Highlights of the July 20, 2004 meeting of the
Tompkins County Legislature
A resolution that would have added ¼ percent to the existing ¾ percent mortgage recording tax in Tompkins County was defeated by a vote of 8 noes to 6 yeses (14 members were present). Put forward by Legislator Dooley Kiefer, the resolution would have exempted first-time homebuyers earning less than 80 percent of the local median income from the additional tax on the first $100,000 of mortgage borrowing. Proponents stated that they saw the tax as a more acceptable substitute for the property tax. Opponents were not in favor of an additional tax or would have preferred a guarantee that the proceeds go toward public transportation. Contacts: Dooley Kiefer, 257-7453; Michael Koplinka-Loehr, Chair, Budget and Capital Committee, 257-2329.

Jeff Buck of Jacobs Facilities, the County's consultant on jail design, presented the Legislature with several options for expansion and renovation of the Tompkins County Public Safety Building, located on Warren Road. The portion of the building used to house the Sheriff's Office and road patrol lacks space for essential operations and needs mechanical systems updates. The jail portion, built to house a maximum of 72 inmates, has been reconfigured to allow for up to 103 inmates as long as temporary housing variances issued by the state are continued. In January 2004, the County endorsed a jail expansion to a 104 permanent beds. This plan, estimated to cost about $18 million, was rejected by the state Commission of Correction, which has told the County it needs a jail having at least 136 beds.

Buck outlined several options for the jail ranging from "do nothing new," which would provide necessary upgrades to the non-jail portion of the existing facility, to various ways to provide from 104 to 136 beds. The lowest cost option, which would cover necessary renovations only, is estimated to cost $3.49 million. Other options include the renovations plus the addition of new housing. Buck presented design ideas with construction costs ranging from $17 million to $20.5 million. Each expansion plan requires an increase in supervisory staff that would add from $350,000 to $1.4 million annually to the jail's operating costs. Public Safety Committee Chair Barbara Blanchard commented that a 124-bed option, estimated to cost $19.4 million and adding 5 staff members, has the potential to be taken to the state as a compromise plan.

County officials anticipate the housing variances will be removed unless the County meets the Commission's requirements. Without the variances, the County will need to board out inmates to other counties' jails at considerable expense. Sheriff Peter Meskill is investigating both the cost of boarding out, if the jail's capacity drops, and revenue from boarding in, if the jail were built with excess space.

The County's ideal requirements for the building have included improved space for the Sheriff's Office; minimal addition of staff; inmate areas that allow for flexibility of use; more space for programs; and energy efficiency. Whatever construction choice is made, the cost to build has increased by 9.5 percent since the initial 104-bed design was proposed, said Buck. No decision on the jail is expected before at least September. A meeting to present the jail options to the public for its input has been scheduled for August 31. Contacts: Barbara Blanchard, Chair, Public Safety Committee, 277-1374; County Administrator Stephen Whicher, 274-5551.

Finance Director David Squires reported that County sales tax receipts at midyear are up 12.4 percent over last year at this time. Through the end of June, the County's receipts are $1,378,000 ahead of the 2004 budget estimate, said Squires. The County budgeted $23,850,000 in sales tax for 2004. Squires estimates the actual amount for the year could be as high as $25,400,000. Squires noted that overall sales tax revenues, which are shared among the County, City, and municipal governments, are up by 14 percent. Revenues outside the City of Ithaca showed the most increase, while revenues inside the City are nearly flat. The disparity could be caused by adjustments in the state's revenue distribution, said Squires. Contact: David Squires, Finance Director, 274-5545.

The Legislature unanimously approved the 2004-2005 operating budget for Tompkins Cortland Community College. While the school's annual budget is $23,902,200, up from $22, 850,000 for 2003-2004, it did not ask for an increase in County sponsorship over last year. Tompkins County's share, calculated according to the number of county residents attending the college, is estimated to be about $2.1 million. Contacts: Michael Koplinka-Loehr, Chair, Budget and Capital Committee, 257-2329; Carl Haynes, President, Tompkins Cortland Community College, 844-8211.

Legislature Chair Tim Joseph announced appointments to an Income Tax Study Committee that will examine the feasibility of a local income tax surcharge as a substitute for property tax and how it would shift the tax burden. The all-citizen committee will begin meeting next month. Contact: Tim Joseph, Chair of the Legislature, 277-2519.

Legislator Peter Penniman spoke for an ad hoc committee that has looked at the feasibility and usefulness of developing a strategic or 3 - 5 year plan for Tompkins County government. The committee recommended the County accept free assistance in developing the plan from Tompkins Cortland Community College and a private firm whose services will be funded by a local foundation. The process is expected to take about nine months. Legislature Chair Tim Joseph appointed a steering committee consisting of Legislators Michael Koplinka-Loehr, Peter Penniman, Frank Proto, and County Administrator Steve Whicher, plus a County department head to be selected by the department head group. Contacts: Michael Koplinka-Loehr, 257-2329