Highlights of the August 5, 2003 meeting of the
Tompkins County Legislature
A local second-hand smoke ban, intended to back up the state's expanded Clean Indoor Air Act, passed by a 9 - 5 vote of the Tompkins County Legislature. Championed by Michael Lane (D, Dryden), the new county law mirrors the state law forbidding smoking in most workplaces, including restaurants and bars. The law will go into effect within 20 days. Enforcement of the state law is unchanged by the local ordinance. Owners, managers, and operators are responsible for informing employees and patrons and assuring compliance. Complaints of violations may be made to the Environmental Health Division of the County Health Department. Contacts: Michael Lane, 844-8440; Martha Robinson, Chair, Health & Human Services Committee, 272-0584.

August is a difficult month for the Tompkins County Administrator, who must scrutinize operating and capital budget requests for the year to come and prepare a spending recommendation for the Legislature. The requests for 2004 total $14.3 million over last year's funding levels and if approved, would boost the county property tax rate by 47 percent. The tax rate would have to go up by almost 30 percent just to meet a predicted $4.4 million increase in the cost of mandated services plus contractual pay increases and the cost of fringe benefits, County Administrator Steve Whicher reported. Departments aren't presenting "wish lists," Legislature Chair Tim Joseph (D, City of Ithaca) pointed out. For the most part they are merely showing what it costs to continue delivering services.

It is generally recognized, even in this preliminary stage of budget review, that a drop in the potential tax rate can't occur without significant cuts to programs and the workforce. Legislature Chair Tim Joseph (D, Town of Ithaca) proposed to the Legislators that they make Whicher's job easier by giving him a more specific directive than simply "cut the budget," a proposition that requires the Administrator to make difficult policy decisions that more properly belong to the elected officials. The Legislature agreed by a vote of  9 - 5 to choose a target tax rate increase of 5 percent and to ask Whicher to submit a budget that achieves that tax rate. Few on the Legislature expect a 5 percent tax rate increase to be more than a starting point for restoring some of the proposed cuts, but the guideline will help the Legislators and the public see what services would be sacrificed at that level. Contacts: Tim Joseph, Legislature Chair, 274-5434, 277-2519; Stephen Whicher, County Administrator, 274-5551.

The Tompkins County Legislature will take its third look in 25 years at off-site betting on horse races as a revenue source. By a 12 - 2 vote, a public hearing to gain input on a possible local law allowing Off-Track Betting (OTB) parlors to open here was scheduled for 5:30 p.m., August 19, in the County Courthouse. The County could earn an estimated $200,000 - $300,000 a year in OTB revenues. Tompkins is one of 13 counties in the Catskill OTB Region. Nine of those counties participate in the OTB program. Revenues are collected from a 5 percent surcharge on winnings and are divided among the participating counties according to population and the volume of money wagered. According to the Catskill OTB office, in 2002 counties near Tompkins took in $100,000 to over $1 million in OTB revenues. If the County Legislature were to adopt Off-Track Betting, residents could call for a permissive referendum in the next general election to overturn the decision. Signatures equaling 10 percent of the vote in Tompkins County in the last gubernatorial election must be collected from registered voters in order to put the question on the ballot. According to Election Commissioner Elizabeth Cree, 2,819 signatures would be required. If there is no attempt to call for a referendum, the law would go into effect 45 days following its adoption. OTB was rejected by voters twice in the past, in 1978 and 1991. Contact: Peter Penniman, Chair, Budget & Capital Committee, 387-3928, 387-5897.

Tompkins County is giving up its free culvert installation service. Up to now, the County Highway Division has provided work crews to install drainage culverts under private driveways where they cross the County right-of-way. Property owners have had to pay a $100 permit fee and provide the culvert pipe; the County has provided labor and any other materials needed. Under the new policy, unanimously approved by the Legislature, property owners needing new culverts will have to pay for the installation and all materials themselves. The property owners will be required to use a contractor who has attended a County training and been certified to do the work. Highway Manager Peter Messmer has stated that the change is the result of a tight budget. He wants to redirect the funds - $91,600 was spent on culvert work in 2002 - to clearing ditches along the County road system. Messmer says it takes a crew about four hours to put in a culvert, and that 84 driveway culverts were installed in 2002. Meanwhile routine clearing of brush and sediment from ditches has suffered. At this point, the County expects to continue to maintain culverts that are already installed, and culvert projects that have already been scheduled will be completed by the County under the old rules. Contacts: Richard Booth, Chair, Facilities and Infrastructures Committee, 272-6573, 255-4025; Peter Messmer, Highway Manager, 274-0309.

The Tompkins County Legislature supported a measure introduced by the Chair, Tim Joseph (D, Town of Ithaca), to reduce the cost of a CD containing voter registration information from $80 to $5. The fee, charged by the Board of Elections, was considered too high for candidates and others seeking the information. To make up for the loss of revenue, the Legislature agreed to increase the annual budget of the Board of Elections by $2,000. Contact: Tim Joseph, Legislature Chair, 274-5434, 277-2519.

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