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Highlights of the October 17, 2023 meeting of the Tompkins County Legislature

Resolution to Support Israel Withdrawn, Discussion on War in Gaza

Dozens of Tompkins County residents joined the Legislature during its October 17, 2023 meeting to hear from Legislators and provide public comment on the topic of the war in Gaza. The meeting began with comments from Chairwoman Shawna Black (full text included below).

It’s hard to express in a short Chair’s report how difficult it is to find the right words to say about the war in Gaza. I’m heartbroken and frustrated.

As a mother of three kids, it’s heartbreaking to watch the news. To see the death of helpless children and people just trying to survive is tragic beyond words.  

It’s frustrating to see a tragedy halfway around the world because it’s not something that we can solve from this room. We’re a group that takes action and we tend to take strong stances. As lawmakers, we are elected to make good decisions, and most of us pride ourselves on our problem-solving skills.

I can’t imagine a “best case scenario” for this war. It’s frustrating to feel stunned. I know many of you in this room share that feeling.

Even while we’re heartbroken and stunned we can listen, make space for conversation, and feel empathy for our neighbors.   

I’d like to thank our Chief Diversity and Equity officer Charlene Holmes for helping to make a productive space for listening and conversation among County employees. Last week she sent an email to all County employees with the subject:  Safe Space for Discussion and Support / Israel-Hamas war. And my instant reaction was fear and concern about what it would be like, in a time when people are so frustrated.

Yesterday, I attended that zoom event and while I won’t go into detail - I was comforted to know many people have the same sense of helplessness and sadness as myself. It eases the frustration knowing that many of our colleagues have great hearts and feel pain for people around the world.

I want to thank you Charlene for bringing us all together in a safe space. 

I made a statement the day after the Hamas terrorists cowardly attacked the people of Israel on their holy day.

I continue to condemn terrorist attacks and express my sympathy for the people of Israel and our Jewish community that have endured centuries of devastation and destruction at the hands of others.

The more I research the history and hear stories and educate myself … I realize that there are many others, including Palestinians who continue to be victim to these extremists and aggressive acts of war. This isn’t a black and white topic with one single right or wrong answer. 

I also want to extend my sympathies to the people in Palestine that are trapped in their homes, unable to move or seek refuge under their tyrant leaders.

Peace in the Middle East is not an unattainable goal, diplomats and leaders everywhere should not lose sight of peace and nonviolence.

So despite all 14 of us that are gathered around this table - that want to create change and solve this massive problem … it’s outside of our power. And that’s frustrating.

What I personally have found solace in is listening to stories from my neighbors, from our employees, and I continue to be in awe of the amazing community we have built around us.

A resolution in support of Israel drafted in the days after the first terrorist attacks was initially proposed by Legislator Greg Mezey (D-Dryden), though he withdrew it from consideration. He explained the rationale for both posing the resolution and then withdrawing it, “this resolution that I originally submitted was in response to the terrorist attack on October 7 and to express our support and sympathy for those affected. I realize that over the last several days this conflict situation, tragedy in the region, has evolved and continues to evolve, and the resolution as submitted needs to be pulled back and we need to take a moment to rethink a more nuanced resolution calling for a ceasefire from all sides, a release of hostages, and peace in the region.” Mezey spoke about his experience listening to and reading public comment, and that those thoughtful messages make a difference.

Subsequently, Legislator Mike Sigler (R-Lansing) moved the resolution as a member filed item. Sigler read the text of the resolution in support of Israel, arguing that he found nothing objectionable within it. The resolution failed to be added to the agenda with a vote of 2-12, with Legislators Lee Shurtleff (R-Groton) and Sigler in favor. 

Resolution To Accept Tentative 2024 Tompkins County Budget Passes Following Amendments

An amended resolution adopting amendments to the 2024 Tompkins County Budget and 2024-2028 Capital Program passed 10-4 (Legislators Mezey (D-Dryden), Shurtleff (R-Groton), Sigler (R-Lansing), and Brown (R-Newfield) opposed).  The resolution sets the tax levy increase at 2%, equaling an approximate $52.91 increase (to $1,325) in County taxes on a media priced home of $249,000. A total of $53,445,119 will be levied from property taxes to support the 2024 Tompkins County budget.

The Legislature considered several amendments regarding the tax levy and how best to use the County’s fund balance, or savings, to reduce the burden on property tax payers. The amendment offered by Legislator Mike Lane (D-Dryden) to settle on 2% was ultimately agreed upon, but followed a 0% increase proposed by Legislator Dan Klein (D-Danby) that would be supported by a more significant use of available fund balance, and a proposed 2.64% increase from Legislator Deborah Dawson (D-Lansing) using no additional fund balance. The County’s fund balance has increased in recent years due to a strong local economy and increased sales tax revenues and is broken out into several segments set aside for specific purposes – leaving some unassigned fund balance to be used in case of emergency or to help offset the local tax levy for the County’s budget.

Legislator Klein’s amendment to set a 0% levy increase passed during a previous meeting of the Expanded Budget Committee, though not every Legislator was present for the vote. The initial resolution on the floor for this meeting reflected Klein’s amendment, though Legislators changed course and ultimately decided on a 2% increase with the full body present.

Defending her proposed amendment of a 2.64% levy increase, Legislator Dawson argued that the practice of using fund balance to offset the tax levy increase each year “is unsustainable,” and outlined her perspective on the macroeconomic forces like interest rates and inflation that influence the local economy and consumer spending, thus sales tax revenues and other County revenues. Locally, she cited anticipating New York State budget gaps, the limited “free to spend” fund balance held by the County, needed funding for local reserve accounts, and increases in state mandates such as Medicaid costs as challenges to the economic outlook.

Legislator Greg Mezey (D-Dryden) responded that property tax assessments have increased over the past several years (which results in an increased property tax payment even if the tax levy increase is 0%) and that he feels the County does have the financial health and reserves to weather unexpected expenses. Mezey went further to outline the areas where fund balances are reserved: “we can weather this better than the taxpayer can weather the increase.” Mezey continued, “I feel confident in our financial position at this point even using fund balances…” to zero out the tax levy increase. He pointed out that some of the reserve funds are specifically set aside to address challenges or weather economic hardships.

Randy Brown (R-Newfield) spoke about his interest in the use of fund balance to keep the levy flat at a 0% increase. He said, “this is an opportunity for the legislature to say ‘we hear you,’ ‘we see you’” to local taxpayers. The 2022 and 2023 Tompkins County Budgets were supported by a 0% tax levy increase and the use of fund balance to offset the needed funds.

Several Legislators spoke about the County’s needs and how those would be best supported by a 2-or-2.64% tax levy increase. Legislator Rich John (D-Ithaca) pointed out that a 2.64% increase isn’t even matching the rate of inflation, and that reserving fund balance while raising taxes at a limited rate would “set the County up for success” in 2024 if it turned out to be a good economic year. Legislator Mike Lane (D-Dryden) agreed that an increase would be reasonable, in part to help cover salary increases for the County workforce and its bargaining units.

Chairwoman Shawna Black (D-Ithaca) brought up “a very true reality” that the County could have an emergency project come up that could cost millions of dollars, “our job is taking care of people and the one thing we pride ourselves in is the service we provide to the people who live here. We take care of people.” Black shared that she feels the County would need those funds in the future and should conserve its fund balance while raising the tax levy this year.

Legislator Travis Brooks (D-Ithaca) spoke about the additional increased costs faced by local residents, including increased insurance costs for those in a newly mapped flood zone, and utility rate increases. Brooks shared that he was torn and ultimately voted in favor of the 2% increase amendment offered by Legislator Lane.   

A public hearing will be held on Monday, October 30 at 7:00p.m. and the final 2024 budget will be voted on by the Legislature in its November 8 meeting.

Among Other Business

A resolution passed unanimously (14-0) establishing the 2024 solid waste annual fee at $80 per billing unit. The resolution includes adjusted fees for local higher education institutions.