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Highlights of the February 6, 2024 meeting of the Tompkins County Legislature

Resolution Fails Calling on Federal Officials to Push for End of Violence in Israel, Gaza, and the Middle East

A resolution that was developed following several months of debate and discussion on the topic of calling for federal officials to push for an end to the violence in the Middle East failed with a vote of 7-6 (Legislator Deborah Dawson (D-Lansing) excused, Legislators Randy Brown (R-Newfield), Rich John (D-Ithaca), Mike Lane (D-Dryden), Lee Shurtleff (R-Groton), Mike Sigler (R-Lansing), and Dan Klein (D-Danby) opposed). For the vote to pass it would have required 8 votes, a majority of the entire Legislature.

Legislator Veronica Pillar (D-Ithaca) opened the debate by thanking public commenters and listing the resolution’s calls to push for an end to violence in the Middle East; strongly condemn all forms of intimidation, discrimination, terrorism, and hate; affirm that the actions of specific organizations or governments in no way justify any form of anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, or anti-Palestinian words or actions; and remind all residents that the Tompkins County Office of Human Rights is available to support anyone experiencing discriminatory treatment.

Susan Currie, who serves as the Legislature’s liaison to the Human Rights Commission spoke about that group’s work to advise the Legislature, along with her hope “that the future brings a lasting peace” where human rights and dignity are respected by all. Legislator Shawna Black (D-Ithaca) expressed her gratitude to the Commission and the Legislators who contributed to the drafting of the resolution, adding comments about other opinions received by the Legislature, “I also want to make the public aware that despite most of the people in this room are supporting this resolution, 300-500 emails came from people of the Jewish faith urging us not to support this resolution,” though some debate was had about the effort to use similar or “form” emails in a campaign to sway the Legislature. Before ultimately voting in favor of the resolution, Black said that she appreciated receiving postcards in the mail including one from a 12-year-old Palestinian boy who moved here two years ago, “what he wrote was ‘stop sending weapons to Palestine’ and I think for me the impact of that postcard was really eye opening… I want him to know that postcard meant a lot to me.”

Legislator Travis Brooks (D-Ithaca), who helped to draft the resolution, said that “Over my lifetime there’s been so many issues that have faced folks who look like me and other disenfranchised populations and I’ve watched people be complicit in their silence, and I refuse to do that. I refuse not to vote. Some of my colleagues will say this is a feel-good vote and we shouldn’t be doing that, but I’ve been here for two years, and I’ve been part of a lot of feel-good votes… I don’t accept that to be the case. This is about peace, this is about being humans, this is about taking care of each other … I hope that enough of you choose to side on humanity.”

Legislator Rich John spoke in opposition of the resolution while thanking those who spoke out on this resolution, “… as a Legislature we often disagree, I look around at my colleagues and I’m very confident that even if we’re disagreeing, we’re doing our homework and on the issues that we were sent here to really look at, local issues,” comparing that to what “we’re being asked to do here” with a resolution on an issue “very far away from us.” John concluded, “We have none of the authority that we bring to a local issue on something like this. We have no better judgement than those of you in the room… I can’t tell you that this is the right course of action.” 

Legislator Greg Mezey (D-Dryden) added his opinion that “we have a responsibility to lift up voices and make sure they are heard. I look at this as taking up the voice of our community. There’s hurt, there’s pain, there’s suffering going on right here in Tompkins County… War is ugly and awful but it should not be fought with civilians and innocent people should not be party to those conflicts. How anybody could think standing up for what’s right for humanity is not our place… I don’t understand that.”

Legislators Lee Shurtleff (R-Groton) and Randy Brown (R-Newfield) spoke in opposition to the resolution on the grounds of their interest to spend the time debating local issues rather than on issues of national interest or foreign policy. Legislator Greg Mezey challenged his colleagues to file resolutions on the local topics that they hope receive a more vigorous debate. Mezey also cited the local impacts of the issue with threats made at Cornell University receiving a swift response from the New York State Governor. Legislator Mike Sigler (R-Lansing) refuted the resolution and spoke about his support for Israel.

Among Other Business

A proclamation was read celebrating Black History Month in Tompkins County. The proclamation detailed the 2024 theme, “African Americans and the Arts,” which celebrates the unbroken chain of Black art production from antiquity to the present, including Black-led artistic movements such as hip-hop and Afrofuturism. The proclamation also spoke to contemporary issues around racism in the United States, stating “societal and political forces escalate to limit access to and exercise of the ballot, eliminate the teaching of Black history, and work to push us back into the 1890’s, we can only rely on our capacity to resist. We must mobilize our resources, human and material, and fight for freedom, justice, and equality, self-determination, and social transformation.”

Tompkins County Director of Assessment Jay Franklin presented on how local municipal tax rates are calculated. Franklin detailed how the rate is related to property assessments, which his office oversees to apportion the total levy for each municipality. Franklin outlined the impacts on property taxpayers when the math that makes up a tax rate is calculated, including that a property assessment increase does not inherently result in a tax bill increase – rather, a tax rate equals an increase in a property tax bill even if it is steady at a 0% increase when property values increase. Franklin shared that an annual report from the Assessment Department will be on the Legislature’s March Government Operations Committee agenda, on this topic the annual report states, “An assessment is not a tax but rather a way to apportion the amount of money that the taxing jurisdictions wish to generate. Each assessed value represents the proportionate share of the pie that each property owner will be responsible for. The individual taxing jurisdictions determine the overall size of the pie while the proportionate assessed value cuts the pie into individual pieces.”