ITHACA, N.Y. — Before Ithaca’s Common Council meeting started on Wednesday, Alderperson Robert Cantelmo was fretting over the city budget. He shared his sense of anticipation with The Ithaca Voice on the sidewalk as he approached City Hall. Clearly, he was not the only one.
The budget was the biggest item weighing on the night’s agenda, on the mind of the Acting Mayor Laura Lewis, and the mind’s of all of Ithaca’s Common Council members. After deliberating over the massive proposal throughout numerous marathon meetings in recent weeks, it seemed that there was the consensus needed to pass a 2023 budget that had risen from $84 million in 2022 to over $90 million after amendments this year.
But when the city’s electeds arrived at the council chambers, ready to cast one of their most important votes of the year, the room was already milling with about 60 people, and more were filtering in.
Almost all of them were city employees, and they had come there to share some deep dissatisfactions with pay that has sunk below parity, shrinking benefits, the inability to retain or recruit in their departments and the volume of work that their understaffed departments are facing—understaffed because they can’t offer competitive salaries and benefit packages.
“You should be ashamed of yourselves,” said Steve Nann, a building maintenance manager for the City of Ithaca who was the first city employee to address Common Council. He spoke of the 14 employees he supervises as excellent workers but underpaid. “You can get more than the top of our scale to start anywhere else,” he said, adding “Morale is at an all time low.”
Low morale, burnout, and a feeling of disenfranchisement became the refrain of the city’s public service workers describing what they felt have been years of dismal, combative contract negotiations. And another major throughline that emerged was a palpable disdain for Ari Lavine, the City Attorney, and lead of the contract negotiating team for the City of Ithaca.
“We have […] an attorney that has ramrodded everybody down the street,” said Nann during his comments.
It was like a dam breaking, and it seemed to come as a complete blindside to Ithaca’s elected officials. One after another commenter spoke to the tune of over 40 city employees and union leaders across all the city’s public service bargaining units, reinforcing the message the city’s fire department, police department, and department of public works are going to struggle to recruit and retain employees for as long as they struggle to get a contract that makes the City of Ithaca competitive in the labor market, while also reinforcing a reputation for Lavine as a hardball negotiator.
Ithaca’s Mayor is not involved in the contract negotiations process, nor is Common Council. On Thursday, Acting Mayor Laura Lewis released a statement in response to the comments and discussion at Wednesday’s common council meeting. In it, she attempted to affirm that the city’s contract negotiations with its bargaining units is done in the interest of taxpayers as well as the city’s employees, while upholding Lavine as a standout public servant, and praising the city’s contract negotiations team as a whole.
“I have every confidence in our team and was appalled to hear undeniably genuine employee morale issues twisted into offensive and unfounded personal attacks on the City’s negotiating team, and particularly City Attorney Ari Lavine,” reads the statement from Lewis..
Lavine did not attend the city meeting in person, but remotely over zoom. As city employees spoke, he initially left his camera off in the zoom call, a black box with his name standing in for a presence as he listened to workers from across the city departments air their frustration.
Rounds of applause from the crowd would resound after each speaker made their remarks.
Jeanne Grace, the Ithaca City forester sympathized with the myriad of costs that the city needs to balance and consider, but she told Common Council that Ithaca follows a “philosophy” of suppressing employee wages and benefits to keep costs down.
“Maybe the city thinks that they can balance the budget on the backs of the workers and keep those costs artificially low. We’re here to tell you that that is a mistake,” said Grace.
Brooks Hendrix, a civil engineer with the City of Ithaca, said that his bargaining unit, the City Executive Association, was instructed by the city’s negotiation team that it can’t go over a certain percent increase in their contract proposal if they wanted to get to the table with the negotiations team.
Hendrix also noted a change in the health insurance plans that the city would be offering its employees. Hendrix said that the decrease from an Indemnity Plan to a Platinum Plan would save the city $5,700 on his family plan alone. But the contract negotiations didn’t include an increase in compensation that would make up for this decrease in the value of his benefits.
Hendrix said, “I’m just wondering if that’s really what Common Council’s message is to their employees? That we’d like you to work for less than you did last year?”
Lewis’ Thursday statement read, “Some facts relating to the current round of negotiations are immutable and must be addressed. These include the cost of health insurance, and the fact that the City has accumulated a perilous aggregate liability of over $200 million for the health insurance benefits it provides and subsidizes for retirees. Structural financial issues of this kind can easily overwhelm the finances of a city Ithaca’s size if not addressed; already, a major bond rating agency downgraded the City’s credit rating because of this liability.”
Brian Weinstein, Assistant Chief of the Fire Department, told counsel that the dialogue in negotiations is “completely one sided and the city negotiations team has absolutely no interest in compromise.”
While working toward collective goals for the good of the city seems to be absent from contract negotiations, Weinstein said, “The most unpalatable part of this negotiation culture is the unwillingness of our elected leaders to hold the negotiator — our city attorney and his team — accountable. We are operating in a take it or leave it environment and no one seems to care.”
“There’s a disconnect with our elected leaders — all of you,” said Weinstein. “And it’s time to look inward and prove commitment to organized labor by taking care of your own.”
Alix Gresov, a firefighter at the Ithaca Fire Department, said to counsel, “You have the opportunity to make this city a great place to work by supporting your workers and offering competitive benefits to recruit and retain employees. Be true to your words, and stand behind their assertions of being a labor friendly city.”
Kevin Whitney, another firefighter with the City of Ithaca for the last 27 years, told Common Council that to him, the last mayor that showed any concern for the city workers was Carolyn Peterson, who served from 2003 to 2011. Whitney concluded his remarks saying, “I also find it extremely frustrating that the individual that’s the negotiating lead for your team while on Zoom, can’t even have the decency to show his face, so we can at least look at him and he can look at us.”
The more pointed the remark toward Lavine, the louder the crowd’s applause became.
Then the issue of Dr. Luis Aguirre-Torres’ departure from city hall entered the conversation when Julia de Aragón addressed Common Council. De Aragón, a board member of the Latino Civic Association of Tompkins County (LCA), said that she had been the one who penned a public letter signed by the LCA that was published in The Ithaca Voice on Oct. 18, concerned with Aguirre-Torres’ departure.
Aguirre-Torres, after putting the City of Ithaca on the international stage with a plan to decarbonize Ithaca’s building stock as part of the effort to meet the lofty goals of the Ithaca Green New Deal (IGND) to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030, suddenly announced his departure in October.
De Aragón told the council that the LCA feels that the uncertain direction of the IGND, Aguirre-Torres’ sudden departure, and the ongoing ethics investigation into Ithaca’s Reimagining Public Safety plan reflect a trend of “disenfranchisement of our few leaders of color” in Ithaca. The LCA, de Aragón said, calls “on the city to have the courage to honor their commitments to the Ithaca Green New Deal. But more importantly, to the people that live, work and raise families in this place I want to be proud to call home. And in a lot of ways I think that reflects an ongoing theme tonight.”
Next, after de Aragón in the flood of speakers, was Zach Winn, a controversial figure in local politics who’s running on the Republican ticket for mayor. After sharing prepared comments about the city’s handling of its homeless population, and asking for the Reimagining Public Safety initiative to be fully paused, Winn said “and I would ask the mayor to request Ari Lavine step down, and if he does not please fire him.”
The room swelled with applause.
Ithaca Mayoral candidate Katie Sims, who’s running as an independent, also appeared to speak before Common Council, saying “Without these workers, absolutely nothing is possible in the city. We need to invest in them and treat them fairly. I’m really appalled by the bad faith negotiations that have happened between the unions as workers are asking for higher wages as costs of living are spiking.”
After Acting Mayor Laura Lewis’ two opponents in a soon to be settled race to determine who will be Ithaca’s Mayor for a one year term, and about 10 other speakers, Aguirre-Torres appeared on screen before council for his turn to speak.
The reason he left, he said, was because, “the environment in City Hall didn’t didn’t allow me to continue working,” lending credence to the wave of city employees that spoke before and after him.
He cited the prestigious recognition that the IGND had received from the White House, from the World Economic Forum, from the United Nations, and New York State’s Governor’s Office, “but that reception was never found in City Hall,” said Aguirre-Torres. “I never got the reception that I believe the program needed, and we never got the support that I believe the program needed. We needed more from you, Common Council, we needed more from you, staff.”
He said that people in City Hall were trying to “control” the IGND from within, that support withered, and that the ambitious task of decarbonizing Ithaca’s economy became impossible under those conditions.
“But right now, what is left for you is to figure out how can we have somebody — how can we hire a person of color to be one of the few people of color in the mayor’s staff, and then have to suffer through hundreds of microaggressions, through discrimination, having the city attorney called in to bully this person?”
His statements would create more questions than answers for Common Council members, and Aguirre-Torres concluded his remarks saying, “Talented people will not come to Ithaca to work under those conditions. Something needs to change, and I really invite city council to dig deep.”
Change, but when?
A little over two hours into the meeting, when public comment ended and the Acting Mayor and Common Council held the privilege of the floor, Lavine’s camera turned on. Displayed on a projection screen behind the Common Council, his face wore a flat, but earnest expression.
Lewis began the discussion saying that she constructed the city’s 2023 budget proposal with staffing in mind, but “there are really difficult economic realities. Some of you may be aware that last year we had a city budget of $84 million. This year, we have a city budget of almost $90 million. So I am concerned for paying our staff. I’m concerned for taxpayers in our community.”
It is true that the City of Ithaca’s property owners will see bigger tax bills come 2023. With the median value of a house in the City of Ithaca at $275,000, and a proposed tax rate of $12 for every $1,000, a city resident with that median home value would pay $3,300 in property taxes. Last year, the median home value in the City of Ithaca was $240,000, and the tax rate was $11.89 for every $1,000 of a property’s value, which would have made for a tax bill of $2,854.
The city has also commissioned a compensation study to determine where its wages and benefits need to be. There are rumors among the city employees that emerged during public comment that the study is being withheld until contract negotiations are over, but Lewis dispelled that, saying during the meeting that the study will be made public as soon as it is completed.
Following Lewis, counselors offered their assessments and feelings they formed after hearing so many city employees speak. Many offering their support to the workers that spoke to them, but this sentiment came up against determining what practical next steps existed for councilors to take. What funds were there to spare with the budget having been essentially finalized?
“It’s clear to me that the status quo is unsustainable,” said Alderperson Cantelmo, adding that he felt he has not been involved enough as a member of Common Council with the city’s workforce.
Alderperson Jorge DeFendini, who was attending the meeting remotely due to a case of COVID-19, said over Zoom, “It’s really disheartening and shameful to hear about what’s happening here under our very nose, and happening in our own departments. I don’t think anybody could look at this room right now and, seeing what’s been said and what has been heard, think that this is sustainable, that this is okay.”
Several councilors raised concern about Aguirre-Torres’ statements, Alderperson Phoebe Brown among them. “I think it is very important for us to hear him out. Because we need to know why we lost an amazing person,” she said.
Alderperson Rob Gearhart said that it pained him to hear how demoralized city employees had become. “I really do want to hold my colleagues and myself accountable,” he said, but Gearhart asked the night’s speakers to acknowledge the financial constraints that council’s decisions will have to be made within. “I think you all understand, we can’t support everything that gets put in front of us. So it’s gonna be hard work. It can’t happen fast. But we will do our best to make those commitments until hopefully you see some progress towards that.”
In her Thursday statement, Lewis emphasized that the city spends nearly “three out of every four taxpayer dollars” on its employees, and that the decisions in determining a budget are never easy.
“I regret that most of the Common Council failed miserably last night in recognizing or conveying the tough choices and genuine intent that consistently motivates our negotiating team in the City’s best interests,” Lewis stated.
Alderperson Cynthia Brock responded to the crowd gathered, saying “I’ve been on council 11 years, and say that I have never seen this number of city employees come to City Hall.” The message is loud and clear, said Brock. “You are our city’s biggest asset. You’re our biggest investment […] If we don’t take care of our assets, they won’t come back. And that’s what I’m hearing.”
But she would focus her comments on explaining the limited role that council has to play in contract negotiations. “What you all need to know is we on council are directed by the mayor’s office, starting with the [Myrick] administration, that the mayor is the chief executive of the organization and sets the direction for the relationship with staff, and council is to be excluded from those discussions.”
At the end of the negotiation process every few years, Brock said that “we’re handed a package that we’re just expected to sign. But we don’t get any power or authority to be knowledgeable about the negotiation.”
Brock strongly emphasized that she disagrees with the approach to contract negotiations that the city has taken, saying that the negotiations, led by Lavine, should not be treating the staff “like the enemy,” as many workers expressed he does. She suggested that a third party might best be suited to conducting these negotiations in the future. Though, Brock turned her attention to the budget, the massive voting item looming over the nights meeting, and whether there was anything that could be done.
“Do we have to pass this budget tonight?” Brock asked Lewis. “Do we have time that we can go in and say ‘Let’s build in some cushion into this budget and try to move things around so that we can try to address these considerations as quickly as possible?’”
The request would create an awkward back-and-forth between Lewis and Brock, with Lewis initially dodging to answer the question once. The City of Ithaca had a Nov. 9 budget meeting scheduled in the instance that Common Council wouldn’t be ready to vote on Wednesday. Lewis told Brock that Nov. 9 is the deadline.
“Is that a state mandated deadline? Or is that just what’s on the schedule?” asked Brock.
“That is my schedule,” said Lewis. “That is my deadline, because we have to move forward.”
Asked for comment, City Controller Steve Thayer said during Wednesday’s meeting that there is very little wiggle room to adjust the budget. Thayer said that trying to move a deadline to the Common Council’s December meeting would make it impossible for his office to complete all the necessary work before the end of the year, citing staffing challenges in his office.
With the late hours Common Council’s meeting had run into, and the overwhelming message that city staff had sent them, a vote on the budget didn’t seem appropriate to the majority of Common Council.
“Proceeding with the vote after we’ve received this information, I think, is irresponsible,” said Brock.
Nov. 9 will have to be when the budget is next discussed. A motion to table the vote passed 7 to 3, with Alderpersons George McGongial, Ducson Nguyen, and Gearhart voting against later in the night.
Lavine did address the crowd of city workers during council’s discussion. He spoke professionally and frankly, quickly denying the sentiment that the negotiations team viewed the staff as enemies.
“We all readily acknowledge that the morale issues that the city is currently experiencing and—indeed that some workers nationwide are experiencing—are very real.”
The process of negotiating a contract is a difficult endeavor, said Lavine, “and that endeavor is delivering the best value possible to our employees while also living within the constraints that the city taxpayers need us to live within and that’s a difficult balance.”
The highly visible demonstration of city workers on Wednesday night, Lavine would point out, was not a good example of an effective way to speak about the contracts.
“Working through the intricate details of a labor contract in a public and political discourse is not a very effective way to describe the realities of those contracts.” He added, “and I hope that we can all recognize that the solutions here are not about hurling epithets. They’re about working through the nuts and bolts that we work very, very hard to resolve.”
But as Lavine addressed the crowd remotely, it’s doubtful that he was able to clearly hear or see the union leaders and city workers as many of them rolled their eyes, shook their heads, and a soft, cynical sounding laughter grew in the Common Council’s Chambers.
Corrections: This article originally identified Steve Nann, a building maintenance manager for the City of Ithaca, as Steve Man. And stated that Brooks Hendrix, a civil engineer for the city, was a part of CSEA bargaining unit, rather than the City Executive Association. Former Ithaca Mayor Carolyn Peterson was originally reported to have served from 2003 to 2007, rather than until 2011.