Highlights of the July 19, 2005 meeting
of the
Tompkins County Legislature
The Legislature voted 10 to 4 (Kathy Luz Herrera, Frank Proto, Thomas Todd, and George Totman voted no) to ask the State Legislature to allow the County to increase the tax on real estate transfers. The County is asking that the tax, which is charged to sellers of real property, be increased from $4 to $6 per $1,000 of recorded sales of property. Currently, the transfer tax is $4, and all the revenue goes to the state. If the State Legislature approves the increase, the County would keep all of the additional revenue, estimated at $400,000 to $500,000 annually. The revenue would be applied to "physical, transit, and educational infrastructure," a purposely general phrase that could include, for example, allocations for roads and bridges, Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT), or Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3).

Tompkins County has turned down $1 million in revenue available through a restructuring of its tobacco settlement bonds. By a 7 to 7 vote the Legislature failed to act on a trade of future revenues estimated at $4.5 million for an up-front payment of $1,077,454. Only 14 members were present; an 8-vote majority is needed to pass a resolution. The future payments are scheduled to be paid over ten years starting in 2015 and hinge on the strength of the domestic cigarette market. Tompkins County opted in 2000 to accept about $7 million in a lump sum in return for the rights to half of its future payments. As part of that transaction, a portion of the tobacco settlement funds was set aside to protect investors by shoring up tobacco companies if they become unable to meet their financial obligations. Any unused funds will be returned to the County. The County's Finance Director David Squires stated his doubt that these funds will be recovered, but some Legislators felt the cigarette market's strength will hold up. The present value of the $4.5 million that the County would have given up by refinancing was calculated by County Administration at between $1 million and $2.1 million. Voting yes to the refinancing were Barbara Blanchard, Dick Booth, Kathy Luz Herrera, Michael Koplinka-Loehr, Martha Robertson, George Totman, and Thomas Todd. Voting no were Tim Joseph, Dooley Kiefer, Michael Lane, Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, Peter Penniman, Frank Proto, Nancy Schuler. Daniel Winch was absent.

Two of the County's top management jobs have been merged into one. A series of three votes were required to create and fill the position. The Legislature first voted 10 to 4 to amend the County Charter to allow the combining of its Commissioner of Planning and Commissioner of Public Works positions. Legislators Kathy Luz Herrera, Michael Lane, Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, and Frank Proto were opposed to combining the positions. Daniel Winch was absent. A second resolution to create the position passed with a 9 to 5 vote, with Dooley Kiefer adding her vote to the opposition. Finally, the Legislature approved the appointment of the current Commissioner of Planning, Ed Marx, to the combined position. Herrera, Kiefer, Lane, McBean-Clairborne, and Proto were opposed. Marx has held a joint appointment as both Commissioner of Planning and Deputy County Administrator since January 2004. As Deputy Administrator he had oversight, but not administrative responsibilities, for the Public Works Department. The County has operated without a Public Works Commission for several years. It is anticipated that the County will soon open a search for a full-time Deputy Administrator, a position that is now vacant.

Frank Proto, chair of the County's Space Needs & Location Committee, reported that the committee has voted to recommend the County look at the design and construction of two new buildings within the next three years. Last week the committee voted 4 - 0 (Dooley Kiefer, Kathy Luz Herrera, Frank Proto, and Nancy Schuler voted yes; Daniel Winch was absent) to recommend a new downtown office building on the site of the Old Library and a new building next to the existing Biggs B building on West Hill. Both properties are already owned by the County.

The County has known for some time that more downtown offices will be needed to replace space lost when the state court system expands its operations in the County Courthouse, and a study of space requirements has shown deficiencies in several downtown departments. A second pressing problem has been the severe deterioration of the Biggs B building, which houses the County Health Department. The committee studied a variety of options including reuse of the Old Library building, a new "center of government" building on an alternate downtown site, and a new building for the Health Department on the Route 13 corridor in the City of Ithaca. Once it weighed costs and efficiencies, the committee determined that the downtown needs would be best served by demolishing the Old Library building and putting a new structure on the site. It determined the best option for the Health Department is to put a new building adjacent to Biggs B, and sell the old building once it is vacated.

The cost of a new downtown building is estimated in the report at $15 million, including demolition of the old building on the site. The cost of a new Health Department building is estimated at $9 million. The committee's report recommends that design work for the buildings start in 2006/2007 and that the County plan for construction beginning in 2007/2008. If the recommendations are accepted, the proposed projects would go through the County's Legislature's approval process in the context of long-range capital program demands. The final report of the Space Needs & Location Committee will be presented to the Legislature for adoption its next meeting, August 2.

Finance Director David Squires reported that County government's portion of sales tax collected in the county was up by 5.23 percent over the same time period last year. The County received $6,683,465 in the second quarter of 2005, an increase over last year of $332,011. This increase follows a 1.1 percent increase in the first quarter. Squires noted that the City of Ithaca's portion of second quarter sales tax revenue shows a 22.46 percent increase over 2004. The City received $2,211,922 in the second quarter of 2005, for a gain of $405,698 over 2004. The other recipients of sales tax are the town and village governments, which show a 4.69 percent loss of revenue for the second quarter of 2005, compared to 2004.