TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Tuesday’s Tompkins County Legislature meeting saw the annual budget presentation given by Tompkins County Administrator Lisa Holmes, kicking off the most [wonderful] time of the year: budget season.

The season includes a series of meetings, discussions, negotiations and the like which will determine the county’s final 2023 budget allocations. But it will all be based off of Holmes’ proposed $207 million budget, with a 1.46% tax levy increase (more details below) that is under the 1.88% number that had been recommended by the Tompkins County Legislature. The final approved 2022 budget was about $195 million.

To watch the fun, the presentation begins here, and it extends for about 35 minutes with discussion afterwards.

Holmes began with a wealth of information that can serve as indicators about the economy. As of July 2022, Tompkins County has an unemployment rate of 3.2 percent, lower than the Southern Tier region (3.7 percent) and New York State as a whole (4.8 percent). Unemployment was slightly higher locally at the same time in 2021. Inflation came down a bit in July 2022 versus June 2022, but is still very high: 8.5 percent in July after 9.1 percent in June, the latter being a 40-year high.

While Holmes also touched on the national economic status, more focus was given to local matters. Households that use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits is down about 7 percent from June 2012, the earliest date that Holmes provided, though they had jumped 9 percent year-over-year from June 2021-June 2022, likely illustrating the country’s precarious economic position. Fairly similar trends were shown for those using Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which has dropped 48 percent in the county since 2012 but has ticked up 2.9 percent in the last year (though the five-year limit on TANF benefits may be at play in the overall drop).

Sales tax has been fairly positive this year, showing a relatively healthy recovery continuing from the COVID-19 pandemic, to the tune of about $40.58 million. That, plus $2.3 projected million from casino revenue in 2022, made up two of the largest 2023 budget drivers, Holmes said.

Now, the expenditures. As always, salaries are one of the largest allocations, with contracts already in place for 2023 with white- and blue-collar workers for the county through unions, while the county is continuing its negotiations with the union for corrections officers. There will be 32 positions added over 14 departments, Holmes said, 11 of which will be funded through more state aid to the Tompkins County Health Department. As proposed, there will be 796 county employees in 2023, compared to 767 employees in 2022. The 2023 projected number of employees is 14 more than what had been projected for 2020 (before the pandemic, obviously).

The Ithaca Tompkins International Airport was a subject of some discussion, as despite the ongoing economic recovery the airport has still struggled mightily to return to its pre-pandemic heights: passengers dropped by 70 percent in 2020 from 2019, and only rose to about 50 percent of its 2019 levels in 2021. Revenue generated from passenger facilities charges was anticipated to cover some of the debt taken on during the airplane’s 2019 expansion, but now the county will have to chip in.

Holmes stated that the slow rebound and loss of American Airlines service leaves the airport in need of a three-year cash infusion: $1.3 million in 2023, $800K in 2024 and $300K in 2025, with another $342,481 annually for the next 3-5 years to pay half of the debt service on the terminal expansion project.

Legislator Mike Sigler questioned whether the expense would be a loan or an outright allocation, since the airport’s previous financial health made it self-sustaining — though Legislature Chair Shawna Black noted that the county had given some amount of money to the airport in years past.

“It is fully expected that the airport would become self-sufficient again, and no longer require this, at which time it would be self-sustaining and be able to generate PFC revenues to pay for its debt and maintain operations, but for this year and for the next couple years, it’s not going to be able to do that without some subsidization,” Holmes answered.

Sigler probed further, asking that since the troubles are caused by the pandemic, shouldn’t the money come out of the federal relief funds (from the American Pescue Plan Act bill) that have already been allocated to Tompkins County? Holmes said that the airport has already received ARPA funds directly from the federal government, and that municipality relief funds can’t be combined with funds sent directly to a business or entity.

Speaking of those ARPA funds, Holmes stated that $8.36 million has been committed for capital projects, $6.53 million has been committed to the Community Recovery Fund, $3.65 million has been committed for one-time over-target requests in 2022 and another $1.59 million is being recommended for one-time over-target requests in 2023.

Otherwise, Holmes explained that ongoing capital projects will also represent a large expenditure, including the Green Facilities Phase 1 plan that will nearly double in cost—from $7.3 million to $14.4 million.

“I’m recommending that we move forward with Phase 1 for a number of reasons, but at this point Green Facilities Phases 2 and 3 are postponed on the capital plan because the costs of those have also escalated and we currently cannot afford them,” Holmes said. “If we don’t complete Phase 1 of the project, we leave state grant funding on the table. That is a real potential for us to be able to draw down upon completing that phase of the project.”

With permission from the Federal Aviation Administation, a required upgrade to the airport has also been postponed: a $19.3 million project (though only $5.2 coming from the county) that would build an Airport Rescue, Fire-fighting/Snow Removal Equipment Building (apparently known as the ARFF/SRE Building).

There were several over-target requests, many of which had to do with personnel and staffing, though the Reimagining Public Safety reform effort is also accounting for $856,500 in over-target requests for the following initiatives:

Sigler clarified that certain positions above, like the sheriff clerks, would not exist as a separate expenditure but be added into department budgets (like the clerks would be added onto the sheriff’s office budget).

Matt Butler

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