There was a lot on the docket during the most recent meeting of the Tompkins County Legislature, plus some debate not tied to any specific motions. Here’s a recap.
Reimagining Public Safety ethics investigation
There was notably no discussion of the two ongoing ethics investigations into Ithaca’s Reimagining Public Safety effort, despite clashes this week between the county investigation lead Rich John and Ithaca Acting Mayor Laura Lewis.
Both leaders were present during the meeting Tuesday night, but the subject of the investigation did not come up outside of public comments.
Law enforcement hiring woes
Police funding wasn’t on the schedule at Tuesday night’s Tompkins County Legislature meeting, but it took up a good amount of time and debate.
The Ithaca Common Council recently approved an agreement to increase the Ithaca Police Department’s starting bonus for certain police hires.
Both Tompkins County Sheriff Derek Osborne and acting Ithaca Police Chief John Joly were on hand to ask the county Legislature to increase funding to support their hiring efforts.
“There’s no doubt staffing is critically low for us. We’re at about 20 percent vacant positions right now,” Joly said.
Joly said by the end of the month, there will be 16 vacant officer positions within the Ithaca Police Department. Many of those vacancies exist because officers are away on a leave of absence. Joly said there’s also a recent hire who is still in training.
Some legislators, like Republican Mike Sigler said Ithaca’s police reform effort could be pushing officers into an early retirement or scaring away potential recruits.
“I don’t actually think that this is a policing problem or a police department problem,” Sigler said. “And we’re spending an awful lot of time on reimagining these departments, when the Ithaca Police Department, I thought, was a model for the nation.”
Legislator Travis Brooks, a Democrat, said it wasn’t fair to pin police staffing woes solely on the Reimaging Public Safety effort.
“This wasn’t created from just Reimagining [Public Safety],” Brooks said. “I will say there were some officers that left because of Reimagining [Public Safety.] Some of them probably should, because we can’t sit here and act like everything was great before.”
Brooks said some issues predate the police reform effort… like the lack of a union contract and the prior downsizing of Ithaca’s police force under former Mayor Svante Myrick.
Ithaca and Tompkins County are not alone; law enforcement agencies around the nation have reported difficulties with recruitment in recent months.
The issue came up during a discussion of recent criminal activity on Ithaca’s State Street.
Ithaca acting Mayor Laura Lewis said the city is working with IPD to potentially increase police presence in the area. Lewis said the city is also considering adding surveillance cameras, improving lighting and installing license plate readers in the area.
Most of the public comments were in favor of transitioning the county’s public transit system, TCAT, to be fare free.
TCAT board member and county Legislator Dan Klein said the transit system’s board voted recently to begin a study on the feasibility of making TCAT fare free, or “Free-CAT”, as it’s been dubbed.
Fare-free bus service has been a major goal for some transit advocates, including progressives on the Ithaca Common Council.
Eric Nord was one of several people who spoke at the recent Legislature meeting.
“Beyond the significant economic and quality-of-life benefits of this program, improving and expanding public transportation is an essential cornerstone of our commitment to addressing climate change,” Nord said.
Nord and other Free-CAT advocates said the bus system can eliminate fares if the board was willing to increase Cornell’s share of the bill, though some leaders caution it’s easier said than done.
Last year, Cornell University paid TCAT $3.3 million in monthly payments to provide bus service to its students and through its campus. Those payments make up roughly 20 percent of the bus system’s yearly operating budget of $16 million.
Fares from non-Cornell riders made up just 3% of TCAT’s revenue in 2020 and 2021.
In May, the mass transit system began offering free transit for all kids under the age of 17.
Also on the docket was a presentation of the county’s new “Resiliency and Recovery Plan” by California based engineering firm, Tetra Tech.
Revised FEMA flood maps released this spring increased the number of homes and businesses considered to be in a flood zone.
The plan could potentially allow home and business owners to get partially subsidized flood insurance.
It also includes drought mitigation, a disaster clean-up plan and an economic recovery plan.
Deconstruction of former COVID testing site
Lawmakers opted to delay a vote to determine the fate of an aging county-owned building at 412 North Tioga Street, which served briefly as a COVID-19 testing site in 2020.
Legislator and building inspector Anne Koreman cautioned the building will need a new roof soon and may not make it through the winter.
Koreman added the building would require extensive work to bring it up to current code.
Enfield resident Robert Lynch testified during the public comment period and asked legislators to reconsider deconstructing the building.
Legislator Dan Klein said the building, a former dentist’s office, could potentially be important to the community. He called for the Legislature to delay a decision until the fall, and after seeking out public suggestions to determine a new use for the building.
After previous debate, the Legislature passed a resolution that would make Tompkins County a so-called “sanctuary” for people under investigation for seeking or aiding in an abortion.
The move comes after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the federal right to seek an abortion.
Ithaca passed a similar resolution in early July.
Earlier this year, an independent redistricting committee suggested a map that would result in 16 county legislative districts, an increase from the current 14.
The Legislature voted to hold a public hearing to discuss the plan at the next county Legislature meeting on August 16.
Several lawmakers voiced their opposition to increasing the number of legislators.
Legislator Rich John expressed concern that the maps would not be able to take into account soon-to-be completed housing development. However, map makers can only consider the population at the time of the last census when drawing new district lines.
And the Legislature is joining the City of Ithaca in condemning what it considers union busting at a former Starbucks location.
The Legislature adopted a resolution calling on the National Labor Relations Board to investigate Starbucks for unfair labor practices at its College Avenue location in Collegetown.
Starbucks gave workers a week’s notice before shutting down the store in early June. Workers there voted to unionize earlier this year. They later went on strike after they claimed an uncleaned grease trap created unsafe working conditions.
Legislator Veronica Pillar said she felt the Legislature should act to show support for the workers.
“Since we have government channels to intervene in labor disputes, as a government entity closer to this particular issue, we’re going to call upon that existing channel, the National Labor Relations Board to, you know, push back and take this really seriously,” Pillar said.
The resolution passed the Legislature 10-4. Some legislators who voted against the measure said they don’t believe it’s the county’s role to involve itself in labor disputes.