TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—The Tompkins County Legislature is in the midst of a painstaking process. The county’s elected officials are sorting through 231 applications from businesses, nonprofits, and community organizations seeking an infusion of cash to support their continued recovery from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not all of them are going to be able to receive the help they’re asking for. 

The requests are aimed at the county’s Community Recovery Fund, a unique effort initiated by Tompkins County in its 2022 budget. About $6.5 million was set aside to create grants levied to offer a source of financial support that could be tapped into from across the county. By the time the application window closed at the end of October, all total requests for aid swelled to $34 million, and more money was needed to pay the consultant group, MRB, helping in the submission review. Meetings began earlier this month to determine preliminary approvals, denials and otherwise; three meeting have been allotted in total. 

The six member Community Advisory Fund Advisory Committee, made up of county legislators Dan Klein, Deborah Dawson, Shawna Black, Veronica Pillar, Lee Shurtleff and Anne Koreman, has been going down the list of applicants and voting on requests. The first meeting was only slated to deal with the top two groups of applications, as the smaller applications had not been given a preliminary score at the time of the first two meetings. However, due to some squabbling over voting procedure, categorization, review needs and more, preliminary approvals and votes were held until the second meeting. 

To begin, MRB went through a presentation regarding the submissions and what their internal process has been. MRB did disclose that they are involved tangentially with two projects that have applied for funding: submissions for the Village of Trumansburg and the Village of Dryden, for which MRB was either used to compose preliminary engineering reports for the proposals or would be involved in the completion of the proposed projects. MRB’s Michael N’dolo clarified that the submissions review team isn’t involved with the work on those projects. 

Based off of that, there was then a brief discussion about conflicts of interest and how those may impact the voting process. Primarily, legislator Dan Klein asked if the fact that many legislators sit on boards of local nonprofit organizations (although unpaid), several of which have applied for funding, would require those legislators to recuse themselves from voting on those submissions. N’dolo said his understanding of the law, since there would be no actual financial gain or loss for the person, is that it would not constitute a conflict of interest, but the committee agreed that it should be disclosed if a voting member is connected in some way to the organization.

There are elements of objectivity and subjectivity to the grading. The objectivity is easy: number of employees, whether the funds would be matched, and receipt of prior relief funding were all elements. Priority alignment, which was the more subjective or flexible element, is a bit more of a mixed bag, though applications were divided into “clear alignment,” “partial/tangential alignment” and “no alignment.” The priority alignment was largely used as a tie-breaker, Verrier said, between projects that had scored very similarly in the objective areas. To refresh, the priorities were attending to impacts of COVID-19, responding to diversity and equity needs, building long-term capacity of communities, supporting non-profits and small businesses, addressing long-term, critical needs like childcare, setting up an organization for future growth and success, and alignment with the county’s Comprehensive Plan. It’s not necessary for a proposal to hit all of those points, but enough to satisfy the committee’s desires. 

Overall, the funding has been broken into different buckets, assigned to the different groups of applications. There is $500K dedicated to projects asking for $10K-$25K, $1.5 million to spread around projects asking for $25,001-$250K and $4 million allocated to projects asking for more than $250K. Some projects will need a SEQR determination (which means there may be an environmental impact requiring state review), but those will be discussed individually as the arise. 

As mentioned, the meeting largely dealt with grappling over how to properly vote on the applications.

“We just figured out this procedure and I’m not prepared to move forward with a ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” Koreman said. “This is really important, this is a lot of money to a lot of organizations. […] If we’re not going to change the scoring, then I need time to go back and think about whether I want to vote yes or no. I think the community and applicants deserve our time to really think this through and contemplate this.”

“I’m willing to honor that request, Anne, if you are willing to give me some assurance that you’re willing to move quickly through this process, because today was not that demonstration to me,” Klein retorted, trying again to move the meeting along more quickly. He reiterated his thoughts throughout the meeting that considering the amount of time the committee has to work on the reviews (about nine hours over the course of three meetings), it needed to move quickly to have enough time for each application. 

Koreman didn’t exactly offer a remedy for this, but emphasized that she felt it was unfair—both to committee members and to applicants—to move too quickly and not give due time to each application, echoing her earlier amendment attempts. 

“I really don’t appreciate the characterization that I’m slowing this down,” Koreman said. “I’m doing the best that I can do for the community. […] I’m not going to go faster than I’m comfortable. To me, that borders on intimidation.”

Klein then apologized. But that tension continued, as the two then went back and forth regarding how much information committee members had been given ahead of time and how soon members should be ready to vote on projects to advance. 

As the meeting continued, the methods discussed of how to best assess, analyze and rank proposals became more and more complicated, to the point that Shurtleff and County Administrator Lisa Holmes feared that it would “delegitimize” all the work undertaken so far, largely by MRB, to score the proposals. 

After about two-and-a-half hours, the first meeting ended with more words of apology from Klein. Finally, in the second meeting, the voting began. In preparation for that phase, the six member Community Recovery Fund Advisory Committee has been going down the list of applicants and voting on each of them in order to sort which ones they feel have the most merit and the highest potential to have impact within the county. Those will advance to the next stage of funding decisions and eventually go before the full Tompkins County Legislature. 

Among applications that have received a full round of support are Second Wind Cottages, a nonprofit that provides transitional housing for formerly incarcerated and homeless men. Second Wind’s top line request was for $566,775 to go towards constructing 25 temporary shelters connected to water, electricity, and heat and a shared services facility with bathrooms, showers, laundry and storage. 

The committee also indicated strong support for a project at Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3), voting 6-0 to put funds toward expanding and improving the college’s on-campus child care center and food pantry.

“Their pantry is teeny,” Koreman said. “I mean, they literally stack food to the walls […] I, as a college student, was food insecure, and so I know a lot of students are too. So I’ll be voting yes for this.”

The committee would also give a full vote to an application from Bangs Ambulance, which requested a maximum of $150,000 to go towards purchasing a critical care transport unit and medical equipment that would be used in air transport.  

Before the vote, Shurtleff was on the fence about giving his support to Bangs, not because of the lack of need though. Shurtleff, who served as the Director of the county’s Department of Emergency Response for 17 years and has firefighting experience, said that the need is there but that he felt the recovery fund might not be the right pot of money to meet those needs. 

But the discussion would prove persuasive for Shurtleff. Emergency medical services have struggled in recent years to recruit and retain employees among a myriad of other challenges. Since Bangs is a private business, it does not have taxing authority, as some emergency medical service operations associated with fire departments do. Bangs also responds to calls throughout Tompkins County.

“They’re one of our biggest providers here,” said Tompkins Legislature Chair Shawna Black. “And I think that due to the fact that they do a lot for our community, they handle situations where they don’t get payment, I think that we need to step up here and provide the tools for them to do the job.”

More decisions will be made at the third scheduled meeting on Dec. 5.

Editorial Disclosure: The Ithaca Voice has applied for funding from the Tompkins County Recovery Fund. This has not influenced editorial coverage at all, but anyone with concerns can email Managing Editor Matt Butler at mbutler@ithacavoice.com.

Matt Butler

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

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at jjordan@ithacavoice.com Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn