TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. –– Round two of Ithaca Voice candidate Question and Answers is here –– County Legislature edition.

Our reporters sent out Q&A’s to every candidate vying for a district seat ahead of Tuesday’s Democratic primary election. Click the races below to find out how your potential representatives answered.

And as a reminder on June 22 –– Election Day –– polls are open from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Find out more information on early voting (which is already underway) and poll information at the Board of Elections website here.

District 1 | District 2 | District 8 | District 13

DISTRICT ONE

Travis Brooks

Candidate for District 1 (City of Ithaca)

Ithaca Voice: Arguably the most significant occurrence of 2021 so far was the passage of the Reimagining Public Safety draft. There’s been plenty of consternation surrounding the plan from both sides of the aisle. Do you think that the plan went too far, not far enough, or that it landed at a successful medium? What specifically would you have liked to see pushed further or pulled back? 

Travis Brooks: As a person who served on the task force, I knew the recommendations did not go far enough. More importantly, it was clear that under the time constraint, it would be impossible to present a comprehensive plan. This led to obvious concern and anxiety about the draft not offering a clear vision forward to the many concerns that it will address. 

I worked dutifully with four members of the Common Council to push the idea of a civilian Superintendent, and to pass this resolution with the idea that a task force would design the new department. The task force has not yet been announced, but I have made my interest, dedication, and devotion known to the powers that be. I want to be on this task force to ensure the foundation of this resolution meets the needs of this community when the plan is presented in September. 

The details, the framework, and the implementation of the other recommendations are critical in the success and impact. There is nothing to push further or pull back on because it is vague and a bit ambiguous and is not widely accepted within our community. Questions remain about whether or not this plan would promote more of the same. I have chosen not just to trust the process, but remain 100% engaged so the community gets what they need and are given the type of policing they are entitled to.

IV: There’s been a lot of talk about “building back better” after the coronavirus pandemic—that the exposure of so many weaknesses can help us improve long-term. Do you think that’s possible, and what’s that look like to you? What was the most surprising thing that was exposed to you, if anything? 

TB: What was exposed was not surprising to many of us in this community…it’s what we have been advocating about for years, but our words have fallen on deaf ears because we represented undervalued and overlooked marginalized communities; internet access. The pandemic caused so many of our young people across the County to engage in distance learning. Whether it was cost, access, or both, many families found themselves in a position where they could not engage in the learning process. It was assumed that all students across this County had access to internet services. Between rural families and pockets of families closer to the city…service quality was horrible at best. Those of us who work with rural and disenfranchised families knew internet access would be an issue, but it seemed that educators and leaders were unaware. It is time for the County and the City to take ownership of broadband, this would help the County/City to ‘build back better’ from the pandemic. The money is available from the COVID relief fund. Dryden has initiated the process and I believe the rest of the County should follow their lead. We can establish low-cost County/City-owned broadband that would bring every one across this County online. This is a huge impact for the entire community. Not only will this reduce vulnerability, but it will create long term internet stability for the City and County. 

We have been screaming about the lack of accessible and affordable childcare for almost 20 years and the pandemic just exacerbated the ongoing problem. It was no surprise to me that both working and well-to-do families had childcare issues which impacted their ability to go to work. In envisioning a long term plan to help us improve, we can put together a task force that will address our collective childcare needs and ensure all of our families can get back to work, enter the workforce, and have accessible, affordable daycare. 

The pandemic also exposed just how fragile small businesses are in this community. This was not surprising to many because we have not had access to the funding needed to create small businesses. When businesses began to close or lay off employees, it should not have surprised anyone. We do not support local businesses, we do not encourage and build small businesses within priority populations. Coming out of this pandemic, we have an opportunity to build small businesses better by being more inclusive, incentivising the use of local businesses, encouraging more programs like AFCU’s character-based lending program, and creating more funds available for start-ups through grants. 

IV: Transportation is constantly mentioned as a central issue in Tompkins County, particularly in the more rural reaches. Do you think improving transportation here lies in simply more funding for TCAT or is there another strategy you’d prefer and have considered? What’s that look like? 

TB: We sometimes confuse more funding with a better plan when we do not look at the data. Better yet, we do not collect enough data often enough to engage proper decision making. I believe improving transportation lies in being creative and innovative. A strategy I would use to improve transportation would be to implement a ‘use study’ this year to evaluate how County residents are shifting to communities further outside of the City. TCAT did an annual report in 2017 to determine the growing transportation needs of the residents of the county that utilize TCAT. I realize there are a lot of assumptions made about what’s needed, so it is time to compile data so we can move forward with the appropriate changes. Once the data is captured, we can then determine next steps. For example, we hear the bus does not run enough in certain areas or certain times, I was surprised to discover some of the frequency of some of the routes that actually run. The data may tell us the run is more frequent, but not frequent enough at the right times of the day. Data is a critical key to a solution. 

I understand TCAT has started to transform into a “green fleet,” moving completely to green is important to ensure sustainability. It would be great if TCAT could utilize fifteen-passenger vehicles to meet the needs of rural and less traveled routes. A fifteen-passenger van could bring people in and out of those communities closer to regular running bus routes. There would be less of a need for CDL drivers, the fleet would be environment-friendly, and be more cost effective. 

Another strategy is to continue the work that has begun with bicycle pathways and make an effort to increase these pathways. Another idea would be to grant bikers access to a one-way pass from TCAT so they can ride the bus uphill and ride their bike down hill. This would make biking more attractive. 

IV: If it’s not mentioned above, what would be your top priority in a new term? 

TB: My top priority would be to meet with each member of the Legislature to get a broad understanding of the priorities and goals for their communities. This would help me get a good sense of what their district’s needs are, especially the needs of families who struggle to make ends meet and communities that have traditionally been underserved. This will allow me to start building relationships and identifying who I need to collaborate with on my priorities for coalition building. In my mind, there is nothing more important than to find commonalities among people; and advocate for as many as possible, instead of advocating for the few who are siloed. At its core, building relationships with communities and other legislators is where the work begins and ends. As an example: housing is an issue for low-income families downtown, but it is also an issue for rural communities. There are families living with dirt floors and out-houses. Yet, we talk about one as if the other does not exist. My goal is to build a coalition within the Legislature to advocate for both circumstances because there is more power to affect change when many are brought into the room for collaborative solution building. 

Additionally, I would like to take an inventory of all departmental programs and perform program evaluations for each to determine if said services are meeting their intended goals. This includes hearing from the staff (as well as clients), outside agencies that interact with them, former clients, and so on. In my 22 years of experience working in this community, delivering programs that intertwine with many county services, by design, fail to meet the community’s needs. Here is a simple example: every county service virtually operates during business hours. Community outreach workers and police officers can affirm that most mental health crises happen in the evening to early morning, not 9 to 5; houseless issues occur in the evening to late at night. Agencies like Drug Court, DSS, and Probation all open from 8:30 to 4:30 and those who need these services are the most vulnerable. Most of these individuals who are employed are hourly workers, and the most job opportunities, shifts, and transportation occur during this time as well. In spite of this, we ask these vulnerable people to come sit and wait for hours (sometimes) during the best time for them to be working…because the hours of delivery work best for the few and not the many. So how effective and impactful can these programs truly be? 

Lastly, I would also hope to create a social justice coalition that would encourage agency leaders to meet monthly to advance their work collectively. This allows for the support of one another and moves from siloed to collaborative efforts. There are a few other programs and task forces that I hope to create that include daycare, housing, and food security. 

IV: How would you grade the functionality of the Tompkins County Legislature right now? 

TB: It would be unfair to grade the Legislature as I am not privy to the inner workings, relationships, and conversations that occur. Part of the reason I am running is because I want to bring who I am, my ability to work with others (to hopefully build relationships), and a different voice to the legislative body. I’m concerned that, as with any institution, progress in the county is watered down by the idea that “we tried that” or “that’s not possible” or “that costs too much.” Elected officials work alongside county staff and the administration. Everyone should be watching very closely during the hiring process of the New County Administrator and what efforts are made to ensure an equally-talented person with a progressive vision for this County is hired; especially as it pertains to race and equity. Bold ideas and creative moves are what the people of the county are asking for. I want the legislature to start saying: yes, we can work on that problem. 

For the community’s benefit, the Legislature should be working more with the City to address projects like streets, infrastructure, and developing a comprehensive green energy and sustainability plan. This speaks directly to the Legislature’s being efficient in addressing the needs of the community. 

IV: If elected, what do you expect to be the most significant issue for your constituents specifically over the next few years? (if not answered above) You didn’t answer this above 

TB: The most significant issue for constituents is housing, housing that is livable and affordable. Families and individuals need housing that is affordable, acceptable, and in areas that people want to live in; areas that are accessible to stores, social opportunities, daycare, after school, programs, and in communities that are safe. There are many reasons why hard-working residents have found themselves in a housing crisis; one reason is that many years ago landlords stopped accepting families on government housing programs (section 8 and DSS). This forced these families out from downtown and pushed them up on the hills. Landlords stopped taking said vouchers because of the money generated from student housing, and now from Air BnB’s.

The solution to this is integrated and dignified housing. My goal is to increase the number of housing units available over the next 3 years by 100 to 150 units for families that receive rent assistance. These units would be integrated into the community downtown by calling on existing home owners to add additions and/or second dwellings more commonly known as half houses. This is how this would work: 

  • Homeowners who live in their homes would be able to apply for local funding: low to no interest loans, and forgivable grants to keep costs low. 
  • Homeowners would be allowed to get a 12-year abatement on taxes only for the increased property value, no taxes would come off the tax rolls. There is a law that the County and City have and use, 421F. The next step would be to get ICSD to allow for the same. 
  • These abatements and benefits would only be realized for homeowners if they live in the dwelling and rent to families receiving housing assistance

These additions and half homes would be green-energy compliant and this would be a good opportunity for electric conversions of these homes’ heating and cooling systems. The program would work directly with Cornell and have a pool of architects willing to provide design help with the focus on green energy and sustainability. Additionally, the program would work with local suppliers like Ithaca Re-Use for sustainability purposes and others to support the local economy. As a collective, the County would work with local labor with the understanding that we would be given up to 150 homes to work on, which would support local labor in a very tangible way; this would allow homeowners to create another stream of income to offset rising taxes and Seniors who want to stay in their homes. Individuals who qualify to live in the homes could do so through dignified housing, they would integrate into the community of homeowners without the stigma and label of being in low income/affordable housing sites that are not in locations that community members should live in or can thrive in. 

Nicole LaFave

Candidate for District 1 (City of Ithaca)

Ithaca Voice: Arguably the most significant occurrence of 2021 so far was the passage of the Reimagining Public Safety draft. There’s been plenty of consternation surrounding the plan from both sides of the aisle. Do you think that the plan went too far, not far enough, or that it landed at a successful medium? What specifically would you have liked to see pushed further or pulled back? 

Nicole LaFave: The role of the police in our community, as well as other communities in the United States, is to protect property, whiteness, capitalism, and uphold the status quo. Policing has historically been a system of state-sanctioned violence against BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ communities. I don’t think the Reimagining Public Safety draft adequately addresses this. 

To achieve safety for all, we first need to acknowledge the role of policing in the U.S. and Tompkins County. Once we have acknowledged the history of policing, we can build a new structure that protects the most vulnerable and marginalized. The next step in creating public safety for all should be to ask Black, Brown, and poor and working-class folks about their vision for public safety. Once we have a picture of what safety would look like through their gaze, then we can place that picture side by side to what we have now and begin creating new forms of protection for the people. 

I think we should also ask people of marginalized communities what they feel their personal responsibility is in keeping their community and neighbors safe. How can we create neighborhood safety groups composed of people who will lead with compassion, empathy, and reason? 

I think the plan was successful in placating Governor Cuomo’s requirement. My goal for reimagining public safety is a commitment from law enforcement that Black and Brown folks will not be dehumanized by the individuals who vowed to keep them safe. My hope for the proposal is that it would increase the life expectancy of Black and Brown people in our community, that it would eliminate racial profiling, and that I would never have to have a conversation with my children about how to engage with law enforcement if ever driving and being pulled over. 

IV: There’s been a lot of talk about “building back better” after the coronavirus pandemic—that the exposure of so many weaknesses can help us improve long-term. Do you think that’s possible, and what’s that look like to you? What was the most surprising thing that was exposed to you, if anything? 

NL: “Building back better” is an interesting phrase. For many people, the pandemic did not reveal anything that we did not know prior. Before the murder of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, Black and Brown folks were pleading for law enforcement to stop killing us. However, the blinders fell off for many who were oblivious or naive to the fact that we do not live in a post-racial society and that some of us live in fear every single day because of the color of our skin.

The pandemic put many people out of work due to the country being shut down. Now that we are returning to a new normal, businesses are struggling to hire folks. Why? Because some people are receiving more money from unemployment than when they were employed. The problem isn’t that people don’t want to return to work, the problem is people are not being paid a living wage and it would be counterproductive to return to work, to return to living in poverty. 

Do I think it is possible to build back better? I think the real question is: are we as a community willing to name and address the root causes that keep people barely living paycheck to paycheck? Are we willing to increase the minimum wage to a living wage in Tompkins County? Are we willing to require developers build housing units that low income folks can afford if we are providing them with tax abatements? Are we willing to address the root causes of violence, income inequality, poverty, and underfunded public housing? We can build back better when we begin to center and prioritize our most vulnerable communities and place people before profit. 

IV: Transportation is constantly mentioned as a central issue in Tompkins County, particularly in the more rural reaches. Do you think improving transportation here lies in simply more funding for TCAT or is there another strategy you’d prefer and have considered? What form would that strategy take? 

NL: My plan would begin with looking at current TCAT routes and usability rates. For communities like Fall Creek, I would recommend eliminating one of the two bus routes that run through this middle class to upper middle- class community, where most residents have one or two vehicles. I would encourage the county to send out surveys to have a better understanding where the greatest need exists. As we think about the new housing being developed, I would advocate that we have bus routes near these developments, especially because statistics show that low-income families are less likely to have reliable transportation. Finally, I support continuing the roll out of electric buses. We should have only electric buses as soon as possible. 

IV: If it’s not mentioned above, what would be your top priority in a new term? 

NL: I anticipate that there will be a steep learning curve when elected to the Tompkins County Legislature. Before addressing social issues and advocating for policies, I would first want to spend time understanding the political landscape and gaining a better understanding of what each of the legislators are passionate about as it relates to policy and community. We must build allies on governing bodies such as the County Legislature because a legislator is one fourteenth of the vote. My success as a legislator is heavily impacted by not only my commitment to improving social equity in our community, but my ability to build relationships with others in the legislature to vote in favor of policies and initiatives I would put forth. 

After developing a deep understanding of my colleagues’ goals and our constituents’ needs, my priority would be to build a strategic plan for the following initiatives: Reimagining Public Safety, as described above; Implementing the Ithaca Green New Deal on the county level; Building a consortium of dental care providers willing to accept insurance and medicaid in Tompkins County, specifically, Ithaca. 

IV: How would you grade the functionality of the Tompkins County Legislature right now? Do you think the body is effectively able to discuss, generate and pass legislation in a prompt manner that helps community members? 

NL: The Tompkins County Legislature, like any other governing body, is only effective when there is a consensus among the group about their collective intentions, impact and vision for the community. Navigating personalities and political differences is part of the work of being an elected official. However, centering the needs of your community and constituents should always come first. Tompkins County is a diverse county with diverse needs based on the district in question. I believe the Legislature is composed of people who are committed and invested in their community but have differing views on how best to serve the larger community. As we think about the rollout of the vaccinations and Tompkins County having the highest vaccination rate in the state, we have to attribute that not only to our Health Department but also the Legislature and their ability to promptly address the needs of our community. There were several pop up clinics for BIPOC communities as well as people who live in the “jungle.” These efforts showcased the legislature’s ability to meet people where they are and to center our most vulnerable communities. I think the Legislature should build on this success by continuing to put people first, and prioritizing our most vulnerable communities. 

IV: If elected, what do you expect to be the most significant issue for your constituents specifically over the next few years? (if not answered above) 

NL: The most significant issues for my constituents in the next few years will be quality housing for low and middle income residents in downtown Ithaca, gainful employment that will support any resident’s desire to live downtown, the rollout of the Reimagining Public Safety plan, quality mental health services as we emerge from isolation due to the pandemic, and the implementation of the Ithaca Green New Deal. These issues are interrelated, and we need to be bold in addressing each.

DISTRICT TWO

Leslie Schill

Candidate for District 2 and special election incumbent (City of Ithaca)

Ithaca Voice: Arguably the most significant occurrence of 2021 so far was the passage of the Reimagining Public Safety draft. There’s been plenty of consternation surrounding the plan from both sides of the aisle. Do you think that the plan went too far, not far enough, or that it landed at a successful medium? What specifically would you have liked to see pushed further or pulled back?

Leslie Schill: Completing the Reimaging Public Safety Report represents an honest, good-faith effort to initiate a reform of local policing and public safety. The work put into the creation of this report, along with the supporting resolutions to New York State, establishes a real partnership between the City, County, and Community to get this done. But it is only the beginning, the start of a long-term effort to fundamentally change how local policing and public safety is carried out on a day-to-day basis in our community. In my opinion, the list of recommendations is a big first step!

The list is broad reaching, from improved data collection, to better communications between government and community, to shifting the culture of policing, to creating a coalition of professionals and community members shaping how we ensure ALL COMMUNITY MEMBERS are fairly treated and feel safe.

Early action is already being taken at both the County and City levels. On Tuesday evening this week, we passed resolutions at the County Legislature to fund the first positions for leadership of a new Community Justice Center. I was proud to cast my vote on behalf of District 2 in support of this concrete action to begin the work. Implementation will be challenging, aligning budgets, priorities, and politics in the City and County. But the key determinant of success is likely to be how well we work together: local law enforcement members and community members will have to collaborate and build trust. We can achieve these goals, assuming we are all committed to rolling up our sleeves, working hard to keep coming to the table, and making sure Community helps define our path.

IV: There’s been a lot of talk about “building back better” after the coronavirus pandemic—that the exposure of so many weaknesses can help us improve long-term. Do you think that’s possible, and what’s that look like to you? What was the most surprising thing that was exposed to you, if anything?

LS: We have all changed through the pandemic. We have grieved and feared, then hoped. Most yearn for a return to some “sense of normal,” but at this moment of transition we need to leverage the silver linings and not lose the lessons learned, including:

  • Public health is an imperative—we must prioritize health care for all. Our community’s mental health needs should be our next focus.
  • Children need their schools, teachers, and friends, even if remote learning is possible.
  • Front-line workers were the life support of a remote society and should be paid a living wage.
  • More than ever, we need to create inclusive, connected communities where neighbors look out for and support one another.
  • Businesses can innovate and adapt. Community-focused services can be a lifeline and backbone for local businesses.
  • Democracy matters –get involved, talk to people with opposing viewpoints, VOTE!

The biggest surprise for me is finding out how resilient and flexible we are. Who could have imagined living through the year we just had?

IV: Transportation is constantly mentioned as a central issue in Tompkins County, particularly in the more rural reaches. Do you think improving transportation here lies in simply more funding for TCAT or is there another strategy you’d prefer and have considered? What form would that strategy take?

LS: While more funding is always helpful, the disbursed nature of residents living in rural areas makes TCAT service to these communities challenging. Transit works best when it serves high population densities, operating where trips originate and near key destinations (home, employment). A strategy for providing improved rural service would be to focus limited expansion/enhancement to rural villages and park and ride locations, creating passenger density. Focusing on primary routes for in-commuters, particularly Cortland-Dryden-Ithaca and Owego-Candor-Ithaca could replace our greatest number of single-occupancy vehicle trips into town on a daily basis and make for a route with supportable ridership. Future growth in Tompkins County that adheres to a nodal development strategy (focused in population centers and places with existing infrastructure) as established by the County Planning Department would also support efficient transit enhancement, too.

IV: If it’s not mentioned above, what would be your top priority in a new term? 

LS: In 2021, my top two priorities are:

  • Launch a County Strategic Plan that provides a unified vision for County policy and decision making. Our policies should reflect vital community values that I believe are: Climate Action; Public Health and Housing; and Inclusive Communities
  • Allocate American Rescue Plan Funds to launch recovery efforts, focusing on immediate needs of families and local businesses as well as key long-term investment opportunities (District 2’s expressed interests include: stormwater and broadband)

IV: How would you grade the functionality of the Tompkins County Legislature right now? Do you think the body is effectively able to discuss, generate and pass legislation in a prompt manner that helps community members? 

LS: I think the Legislature is comprised of dedicated individuals who genuinely want to make progress on behalf of their communities. I joined this body in the midst of a global pandemic, while it was grappling with national social and racial justice issues at the local level. Not sure my experience reflects anything that resembles “typical”. I would say this group rallies daily and weekly to progress on behalf of our community, even in stressful situations when grappling with hard issues. They do their homework, try to represent all of their constituents, and strive to be responsive. They have my admiration.

IV: If elected, what do you expect to be the most significant issue for your constituents specifically over the next few years? (if not answered above)

LS: The most significant issue I have heard time and again from constituents is the need for more and affordable housing. That is #1 in District 2. In addition, responses to a survey I circulated throughout my community last week to gather early input for funding priorities for the American Rescue Plan funds revealed immediate needs to get people into recovery mode from COVID, including childcare, food security support, mental health services, youth programming, and investment in local, minority businesses.

Veronica Pillar

Candidate for District 2 (City of Ithaca)

Ithaca Voice: Arguably the most significant occurrence of 2021 so far was the passage of the Reimagining Public Safety draft. There’s been plenty of consternation surrounding the plan from both sides of the aisle. Do you think that the plan went too far, not far enough, or that it landed at a successful medium? What specifically would you have liked to see pushed further or pulled back?

Veronica Pillar: The plan did not go far enough. While the impetus for the Reimagining Public Safety process was a need to end police violence, public safety is about much more than police–it involves neighbors knowing neighbors, stability in housing and food access, mental and physical health care, and emergency response networks that lead with de-escalation and compassion. I’m therefore optimistic about parts of the plan, specifically the possible creation of an alternative response system to deliver wraparound human services and some community-led options for building and healing relationships between police officers and community members. However, much of the rest of the plan still centers the existing law enforcement system and devotes significant resources to maintaining the police department at its current size while other public safety services suffer. I would have liked to see the scope of local policing reduced significantly and more resources diverted to social services that prevent crime rather than respond to it, thereby improving public safety while reducing the burden placed on our overworked police officers.

IV: There’s been a lot of talk about “building back better” after the coronavirus pandemic—that the exposure of so many weaknesses can help us improve long-term. Do you think that’s possible, and what’s that look like to you? What was the most surprising thing that was exposed to you, if anything?

VP: Yes, it is possible to rebuild without returning to the pre-pandemic status quo. A silver lining of the devastating pandemic is that it has forced us to get creative in how we live, help each other, and offer services, and it has forced us to question things we used to accept. I think many pandemic adaptations, or proposed adaptations, should be retained even after the virus stops spreading locally: for example, virtual options for public meetings and education, free distribution of public health services where possible as we did with COVID-19 tests and vaccines, forgiveness of rent and mortgage payments when homelessness is on the line, and prioritizing worker safety over customer convenience. Last year when I was fielding direct requests for support on behalf of a Mutual Aid Tompkins team, I was surprised to see how many fragile points there are in people’s support systems—for instance, running out of money for a phone card (a common experience) cuts you off from formal and informal services and employment. As we rebuild, we need to meet people where they really are and not assume folks are starting with any of their needs fully met.

IV: Transportation is constantly mentioned as a central issue in Tompkins County, particularly in the more rural reaches. Do you think improving transportation here lies in simply more funding for TCAT or is there another strategy you’d prefer and have considered? What form would that strategy take?

VP: More funding for TCAT is definitely part of the solution. The current proposed TCAT system redesign will better serve many people within a few miles of Ithaca, but it’s limited by the requirement to remain cost-neutral and still misses entire populations–particularly those living in rural areas but working in town and/or those who work early or late shifts that don’t match the current bus schedules. We have to be willing to expand TCAT service first in order to then collect data on how the new lines are used. The longer-term side of the problem is asking why things are so spread out in the first place. Many people would prefer to live closer to work and shop closer to home, but with business districts so concentrated and housing costs so high, they are forced to live far from places that they frequent. Addressing the housing crisis and focusing on mixed-use nodal development would reduce the net need for transportation services. 

IV: If it’s not mentioned above, what would be your top priority in a new term? 

VP: One of my top priorities not mentioned above or below is building a publicly-owned broadband network throughout the county. Internet access is critical for most people’s participation in society, but currently, many of our rural residents do not not have high-speed connections, and residents with good internet pay exorbitant rates to Spectrum. With the ongoing countywide study of current broadband infrastructure and incoming American Rescue Plan funds that could be used on broadband, now is the perfect time to build out a countywide network and invest in public administration of the service, including offering connection devices to those who don’t have any. The up-front investment could be covered by future revenues while keeping costs very low, thereby improving folks’ information access and reducing everyone’s utility bills for decades to come.

IV: How would you grade the functionality of the Tompkins County Legislature right now? Do you think the body is effectively able to discuss, generate and pass legislation in a prompt manner that helps community members?

VP: From my observations and my conversations with current and former legislators, I think that the legislature works fairly well together and probably collaborates more effectively now than it has at times in the past. The legislators are mindful of how they use their time and their collaborators’ time in meetings. I think that their effectiveness at helping community members could be improved by opening more channels of communication with the community, particularly early on in decision-making processes, and by responding directly to community concerns in ways that the current meeting structure is not really set up to do. The survey asking for input on how to spend ARP funds is one good step in that direction.

IV: If elected, what do you expect to be the most significant issue for your constituents specifically over the next few years? (if not answered above)

VP: In my recent conversations with constituents, the number one issue not mentioned above is housing costs and housing access. Many folks are struggling to afford rent, others want to purchase a home but can’t find anything affordable for a single family, and many more—especially in Fall Creek—are struggling to pay high property taxes, particularly when facing fixed incomes after retirement. I think a multi-pronged, highly collaborative approach is needed to address this issue, including pieces like opting in to the Emergency Tenant Protection Act, ending tax abatements for luxury apartment buildings, shifting some of the tax burden to an income tax, expanding services like INHS, being creative with the development of our housing stock, and holding large landlords accountable for the quality of their rental units.

DISTRICT EIGHT

Robert Lynch

Candidate for District 8 (Town of Newfield and a portion of the Town of Enfield)

Ithaca Voice: Arguably the most significant occurrence of 2021 so far was the passage of the Reimagining Public Safety draft. There’s been plenty of consternation surrounding the plan from both sides of the aisle. Do you think that the plan went too far, not far enough, or that it landed at a successful medium? What specifically would you have liked to see pushed further or pulled back?

Robert Lynch: First, as I stated during an Enfield-sponsored Candidates’ Forum June 13, I believe the City/County Reimagining Public Safety Report was an “opportunity lost.” We could have accomplished more had we taken a different approach; advanced tougher measures to combat police violence, while according to those who provide colorblind law enforcement greater credit for keeping us safe.

I believe Tompkins County made a mistake when it collaborated with the City of Ithaca in drafting this report. For starters, had the County sought true and total collaboration, it would have drawn in those other municipalities that have police departments, like the villages of Dryden, Trumansburg, and Cayuga Heights. It did not. Instead, as I told our County Legislature the night the Reimagining Report was accepted, the “Collaborative is an arranged marriage that should never have occurred.” Too often we find the “tail wagging the dog;” the City of Ithaca driving the debate, with our rural concerns subordinated.

In my comments that night, I also faulted the Reimagining Report for pitifully falling short by its “lack of true toughness.” Too often, I wrote, the Reimagining Report “lards its pages with wandering words and lofty pronouncements; grandiloquent sentences of sponge.” What the report most lacked, I said, was the imposition of a strict “zero tolerance policy;” unapologetic, heightened discipline that would terminate an officer for any racial misconduct.

When one Ithaca cop allegedly suggested that police plant evidence to incriminate a person of color, we needed more than a bust in rank and a 30-day suspension. Justice demanded two powerful words: “You’re fired!” Racist policing holds no place in professional law enforcement. It fosters disrespect, hostility, and disobedience. It endangers lives on both sides of the badge.

Most of those I’ve met in the shadow of Connecticut Hill, in my Tompkins-Southwest District, find little to like about the Reimagining Report. As their future legislator, I would be duty-bound to reflect their concerns. We could have done better, much better.

IV: There’s been a lot of talk about “building back better” after the coronavirus pandemic—that the exposure of so many weaknesses can help us improve long-term. Do you think that’s possible, and what’s that look like to you? What was the most surprising thing that was exposed to you, if anything?

RL: There’s a “Façade of Prosperity” one can too quickly paint upon our little Ithaca. We can

deceive ourselves as collectively living of an academically-nourished, recession-proof oasis of wealth and wonder. Let us ply our progressive pursuits, we say, without fear of a termination notice, a lost paycheck, or an overdrawn bank account. The Good Life awaits—providing, of course, that we make tenure.

That’s the façade. I see a different reality. I volunteer weekly at the Enfield Food Pantry, one of Tompkins County’s largest and best. The COVID-19 pandemic has at times doubled our client load. We serve hundreds of deserving families each week. I care for our patrons’ self-respect too much to ask them their circumstances. But I know that the past year’s economic slowdown has hit them hard. They need the nutritious staples we place in their cart every week. Without what we provide, our visitors and their children might forgo supper tonight.

All of us who live here must realize that Greater Ithaca is not all luxury high-rises and manicured lawns on the Arts Quad. In fact, the affluence that allows some of us to relax in bucolic bliss forces others among us to compromise in the face of necessity. Gentrification has catapulted the price of a typical two-story Fall Creek Victorian with its postage-stamp yard to a half-million dollars. Economic refugees flee to the country; my country, to my Eighth District’s towns of Enfield and Newfield. The affordable housing shortage forces some of us to move farther, out of Tompkins County altogether.

Greater Ithaca truly is a tale of two cities; prosperity for the fortunate; rural poverty for the rest.

IV: Transportation is constantly mentioned as a central issue in Tompkins County, particularly in the more rural reaches. Do you think improving transportation here lies in simply more funding for TCAT or is there another strategy you’d prefer and have considered? What’s that look like?

RL: First let’s state a fact that I wish urban planners and Ithaca bureaucrats would come to their senses to realize: Most people want cars. Even if they live in an apartment close to the bus stop, they still want cars. And if they live in my rural district, Enfield and Newfield, the automobile becomes a necessity. TCAT cannot extend its service to every mile of every country road. Even if rural mass transit stretches to its limits of economic common sense, many will still need those personal four wheels and a motor to drive themselves through snow to the nearest bus stop.

Our transit service has begun testing innovative ways to provide on-demand service. But most of those efforts have focused on the county’s more populous northeast sector, providing little help to those in my district. While door-to-door rural mass transit stands as a lofty objective, more immediate attention needs to be placed on making each rural resident’s own automobile more affordable and the drive to one’s destination less problematic.

Here’s a challenge lying far beyond the reach of the local county legislator, yet one deserving recognition. Persons of modest means have found themselves priced out of the new car market.

Part of the problem relates to the many new devices that Detroit and regulators have forced upon the buying public. Some arrive through environmental mandates. Others flow from regulatory risk aversion. Frankly, I might like a car with a back-up camera, but I don’t necessarily need it.

As the prices of new cars rise, the same applies to those parked on the used car lot. Many rural residents of modest means can only afford a clunker that’s always breaking down. And may I dare mention a second problem here? Our every-brand-sold-by-one-dealer Ithaca auto monopoly doesn’t help. It inflates prices and drives out competition. Ask Pritchard Dodge.

IV: If it’s not mentioned above, what would be your top priority in a new term?

RL: I can find no better words to describe my incoming objective: I want to return the Tompkins County Legislature to its roots.

As a Cornell student and volunteer WVBR news reporter, I covered my first meeting of what was then the Board of Representatives—now the Tompkins County Legislature—in 1970. Then and with WTKO for the following decade, I came to appreciate the County governing body’s traditions, history, and guiding principles; how its members legislated within a Tradition of Transparency to represent their constituents’ best interests, always.

As I’ve continued to follow the Legislature these past five decades, I’ve sensed a change, one becoming more pronounced during just these past few years. I sense it’s systemic; a change not to be blamed on one individual or group. But as new legislators arrive and County Administration increasingly flexes its muscle, more legislative business has become shrouded in secrecy; buried within executive sessions or sequestered behind closed administrative doors. In fact, we cannot even conduct an open meeting of an intermunicipal broadband committee (of which I am a member) without some favored cable-stringing company fearing that public discussions would compromise its own proprietary interests. That’s not right.

We need to return the County Legislature to its roots; to reinstate that Tradition of Transparency, to pull lawmaking procedure back from the grassy shoulder of democracy’s edge to the paved, sunshine-bathed center line. As your next District 8 County Legislator, I would press for more open disclosure; fewer private meetings; and greater adherence to both the letter and the spirit of New York’s Open Meetings Law. I would also support the principle that when County Administration proposes we spend millions on new downtown construction, a business case be made for every dollar we’re asked to spend.

That’s economy. That’s transparency. And it makes simple, rural-valued common sense.

IV: How would you grade the functionality of the Tompkins County Legislature right now? Do you think the body is effectively able to discuss, generate and pass legislation in a prompt manner that helps community members?

RL: Efficiency is not the problem. Responsiveness to the electorate is. Just as I think this Tompkins County Legislature has lost its grasp on its Tradition of Transparency, I also believe it has become increasingly detached from the population of constituents that it remains obligated to serve.

Sadly, too many incumbents on the Tompkins County Legislature are now ensconced within safe political districts. Ironically, lucky are those like us—Vanessa Greenlee, Randy Brown and me in District 8—who find ourselves forced to escape our comfortable nests, reach out within our own communities, and earn our support from voters on Election Day. Competition grounds us on the issues. And it helps us learn where local sentiments lie. It makes us better candidates as well as more effective lawmakers when and if we’re elected.

Last November, the County Legislature, by a largely party-line vote, urged Albany lawmakers to increase taxes on the rich, just which taxes to raise they hadn’t quite figured out yet. But the Resolution pushed all the right political buttons. It sounded good, though as I wrote at the time, “its rambling, cliché-cluttered, scattershot scripting [bore] the mark of one too many think tank policy papers, or too many late nights binge-watching C-Span or MSNBC.” Nonetheless, the resolution passed.

Do 12 of every 14 Tompkins County residents want single-payer insurance? Do they want tax-the-rich policies? Perhaps that’s how partisan-imbalanced representative democracy works?

IV: If elected, what do you expect to be the most significant issue for your constituents specifically over the next few years? (if not answered above)

RL: Who among us, even epidemiologist Anna Kelles, would have predicted the COVID-19 pandemic during the last (2017) County Legislature election cycle? I admit forecasting the future is no more certain than 90 percent pure guess. But reading the warning signs posted by Dryden’s Mike Lane, perhaps the Legislature’s wisest statesman, I’ll speculate.

I think 2022 through 2025 may bring unforeseen challenges to Tompkins Cortland Community College. TC3 built its Dryden campus when I first began covering the then-Board of Representatives in the early 1970’s. It’s provided first-rate post-secondary instruction for more than a half-century now. But legislator Lane cautions TC3’s finances could take a hit in the years ahead, often for reasons that lie far beyond the college’s control.

TC3 has lost a lot of good people, faculty and staff. Enrollment ebbs and flows, often dependent upon the job market. President Biden’s American Families Plan, with its provision for free community college, could throw TC3 a lifeline. But who can predict with certainty whether Congress will ratify the President’s funding? Perhaps TC3 will escape these next four years financially unscathed. I hope it will. But I must brace myself for bad news if it does not.

Similarly, the remaining educational landscape holds a panorama of uncertainty. Ithaca College has found the need to tighten its belt. And Cornell University’s forced experiment with virtual instruction could lead it to reassess its need to require all 15,000 undergraduates to study on campus. If fewer students need study here, our local economy may suffer. Education has always stood as our fortress of stability. If those underpinnings begin to crack, we must prepare to construct a more diversified economy, one less dependent upon the student.

Vanessa Greenlee

Candidate for District 8 (Town of Newfield and a portion of the Town of Enfield)

Ithaca Voice: Arguably the most significant occurrence of 2021 so far was the passage of the Reimagining Public Safety draft. There’s been plenty of consternation surrounding the plan from both sides of the aisle. Do you think that the plan went too far, not far enough, or that it landed at a successful medium? What specifically would you have liked to see pushed further or pulled back?

Vanessa Greenlee: The Imagining Public Safety Report is a plan. We are in the beginning of a process.

The recommendations adopted by the City and County do seem to reflect current understandings about how to provide equitable policing. But that understanding is early, and limited. We are blazing a trail with one of the most sweeping police reform plans in the state. And because of that, our progress can only be as good as the questions we continue to ask. I’m encouraged by plans to create a real-time public safety community dashboard and a Public Safety Review Board. We can’t really know if the current plan goes too far, or not far enough, until we can monitor for changes in conditions. Studies show that changes in police leadership are particularly disruptive to reconciliation and policy change work, so I do question moves that would change police leadership.

IV: There’s been a lot of talk about “building back better” after the coronavirus pandemic—that the exposure of so many weaknesses can help us improve long-term. Do you think that’s possible, and what’s that look like to you? What was the most surprising thing that was exposed to you, if anything?

VG: I was alarmed, but not surprised, by the healthcare and workforce inequities that the pandemic brought to center stage. I’ve been a proponent of single-payer healthcare for some time.

What surprised me about the pandemic was the food shortages in stores. From 2018-2020 I served as project manager for a global food security project, and thought of the US as relatively food secure. The pandemic heightened my awareness that our domestic food supply – like any other chain—is only as strong as its weakest link. Disruptions in one part of the chain, however far away, can have worrisome implications at home. I see the pandemic as evidence of broader shifts in climate and population, and like many people, worry that there are related crises to come. We can “build back better” by approaching our food system as critical infrastructure. I’ve talked to many people in the county’s agricultural community who feel the same way. We should reduce distance between producers, processors, packagers and consumers by further incentivizing local availability. To build out local markets, we need matchmaking platforms to increase connections between local farmers and food outlets with local large purchasers of food, like public schools.

IV: Transportation is constantly mentioned as a central issue in Tompkins County, particularly in the more rural reaches. Do you think improving transportation here lies in simply more funding for TCAT or is there another strategy you’d prefer and have considered? What’s that look like?

VG: There are two key needs for improving public transit in our rural areas. One is first mile / last mile service. TCAT’s Strategic Plan sets out explore new partnerships with private and public organizations (including volunteer drivers) to build out availability. The second need is for demand-responsive service at off-peak times.

We can challenge assumptions of public transit as social welfare (TCAT’s funding model relies predominantly on NYS operational assistance) by advancing public transit as a viable option for people who can afford to drive. In sustainable energy conversations, we are talking about bulk purchasing power from alternative sources using models like Community Choice Aggregation. What if we approached sustainable rural transportation in a similar way? We could incentivize groups of riders to self-organize for route and time options, akin to a car share or charter service, while adding new revenue streams.  

IV: If it’s not mentioned above, what would be your top priority in a new term? 

VG: My top priority is reducing our dependence on fossil fuels in a way that is equitable and just. Locally, that translates to the availability and affordability of green energy such as heat pumps. Two factors in Tompkins County that significantly limit our ability to adopt green energy at scale are readiness of a new green workforce, and landlord incentives. It is imperative in green workforce training for us to keep social justice at the helm.  

Another huge priority is last-mile broadband throughout our district. Not only is this an access to education and commerce issue, if broadband is done with the right looping it can actually be effective in monitoring and adjusting our peak energy uses.

IV: How would you grade the functionality of the Tompkins County Legislature right now? Do you think the body is effectively able to discuss, generate and pass legislation in a prompt manner that helps community members?

VG: A county legislature that works with city and state to achieve the 5th highest vaccination rate nationally deserves major brownie points. I mean, kudos! Tompkins County is a leading community in recycling and solid waste management, and is willing to make tough but long-overdue decisions about social justice and public safety. In 1991, Tompkins County was a forerunner in prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. These achievements speak volumes! But there is more work to do. I do question some of the decisions made by the legislature- adjacent Industrial Development Agency on the use of tax dollars. I hope to advance the work of the legislature by contributing my expertise in workforce training (relevant not only to building a green new workforce but also to the training goals set out for public safety), my knowledge in proposing and securing federal agency awards, and my experience with community engagement on complex topics.

Regarding the legislature’s ability to discuss, generate, and pass legislation that helps community members, I proudly carry the endorsements of the Working Families Party and five sitting legislators: Amanda Champion, Deborah Dawson, Dan Klein, Anne Koreman, and Martha Robertson. These endorsements speak to my ability to engage in productive working relationships to benefit working families in District 8 and county-wide.

IV: If elected, what do you expect to be the most significant issue for your constituents specifically over the next few years? (if not answered above)

VG: In Enfield and Newfield, we can expect to see a big increase in solar panel installation over the next 5 years. Under the 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, New York must reach 70% renewable energy production by 2030.  Assuming no additional offshore wind energy, this goal can’t be attained without using at least some lower-grade agricultural lands. That’s not to say the shift won’t be worthwhile for District 8. But it will challenge us.

We may wish to advocate against solar becoming too concentrated in our region. We’ll want to consider scenic landscapes and property values. It will be essential to discover and address public concerns with care.

I am a property owner in District 8, I see the tension between agriculture and adoption of green energy, and I believe we can find a positive way forward through the complexities of solar installations.

My experience at the intersection of community engagement, agriculture and climate justice, and my respect for the perspectives of my neighbors, make me the right candidate at the right time.

DISTRICT THIRTEEN

Samantha Lushtak

Candidate for District 13 (Town of Dryden, western portion)

Ithaca Voice: Arguably the most significant occurrence of 2021 so far was the passage of the Reimagining Public Safety draft. There’s been plenty of consternation surrounding the plan from both sides of the aisle. Do you think that the plan went too far, not far enough, or that it landed at a successful medium? What specifically would you have liked to see pushed further or pulled back?

Samantha Lushtak: Years ago, during public comment in a common council meeting, I asked Chief Nayor why Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) were not being considered outside of Dryden. A few months back, I expressed to the legislature that I was shocked that the drafted public safety plan, which so clearly hinges on training and culture shift, had only a single short paragraph about training in which only training poster size was discussed. 

Growing up, I was taught to ask someone in uniform (police, fire, medical) for help if I needed assistance. This comfort with public safety came from communication and outreach to local business owners, public safety officers, and the community at large. We had a program called ‘safe haven,’ which was a downtown/big city equivalent of neighborhood watch. Children were taught to look for stores with the ‘safe haven’ sticker in their windows if they ever needed help. This is how we shift a culture—community outreach, training, and follow through. Culture changes take a lot of time and dedication but they impact people’s lives forever. 

I think the plan did not go far enough to address culture change, nor did it address the nuanced differences between IPD and the Sheriff’s office or how they often need to work together. I would like to see a more thorough plan that discusses how this program will be addressed, revised, and implemented to include not only those who are hired but how the citizens will be addressed as well. 

IV: There’s been a lot of talk about “building back better” after the coronavirus pandemic—that the exposure of so many weaknesses can help us improve long-term. Do you think that’s possible, and what’s that look like to you? What was the most surprising thing that was exposed to you, if anything?

SL: Anyone with a child, or who knows someone with a child in Tompkins County, knows that we have a lack of childcare. Anyone who lives in Tompkins County also knows that we have an incredible number of small businesses. This surplus of small businesses underlines the intelligence and drive of our community. Our lack of childcare, particularly for those yet to qualify for public school, is a huge hindrance on those families. 

When COVID-19 took hold, this lack of childcare, particularly full-time childcare for children in diapers, became even more painfully apparent. How many small businesses closed? How many people filed for unemployment to take care of their children? We already knew that this was a problem in the area but the global pandemic simply underlined it. Childcare options will create jobs for teachers (many of whom are out of work due to COVID-19), it will allow residents to return to work or start new businesses, and it will allow children to socialize.

This pandemic underlined something interesting to me – we have two types of businesses here. Residents serving residents, and residents serving visitors. For so long our focus has been on our amazing food, our gorgeous gorges, and students. We need to reset, refocus, and INVEST in ourselves. We need childcare, we need doctors and dentists, we need faster emergency response times. We need to believe in and invest in the residents who serve residents. We live here, we make Tompkins County great, and it’s time we realize that focusing on a strong residential foundation will only help our visitor-supported economy.

IV: Transportation is constantly mentioned as a central issue in Tompkins County, particularly in the more rural reaches. Do you think improving transportation here lies in simply more funding for TCAT or is there another strategy you’d prefer and have considered? What form would that strategy take?

SL: Personally, I live down the street from a bus stop and I have yet to see a bus. That said, I have also never seen someone waiting at that bus stop. Is it because nobody needs the bus or is it because a bus never comes? 

In my college years, once a year we would take $1,000 and purchase all the bikes from the local goodwill. We would paint them red and scatter them around the 116 acre campus. We would use them as needed, at no cost. Twice a year a bike repair clinic would be held to teach students how to care for bikes and we worked on the ones from goodwill. A small investment taught us all basic skills, improved our mental and physical wellbeing, and saved on costs. 

I would like to explore ride-share options, perhaps stationed at the community centers or public park parking lots. I would like to add bike lanes in our more rural areas and expand offerings from bike-sharing companies. I would look at the budget and determine if ride-sharing/bike sharing could be subsidized by the county to make these options more accessible as well. Improving bikeability and access to affordable bikes would also affect our healthcare system, accessibility, and continue the fight to reverse climate change.

IV: If it’s not mentioned above, what would be your top priority in a new term? 

SL: In addition to childcare, we need to address affordable and safe housing, as well as food security.

In approving building permits for dwellings, I would ask that safety and environmental testing is done prior to permit approval. Employees working 40 hour weeks have very strict exposure levels with respect to airborne contaminants and noise pollution. The water is tested regularly as well. I do not believe it is unreasonable to include noise metering, soil testing, water testing, and air quality evaluations as part of a permit application prior to building a residential building.

With respect to food security, if we help the local farmers (of which we have many) set up community-supported agriculture or give them low-cost venues to sell their wares we can ensure the support of our local farmers as well as ensure fresh food landing directly on the tables of our residents. Through farm-to-table efforts we build a foundation for better health as well. This type of initiative would support the local economy, ensure accessibility to real food, and lower the healthcare costs within Tompkins County. 

IV: How would you grade the functionality of the Tompkins County Legislature right now? Do you think the body is effectively able to discuss, generate and pass legislation in a prompt manner that helps community members?

SL: I think the legislature is largely functional, but we do need some new voices. We need people who are not career politicians, we need people who think creatively and are not afraid to go against the grain. We need to have open, honest, discourse that allows for unabashed discussion of unique ideas. We also need people who have lived in other locations, traveled, and worked in different types of industries. For my part, though born and raised in New York, I have lived and worked in various industries throughout Oregon, Colorado, and California. Benchmarking from past exposures is what makes a 14-person legislature great but if everyone has the same background, follows the same drumbeat, and wants the same thing, we will not advance. 

IV: If elected, what do you expect to be the most significant issue for your constituents specifically over the next few years? (if not answered above)

SL: My constituents have raised questions about childcare, affordable housing, and broadband –– all things which are absolute priorities. The broadband discussions have been underway, and intend to help push this project to completion. I also intend to continue supporting green initiatives, as demonstrated by my green campaign. Upcycled lawn signs were easy, skipping a mailer was certainly not customary. As democrats who actively engage in improving our environment and addressing climate change, we need to critically think about our own actions and prove that every aspect of ‘normal’ is fair game to challenge. Sometimes it will be successful and sometimes it won’t, but we need to try.

Greg Mezey

Candidate for District 13 (Town of Dryden, western portion)

Ithaca Voice: Arguably the most significant occurrence of 2021 so far was the passage of the Reimagining Public Safety draft. There’s been plenty of consternation surrounding the plan from both sides of the aisle. Do you think that the plan went too far, not far enough, or that it landed at a successful medium? What specifically would you have liked to see pushed further or pulled back?

Greg Mezey: The Public Safety Reimagined report was a great start at addressing a complex issue within our community. We had community members, law enforcement, city and county staff, and elected officials that collaborated and yielded real actionable solutions to build upon. These bold new ideas and strategies to reimagine public safety will take time to develop further, time to work through training and implementation, time to evaluate effectiveness, and time to adjust and solidify their place in our community and Departments.

While establishing the Community Justice Center, it is paramount that we are transparent and regularly communicate and engage with all community members. We need to have a more robust communication and engagement strategy to ensure all voices are heard, and factual information on implementation becomes the source for public opinion. The recommendations regarding the revision of the civil service exam, continuous recruitment, and disciplinary procedure reform will require a change at the state level. I’m committed to being an active voice to lobby our state-elected officials to work quickly to enact these changes.

I am in strong support of the plan, and if elected to the Legislature, I look forward to continuing the work to reimagine public safety with the goal of a Tompkins County where all feel safe.

IV: There’s been a lot of talk about “building back better” after the coronavirus pandemic—that the exposure of so many weaknesses can help us improve long-term. Do you think that’s possible, and what’s that look like to you? What was the most surprising thing that was exposed to you, if anything?

GM: As an operational efficiency consultant, my work was to study multiple departments within an organization individually and collectively and identify opportunities both within and between departments, make recommendations on ways to improve, and ultimately build consensus around a proposed initiative and see it through to successful implementation. With this experience, I’ll bring a much-needed set of skills to the Legislature so that we can learn from where we’ve been, acknowledge where we are, and work towards a better future.

As heartbreaking and unfortunate as the pandemic was, the pandemic provided us an opportunity to identify vulnerabilities in our county government and within our greater community. In addition, the pandemic raised awareness of many issues that are not new but are now on the minds of many in Tompkins County.

We need more affordable and accessible childcare options; people should not have to worry about the well-being of their children or if they can even afford to head off to work. In addition, our county health and mental health services need to be structured to meet people where they are, to get them the help they need when they need it most.

Furthermore, there is a need for a greater diversity of housing stock, emphasizing affordable housing, making Tompkins County an affordable place to live for all. Finally, we need to ensure our County Government is prepared for when something like this happens again. We should have processes and procedures in place that allow us to adapt quickly to meet the needs of our residents.

The most surprising thing to me was how quickly our community adapted to a new way of life, new ways of doing things, and how many came to aid and care for their neighbors in need. I’ve always believed in the saying necessity was the mother of invention, and this pandemic only highlighted how true that saying is. The innovation and adaptability required for some people, businesses, charitable organizations, and the arts community to survive was remarkable. Many have adapted to new ways of doing things that ensure their success now and in the future.

Unfortunately, the work is still not done, and it’s the Legislature’s role to perform those functions not provided as well by individuals, the private sector, other levels of government, or the not-for-profit sector. I’m ready to get to work to ensure we utilize the learnings from the past 15 months to better the lives of all in Tompkins County.

IV: Transportation is constantly mentioned as a central issue in Tompkins County, particularly in the more rural reaches. Do you think improving transportation here lies in simply more funding for TCAT or is there another strategy you’d prefer and have considered? What form would that strategy take?

GM: More funding will not simply solve the transportation issue; it will help significantly, but it will require a more comprehensive approach. Our rural communities need greater access to areas of our community where there are good-paying jobs, healthcare facilities, and other essential services. There is a need for better-timed routes that allow more early and late shift works the opportunity to ride TCAT. With ridership down and the uncertainty around transit funding, we must invest in this area and develop a well-thought-out plan to increase ridership and make TCAT more accessible. This issue is not just about transportation but also about reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and taking more cars off the road. We must continue to strive to have a transportation system that meets the needs of our community while furthering our efforts for a more sustainable Tompkins County.

IV: If it’s not mentioned above, what would be your top priority in a new term? 

GM: Post Pandemic Recovery—This is a multifaceted issue that spans many areas within our county government. As a county, we need to develop bold strategies to rebuild our local economy post-pandemic. By making investments in the development of our workforce and small businesses, creating opportunities to attract and retain new businesses and industries, we can get people back to work and in better-paying jobs. To do this, we need to improve access to health and mental health services, create more affordable childcare options, and ensure that low-income families have greater access to nutritious food. Finally, to continue the work to rebuild our county government stronger and more efficient.

IV: How would you grade the functionality of the Tompkins County Legislature right now? Do you think the body is effectively able to discuss, generate and pass legislation in a prompt manner that helps community members?

GM: I have the utmost respect for all the current members of the Legislature. I think they serve their constituents well, and I look forward to working with all of them if elected. Our current Legislators have done an excellent job facilitating essential community conversations and generating legislation that has benefited the community. However, we are entering a new time in the Legislature with some long-serving Legislators not seeking reelection, a change in several key county administration leadership positions, and the critical juncture we are at with so many vital issues. Now is the time to work to rebuild our county stronger and more effective. Thus, ensuring we have efficient government operations and programs that deliver fiscally responsible, best in class services to all. My experience leading complex teams and substantial organizational change is needed on the Legislature.

IV: If elected, what do you expect to be the most significant issue for your constituents, specifically over the next few years? (if not answered above)

GM: In addition to all the issues previously noted. The other significant issue facing the Legislature is how to spend the American Rescue Plan Act (ARP) funds that the county received. The one-time funding of 19.8 million dollars is an incredible opportunity for the county to invest in critical areas of our community. If allocated effectively, this funding has the potential to better the lives of many in Tompkins County. Furthermore, by investing in sectors hardest hit by the pandemic, we can jump-start those sectors and generate new tax revenue that can then be reinvested back into our community. The ARP funding is an incredibly important topic, and I would encourage everyone to share their thoughts and ideas with the current Legislature. The Legislature is currently welcoming input through an online survey that can be found at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/TompkinsARP. Please use this opportunity to help shape our economic recovery and ensure your voice is heard.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com