Highlights of the May 4, 2004 meeting of the
Tompkins County Legislature

By a vote of 12 to 2, the Legislature agreed to set a maximum 3 percent property tax levy increase for the 2005 and 2006 County budgets and also to pursue tax rate reductions in 2005 and 2006. The levy target would limit funds raised from new property tax to $931,722 in 2005 – less than 1 percent of the County’s total $106 million budget. The County budgets of the last two years have dramatically increased the property tax levy – the total amount of property tax revenue collected – mainly due to increases in mandated costs and state-dictated employee retirement costs. County Administrator Steve Whicher has said that, although he predicts a possible $2 million gap in funding for 2005, he thinks a budget based on a 3 percent tax levy increase is “doable.” Because the overall assessed value in the county has increased, a maximum 3 percent tax levy increase would result in a potential 6 percent reduction of the tax rate (the dollar amount per $1,000 of assessed value). The resolution also calls for the County to maintain its workforce at or below current levels. Some program reduction or consolidation will be necessary to meet the goals set tonight, said Whicher, but he is not targeting layoffs as a primary means of getting there. Whicher said he was aware of misinformation about threats of massive job loss at the County and wanted to make it clear that such concerns are unwarranted. The County is pursuing cost-savings on multiple fronts, from possible consolidations with municipal governments to reducing the cost of prescription drug benefits for employees. The Legislature agreed that Whicher would reserve the right to come back to them if fiscal pressures, such as an larger-than-anticipated drop in state aid, make the goals impractical. Legislators who voted for the resolution were Barbara Blanchard, Dick Booth, Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, Tim Joseph, Kathy Luz Herrera, Michael Lane, Michael Koplinka-Loehr, Peter Penniman, Frank Proto, Martha Robertson, Thomas Todd, and Daniel Winch. Voting against the resolution were Dooley Kiefer and Nancy Schuler. George Totman was absent. Contacts: Michael Koplinka-Loehr, Chair, Budget and Capital Committee, 257-2329; Steve Whicher, County Administrator, 274-5551.

The Legislature rejected a recommendation to advance $64,065 from the County contingency fund to the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport. The 14 lawmakers at the meeting were split by a 7 – 7 vote, lacking a majority to advance the money, which is owed by the airport for its share of the demolition of the old airport terminal vacated by the County in 1994. The Budget and Capital Committee was advised last week by County Finance Director David Squires that the airport’s reserve funds have dropped and that if the airport uses its cash on hand to pay the bill, it could jeopardize its ability to maintain day-to-day operations. The bill, Squires said, will be paid, but he expects that the airport, which is supported by rents, landing fees, and other income-generating activities, will end the year with a deficit. On April 20, the Legislature charged the Air Service Task Force with conducting a 6-month study of the budgetary consequences of decreased flight usage and diminished consumer choices at the regional airport. The task force has since met and divided into two subgroups, one to look at short-term budgetary concerns and one to study longer-term options, reported Legislator Barbara Blanchard, who chairs the group. Contacts: Dick Booth, Chair, Facilities and Infrastructure Committee, 272-6573; David Squires, Finance Director, 274-5544; Barbara Blanchard, 277-1374.

The Legislature gave unanimous support to an initial contract with a project management team for the Public Safety Communications System, the countywide radio network for first responders that will be rebuilt over the next several years. County Administrator Steve Whicher said the County chose SSI Services, of Harrisburg, PA from three finalists for the contract. SSI specializes in construction management, vendor negotiations, contract compliance, and other services the County needs as it moves into contract finalization with Motorola, Inc. and the actual building of the large-scale and technically complex project. SSI has worked on similar communications projects and, it is anticipated, will eventually provide close oversight on behalf of the County for the duration of the project. SSI staff are experienced in public sector projects involving both Motorola, Inc., which will be building the County’s system, and M/A-Com, the firm that was recently chosen by New York State to build its Statewide Wireless Network. Members of the SSI team also have law enforcement and firefighting backgrounds, which will help them in understanding end-user needs. The County’s Emergency Management Director, Lee Shurtleff, said in a meeting earlier today that he believes SSI “will bring a balanced, objective approach to the project and will be a forceful advocate for the County.” The initial agreement, for $30,000 to be paid from the capital project fund, will hire SSI through the communications project contract negotiation stage. Whicher anticipates a longer-term agreement with SSI costing as much as $300,000. Several officials stated today that, over the lifetime of the project, the firm’s advice could easily save the County much more than the cost of its services. In a related matter, the Legislature unanimously approved an expenditure of $45,305 from the Public Safety Communications System capital project fund for a 911-log recording system at the new Emergency Response Center. All but 10 percent of the cost will be reimbursed by a grant from New York State. Contacts: Steve Whicher, County Administrator, 274-5551; Lee Shurtleff, Director of Emergency Response, 257-3888; Dale Baer, Manager, SSI Services, 1-717-541-8630.

By unanimous vote, the County Legislature passed a resolution asking Congress to solve the problem of vast numbers of American children and adults who have no health insurance. Contact: Martha Robertson, Chair, Health and Human Services Committee, 272-0584.

The Tompkins County website now features a web-based capability that allows users to choose features they wish to see displayed on a county map. The interactive feature has been applied to a series of maps having to do with natural resources and uses Geographic Information System (GIS) data. Sharon Heller of the County Planning Department and Greg Potter, Information Technology Services Director, demonstrated the map capabilities, that include displays of streams, tax parcels, roads, watersheds, and forested areas. Contacts: Sharon Heller, GIS Analyst, County Planning Department, 274-5560; Greg Potter, ITS Director, 274-5417.

By a 13 to 1 vote, the Legislature supported a resolution introduced by Daniel Winch that urges defeat of pending state legislation that would increase fees and require more stringent reporting by registered gun owners. A majority agreed that registered guns are rarely involved in criminal activities and that the fees are a burden to law-abiding gun owners. Dooley Kiefer cast the dissenting vote. Contact: Daniel Winch, 564-7813.

State Comptroller Alan Hevesi met with members of the Legislature and City of Ithaca officials this morning to explain his plan to give some 1,100 local governments relief from escalating state pension fund payments. Hevesi, a Democrat who took office in January 2003, is sole trustee for the state retirement fund, which provides retirement benefits to public employees at the state and local level. The pension fund, the second largest in the nation, stood at $127 billion in 2000, fell to $95 billion in 2003 as a result of the end of the stock market boom, and has built up again to about $117 billion currently. Hevesi has proposed postponing the due date for local government contributions to the fund from December 15 to February 1, starting this year. The proposal would allow local governments to skip a year in making payments, although the overall amount owed would not decrease. County Finance Director David Squires said Tompkins County’s 2004 budget includes the money for the pension fund payment and the County does not need to take advantage of the delay. Nevertheless, several Legislators suggested that the Legislature pass a resolution in support of Hevesi’s plan. Contact: David Squires, Finance Director, 274-5544.