Legislature discussed finances, including the 2019 financial report and the upcoming budget, at September’s monthly meeting on Tuesday.

The agenda of the Sept. 1 meeting can be found here

Financial Report

Finance director Rick Snyder presented the audited financial report for the fiscal year ending Dec. 31, 2019. He said that for 2019, the county’s sales tax came in $2.4 million over budget. This follows the previous year, when sales tax came in at $2.9 million over budget. With the exception of this year, there has been a steady growth in the county’s sales tax since 2016.

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.

Government activities — most of the county’s funds, minus enterprise or trust funds — went from $121.3 million to $132.7 million in 2019. Of this amount, $36,399,913 was an unrestricted deficit, due to other post-employee benefits and pension liabilities. Without these two liabilities, there is a positive number for the net investment overall. The net investment in capital assets increased by $20.9 million, or 14.75%.

Government activities had revenues of $217 million compared to $190.4 million in the previous year, and expenses of $205.6 million compared to $193.5 million in the previous year.

The county invested $40.4 million in capital assets, including bridges, roads and buildings,  during 2019, a large spike compared to the previous years that ranged between $10.6 million and $17.1 million. The increase in 2019 includes the airport infrastructure, which is about a $30 million project. Capital project funds for transportation had the largest decrease of all the governmental funds because of the bonds floated for the airport project. 

The county’s debt was at $54.91 million for 2019, which is about the same as previous years. This amount is only at 10% of the debt limit, meaning the county still has 90% left to borrow.

“That number as a percent has not changed that much since 2013,” he said. “That’s a very good sign, a very good signal.”

The county’s general fund revenue was at $190 million, and expenditures at $185 million. The general fund reported an increase of $4.7 million, ending the year with a fund balance of $54.3 million. Of this amount, $46.2 million was unassigned. The unassigned fund balance increase was the largest since 2016. Over the last seven years, the unassigned fund has increased over $28 million.

“This growth in fund balance has helped us to not only maintain our really good bond rating, but sets us in much better shape than most governmental entities for a crisis such as what we’re in right now, trying to get through this fiscal year, budgeting for next fiscal year,” he said.

Budget and Taxes

The beginning of the budget season will be moved back to Sept. 14 from Sept. 8. Legislator Martha Robertson said that a tentative budget should still be passed on Oct. 29 at the special legislature meeting.

County Administrator Jason Molino said that there are still some numbers that are unknown that will factor into the proposed budget, like information on retirement rates and state aid. He said that the budget will likely have increased contingency due to an anticipated decrease in state aid. Molino also said that the county is trying to keep the capital plan intact, but some projects may be pushed back a few years on the schedule. He once again raised concerns about the county’s sales tax, citing last months’ New York Association of Counties report that had Tompkins County as the third-highest county that dropped its sales tax from March to May, which he attributed to college students being sent home during this period.

“The entities that are hit the hardest are cities and counties, primarily because sales tax is a major portion of their budgets,” he said.

The legislature scheduled a public hearing Sept. 15 about amending the Tompkins County Hotel Room Occupancy Tax Law to remove the exemption for bed-and-breakfast-inns. At the last legislature meeting, Snyder said that the county is anticipating around an 82% drop in room tax revenues for the second period. 

“It does not appear to be turning around right now,” Molino said. “It’s still sluggish, to say the best.”

City of Ithaca Common Council alderperson George McGonigal said that the city is still planning to move ahead with the conference center, which will be funded by the hotel occupancy tax.

“Everyone is very concerned about the room tax,” he said. “The council is getting nervous.”

COVID-19 Update

The Tompkins County Health Department announced Aug. 28 that nine COVID-19 cases in the county were related to several small gatherings in which social distancing and mask-wearing were not observed. Cornell University confirmed Aug. 29 that these individuals were Cornell students. Frank Kruppa, Tompkins County public health director, said there were an additional 12 cases among Cornell students related to these gatherings. These new cases have not created additional exposures because they were among students who were already quarantined, Kruppa said.

“We have tried to be clear in our messaging that it’s really important that it’s not just the size of the gathering but also continuing to wear masks and social distancing,” Kruppa said. “Seeing the number go from nine to 21 is a big jump, but the important thing to note is that all the new cases that have been identified since Saturday have been amongst individuals that were in mandatory quarantine as a close contact. So our work as case investigators in contact tracing is working.”

Molino said that overall, there have been 37 new COVID-19 cases since the last legislative meeting. The total amount of COVID-related expenses in the county is $408,779, which is $11,700 more since the last meeting. He said that he is unsure about how much of this amount is reimbursable with FEMA.

Legislator Deborah Dawson raised concerns about the county’s lack of broken down data for positive COVID cases, including likely exposure sources and confirmed cases by age, race, ethnicity and gender like Onondaga County presents. Kruppa said that the county does not have as many cases as Onondaga, which can lead to privacy concerns for the infected individuals if more information is given with the data.

Over the week of Aug. 23 to Aug. 30, there were 34 calls to the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office in response to reports of socially irresponsible gatherings, with six of them being in violation of mask-wearing, social distancing or density. Of these calls, 28 were in the city of Ithaca, one was in Cayuga Heights, three were in the Town of Ithaca, one was in Newfield and one was in Groton. This represents an uptick in the last week, given that there have been 68 calls since the office began responding to reports of gatherings early last month.

“I am very worried that this could spiral out of control very quickly. Going from almost none to nine to 21, those aren’t the numbers we want to see,” Legislator Rich John, who whose district includes Collegetown, said. “I’m just very nervous. I’m not saying issue tickets, I’m fine with the model where we go out and we educate and warn, but people who are blatantly violating these requirements to social distance and to protect each other need to know we’re seeing it and need to know it’s not okay.”

TC3 Budget

A public hearing was held for the Tompkins Cortland Community College 2020–21 budget, which is set at $34,523,721. The total sponsoring county contribution is $3,076,216, which is a 1.6% decrease from the previous year. No members from the public spoke at the hearing. 

Bill Talbot, interim vice president of finance and administration, said that the budget accounts for a projected 24% decline in enrollment compared to the previous year. As of Sept. 1, there is a 26% decline in enrollment.

The budget passed with 10 in favor and legislators Mike Sigler and Henry Granison abstaining due to connections with the college. The county may make additional contributions to the college in the coming year, but those will be handled separately.

Airport

The legislature unanimously approved the name change of the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport to the Ithaca Tompkins International Airport.

“It’s an important thing to make our community a global community,” legislator Mike Lane said. “We have a global university, we have global education here, and we need to have first-rate transportation. We know we have very, very poor highway access. We have no passenger train access to Tompkins County, so the airport becomes more and more important as we go along.”

Additionally, the airport is planning to resume service to Charlotte this week.

In his financial report presentation, Snyder said that the airport has had a net profit of $406,000 in 2019. Over the last three years, the airport has grown its fund balance compared to having a negative fund balance in 2015.

Other Business

The legislature unanimously passed a resolution in support of a Green Amendment to the New York State constitution, which will call for access to clean air and water as a human right.

“We tend to be very environmentally conscious and tend to take a lead on these things, and our support would help the effort to get the word out,” legislator Anna Kelles said.

The legislature also unanimously passed a resolution urging the state to establish an active and formal role for counties in planning efforts related to the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.

“It’s an insult, it really is, that local government is not represented on any of these nine groups,” Robertson said. “We’ll send it around to other counties, and hopefully we’ll shake the trees a little bit.”

The legislature also read a proclamation honoring the life of Kirby Edmonds, senior program coordinator and senior fellow at the Dorothy Cotton Institute, who died Aug. 22. 

“Kirby was about bringing people together, and I think that’s something to remember, especially through this time that we’re going through,” legislator Anne Koreman said. “He was about really listening to each other and diving deep and figuring out what are the core issues, and he was also about empowering people of all ages.”

Madison Fernandez

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