TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—In the midst of budget season, the Tompkins County Legislature convened for its regular Tuesday night meeting on Oct. 5, addressing a wide swath of topics. Most of them are covered below, with a separate story here for the COVID-19 update.

You can watch the meeting in its entirety here, and follow along on the agenda if you like at this link.

Broadband Access Effort

The largest decision made on Tuesday was the county’s pivot in its efforts to expand broadband internet to the rural reaches of the county, where some residents still have to leave their house to find internet access at nearby restaurants or businesses—a glaring inequity that was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last year, the county commissioned a study by Southern Tier Network and Fujitsu IT Services to determine the true number of households without broadband service in the county. However, once the market analysis of the area was delivered in June, Tompkins County officials took a pause; the numbers were far lower than they thought and the subsequent price to remedy the problem was significantly higher than previous ballpark estimates. 

The study was paused in June as the county assessed its options. The Legislature made the decision on Tuesday to go in a different direction.

There will now be a “driving” survey to determine internet need, going street-by-street where broadband end-points are known, which will be more detailed than the Fujitsu survey, which was using a Census bloc-based method favored by the FCC. 

Nick Helmholdt, the county’s principal planner and the tourism program director, has been leading the broadband effort at a county staff level, along with Commissioner of Planning and Sustainability Katie Borgella., the principal planner and the tourism program director.

“One of the big shortcomings of the data that we had from Fujitsu is that it was not granular enough, we didn’t know where all the gaps were in the county,” Helmholdt said. “The 200-400 households [that the Fujitsu/STN study produced] was pretty well known to be an underestimate.”

Helmholdt said there’s the possibility that the county could handle the broadband issue as an entire entity, akin to the municipal broadband plan that has been advancing in the Town of Dryden. Helmholdt, though, downplayed the feasibility of that approach as a whole county.

“Finishing the Fujitsu study will take away time, attention and money from doing the physical survey. It’s the fastest way to actually connect people to broadband,” said legislator Martha Robertson. She also noted that the Fujitsu would open the door only to building the “middle mile” of broadband connection in rural Tompkins County for $15 million, which wouldn’t actually connect people to the internet—in essence, it would just cheapen the opportunity, hopefully incentivizing internet service providers to build out in those areas.

Legislator Dan Klein then pointed out that a significant contingent of the Town of Caroline’s leadership (and residents without internet) had reached out in favor of finishing the Fujitsu study. Caroline officials have been vocal about their concerns that their constituents still do not have reliable broadband internet and their desire to rectify that. Caroline residents argued that the plan is not advancing fast enough and that the move seemed like a step backward. Caroline Town Supervisor Mark Witmer made it clear that he would like to see the Fujitsu study continue during his public comments.

“I don’t think there’s a compelling reason to cancel the Fujitsu study, which was already budgeted for a year ago and passed by the legislature unanimously,” Klein said. “Instead of canceling it, let’s add to it and do the physical survey. Doing both is better.”

Klein then tried to add an amendment to the resolution that would have forwarded both the Fujitsu study and the driving survey, which he argued is a full-court approach to understanding the county’s broadband needs. Klein also noted that last month’s expansion of broadband in Newfield, which was accomplished in part by a driving, physical survey, only covered 180 of the homes that don’t have internet in Newfield, leaving the others who need broadband in Newfield in a state of limbo.

Helmholdt said that utilizing both approaches would need to be done sequentially, instead of simultaneously, and would bump the process back 9-12 months, according to his estimation, though Klein sharply pushed back on this assessment. 

Klein’s amendment was defeated, with opponents saying that the current Fujitsu study is proving to be insufficient and will provide inaccurate statistics, so it is best to pivot and repurpose the remaining allocated money to the driving survey.

After some debate, the legislature decided to move forward with a resolution that called for the county to engage with local internet service providers about their willingness to expand into parts of the county where need is identified; that need will be determined by a more “granular,” driving, physical survey.

The resolution was eventually approved, 11-3.

Reimagining Public Safety Update

The Reimagining Public Safety Committee gave its monthly update, led by Tompkins County Chief Equity and Diversity Officer Deanna Carrithers. Carrithers’ presentation was brief, though it sounds like more substantive updates could be coming next month.

The application period for the Community Justice Center director and data analyst has closed and now the interview and screening process is moving forward, with candidates answering questions from a range of city and county elected officials, staff members and community figures.

Carrithers encouraged people to use the newly established website for feedback and engagement, saying that 20 ideas have been submitted so far and 120 users signed up. Further, Carrithers noted the joint project’s respective budget implications: for the City of Ithaca this year, it will be about $366,600 (though that’s without a tally for the new Public Safety Department), and $605,600 for Tompkins County in 2022. Carrithers said the county’s budget is higher this year because of a pilot program for non-emergency calls in the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office.

There is also a City Forum being held on the Reimagining process on Oct. 7 at 6 p.m.

Other News and Notes

  • A moment of silence was held for Pat Pryor, a former Tompkins County Legislator who passed away on Sunday, Oct. 3. Additionally, during the legislature’s comment period, many legislators paid tribute to Pryor for her fierce spirit and fortitude during her time on various government bodies.
  • There was a COVID-19 update given by Tompkins County Public Health Director Frank Kruppa and Deputy County Administrator Amie Hendrix, which can be read in full here. Kruppa made sure to thank staff members from the health department and the pandemic response team, who are still working seven days a week on COVID-19 strategy and tracing.

Matt Butler

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