ITHACA, N.Y.—Ithaca introduced its initial budget last week, and public budget hearings have already begun with a few fireworks at City Hall Wednesday night.

The fireworks were metaphorical, of course—city budget season has a reputation of being a bit dry, which is what we’re here for.

You can watch the full meeting here. You can see the mayor’s proposed budget, budget narrative, and previous budgets here.

Ithaca Police Department

2023 Proposed budget: $14.7 million, up from $12.8 million in 2022 final budget

The main topic of the night was, predictably, the police budget. The budget has been a controversial topic for the last few years, particularly as the issue has become far more politicized: some pulling for less police funding and investment in social services, others pulling for more funding in the hopes it addresses crime, etc.

One small note, the $14.7 million budget number includes about $6.3 million in benefits. In terms of pure staffing, the budget is going from $6.3 million for personnel in 2022 to $7.1 million, even with some positions cut. The personnel expenses are jumping in part because of the new labor contract signed last year between the city and the local police union. The overall budget jump seems to be fueled by a rise in retirement benefits.

While staff funding is jumping substantially for the department, the department is also losing several positions. But it’s a nuanced situation.

Right now, the Ithaca Police Department has 15 vacancies among officers, positions that are budgeted for but aren’t actually filled by officers currently. The proposed 2023 budget officially reduces that number by seven, meaning the total number of allotted officer positions is 51, with, technically, eight open vacancies. What that means is actual officers aren’t being cut, but the maximum number allowed is being reduced—though IPD isn’t near that maximum number currently.

Ithaca Acting Mayor Laura Lewis contended Wednesday that even though those positions are not funded in the actual budget, the money would still be there if the need arises. But looking realistically at hiring rates, the money is better spent elsewhere in 2023, she said, leaving the door open for restoring the cut positions if IPD recruiting efforts are successful.

“If there is additional need, we can address those needs at the time,” Lewis said. She also reiterated the city’s position that the Reimagining Public Safety process is not to blame for the police shortage, which she said exists nationwide, and that she is pleased with renewed recruiting efforts at IPD. “There is a commitment to providing comprehensive public safety for our city, and that is expressed in the budget.”

But regardless of that insistence, that was the primary topic of discussion during Wednesday’s meeting. Joined intermittently by IPD Acting Chief John Joly, who obviously opposed the measure, council members went back and forth for an extended period on the topic. Alderperson George McGonigal expressed concern that the cutting of the positions would be presented as a temporary move, but would functionally be permanent, and that after the budget is passed it would be difficult to claw those positions back, even if the department has the candidates to fill them. He directly asked Lewis what her reasoning was for that move.

“To my mind, it’s a big leap to think that we can fill 12-15 police positions in the next year,” Lewis said. “I do not want to tie up that amount of money for the other seven positions that are vacant. No one is losing a position. […] Those funds are desperately needed in our budget and in our city.”

City Controller Steve Thayer clarifed that money saved from the empty positions in 2022, was used to satisfy extra monetary needs that resulted when the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association contract was renewed late last year.

Joly also said that there are currently two prospective officers up for IPD, one slated to graduate the academy in three weeks and one undergoing a background check, slightly contradicting the thought that the ongoing Reimagining process, while it has not yet been fully implemented, has entirely killed interest in working for IPD.

He also mentioned that a fairly prohibitive residency requirement on the civil service test for IPD had been waived for the time being, which opens eligibility far wider than it had been previously. Additionally, he mentioned that to take the test for IPD costs $50, while it is free for the Tompkins County Sheriffs Office—perhaps a small factor, but a factor nonetheless in a competitive market, Joly said.

Alderperson Jorge DeFendini questioned why IPD was having trouble hiring when so many people were taking the civil service exam for IPD—Joly has said in the past the last test had 86 participants. There’s also the issue of lateral transfers from other departments, which have been sparse but not non-existent.

“In general terms, we have had lateral transfer applicants apply since we introduced the $15,000 incentive,” Joly said. “We were not able to hire any of the three because they didn’t meet the qualifications that we had internally to bring people on in the department.”

However, Joly said the department had not received any lateral transfer applications since upping the incentive to $20,000. He further explained that state laws and exam takers vying for multiple departments also limit the number of people who can actually be selected after taking the exam.

Alderperson Phoebe Brown, one of the most vocal supporters of the Reimagining Public Safety reforms, expressed frustration that there was so much apprehension on council over cutting the police positions—comparing it to the arduous tug-of-war over what law enforcement reforms to implement.

“We want to see Reimagining Public Safety put in place, just as bad as you want to see a full police force,” she said, referring to local communities of color. “This is what we have asked for, this is what Executive Order 203 asked for.”

The conversation continued from there, with Alderperson Rob Gearhart asking for an explanation regarding the lengthy testing and hiring process for IPD, but it’s clear this is going to be a pivotal issue once hearings end and more in-depth negotiations continue.

Ithaca Fire Department

2023 Proposed budget: $12.1 million, up from $11.5 million in 2022 final budget

New Ithaca Fire Department leader Rob Covert came forward for his first budget meeting since the retirement of longtime IFD Chief Tom Parsons. Covert thanked the city for its budget allocations, expressing

Lewis asked Covert to explain some of the program supplies and equipment expenditures.

“We’ve been trying to avoid a large capital request for radio replacements,” Covert said. “But across the county, all portable and mobile radio systems are aging out.”

Covert said grant attempts to cover the expense have been unsuccessful. There are additional requests to replace one 2008 SUV with an electric vehicle, as well as to prepare for more vehicle replacements that Covert estimate will be necessary in 2024.

Prompted by Brock, Covert explained that EMS calls, which are frequently assisted by the fire department, are a factor in demand on their resources as well. The number of those calls is back to about what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic began—for the early portion of the pandemic, the calls dropped significantly, in part because college students were home, Covert said.

Department of Public Information and Technology

Proposed 2023 budget: $1.5 million, up from $1.2 million in 2022 final budget

Outgoing City Clerk Julie Holcomb appeared for the It was a brief discussion as Holcomb did not have any above-budget requests, though she did mention that her office had to unexpectedly spend about $150,000 early in 2021 after being told that, without certain system upgrades made, the city would no longer be able to get cybersecurity insurance. The upgrades were made.

Public Comment

In the spirit of a public hearing, a few members of the public stepped forward to speak. Stacey Dimas, a representative from the Ithacans for Reimagining Public Safety lobbying/activist group, brought forward a letter from the group (and signed by others) expressing dismay that unarmed responders were not included in the budget, stating that the entire Reimagining plan is largely contingent on the unarmed responders being included in the budget. The Reimagining proposal calls for a unit of five unarmed responders to be introduced as the Division of Community Solutions, which would work alongside the Division of Police, currently known as the Ithaca Police Department.

“After a groundswell of support for these responders over the last couple months, we are concerned that our government is not representing us properly by ignoring our sentiments,” Dimas said. “A budget is a moral document. It demonstrates the priorities of the jurisdiction it funds and should represent the views of the constituency it serves.”

In an initial address before the meeting truly began, Lewis did address this comment specifically, stating that she intends to use the restricted funds for Reimagining Public Safety set aside in the budget for unarmed responders, specifically three of them, which she would like to see hired by next summer. First, though, Lewis said she hoped to hire a Deputy Chief of Staff for Public Safety who would be instrumental in building the unarmed division.

Lewis was also asked about this by Alderpersons Cynthia Brock and Robert Cantelmo and answered similarly, that while the unarmed responders aren’t technically listed in the budget explicitly, she intends to use Reimagining funds for that purpose.

Zach Winn, the Republican candidate for Ithaca mayor, spoke in opposition of several parts of the proposed budget, urging for more money for the police department. Winn has been a consistent critic of public safety in the city, arguing that drug use and homelessness are out of control and require more police officers to address those problems. He also asked for public access roads into “the Jungle” homeless encampment to aid police patrol and emergency response into the area, challenging Alderpersons Phoebe Brown and Jorge DeFendini that their push for inclusion of reparations for Black people in the budget would be better spent on those roads.

“I am curious if the two of you believe that that $2 million of taxpayer money would be better spent on reparations or to build access roads in order to police the lawless situation that is going on there,” Winn said.

As for the ongoing struggle over crosswalk snow, Eric Lerner, representing his group Ithacans for Snow Removal, requested that the city not wait for more study and review on snow removal and act for this winter. He was joined by Jan Lynch, from Finger Lakes Independence Center, demanding more be done to make Ithaca accessible during its infamous winters.

“Clearly, there are people who are left out of working, shopping, banking, appointments and recreation in their community because Ithaca has not taken steps to make sure that the city is inclusive to ensure that the city is accessible to all in the winter,” Lynch said.

Matt Butler

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