TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Tuesday’s meeting of the Tompkins County Legislature was a relatively brief affair compared to some recent meetings, as budget season winds down and other business gradually comes to the forefront.

October’s second meeting consisted of a vote on budget amendments, further progress on the Public Health and Mental Health Department merger and an interesting conversation on the suspension of the heating sales tax in Tompkins County.

You can follow along with the meeting agenda here, or you can watch the full meeting here.

Budget Amendments

Amendments to the budget saw brief discussion, though Tompkins County Legislator and budget committee chair Deborah Dawson notably said she didn’t believe she could support them. Her objection hinged on the fact that the budget would leave the county in an operating deficit (though it would be covered), calling it “fiscally irresponsible and unsustainable” and apparently extending that description to the slew of amendments.

She based that assessment on the fact that the operating budget technically leaves the county in a several million dollar hole, which would be covered by extra funding as a single-time expense to make sure that the tax levy (the amount of money sought from taxpayers) stays flat in 2023. She thought it was a poor idea, and though other legislators said they understood that it is a gamble, they supported the amendments. The full budget will be voted on next month, after a public hearing on it.

“If we are wrong, if we made some assumptions here and some gambles that turn out to be bad judgment or just turn out to be incorrect, we can correct them next year, just like anybody can in any budget, by either cutting expenses or finding more income,” Legislator Dan Klein said. “I don’t think that this dooms us to anything. If the worst case scenario does happen, we can correct it next year, and if it doesn’t, then we did a really good thing by delivering a lot of services and keeping the tax levy unchanged.”

“If it does go south, we’re going to have to make some painful choices,” followed Legislator Mike Sigler, also adding that the budget adds county jobs. “But that doesn’t mean, to me, that we withhold money that was, kind of, overpaid to us. People are hurting, just like the government could be hurting later on.”

The amendments passed 12-1.

Suspension of Heat Tax

A member-filed resolution from Sigler generated the most conversation of the night. Citing the escalating price of oil and gas, and with higher prices rumored to be coming soon, Sigler proposed that Tompkins County should suspend its four percent tax on heating oil, natural gas, wood products and electric power. Though he initially asked for the change to be just during the cold season over the next six months, ending on May 1, 2023, he decided to propose a permanent end to the tax at the last minute.

The resolution did not have support in the budget committee, leading Sigler to bring it to the whole legislature instead. He has presented similar proposals several times over the years, though they have never been approved.

The county makes around $2.6 million per year from the tax (apparently when electricity is included, though that was a bit unclear), according to Sigler’s comments. His resolution made the point that there is no sales tax on food, which is essential to survival, so why would there be a tax on heat, which is similarly essential.

“The fundamental question is do you tax things that people need to live, I don’t think that we should,” Sigler said. Sigler reasoned that taking the tax away would not mean that the county would simply lose that $2.6 million, but acknowledged that it would likely be replaced by property tax rises to make up the gap. Those, though, are inherently means-tested since the bigger a property, the more property tax the owners are likely to incur.

“That’s why I’m bringing this forward,” Sigler said. “I don’t know if it’ll pass or not, but I felt I needed to bring this forward. Frankly, I’ve gotten more response to this than anything I’ve brought forward in the last year.”

Legislator Amanda Champion agreed with the overall intention, but felt that more information was necessary, like total cost, revenue replacement, etc. Somewhat similarly, Legislator Greg Mezey said that he would be more willing to support the legislation if it was fleshed out a bit more—Sigler’s proposal was either succinct and direct or brief and barren, depending on your preference.

“Think about Tompkins County real property tax payers for a second and how much extra burden they carry in Tompkins County because of all our tax-exempt properties,” said Legislator Mike Lane. “One way that they get some relief is through sales tax.”

Lane said he understands Sigler’s “heart is in the right place,” but didn’t want to support it for the reasons stated. Dawson also said she couldn’t support it, but also argued that the “burdensome economy is as burdensome to us as it is to our taxpayers,” and said that the county needs to be able to provide the services people are used to.

Legislators Anne Koreman and Veronica Pillar similarly declined to support. Pillar made a point to say she does disagree with certain taxation practices overall, but that implementing a law that would take more than $2 million from the budget wasn’t feasible. She did express interest in working on something similar in the future, as did Legislator Lee Shurtleff.

The budget measure eventually failed.

Other News and Notes

  • Close to the start of the meeting, Legislator Henry Granison announced that he would be stepping down from the legislature to dedicate himself full-time to medical treatments as he faces an ongoing health situation.
  • The legislature voted to approve the return of a small amount of the mortgage recording tax paid by the Asteri Ithaca project in downtown Ithaca. The return is the result of a mistake on the part of the project’s developers, who weren’t aware that they didn’t have to pay mortgage recording tax as part of their tax abatement package. The City of Ithaca returned all the money once the developers realized their mistake, according to Dawson, but the county will only be returning 15 percent of the payment since 85 percent of that payment ($105,124) already went to TCAT funding, as is mandated by law.
  • The long-awaited merger between the Public Health Departments and Mental Health Departments moved forward again, with a public hearing scheduled for next month.
  • The county approved more spending for its consultant that is handling the Tompkins County Recovery Fund grant program. Demand has been far greater than the county anticipated: Legislator Dan Klein said that there had been 154 submissions so far, 49 percent were from non-profits and 34 percent were from small businesses.

Matt Butler

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