TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—For about 51 organizations throughout Tompkins County, there will be a little extra holiday cheer this year, in the form of sizable amounts of aid from the Tompkins Community Recovery Fund.

For the other 180 or so applicants? A seasonally appropriate lump of coal.

Such is the “balance of unhappiness” struck by the Tompkins County Legislature on Tuesday night, as referenced by legislator Dan Klein. Jokes aside, the legislature successfully approved about $6 million worth of awards to a largely unchanged roster of applicant organizations, advanced by the recovery fund’s advisory committee, in one of the most popular programs in the county’s recent history.

Approvals ranged from ambitious and large, like Cayuga Health System’s $1.5 million award for a crisis stabilization center; to more niche, like $10,000 for community outreach expenses for the Ithaca Babe Ruth Baseball League, which intends to provide funding for some kids who can’t afford to play.

The overwhelming number of applications and limited amount of total funding in the TCRF pot made it certain that a significant number of organizations around the county would be excluded from approval. That was accepted early on in the process, but it didn’t stop a significant number of representatives from various rejected organizations from raising objections during public comment, or stop the robust debate among legislators about how to best allocate the money during a nearly five hour meeting.

To follow along with the agenda, you can view that here. To watch the full meeting, that can be found here. Included in this story:

Public Comment

Considering the number of comments and their relevance to the night’s discussion, we’ll tackle public comment first. The vast majority came from those upset about the distribution choices of the selection committee, though it began with comments from the largest beneficiary of the program.

Undoubtedly, Cayuga Health System was one of the big winners of the Community Recovery Fund. The overseer of Cayuga Medical Center applied for a $1.5 million grant through the TCRF and won it, setting in motion plans for the Intensive Crisis Stabilization Center of Tompkins County, which will be a collaboration between CHS and eight other community partners. CHS CEO Dr. Marty Stallone started public comment, acknowledging that it was a large slice of the overall pot to allocate to one project but argued that it was a truly transformative project, meant to coincide with the detox center opening in Lansing and operated by the Alcohol & Drug Council.

Stallone described the facility, which will be housed at the new hospital-owned portion of the Shops at Ithaca Mall, as a “mental health-oriented organization and service, to be less than the emergency room level of care but more than what exists in the community.” The hospital is serving as the leader of the effort, but will be collaborating with organizations like REACH Medical, Alcohol & Drug Council, Tompkins County Mental Health and more to operate the space.

“This is a new and monumental task, I think it’s worth it but this is not something where health systems, given the climate of healthcare today, can do in and of themselves,” Stallone said. “As an institution, we have extended ourselves to our brink.”

In response to a sentiment that would become clearer later in the meeting, namely that the hospital’s financial standing should allow it to spend the $1.5 million without having to ask the TCRF for help, Stallone claimed that the hospital’s operational losses this year were between $10-20 million. He noted that the hospital does have $100 million in investments, but called those funds “unstable.”

Stallone said he was making himself available for legislators who may have questions about the award or the project, but he was not called for any further answers.

But, as was always going to be the nature of the fund, there were more rejected applicants than accepted, and those who felt their preferred applications hadn’t gotten a fair shake. A wide variety of applications were rejected, but the ones that generated the most discussion on Tuesday were from organizations dealing with agriculture and food systems, local arts, and Second Wind Cottages.

“If this county decides to fund HFFA, you are not just supporting access to food, you are supporting the healthy development of families in a way that is restorative,” said Taili Mugambe, supporting the work and application of Healthy Food for All. “This is an investment in the highest level of service in agriculture and food that can be accessed in this community.”

Enfield Town Board member Bob Lynch spoke about the Enfield Food Distribution application, which also did not advance. There was also a call from Sharon Tregaskis (and Patrice Lockert Anthony), who work in local food distribution, to table the TCRF approval vote over “profound inequities in the process to this point,” based on her argument that Black-owned or led organizations had been left behind during the distribution process, exacerbating the burdens those organizations faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Representatives of arts organizations showed up en masse, angry about being excluded from the final round of funding considerations. Rebecca Bradshaw of the Kitchen Theatre praised the other recipients but argued that the legislature should do more to help heal the community through art.

“We need your support to carry us through this moment,” Bradshaw said.

Tucker Davis, representing Running2Places, also commented his displeasure at how R2P had scored so highly on the application, yet was not selected. He joined a chorus of other figures from the arts community, though their pleas were not answered.

Second Wind Cottages

The first true debate of the night occurred, predictably, about one particular Recovery Fund recipient: Second Wind Cottages, the low-income housing development of 18 small cottages founded by Carmen Guidi behind his family’s auto body repair shop in Newfield. Their proposal to build an additional 25 small cabins near the existing property, was approved by the selection committee for $510,000 in funding to be voted on by the full legislature. Newfield officials immediately objected when notified, and thus began the battle.

While Second Wind’s proposal did eventually remain on the table after a substantial amount of grappling, it will have to be revisited once it has been reviewed under State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR). If it passes that review, however long that may take, it will then have to pass another vote of the full legislature to actually receive its funding.

Second Wind Executive Director David Shapiro and prominent homeless advocate and worker Richard Rivera both spoke in support of the project, emphasizing Second Wind’s success with the vulnerable populations already and the necessity of expanding Second Wind’s services further.

“Our proposal is not trying to solve the homeless issue in the city of Ithaca,” Shapiro said, clearly trying to intercept pushback that would come about the development being in Newfield as opposed to Ithaca, where there are more homeless people—or at least more visible. “Our proposal was offered to address the many reasons vulnerable populations face homelessness throughout Tompkins County.”

Legislator Randy Brown, who represents Newfield, introduced a resolution that would have pulled the project from consideration before the legislature and committed to reallocating the $510,000 to other proposals that had been rejected.

Brown was essentially acting as a direct line to the legislature from the Newfield Town Board, who had unanimously voted to object to the funding Second Wind was slated to receive. Newfield legislators stated a myriad of reasons for their opposition: long response times to Newfield for emergency responders, lateness of notice to Newfield residents and neighborhood safety, each mentioned by Brown.

“I represent my constituents,” Brown said. “I’m not opposed to some other programs Second Wind has done, they’ve done more to affect homelessness than any other entity in Tompkins County over the last 10 years, to my knowledge. But I think it’s not healthy for Newfield, and that’s why I present it.”

There was some further indirect discussion of the measure during an amendment discussion. Legislator Rich John said it stemmed from frustration that Second Wind officials felt over the slow progress, or lack thereof, of The Ithaca Designated Encampment Site (TIDES) proposal since it was introduced in March 2022. But John argued funding Second Wind’s site, at the proposed spot, would not effectively serve the population that needs it—such as in “the Jungle” encampment currently, where the cottages for TIDES would theoretically be built.

John also mentioned, while arguing to postpone the vote on Second Wind, that Ithaca Alderperson George McGonigal had told him that of the 10 members of Common Council, eight would support some sort of commitment to develop a TIDES-esque proposal with the county, which he continued to say would be the more efficient and effective method.

“We have the moment now where there is potential funding that could do something really transformative and meaningful where the problem exists,” John said, referring to TIDES. “I would like us to take more time at least and think about this.”

The discussion featured a wide variety of points. Legislator Greg Mezey strongly advocated for rejecting Brown’s resolution and allowing Second Wind to advance, arguing that the selection committee had thought enough of the proposal to advance it through the process and that it should be given a full chance to pass the legislature (and any approval would be dependent on a state environmental review). He also said the project is a direct way to impact homeless people’s lives, and stated he was “sorry Newfield doesn’t want to be a part of that.” Veronica Pillar agreed with his overall points as well.

Sigler pushed back, arguing that Mezey shouldn’t portray Newfield residents in that light considering the differences between the already-established Second Wind Cottages and the addition or expansion that would be built, which would have lower barriers to entry (though there appeared to be some disagreement about just how low those barriers would be), cabins instead of cottages, etc. He was followed by Travis Brooks, who said he had a late change of heart on the project and wanted to see it go forward.

“This does put a dent in our housing crisis,” Brooks said, emphasizing the urgency of the housing situation. “Some of these folks don’t need the services downtown the way others do. There’s enough room for these projects and four, five, six other projects to address housing. […] We have to put people in beds.”

Brown offered a rather strong rebuke to his colleagues. He said that the homeless issue has been worsening for a long time and that the City of Ithaca has “done nothing” to address it—and thanking Second Wind for filling the gaps. But he warned what situation letting the proposal pass would create.

“For decades it’s gone on in the city, so here’s a solution, and here’s the legislature to say ‘Oh boy, we’re gonna fix this problem, let’s send it to Newfield,'” Brown said sarcastically. “[Newfield] will get an attorney, and they’re gonna fight this. They’re not going to go for this and roll over. […] I can’t believe this is going to be denied, and it looks like it’s going to be. It’s going to be a fight.”

Tompkins County Recovery Fund winners

The list of 51 winners and amounts is too lengthy to list here, but it can be found in full on this page in the agenda. Second Winds is not listed because of the need for a SEQR declaration, as detailed above.

Klein, sounding very weary of the process, read a long statement before proceeding with the discussion, noting that the decisions of who to approve and reject were extremely hard and he realized the selections had generated discord among some in the community.

“Maybe that’s what we have here, a balance of unhappiness, and maybe that will help us achieve agreement,” Klein said, referencing a quote he had seen earlier from Namibian negotiator Pierre du Plessis. “One criteria that we did not use to allocate grant money was geographic area. There are no projects physically located in Enfield, Groton or Danby. But I have a list of bout 20 grant awardees who provide county-wide benefit, and it would not be hard to make the argument that even more fo these projects benefit the entire county.”

Thus begun the long-awaited amendment process. Brown introduced a slew of amendments to either cut or reduce funding to several of the applications. It should be noted he also had ideas to add funding to certain applications or passed-over projects, but money had to be freed somehow, like by reducing or cutting some applicants, before more applications were considered.

The longest discussion centered on Brown’s request to take Cayuga Health System’s $1.5 million approval off entirely, since he said the hospital system’s coffers are deep enough that they should be able to fill the $1.5 million hole. Brooks also suggested to talk to officials at the health system about whether the county could reallocate some portion of the $1.5 million and the two could meet somewhere in the middle on funding while still being able to complete the project—but the hospital had explicitly told the county that if it didn’t get $1.5 million at least, it couldn’t proceed with the project at all. It was additionally discussed that some money from the county’s fund balance could be used to make up part of the necessary $1.5 million. That would then free up an equal amount in the TCRF for reallocation, but County Administrator Lisa Holmes said such a maneuver would likely require a legal review and the thought seemed to lose momentum, though the fund balance could still be an option pending more legal information.

Eventually, all of Brown’s amendments were defeated, including any change in the hospital funding. Same with Sigler’s, and Mezey’s after him. Pillar suggested tabling the vote for a month and conducting an audit of the proposals that had been awarded, citing concerns expressed during public comment that the awards weren’t equitable, citing specifically a perceived lack of BIPOC-led organizations as well as certain municipalities, like Enfield, that didn’t see any projects get funded. That received some discussion but ultimately a steadfast desire to move forward won out. Klein also estimated that about $600,000 of the $6.5 million had been given to BIPOC-led organizations.

Finally, with prodding by chair Shawna Black, the legislature moved to its actual votes on the awards. Brown reiterated his argument that Newfield and Enfield had been unjustifiably ignored in the process and thus he could not support it.

“I feel that the committee didn’t even understand the transformative processes that Newfield and Enfield attempted to do,” Brown said, then detailing Newfield’s proposal. “The county had the opportunity to really lift up the town and their attitude is going to be the same as it’s been for many decades, that they’re on their own. And Enfield will feel the exact same way.”

Brown ended up being the sole opposing vote as the measure passed shortly after.

Other News and Notes

  • Former Tompkins County Legislature chairs Leslyn McBean-Clairborne and Martha Robertson both appeared during public comment to thank retiring Tompkins County Clerk Cathy Covert for her contribution to the county. “You had so much knowledge, you made us look intelligent,” McBean-Clairborne said. “You were the most gracious person, and I know that you will carry that forward in whatever it is you do and wherever it is you go.”
  • Several current legislators also thanked Covert for her years of service, with New York State Assemblymember Anna Kelles and current Tompkins County Legislature Chair Shawna Black both reading congratulatory proclamations to Covert as well.

Matt Butler

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