TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—
Lisa Holmes has served as interim County Administrator for Tompkins County ever since May 2021, guiding the county through the second year of its COVID-19 response, among other prominent issues.
Holmes had the interim tag removed last month after an extended search process that had first targeted her, then pivoted away when she said she wasn’t interested. When the first round of applications didn’t yield any adequate results, Holmes decided she had become comfortable enough in the role to step up permanently, after years spent in county government—far more than she ever expected.
Ithaca Voice: In your introductory meeting after being named, [Tompkins County Legislator] Deborah Dawson mentioned that, essentially, you hadn’t initially wanted the permanent County Administrator role but had a change of heart. So take me through what the search process was like, which ended with you deciding you would take the job?
Lisa Holmes: I can speak to my experience in the search process. There was a wider process previously that I wasn’t involved in. So last year, during the transition, I was approached about my willingness to come on in an interim fashion. And I agreed to do that without really seeing myself in this role long-term. And I think a lot of that was just personal in nature. It was exhaustion of coming out of the pandemic and a couple of years of a lot of work and not a lot of free time.
So I saw myself as wanting to pitch in and help the county through a transitional period, and having done that [as interim] and being able to be in the role for a longer period of time and put some staffing into place in some key areas and trying to reorganize a bit to better manage the workload, I saw it as a more doable role. Those were the factors that played a part for me, and also the fact that I felt that I could make a contribution. I’ve worked for the county for a long time and, like I said, am involved midstream in a number of priority projects that are important for the county moving forward. So I felt like I could offer something.
IV: You were leading the Office of the Aging before heading into an administrative role as Deputy Admin. How did you climb up the ranks there, or did you were you involved in the county in a different way before that?
LH: Yeah. Again, never really thought that I would have a longterm career in county government, and it then sold it that way. I started as the planner at the Office for the Aging, so I was a staff member there, part of the white-collar union, and then I became the director after the former director [Irene Stein] retired.
So I was director there for 12 years, and then there was the opening as deputy in county administration, and I felt like it was time in my career for a change and again felt like I could offer something to that role. So I ascended to that title when Jason [Molino] was the county administrator. Shortly after being in that role, I filled in as the interim human resources Commissioner. The person in that role left.
So I was doing human resources for the county during COVID for about a year and a half and then back up to administration and then in the interim role. So all of those experiences and different perspectives and different facets of the organization have been really part and parcel of informing me about the county and various needs and perspectives and so forth. It’s been invaluable to me.
IV: So that would mean you were deputy county administrator by the time COVID started?
LH: Well, yes, I was deputy county administrator, but I was at that point kind of temporarily reassigned as the head of human resources for about a year and a half. So during COVID, there were a lot of changes that occurred that every week we were doing furloughs. We offered a retirement incentive. We were sending people home for telework. We were adopting telework policies overnight. We were putting coded pay in play. We were calling people back, etc. So it was a lot of work and change management and working with employees and Department heads.
IV: To move on to your current priorities, there’s some stuff that it doesn’t matter if you want to make it a priority or not, It’s going to be, which I would name as COVID and the law enforcement reform situation in Tompkins County. What else do you think of as the main priorities if those two are the givens?
LH: Yeah, those are given. COVID’s continued response and monitoring, and I had hoped shifting to more of recovery as opposed to response, but I think at this point there’s always going to be a level of monitoring and response there. The county’s portions of the Reimagining public safety, as you mentioned, are certainly priorities for this county.
We have some major capital projects that are either currently underway or our plan for the future. So, for instance, the legislature is going to be determining steps toward a center of government, starting with a space study, trying to get several of our departments out of lease space to create greater efficiencies and hopefully save money in the long term there. But there are several decisions that need to be made leading up to that. We’re currently doing some other work in our public safety building, which are really just maintenance work that’s needed to be done for many years in the jail. So that’s currently underway. We’re partnering with Cornell right now in our Department of Emergency Response on a backup dispatch center. And our green facilities project capital project is also underway this year, as part of the county’s goal to achieve net neutrality.
At this point, it has been projected that we would achieve that by 2027. So those projects are underway. And with the green facilities, our green fleet. So moving towards all of our fleet vehicles being electric, that’s another huge priority area. And then a continuing priority area for us is as an employer being able to offer competitive wages and benefits. We’re in the process of undergoing compensation study and trying to show that we’re competitive among other employers or counties in the work that we do and getting our collective bargaining agreements, all of them settled, and we settled a couple of them at the end of 2021 with road patrol and white collar. And we are looking forward to sitting down at the bargaining table with corrections.
IV: Obviously, county administrator is a different position than what we just had with a Mayor transition in Ithaca. How do you view it? I’m sure there are legislative guidelines, but what do you think the role of the administrator should be and what do you want it to be?
Sure, it’s a key role in county government in terms of executing, providing for the efficient delivery of services as mandated by the county or as determined by the county that are going to be provided. So overseeing the departments that provide those services, but also working closely with the legislature, the legislature has the policymaking body who determines the direction and the policies that the county will be adopting and going forward with interpreting those and executing them. These of the Department heads and the staff. It’s a role that works with the policy-making body as well as with the Department heads and staff who make that happen.
So a key role of the county administrator and the administrative staff is also to assist the legislature in how to make these things happen, providing policy recommendations and interpreting laws, statutes under which we have to operate, and providing them with those recommendations to move the work forward.
IV: Before you were deputy county admin and the other roles that you were taking on with that, you had obviously been on the other side. You were a Department head. Who was, I imagine, making asks of the county administrators. You’ve been there for a year, but what has it been like being on the other side of that table?
LH: Well, I’ve been in this role for a year, but being in administration, I’ve seen it, and I think it helps provide perspective. I have a perspective as to what Department heads need and desire in order to do their jobs effectively. And also I have an understanding, I think, of how departments move ahead in determining their departmental budget. And I didn’t mention that previously, but a major role of the county administrator is to determine and recommend an annual budget, operating and capital budget, to bring forward to the Legislature for further action and approval.
And so that is an area where county administration interfaces with departments in terms of understanding the needs that they have budget-wise to deliver, the programs that they deliver and understand where the pressure lies on departments if they need more money in a given year. I think having had the perspective of a Department head is useful in that process. And likewise, being in administration, you have more of a comprehensive view of the many different departments. There are about 30 departments in the county, all with different mandates and different ways that they go about serving. So it’s important to keep in mind that the way the way one Department is run could be very different than another.
IV: What do you view as the county’s biggest problems? The biggest obstacles that the county faces, say, in the short term, and does the role of county administrator have the mechanism to address those?
LH: I think that county government touches on many different aspects of our community, from human service delivery to public safety to taxes and assessments. So, yeah, I do think that the county government as a whole does touch and impact the community, and it’s very much part of that. So I can speak on a couple of issues that I think are some of the biggest issues impacting our community. One would be the supply of housing and the supply of affordable housing. The other that affects both the county as well as other employers, our workforce issues and needing to find candidates in just about every level of position.
We do have various positions and opportunities open for the county. We’re always looking for great people to come join us, but the same is true for several other employers and many other employers in town. So those are two issues that come to mind immediately and they are intertwined. People coming to Ithaca and Tompkins County to work often have trouble finding affordable housing. And that’s an issue.
IV: Since it’s such a big part of the job, how would you describe your working relationship with the county legislature having been in the administrator position more or less for the last year, has it changed since you first came in a year ago to now?
LH: Oh, sure. Well, there are several different ways of looking at and answering it, but I’ve always sought to foster and have felt that I have a good working relationship and an open working relationship with the legislature. I’m a direct report to the legislature, and my approach has been to communicate openly and transparently with them. And I felt that we’ve had a good working relationship since at the end of the year, there were five legislators who went off and we have five new legislators who come on and they’ve been great to work with and are coming up to speed. And the committee structures have changed, as they always do at the beginning of the year.
So I wouldn’t say that things have changed much since. What I could say is that my approach hasn’t changed the different people in the positions that’s changed. But my approach and working with the legislature is essentially the same.