TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—As the end of the year draws closer, the Tompkins County Legislature and other governments have begun to wrap up the seemingly never-ending to-do lists.

While Tuesday’s Tompkins County Legislature meeting featured a lengthy discussion on the statewide Code Blue homeless shelter policy and the strain that it puts on local social services, it began with several remembrances of Veterans Day. The agenda for the meeting can be found here, and the full meeting can be watched here.

Code Blue begins

The presentation on Code Blue sheltering was appropriately timed, as the weather has finally made its familiar turn towards winter after a mild October and start to November. Department of Social Services Commissioner Kit Kephart delivered the presentation on Code Blue, which began on Oct. 15 and is in effect any time the temperature dips below freezing at night, mandating that counties must find housing for unhoused people — usually in the form of emergency shelters, hotel rooms, churches, etc., reimbursed by New York State.

“We’re planning to implement congregate sheltering this winter, however hiring to provide adequate staffing is continuing to prove pretty challenging,” Kephart said, adding that social services has worked with St. John’s Community Services to increase compensation for staff to stabilize shelter staffing.

Legislator Mike Lane asked about demographics of the homeless population in the county, and Kephart responded that while there is a transient population, many individuals housed in Code Blue have typically been county residents for six months or longer.

Kephart noted that one of the characteristics about Code Blue is that the program only requires an individual to identify as homeless, meaning that no additional requirements need to be met for them to be housed. While that means a low barrier, it somewhat complicates the information collection process. Additionally, Kephart said, 33% of individuals identify as individuals with mental health issues, 29% with substance use and 35% of individuals had come from situations of domestic violence. Those percentages are based on self-reports and not tracked otherwise.

Legislator Mike Sigler asked what the “number-one actionable item” would be for the legislature to help with in terms of supporting DSS, and Kephart responded that the main priority issue is single-room occupancy housing units (SRO) where people can live independently and inexpensively.

“Ideally, there would be a support component to the program and helping people apply for benefits or apply for treatments,” she added.

According to data from DSS, approximately 30% of individuals utilizing Code Blue end up applying for more year-round temporary assistance. Additionally, not everyone in the Code Blue program uses it all season, and many “rough it out” until temperatures really drop later in the winter, or when things get really wet.

Currently, there are about 19 or 20 shelter beds, and the rest of the available cots for individuals using Code Blue are located at local hotels or congregate sites at churches and other organizations with large rooms where beds can be set up.

Kephart said that the congregate sites are staffed overnight, and that individuals typically return to shelters in the morning to shower, do laundry and socialize before returning to the congregate sites at night.

When asked about what other support is available, Kephart said that the Code Blue program mostly focuses on shelter, though other economic assistance programs provide food allotments for individuals who may also be using Code Blue.

Rental assistance is somewhere between $380 and $400, which is up slightly from previous years of the program but hasn’t risen enough to truly meet the rising rent costs locally, Kephart acknowledged.

On a more general note, DSS currently has 15 unstaffed positions they’ve had challenges filling, though additional state funding opportunities will be becoming available for rental support services which could help.

Progress of Community Justice Center

Afterwards, City of Ithaca Common Councilor Patric Mehler gave an update on the city, stating that the budget passed at last week’s meeting, and that the upcoming Common Council meeting will address updating the short-term rental legislation, unsanctioned encampments and conversations about a new public safety facility.

Mehler also said that the city’s tax rate is going up approximately 9%.

Legislator Deborah Dawson asked when the city will approve the Criminal Justice Center’s work plan for 2022, and said that she is concerned about the city’s contribution to the CJC. Mehler said that the city would be voting on both the 2022 and 2023 work plans at its upcoming Dec. 7 meeting.

County Administrator Lisa Holmes gave an update on Reimagining Public Safety and saying that the topics of focus have been the community healing plan, officer wellness, traffic calming and mental health responses with law enforcement.

Holmes said that CJC leader Monalita Smiley has been meeting with community partners and coordinating convening work groups to move forward with topics listed above, as well as moving forward with the creation of the data analyst position. Legislator Travis Brooks noted that the first meeting between Smiley and the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association (IPBA) took place during this legislature meeting.

Subsequently, County Attorney Bill Troy gave an update about a lawsuit that the county is currently facing from a pastor in Elmira, who is also suing Chemung County, on the basis of a law that made it illegal to carry weapons into places of worships. The suit alleges that civil rights are being threatened by the law.

“As I understand it, if you canvassed every single police office or sheriff’s deputy […], they don’t know anything about this,” he said. “It’s a group of people at a very high-powered law firm in Washington, and they’ve already brought one suit, and they’ve been fairly successful so far, but they brought this one that we just got a few days ago […] don’t panic whatever you do, they’re just trying to establish that they have a first-amendment right to carry firearms that they want to carry.”

Troy said that both Tompkins County District Attorney Matthew Van Houten and Chemung County District Attorney Weeden Wetmore have signed affidavits to the judge on the case stating that they have no intention of prosecuting any cases related to the suit.

Legislator Amanda Champion said that in the spirit of Thanksgiving later this month, she is grateful to the more than 700 Tompkins County employees for their hard work every day that supports the community and legislators. “I want to make sure that we all remember that these people are the ones doing the work,” she said.

Mike Sigler congratulated the winners and candidates from last week’s election and thanked the Election Day workers.

Also on the topic of Veteran’s Day, Deborah Dawson, who served in the U.S. Army Reserve, said that she does not say the Pledge of Allegiance anymore, and that “Frankly, at this point, we are not a country with liberty and justice for all, and I’m not going to pay lip service to that. […] I show my respect to our veterans, our federal employees and the people that make our government run by supporting policies at every level of government that provide the services and opportunities that these people need and deserve.”

Other news and notes

  • Following privilege of the floor, Tompkins County Legislature Chair Shawna Black presented Dispatch Supervisor in the Department of Emergency Response Zach Guidi with the New York State Dispatcher of the Year award. “Zach has shown great commitment to our organization and community, with several instances that note his responsiveness and great care during specific 911 calls,” Black said. Black also spoke about a ride-along experience with first responders over the weekend.
  • A resolution for 2023 payments to the Tompkins Cortland Community College Operating Budget was passed, along with resolutions authorizing the county administrator’s to sign draft checks, the finance director to make year-end transfers and budget adjustments, town and city budgets to print the rate of taxes.
  • Also passed were resolutions for the acceptance of a New York State healthcare worker bonus, approval of the 2023 amended municipal cooperative agreement for the county’s municipal health insurance consortium and the adoption of the 2023 Tompkins County budget and 2023–27 capital program.
  • A special election has been set for Jan. 24, 2023, to fill the unexpired term left by the late Legislator Henry Granison.
  • Ahead of the declaration of the Ithaca Journal being made the Paper of Notice, several legislators including Black, Sigler and and Greg Mezey aired grievances about having to use the Ithaca Journal rather than another local publication as the Journal is based out of Rochester and no longer hyperlocal.
  • After the initial vote failed, the second vote passed, appointing the Ithaca Journal as the Paper of Record for 2023.
  • Rick Snyder gave his last report as finance director before he retires and thanked his staff for all of their hard work.

Correction: The original version of this article listed St. John’s church as opposed to the community center. Additionally, 35% of individuals had self-reported coming from a situation of domestic abuse.

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. She has covered a wide range of topics since joining the news organization in November 2021. She can be reached at zhessler@ithacavoice.com...