TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—The Tompkins County Legislature held its regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday night, featuring a lengthy discussion on downtown Ithaca crime, further discussion on the local Starbucks issues and the presentation of the Tompkins County Recovery and Resilience Plan. 

There will be further coverage of the county’s Starbucks decision in the Voice this week, but the short version is that the legislature approved a letter to the National Labor Relations Board requesting that it investigate the company for alleged union-busting tactics.

You can follow along with the agenda here or watch the full meeting here. The North Tioga Street properties were covered last in Tuesday’s meeting, so you can find the section on that discussion further below in the article.

Local Crime

In earnest, the meeting began with a discussion of West State Street, where crime has again become a frequent topic, most vividly due to the shooting and (misguided) stand-off around the 300 block of West State Street and West Seneca Street. 

The county has taken some steps on its own, including implementing increased security measures at the entrance of the Human Services Building. That protects its employees and those inside the Human Services Building, but Tompkins County Legislature Chair Shawna Black noted that she has still heard from some people from outside Ithaca who are tentative to come to that area of West State Street. 

The legislature invited Acting Ithaca Mayor Laura Lewis and Acting Chief of Police John Joly to the meeting to talk about the situation, since the area in question is in the heart of the city. Lewis was noncommittal on most points, saying that it’s important to consider a variety of solutions because there’s a variety of sources of the crime issues. She emphasized the ongoing efforts the city has undertaken to increase police recruiting, theorizing (like Joly) that more staffing would allow the police to more frequently patrol the area. 

Legislator Mike Sigler asked how many active police officers are in the department currently, noting the oft-cited staffing shortages faced by both IPD and the Tompkins County Sheriffs Office. Joly said that there are 65 total positions allowed on IPD’s roster, but there are 12 actual vacancies (10 currently, with two retirements coming in the next month). There is one officer in the academy, but additional officers out on leave (Joly did not specify how many officers are on leave). 

Joly said there are normally 4-5 officers per shift, but their preferred minimum is six on duty at one time — though that’s often unreached. As for short-term solutions, Joly said the department is working on compiling a network of people who are willing to allow police to use footage or images from their home surveillance cameras in the investigation of crimes committed near them. The majority of calls, he said, stem from increased pedestrian presence in the area which “leads to certain things,” though there are other calls that come after the fact in which Joly said passers-by felt unsafe but perhaps didn’t experience a direct problem there.  

“I don’t know how much of this problem is due to difficulties with recruitment and how much is due to the county legislature and Common Council not allocating sufficient resources to our law enforcement agencies to staff up to where they need to be,” said Tompkins County Legislator Deborah Dawson. “But this strikes me as a real crisis.”

Legislator Henry Granison asked why the working group dedicated to some of the State Street issues had stopped meeting. Lewis answered that the working group is in the process of submitting a report with a funding request. It’s unclear what the group’s conclusions were — it appears the work force met four times in late 2021 but has not met since, at least not any meetings that were posted publicly under its name: the Uses & Spaces 24/7 Task Force.

Predictably, there was some talk about the Southern Tier AIDS Program building next to the Human Services building in the 300 block of West State Street. The front stoop of the building has become a frequent topic of conversation, as there are often people hanging out there throughout the day and into the night, and there have been some problems reported with fights or people feeling in danger in the area, contributing to the issues that the 300 block faces. 

Lewis said that the city has been in contact with the Southern Tier AIDS Program parent offices in Binghamton, but that she needs to do a better job communicating the issues at the building on an ongoing basis. 

There was also some relitigation of the Reimagining Public Safety process: Sigler said he felt that the process, and the attitude towards police shown by some politicians in Tompkins County and Ithaca, had contributed to local police’s recruitment and retention problems and that the “elephant in the room” is that police officers may be less likely to work here because of perceived public or political antagonism towards them. 

“I can’t imagine someone wanting to work for us, because they didn’t see that support over those few years,” Sigler said. 

Legislators Travis Brooks and Veronica Pillar both pushed back on that assessment, but Black soon steered the legislature away from further debate. Brooks agreed that the specific area is a problem, but that the issues shouldn’t necessarily be automatically tied to the police reform taking place locally, which, he said, has substantial support among the communities that he has talked to, especially those of color. 

Recovery and Resilience plan

Katie Borgella and Cynthia Addonizio-Bianco of TetraTech came forward to officially present the county’s Recovery and Resilience Plan. The wording could make this seem like a COVID-19 reaction, but the actual purpose is to create a better support system from businesses and residents if a natural disaster occurs. The presentation can be viewed here in full, but much of it was a walkthrough of the Resiliency and Recovery Plan webpage that provides a plan-by-plan explanation of the plan. 

“Planning now to accelerate recovery in the future” is the tagline, Borgella said, and the general point is to make sure the county is prepared in the case of a truly disruptive event — Borgella specifically mentioned disasters that the area could be vulnerable to, such as flash flooding. 

Addonizio-Bianco spoke to some rather surprising stats about the immediate and long-lasting impacts that a natural disaster can have on small businesses, something Ithaca and Tompkins County heavily tout themselves as supporting. 

The plan is, in essence, an amalgamation of other plans and strategies that could be employed depending on the nature of the situation: there are plans for droughts, volatile temperatures, flooding, severe storms, winter storms, harmful algal blooms, infestiations and disease spreading. 

Addonizio-Bianco said that the primary way that local governments can prepare for the worst is by planning ahead. Specifically, that means establishing an economic recovery plan framework (which would provide guidance when an actual plan is necessary), a continuity of operations plan (to define essential functions that must be sustained immediately after a disaster), and a Community Pre-Disaster Recovery Ordinanace (which would assign powers and responsibilities ahead of time to the departments and agencies that must carry out the recovery process). 

Pillar and Sigler both asked about the flood-plane management aspect, which seems easily the most prominent natural disaster that could impact the area to a devastating degree. With help from the Town of Lansing, Addonizio-Bianco said that they had formulated a potential way for home and property owners to receive some discounts on flood insurance (a big fear locally) if their municipality participates in a Communtiy Rating System of flood risk and management, though that would require a staff member dedicated to it. Addonizio-Bianco acknowledged that may make it tough for all municipalities to participate. 

The legislature voted unanimously to accept the plan. 

Deconstruction of the Baker Dental building on North Tioga Street

The county decided to kick the can down the road a bit, postponing debate and a decision on the topic until the Oct. 6, 2022 meeting after initially looking like it was poised to tear down the building there, which is in fairly bad shape currently. 

The county has had its eye on the North Tioga Street property for a while, with a sense that the property should be redeveloped. But Legislator Dan Klein intercepted a resolution that would have allocated money for the deconstruction of the building on the property, located at 412-414 North Tioga Street in Ithaca. 

Klein said that he’s been thinking about the Old Library project, in that he knows some legislators who regretted voting in favor of selling the land. He didn’t want to make a similar move without thoroughly vetting other ideas or more creative possibilities. 

“I don’t think many in the public know that we are on the verge of tearing that building down,” Klein said. He floated the idea of using the next two months to solicit opinions from the public on the short-term future of the building, pointing to its use during the pandemic as a sorely needed walk-up COVID-19 testing center. 

Koreman posited her opinion that the roof is in bad enough shape that it wouldn’t survive the winter, and only hundreds of thousands of dollars would be enough to repair it. She said it would be too arduous to postpone the decision; similarly, Legislator Amanda Champion said she feared postponement would grind the momentum on the property to a halt. 

In a callback to one of Klein’s original points, Legislator Mike Lane called the county’s decision to sell the Old Library property when it did as “one of the biggest mistakes this legislature has made, in my view.”

“I fear that if we deconstruct it, in any event, waiting for two months means we might not be able to deconstruct until next spring,” Legislator Deborah Dawson said, presumably referring to the cold weather interference. “Let’s get this sucker torn down.”

Brown followed, pointing out that the building is a liability risk and poses a health risk if someone happens to be squatting on the property and, in a worst case scenario, more structural deterioration takes place. Black echoed those comments. 

Pillar, along with John, said that she supported a chance for more robust public feedback, acknowledging that participation in that type of public hearing is often fairly light. 

County Legislature Expansion

It appears that legislators aren’t quite friendly to the thought of expanding the governing body, as had been recommended by the Redistricting Committee. It chose to send the recommendations back to the Redistricting Committee and hold a public hearing on the plan next legislature meeting, on Aug. 16.

The plan, as recommended, was to expand the legislature by two members, bringing it to 16. Some members thought that would be too large, others preferred a numbers change that would bring the legislature to an odd number (theoretically making votes simpler instead of incurring ties). 

Legislator Randy Brown objected due to the former reason, and asked if there were any people not being represented in the county, because he felt there was adequate representation and that adding more representatives in the legislature seemed silly. Legislator Mike Lane had introduced a resolution previously that endorsed sending the recommended districts back to the committee with concerns and a request to address the legislature’s issues with the recommendations.

“This is to ask them to look at the issue of an odd number of legislators and also whether we could have fewer rather than more legislators,” Lane said.

Meanwhile, Legislator Travis Brooks said that he was uncomfortable with how the Northside neighborhoods were divided, with some being included with Southside and others included in Fall Creek. Brooks said he felt that the low-income housing population, a significant portion of which lives in Northside, was being drowned out as a result of the map, and asked that a portion of the recommendations be dedicated to reexamining that division in the district. 

Legislator Greg Mezey, sounding a bit exasperated, said the train has left and these should be set in stone, with respect to the months of work put in by the Redistricting Committee. 

Chair Black agreed that, ideally, she doesn’t like the idea of 16 legislators, but wasn’t willing to send the maps back because of those reasons. She did, though, support offering a form of Brooks’ suggestion to the redistricters. 

Eventually, the bill passed by a 8-6 vote.  

Other News and Notes:

  • Dan Klein announced that TCAT will be undertaking a study to determine the feasibility of running the buses in Tompkins County without fares, a sentiment that has gained steam recently in the interest of expanding access to public transportation. 
  • Greg Mezey read a proclamation celebrating the accomplishments of Cornell’s Chief Human Resources Officer and VP Mary Opperman after she announced she’d be leaving her post this summer. 
  • Mike Sigler announced that his wife is pregnant, due in January. 
  • A resolution supporting “state and local initiatives to protect and preserve women’s rights to reproductive health and bodily autonomy” was passed after some debate. Legislator Randy Brown asked if the overturning of Roe v. Wade had any direct impact on New York State currently. Deborah Dawson clarified that it does not, but warned that the outcome of the case erased substantial federal protections surrounding women’s reproductive rights, and said that she wanted to insulate the county from any future change in statewide political power. 
  • In what sounded like a bit of a threat, Legislature Chair Shawna Black announced that she would like Tompkins County to have its own TikTok channel.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Managing Editor at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com