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Highlights of the September 19, 2023 meeting of the Tompkins County Legislature

Tompkins County Legislature Hears 2024 Proposed Budget Presentation

Tompkins County Administrator Lisa Holmes presented her proposed 2024 Tompkins County Budget. The recommended operating budget totals $245M, which would be structured on a 2% tax levy increase from 2023, to $54.4M raised through local property taxes in 2024. The 2% levy increase was tentatively set by the Legislature as a target earlier in 2023 and equals a property tax rate of $5.32 per $1,000 of assessed property value, down from last year’s $5.65 per $1,000. A 2% levy increase would increase the tax bill of a median-valued home ($249,000) by $53 for the year.

For each year’s budget the County Administrator outlines economic, financial, and situational indicators that drive local taxation and spending decisions. For the 2024 budget, a mix of national indicators including inflation and consumer confidence, New York State mandate cost increases, and local indicators of needs serviced by Tompkins County all played into Administrator Holmes’ budget preparation.

National Economic Indicators

  • While inflation has reduced steadily over the past year, interest rates have risen, in turn increasing household debt and reducing consumer spending power.
  • Federal student loan borrowers will resume payments in 2023, reducing consumer spending power.
  • While consumer confidence is regaining ground in 2023 it has been on a several-year downward trend.

State and Local Financial and Economic Indicators

  • As of July 2023, Tompkins County has an unemployment rate of 2.9%, compared to 3.3% for the Southern Tier region and 4.1% for New York State as a whole. Tompkins County continues to have a low unemployment rate which limits the number of available workers and thus productivity and the ability to grow the local economy.
  • There are just over 4,800 local households receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP), up 7% from 2022.
  • The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program has seen an 8% increase in participants since January 2022, though has declined steadily since 2019 – the prevailing thought is that COVID relief programs addressed needs for families in need reducing the use of this program.

Three large New York State mandate increases are impacting the budget by several million dollars. New York is taking funds that the federal government sends to counties to cover Medicaid assistance, which will cost Tompkins County $1.6M in 2024. The County will see a $1.1M increase in cost to provide Safety Net services. Assigned Counsel, the program that assigns an attorney to individuals unable to afford one as is their constitutional right, will see an increase in the rates paid to assigned attorneys by $83 per hour to $158 per hour with the State only reimbursing 50% - this will equal a 2024 additional local cost of $367,000.

The County will also see an increase of $5.3M in local labor costs for County employees. Several collective bargaining agreements are currently being negotiated and the results of the 2023 County Compensation Analysis are being implemented across different titles. The County is budgeting for 805 full-time equivalent employees, on par with 2023 numbers. In order to meet the 2% tax levy target, several unfilled positions were reduced, though the County Administrator only reduced positions that were supported by local dollars from the tax levy across several departments so no one department was disproportionately impacted.

The Ithaca Tompkins International Airport continues to experience industry challenges and low passenger numbers. Before the COVID-19 pandemic which upended air travel, the revenues expected from passenger fees were planned to pay off debt used to finance the terminal expansion and upgrades, though as the industry has taken longer than expected to rebound and the Airport has lost some air service, local tax dollars are recommended to be used to pay off the debt and assist with operating expenses. The budget funds the Airport’s customs facility in 2024, though Administrator Holmes is recommending alternative funding options or a suspension of customs operations in future budget years. It costs Tompkins County $220,000 each year to operate the customs facility and it has only been able to achieve $14,000 in yearly revenue.

In addition to the operating budget the County Administrator presented proposed changes to the $141M Capital Plan which includes several facilities and machinery projects in 2024. Due to revenue shortfalls several projects are delayed or not included in 2024, including the second and third phases of the Green Facilities Plan and the potential Commercial Driver’s License Testing Site. Other reductions in Highway Machinery, culvert replacement, computer replacement, and natural resource planning were also recommended.

Another local driver for budget considerations is sales tax revenue. While sales tax has grown 3.9% per year on average from 2012-2022, the 2024 recommended budget makes a modest estimate of 2% growth over 2022 actual receipts, totaling $43.45M.

The Tompkins County Budget process includes consideration of target or one-time over target requests (OTRs). Target OTRs increase the tax levy whereas one-time OTRs use one-time funds such as general fund balance. Departments and not-for-profit agencies supported by the County are initially assigned a fiscal target based on the proposed tax levy increase, in this case a 2% increase. Anything requested above the fiscal target is considered for inclusion in the budget by the Administrator as an OTR. Due to budgetary constraints no target OTRs are recommended in the 2024 recommended budget by the Administrator because they would increase the levy beyond 2%, though $3.5M of one-time requests are recommended. Many OTRs, both one-time and target, are being presented to the Legislature for further consideration.

In addition to the recommended budget with a 2% tax levy increase options at 3.54% and 5% increases were offered as well. A 3.54% levy increase would be at what New York State refers to as the “Property Tax Cap,” a formula dictated by the state to reduce property tax increases in municipalities such as Tompkins County – though it can be overridden with a local law following a public hearing. The option meeting, but not exceeding, the tax cap would restore several unfilled positions and grant departments additional target OTRs. The option exceeding the tax cap and raising the levy to 5% would restore all unfilled positions and fund several additional target OTRs – this would represent a true “maintenance of effort” budget, continuing programs that the County is currently on track to do on an ongoing basis based on prior years’ decision making. The 5% levy increase maintenance of effort budget would equal an $88 increase in the property tax bill for a median value home in Tompkins County.

Administrator Holmes ended her presentation by outlining several risks to the County’s 2024 budget, including the increased need for emergency housing shelter beds, threats to the airport’s financial success, additional state mandate increases, and decisions needing to be made on whether to continue several positions supported through OTRs in past years.

Following the presentation Legislators discussed the process moving forward to adoption of the 2024 Budget. Legislator Randy Brown (R-Newfield) remarked on the County’s unassigned fund balance, stating that it has continued to increase and offering that more of it could be leveraged to meet local needs – though other Legislators quickly cautioned Brown that in order to best spend funds above the agreed-upon 2% tax levy target presentations from departments must be considered one-by-one. Once the Legislature determines which requests should be funded, there is debate around how best to fund those requests.

The Legislature will continue to meet in the form of the Expanded Budget Committee which includes all Legislators. Results of the whole process will be brought forth to a public hearing and then voted upon by the full Legislature.

Resolutions Pass Moving Forward Public Safety Building Capital Planning

The Legislature unanimously (14-0) accepted a recent report on the desired functionality of the Tompkins County Jail and renovations to the Public Safety Building. The report was completed by an appointed Jail Working Group and outlines improvements that the working group found to be desired by key stakeholders including the Sheriff, Jail staff, community members, local advocates, and individuals who are formerly incarcerated. It is anticipated that the report will help inform future plans to renovate the building and jail facilities.

A resolution in support of obtaining cost estimates to renovate the public safety building based on Public Safety review and Jail working group report passed unanimously. Now, the Facilities and Infrastructure committee will develop a timeline and cost estimates for schematic designs and improvements as outlined in the working group ‘s report, along with timelines for potential project completion. The County Administrator will communicate with the State Commission of Corrections regarding state requirements and approvals necessary

Both Legislators Rich John (D-Ithaca, Chair of the Public Safety Committee) and Mike Lane (D-Dryden, Chair of the Facilities and Infrastructure Committee) thanked their colleague, Legislator Travis Brooks (D-Ithaca) for his leadership of the Working Group.

Among Other Business

The month of September 15th, 2023, through October 15th, 2023 is Latinx Heritage Month in Tompkins County. A proclamation by the Legislature celebrates Latinx Heritage, history, and culture, and salutes the Latino Civic Association of Tompkins County for their contributions to the region. Lourdes Cabrera from the Tompkins County Office of Human Rights read the proclamation in Spanish, and the text of the proclamation is available in both Spanish and Portuguese in the Legislature’s agenda packet. Ana Ortiz, Director of No Mas Lagrimas/No More Tears, was on hand to accept the proclamation and spoke about her local experience as a woman of Latinx heritage as well as founding and directing the not-for-profit organization. Ortiz was born in Puerto Rico and came to America when she was 16, she founded No Mas Lagrimas/No More Tears in 2009.

Chairwoman Shawna Black (D-Ithaca) made a statement on local transportation in her Chair’s report, the full text is included below:

We’ve been hearing loud and clear lately about how transportation options and access are top of mind for many residents. We’ve received feedback in public comment, in many conversations with constituents, and in our strategic planning process. It’s clear that there are opportunities to improve access to our public and provide sustainable transportation options.

For the County that means continuing to invest in and advocate for TCAT. No matter how much we want them to succeed, hiring enough drivers and mechanics is a challenge that’s going to be difficult to overcome. No one likes seeing routes delayed or cut, and the employees who work so hard every day at TCAT know that better than any of us.

I understand it’s hard to be patient with things like worker shortages when you can’t get where you need to go. We are seeing this in all industries including retail, restaurants, and airports.

There have to be more solutions for our County. Relying on a network of accessible transportation options is what will ultimately keep our community moving forward.

That’s why I’m very proud to say that Ithaca Carshare will be allowed to restart their operations. I hope the campaign to save Carshare will spur more people to use the service and to look at the need to own personal vehicles.

More shared transportation options mean less potholes and less traffic issues, two issues I think we can all agree on. I’m looking forward to the County and our partners continuing to address transportation strategically.

Chairwoman Black shared an update that the search for a new County Attorney has begun, with applications due on October 15. Black stated, “This is a key position for the organization and community, I am hopeful that we will get several excellent applicants – if you know someone, please share the job posting with them.” The job posting can be accessed at

Chairwoman Black also established the Downtown Facilities Special Committee of the Legislature which will be chaired by Legislator Randy Brown (R-Newfield) with Vice Chair Susan Currie (D-Ithaca). The Special Committee will be charged with a scope to review of the County’s current space needs including office space, parking requirements, and community needs.  In addition, the special committee shall oversee the process moving forward with the necessary planning that includes the preparation and review of architectural and engineering schematic and design documents for the construction of a Center of Government building in the 300 block of North Tioga Street.  The special committee will also determine the options for departmental placement within downtown facilities, including the Center of Government building, and present options to the Tompkins County Legislature for consideration. The membership of the special committee will also include Legislators Deborah Dawson (D-Lansing), Rich John (D-Ithaca), Mike Lane (D-Dryden), Greg Mezey (D-Dryden), and Veronica Pillar (D-Ithaca).

The Legislature unanimously accepted the Fiscal Year 2022 Audited Financial Report. Conrad White, an Auditor from Insero & Co. reviewed the County’s financial audit during the meeting.

The Legislature unanimously adopted a Lactation Accommodations Policy. The policy commits Tompkins County to providing a supportive environment where employees may privately breastfeed or express breastmilk for up to three years following childbirth, this would include adequate space and access to refrigeration. The policy also prohibits discrimination against employees who are breastfeeding in the workplace. Legislator Mike Lane (D-Dryden) spoke about how New York State had previously made breastfeeding an “absolute right,” and thanked Deputy County Administrator Bridgette Nugent for her leadership developing the policy, “it’s so important that this is setting forth that what we do for our employees is pretty important, particularly those who have had a baby or are breastfeeding.” Chairwoman Shawna Black stated, “As someone who has nursed three babies, I love this policy and I think it is long overdue.”

A resolution accepting the recommendations of the Opioid Task Force and committing to funding $722,374 in grants to local organizations serving those with substance use disorders passed unanimously, 13-0 (Legislator Travis Brooks (D-Ithaca) recused himself as he works with one of the applicants). More details on the task force and the funding results from its process can be found in a recent announcement.

A resolution to commit $60,000 to a Strategic Tourism Implementation Grant for the Downtown Ithaca Alliance passed 11-3 (Legislators Dan Klein (D-Danby), Lee Shurtleff (R-Groton), and Mike Lane (D-Dryden) opposed). The funding will support a retail business attraction incentive program that will bring new businesses to Downtown Ithaca from outside of the area and provide funds to those businesses who sign a three-year lease as a retail tenant. The funds will come from hotel room occupancy taxes.

A resolution passed unanimously that will restructure the Tompkins County Solid Waste Fee for colleges and universities to be a billing unit based on student enrollment. The fee restructuring followed substantive discussions with each local campus.