TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — There were two leading agenda items at Tuesday’s meeting of the Tompkins County Legislature, a marathon session that lasted nearly four hours. 

The first was a presentation from the county’s Director of Assessment Jay Franklin who, along with legislators, has been hearing out a slew of complaints and concerns about the impact Tompkins County’s increased property values will have on taxpayers. 

The presentation largely aimed to educate legislators and the public on the county’s department of assessment, contextualize the nearly 16% jump in value for average property sales Tompkins County saw in 2021, and attempt to put to rest the notion that the county’s assessments are increasing what property owners are paying in taxes.

The second agenda item that ruled the day was a resolution to reaffirm support for a single-payer approach to health-care costs and urge New York State to enact the New York Health act, which passed in a 10 to 3 vote. Legislator Amanda Champion (D-District 12) was away for this meeting.

See the recap below, or watch the full meeting here

New York Health Act

The resolution in support of the NYHA, which would implement a single-payer healthcare system in New York, was brought forward by Legislator Veronica Pillar (D-District 2) who stated that she wrote it in collaboration with county residents Susan Beckley, Judy Jones and Ruth Yarrow.

The bill urging for the act’s passage reinvigorated a heated debate that has echoed in the halls of the county legislature building before, this time between Legislators Deborah Dawson (D-District 10) and Mike Sigler (R-District 6), who at one point promoted an apple from snack to prop, adding some theatrical effect to his argument for a competing resolution to Pillar’s, which would have more vaguely advocated for a new approach to healthcare in New York.

But, perhaps most interestingly, the debate revealed a new sentiment among the county’s elected officials: freshman legislators Lee Shurtleff (R-District 9) and Randy Brown (R-District 8) voted against the resolution urging the state to adopt the New York Health Act on the basis that it was not focused on legislation achievable within the powers of the county legislature.

“I view these resolutions and these amendments as a little bit out of my wheelhouse as a county legislator. [That’s] my personal view, and I’ll be voting against every one of them for the sake of consistency,” said Shurtleff.

Brown said “I think that this county is unique and is special, and is creative. I’d much rather see us focus on things we could do here in the county — free clinics to start with, or something that we could fund in some way.” Brown later added that he didn’t “trust the state whatsoever” to implement and manage a single-payer healthcare system.

The New York Health act was originally introduced to the state legislature in 1991 by Assembly Member Richard Gottfried (D-75), and for the last 30 years has seen tweaks, touches, and adjustments, but in its current form would end private insurance for most cases in New York, and introduce universal state insurance. Gottfried, now the longest serving lawmaker in state history, is set to retire at the end of 2022.

Countering Pillar’s resolution, Sigler introduced an amendment that would serve as a replacement resolution titled, “Resolution in Support for New Approach to Healthcare Coverage,” and informally referred to as “The Cancer Resolution.”

The concept of the resolution is for the state to cover the treatment of cancer, which Sigler said made more sense in terms of trying “something different” health-care wise, and give the state government a budgetable cost of $11B — a figure which Sigler calculated based on the average cost of treatment for cancer and the annual diagnoses of cancer New York State. 

Sigler presented the amendment as more practical first step than plunging into universal coverage, and cited the lack of progress that the New York Health Act has made in the last 30 years.

“Democrats are in full control of the [state] legislature. They’re in full control of the state. If they thought that this was something that they could do, fiscally, they’ve had years now to do this,” said Sigler. 

Sigler added that this targeted coverage would give the state a “negotiating tool” with insurance companies to lower premiums. Legislators, such as Mike Lane (D-District 14), seemed surprised by the amendment, and felt it would be better for Sigler’s resolution to go through committee in order to be more thoroughly discussed, 

“I don’t know anything about this cancer resolution that Mike [Sigler] is bringing forth. I really think it ought to be discussed in a committee,” said Lane, then raising the myriad diseases that threaten people’s lives, such as heart disease.

Dawson, at the start of her comments on Sigler’s proposed amendment, said, “I am trying to not be triggered, because I know I can be really unpleasant when I’m triggered. But I want to congratulate you Mike [Sigler], you triggered me.”

Dawson continued saying, “This notion that we should pay for cancer as an alternative to universal coverage is a strategy that opponents of universal health care have traditionally offered. ‘We know you’re hungry, we know you need a meal, have an appetizer and go away.’”

Dawson criticized Sigler’s proposal for not having a clear strategy or mechanism for paying the cost of insurance, which the New York Health Act does have in the form of a formula. Dawson also said that she believes the bill has stalled due to corporate lobbying, not because New York State can fiscally handle the dilemma.

“I know the Democrats control both houses of the state legislature, but they’re as greedy as the next guy. And they love the money they get from health insurance companies. That’s why this hasn’t passed,” said Dawson.

She cited administrative savings that could result from a state-wide insurance program that could appear in premiums, and called the idea that New York state could negotiate profit-motivated insurance companies to lower their premiums after taking on the cost of cancer treatment a “folly.”

Naturally, Sigler pushed back on these sentiments, which is when he brandished the apple.

“Here’s what I’m saying. ‘It’s a big apple.’ You can’t eat the whole apple,” said Sigler. “Clearly, legislators have been looking at this for 30 years and they’re going, ‘It’s a big apple.’ You’re not going to be able to eat the whole thing. So my suggestion to you would be to take a bite of the apple.”

“The Cancer Resolution” amendment failed 12 to 1, with only Sigler voting in favor of it.

The resolution urging the state to pass the New York Health act passed 10 to 3.

2022 Property Assessment Presentation

Housing prices have been steadily rising in Tompkins County since the late 90s, and the jump in value from 2020 to 2021 marks a significant year in this trend, where the average sale property leaped up nearly 16% in value in Tompkins County in 2020 to 2021, from $284,590 to $329,468.

The rise in prices has produced a concern among a wide range of homeowners in the county that expect their tax bills will be rising alongside their homes value, possibly past what they can afford. The Department of Assessment and county legislators have been fielding these fears, but Franklin sought to show that they’re misplaced throughout his presentation. 

“What we’re trying to do is just what is the most probable sale price of that piece of property? If you were to list it with a willing seller, a willing buyer in the property sold in dollars? We’re not trying to find the highest most likely price, just that most probable price,” said Franklin.

Jay Franklin’s presentation and the following Q&A runs from about 1:12:00 to 2:08:00

The amount property owners pay in taxes is determined by a few factors. Entities which can collect taxes — such as school districts, state governments, and municipalities — set a tax levy, or the total amount of real property taxes that will make up some part of their budget. This total amount is then raised from the total taxable property, or tax base. Property owners pay a percentage, or tax rate, on the value of their property.

Ultimately, the amount that people pay in taxes is determined by the entities that have control over setting a tax levy. 

“The big problem is when somebody comes into our office and says, ‘My taxes are too high,’” said Franklin in an interview with The Ithaca Voice. “You can’t complain to the clerk at Target and say, ‘My sales taxes are too high.’ […] We’re not the ones to complain to if you feel your property taxes are too high.”

Franklin shared that home sale prices are up nationwide. Fortune reported that U.S. home prices have increased by 18.8% over the past 12 months. Franklin cited similar statistics from CNN Business, which put that number at 16.9%, USNews which reported 18.8%, and Realtor which reported a 12% increase.

Franklin said that his department typically sees around 11% of their assessments challenged, though so far only about 4.5% of 2021’s assessments have seen challenges.

“I think people really understand that the market is still increasing today,” said Franklin

Other pressures include the preference for more spacious, rural residencies that the COVID-19 pandemic spurred, driving people into Tompkins County from more dense urban areas. Franklin also cited the low interest rates available on mortgages as an important factor to consider in what buyers were willing to pay for homes. 

Franklin said, “When someone goes to buy a house, you’re looking strictly at what you can afford on a monthly basis. Not really, ‘Is those bricks and mortar really worth that?’”

According to statistics generated by the Ithaca Board of Realtors, the average selling price to list price for a home rose above 100% in 2021 to 101.55%, meaning a house’s price could rise just from the number of buyers competing for it.

“So what that means is simply for what the property is going to list for, there’s probably going to be a bidding war that’s going to drive the price above that list price,” said Franklin.

But one of the elephants in the room, and what would be the focus of the Q&A session after the presentation, is how a slow down in the development of single family homes has contributed to the increase in prices. In the last 80 years, the average number of new houses built per decade in Tompkins County was only lower in the 1940s, during World War II. 

“It’s a basic economic law of supply and demand. With high demand and low supply, that’s just gonna drive up prices,” said Franklin.

Legislator Lane cited high standards for building across Tompkins County as one reason that has contributed to the slow down in building.

“We know people are crying for single family houses. We’ve got to take a look at our comprehensive plans in the way we are doing things here,” said Lane. “Because builders are gun shy of Tompkins County, because we want the Cadillac of development.”

This is a matter determined through each municipality’s zoning, or lack of zoning, such as in the Town of Caroline—which is going through the process of determining whether it wants to adopt zoning or not . There is currently a moratorium in the town. Legislator Dawson presented this example to broaden the the factors that may be contributing to the 

Dawson said that if zoning were the only issue, “we’d be seeing massive increases in the number of single family homes that were being built [in Caroline].”

Dawson highlighted the centrally isolated location of Tompkins County as a challenge for contractors to move equipment, materials, and labor into the area. She also emphasized a dearth of local construction companies as one reason building is challenging in the area, not to mention the soaring prices to build seen throughout the pandemic.

In July, the Department will be comparing the sales price of properties for 2021 against their assessed values, in order to see if the assessed values need to be adjusted.

The presentation delivered is intended to be a public record of how the county’s Department of Assessment, what it does, how it arrives at its property value assessments, but also why it’s important: Franklin made the point that consistent authority assessing home and property value in the county along a standard methodology is a matter of equity.

For property owners that have a grievance with their property assessment, the deadline to file is May 25. For property owners who want their assessment reviewed, the deadline to file is April 15.

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn