TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Tuesday’s Tompkins County Legislature meeting was relatively quick and quiet, mostly highlighted by legislature chair Shawna Black’s annual State of the County address laying out a roadmap for potential action in the coming year. 

You can view the agenda here and watch the full meeting here

Unsurprisingly, Black said the state of the county is “strong,” touting advances on certain initiatives during the last year before speaking about her aspirational direction for the county. Despite dissipating aid from COVID-19, Black said she optimistically foresees financial stability for the county, at least in the near-term. 

“Whereas last year we saw a record state budget, with a prolific economy recovering from COVID-19, I recognize that going into the 2023 budget we have concerns about the global economy and where things will shake out with inflation,” Black said. “These are critical discussions that must inform our decision-making. I know this legislature is at its best when we balance our concerns, tempered expectations and new ideas as we plan our budget. Historically we have been very careful stewards of public funds, and my hope is we will continue to have a robust organization and healthy fund balance that can help us weather another storm if needed.”

She continued on, saying that any success of the county is attributable to its staff members. That highlighted the importance of fostering good relationships with those workers while trying to make the county an attractive place to work for new employees who can help with the burden on the current workforce.

“We’re addressing our county’s most pressing issues,” Black said. “We also continue to make strides, even while recruiting new employees, which has become more challenging than ever.”

She also declared that “no one should feel left out by Tompkins County” when public services are concerned, reiterating that investment in those services needs to be a central point for the 2023 agenda. 

Speaking of those investments, the most high-profile investment the county made during the last year was the Community Recovery Fund, a multi-million program using leftover funds to award money to a large swath of initiatives submitted by community members and reviewed by a committee of legislators and outside consultants. 

“I believe the $6.5 million in investments will truly be transformative, but we’ve also heard loud and clear that certain areas continue to need funding, and our constituents are quick to remind us that the county should be doing more,” Black said. “We will continue to seek out other ways to meet these needs and find opportunities for organizations in our communities.”

Black went on to briefly mention investments in reimagining public safety, the county’s overall EMS situation and the local homeless issue, and said the time is over for discussion and investment, as the significance of those needs has only grown and action is necessary now. 

Black then announced committee assignments, which take effect at the beginning of February. The most significant change will be with the Planning, Development and Environmental Quality Committee, which will change to the Planning, Energy and Environmental Quality Committee. The change basically means that housing and economic development will be grouped together and under a different committee entirely. That means housing issues will be taken from their former place in the Health and Human Services Committee and under the umbrella of a new committee. Black said housing and economic development are her priorities for 2023, and they should be dealt with by a committee that can dedicate more of its time to them. 

There will also be another year of the Community Recovery Fund committee, nominally to monitor the efficacy of the grants that were awarded at the end of last year. Legislator Dan Klein will once again lead that committee. 

Tompkins County Departmental Accomplishments

Tompkins County Administrator Lisa Holmes delivered a “Departmental Accomplishments” presentation, recounting the work done by county staffers during 2022. It includes an extensive list of work done by each of the county’s 30 or so departments, and can be viewed in full here

“I’m so proud of what our staff has been able to accomplish in 2022. Many of these accomplishments are above and beyond what the day-to-day activities of our departments are, and represent our staff being responsive to changing technologies and increasing community or organizational needs,” Holmes said in a press release accompanying the accomplishment presentation.  “In 2023 we’re recruiting for many career opportunities to build on this work—I hope that community members will consider a career at Tompkins County.”

Board of Assessments Review

Perhaps the only topic that generated significant discussion on the agenda was the suspension of local Advisory Boards for Assessment Review, which serve as a sounding board of sorts for people upset with their property value assessments and who believe theirs should be revised. In theory, that could be a valuable tool, since property assessments are often the source of ire for residents of Tompkins County. 

But the primary argument against assembling them is that the boards are very little used and, apparently, aren’t all that effective. Even after a three year hiatus, the boards were brought back in 2022 but only saw 47 parcels come before them according to the resolution, equaling about 0.2 percent of the properties in the county. 

Legislator Mike Sigler voiced his opposition, saying that he believes that the review boards are a good way for residents to engage with their elected representatives. 

“Assessment is something that a lot of people have on their minds,” Sigler said. “It removes a barrier for them to come and talk to us.” 

Colleague Deborah Dawson countered that the residents who object to their assessments would likely be better served by going straight to Franklin’s office instead of using elected representatives who don’t actually know as much about the assessment methodology than Franklin and his staffers. 

“I just don’t think this is particularly the best form of engagement,” Dawson said. Legislator Greg Mezey echoed this. 

“It doesn’t do anything,” Mezey said. “The boards don’t have any teeth to sink into the concerns of the constituents. […] I just didn’t find it to be the most beneficial use of time.” 

The measure eventually passed. 

The rest of the agenda passed rather smoothly, though several committee heads have not had meetings since the first legislature meeting of the year, leaving their reports a bit empty. 

“Jungle” Clean-up

During the regular report from Ithaca Common Council member George McGonigal, he briefly mentioned a clean-up effort in “the Jungle,” the colloquial name for the homeless encampment that is largely 3in the southwest portion of Ithaca. The effort, carried out by Department of Public Works staffers for the City of Ithaca, starts Jan. 18 with an initial day-long effort that will target a small area of debris that has been left behind. 

McGonigal noted the department’s workers have a bit of extra time because of the relatively calm winter so far. 

“If we were in a normal winter wih a lot of snow, our extremely understaffed DPW wouldn’t have the manpower to do it,” McGonigal said. “I’ve gotten a clear signal from this body that this is a problem, this trash is a problem. We agree. […] For this one area of the Jungle, we’re going to make every effort to keep it cleaned up, period.”

He acknowledged that there are other encampments around that area of the city which would not yet be addressed, but which the city is cognizant of and knows have to be dealt with at some point, possibly by The Ithaca Designated Encampment Site (TIDES) proposal that is gradually moving through the formulation process with the City of Ithaca. 

McGonigal said the hope is for the city to pay for the cost of disposing the trash up front with the county chipping in costs later to reimburse the city for at least part of the cost. The total cost does depend on the total amount of trash collected and thrown away, which won’t be known until the effort is complete, but Tompkins County Recycling and Materials Management Director Barbara Eckstrom said the cost is per weight dumped. 

There was some discussion about how the city would dispose of specific items that are certain to be found during the cleanup process but aren’t actually allowed to be disposed in the county waste management facility due to Department of Environmental Conservation regulations. The tires and metallic objects McGonigal mentioned initially aren’t a problem, but legislator Deborah Dawson said items like drug paraphernalia could potentially hazardous. That was confirmed by Eckstrom, who further noted that fuel, medical waste, hazardous waste all cannot be taken by the facility. She said they’ve been assured that separation of those materials will be done at the site of the clean-up. 

Some county legislators asked about the city’s future plans for the homeless issue in Ithaca, mentioning that the clean-up will simply have to be held again in a few months and that there should be a plan in place for that. There does not appear to be a consistent maintenance plan in place, but McGonigal deferred to the TIDES proposal as a possible part of a solution. He said the city hopes to introduce a plan officially in the spring. 

“It’s going to be a small start, but the idea is that there are going to be parts of city property where camping will no longer be acceptable, and there will be parts of city property where it’s going to be not only acceptable but more comfortable and safer,” McGonigal said.

Matt Butler

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