TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—The Tompkins County Legislature has approved a raise for Sheriff Derek Osborne, shortly after he announced his intention to seek a second term in office.

The salary for the Tompkins County Sheriff position will now be $132,118.20 per year, a significant increase from the job’s previous compensation of $101,294 and at the level of a County job grade 91, which is an HR designation. That’s about a 30 percent raise for Osborne, who has been in office since 2018.

It passed by a close vote of 8-6. The raise goes into effect on March 1, 2022, but is subject to a referendum if a petition is filed with the legislature clerk before then. Watch the debate, which is held here.

Legislator Deborah Dawson laid out the path to the vote, which has been contentious at times over the last few county meetings. Due to changes in pay structure within the sheriff’s office, Undersheriff Jennifer Olin and the office’s lieutenants were actually earning a higher salary than Osborne, which motivated the salary discussions at the county legislature level. The lieutenant salary was bumped to slightly higher than the sheriff’s salary as of Jan. 1, 2022, according to the last collective bargaining agreement.

“Some of us felt that that was not a tenable set of circumstances for a law enforcement agency to operate under,” Dawson said, acknowledging one of the primary points of disagreement, which is whether the new salary should kick in immediately or it should be effective when the new sheriff term begins after the 2022 election. “I separated the issue of raising the sheriff’s salary immediately from the issue of setting his salary for the next term because of those disagreements.”

Dawson’s resolution implemented the salary after a 45 day waiting period, and looks to place the sheriff’s salary into an official compensation slot that it would hold permanently—which would make it always higher than the undersheriff and avoid future legislatures from having to grapple with a similar issue again.

Debate was lengthy. Legislator Mike Lane, as he has in previous meetings, pushed back against the notion of raising a salary mid-term.

“We have never changed an elected official’s salary from what it was set prior to the election,” Lane said. “It’s a terrible precedent that’s being requested here […] I have no problem at all with the change in the salary structure for next year, that’s fine. I do have a problem with changing it for this year.”

Lane held strong throughout his comments, but Legislator Mike Sigler followed him with some disagreement.

Sigler’s primary concern was the distance between Olin’s and Osborne’s salaries, while also arguing that the only way the legislature can really show influence on the sheriff’s office, since that position is elected by voters, is through its budget.

“I don’t need a study on this issue, I see it,” Sigler said, referring to a coming compensation study. “I’ve got the numbers. I don’t know what a study is going to tell me. A $10,000 swing between those two positions is quite a bit. […] If none of those salaries had gone up in the sheriff’s department, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. But they did go up.”

The discussion seemed to center on whether or not the salary differences undermine Osborne’s position of authority in the sheriff’s office, balanced against the precedent of raising a salary mid-term. Legislator Rich John was more concerned with the latter, though he had previously supported raising the salary in the new term, starting in 2023.

Newcomer legislators Lee Shurtleff and Randy Brown, both new Republicans on the legislature, also came down on different sides of the matter. Brown agreed with Lane, that the precedent was too risky to set and that they should wait until the findings of the compensation study to, in a manner of speaking, ensure that they were giving the raise in the context of the study’s results. But Shurtleff spoke in favor of the raise in the interest of fixing something promptly that the legislature thinks is wrong.

“If we’re heading down the road of doing a compensation study, then there’s some recognition that there are salaries in various positions that are not where they should be,” Shurtleff said. “I don’t think it’s right, I don’t think it’s equitable to not make an adjustment when we know that it’s seriously out of whack from where it should be.”

In the middle of the debate, the discussion was derailed by problems in the YouTube chat, where Legislature Chair Shawna Black and Dawson said insults were being directed at non-elected officials in the county. The chat was disabled after that.

Some of the latter portions of the debate became a more philosophical examination of the structure of the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office, which had drawn comparisons to the military before that (in structure, not necessarily culture). That portion of the discussion was spurred by legislator Veronica Pillar.

COVID-19 Update

Public Health Director Frank Kruppa delivered his regularly scheduled COVID-19 update on Tuesday, explaining some of the rapidly changing response techniques that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and, subsequently, the Tompkins County Health Department has adopted—such as, rather controversially, ending contact tracing.

“Contact tracing is effective in many instances, and it’s been effective during this pandemic,” Kruppa said. “But with the severity of illness what it is, the infectious nature and period of the Omicron variant, and the reduction of isolation and quarantine times, [contact tracing’s] effectiveness has been lowered as a tool.”

Kruppa said the health department is currently working with some small groups around the community who may still require contact tracing, which would be provided by TCHD. He also acknowledged an announcement from the Ithaca City School District Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown that the school district would follow suit with the health department and stop its district-wide contact tracing processes. Brown further detailed the plan in a letter to the community on Jan. 14. That letter included a note that the district has ordered a variety of masks (N-95s, KN-95s and KF-94s) to distribute which will be arriving in the near future.

Additionally, Kruppa sounded hopeful that there will be more booster availability in the coming weeks, sensing that demand will wane as more people receive the shot but supply will stay steady.

In response to a question from Legislator Henry Granison, Kruppa acknowledged that some counties have changed their daily reporting for COVID-19 figures. He said that the Tompkins County Health Department may consider changing in the future, as the focus of the pandemic response changes from number of cases to severity of cases, but that they still want the information they provide to be accurate and useful.

“We’re talking about what makes sense, some of the stuff that we’ve been reporting, such as active case counts, is going to become less useful because we’re not going to have the information on every positive case as we have previously,” Kruppa said, referring to the proliferation of guidance directing people to utilize home tests. “We’ve been saying for quite some time that case counts really aren’t the measure anymore. Severity of illness, hospitalizations and deaths is really what we’re paying attention to.”

Other news and notes:

  • “Local government feels closer to people’s lives than ever before,” said Shawna Black during her State of the County address, her first since being selected as the Chair of the Tompkins County Legislature earlier in January. “The successes and challenges I noted in this address have deep and lasting impacts on the lives of our constituents and neighbors. It is my sincere hope that we as a legislature continue to make the investments to reflect our role in people’s lives, and take the responsibility seriously.”

Matt Butler

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