Ithaca’s unionized city employees pack Common Council meeting ahead of 2023 budget vote

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Steven Mann, a building maintenance manager for the City of Ithaca, speaks at Wednesday night's Common Council meeting. (Ithaca Common Council YouTube)

Dozens of Ithaca city employees packed City Hall during Wednesday’s Common Council meeting. Alderpersons had originally planned to vote on the city’s sweeping 2023 budget; that vote was postponed.

For an hour and a half, unionized city workers spoke about their frustration with working conditions and ongoing union contract negotiations with the city. (Not all city employee union contracts are actually under negotiation at this time.)

Workers from nearly all city bargaining units were present during the public comment section of the meeting.

Some workers, like storm water engineer Laurie Ervay, said their wages and benefits are not competitive compared to other cities in the region. 

“I can attest that the insurance benefits in Chemung County are nearly the same, almost exactly the same in every aspect of what the City [of Ithaca] is offering,” Ervay said. “But I’m paying double — double — than what I did down there.”

Police union president Thomas Condzella and other members of the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association (IPBA) were also present, though the city had previously reached an agreement on a labor contract with the Ithaca Police Department.

Condzella said the city’s police force is struggling with hiring and retention, which he blamed in part on Ithaca’s Reimagining Public Safety project. It’s become an increasingly common complaint since the city began the police reform effort.

“Creating a new department and giving away the work of sworn police officers will never work and is unacceptable and disrespectful to organized labor,” Condzella said. “It is also union busting.”

One of the proposals laid out in a Reimagining Public Safety report was to create a new Department of Public Safety to oversee the Ithaca Police Department. But the report did not call for any personnel or budget cuts to the existing police force.

Recent efforts to make any changes to IPD’s budget have been met with staunch resistance. A proposal to temporarily re-allocate funds from seven long-vacant police officer positions failed earlier this week.

Ithaca’s Republican mayoral candidate Zach Winn called for the resignation of City Attorney Ari Levine, who among other things, is involved in the city’s union contract negotiations. Winn’s statement drew applause from many of the workers present in the audience.

Following the period of public comment, Ithaca Common Council members apologized and expressed appreciation for city workers, occasionally garnering applause.

The council also opted to delay a vote on the city’s 2023 budget until Nov. 9.

City Attorney Ari Levine said the budget as written already contains funds that can be used towards “reasonable increases for contracts.”

Ithaca Acting Mayor Laura Lewis issued a statement late Thursday afternoon in response to the meeting. Lewis reiterated her appreciation for city workers, but refuted claims the city was bargaining in bad faith. Lewis also defended Levine, who faced criticism during the meeting.

“The state of the City’s contract negotiations is by no means in shambles,” Lewis wrote, noting the city had recently negotiated several union contract renewals, including IPD’s long expired union contract.

In the statement, Lewis said the city spends about 75% of its budget on its workforce, and that it is difficult to balance tax increases with labor contract negotiations.

“I regret that most of the Common Council failed miserably last night in recognizing or conveying the tough choices and genuine intent that consistently motivates our negotiating team in the City’s best interests,” Lewis wrote.

You can read more about what’s in Ithaca’s proposed 2023 budget here.