Highlights of the January 21, 2014 meeting of the

Tompkins County Legislature

 Chair Lane Sets the Stage for the Year Ahead – Announces 2014 Organizational Structure

Legislature Chair Mike Lane announced the Legislature’s 2014 organizational structure and committee assignments, noting that in 2014 the Legislature will face challenges, but he expressed confidence that legislators, working as a team, will do their very best to do the people’s business. 

 Much of the Legislature committee structure remains the same, with seven standing committees (Budget, Capital, and Personnel; Economic Development; Facilities and Infrastructure; Government Operations; Health and Human Services; Planning, Energy, and Environmental Quality; and Public Safety), but several of the leadership positions have changed.  Legislature Vice Chair Jim Dennis will continue as chair of the Budget Committee; Will Burbank as chair of Economic Development; Carol Chock as chair of Planning; and Brian Robison as chair of Public Safety.  Nathan Shinagawa will assume chairmanship of Government Operations; and Kathy Luz Herrera will succeed Peter Stein as chair of Facilities and Infrastructure, with Mr. Stein assuming the chairmanship of Health and Human Services.  Leslyn McBean-Clairborne will continue as chair of the Workforce Diversity and Inclusion Committee (which reports to Budget, Capital, and Personnel) and the Broadband Committee will change from a special committee to a subcommittee reporting to Government Operations; Dave McKenna will chair that subcommittee.

 There are also two special committee, both chaired by Legislature Chair Lane:  the Charter Review Committee, charged with looking at all sections of the Tompkins County Charter and making recommendations for changes where appropriate, as well as looking at various County elected positions, and considering changes that could encourage greater voter participation.  The Old Library special committee will carry forward unfinished business from last year’s Capital Plan Review Committee, related to recommendations for the future of the Old Library Building.

 Among challenges Mr. Lane identifies to be faced in 2014, will be in the area of the budget, predicting that the County budget process will be made even more difficult in light of what he described as “the drum roll from Albany, blaming counties and other local governments for expensive real property taxes, while completely ignoring the fact that the real reason for high local taxes is the cost of unfunded state mandates.”  He also said that Economic Development will be a prime focus of the Legislature in the year ahead, as will the department of the Airport, a self-sustaining enterprise unit that does not draw tax revenues.  The Airport in 2014 will report to Government Operations, as part of a County focus on how best to work with the Airport to address challenges posed by the weak national economy and changes in the airline industry.  Among other challenges identified are oversight of the planned County Jail renovation, as part of Public Safety, along with taking a fresh look at potential new ideas for the County’s alternatives-to-incarceration and re-entry programs; overseeing the capital project for the addition to the Human Services Building to provide space for the Day Reporting program, as part of Facilities and Infrastructure; and determining the future of the Old Library Building.

 “As we go about the people’s business this year, I know we Legislators will all do our very best,” Chair Lane concluded, “but whatever we do will always pale by comparison to the work of the real heroes of county government…our county employees who work with us each day to deliver vital services, to protect the vulnerable, and to help us administer everything we do according to law and in compliance with so many federal and state regulations.  It’s a very big job, and they do it so very well.”

 Mr. Lane’s full remarks are posted on the Legislature website at www.tompkinscountyny.gov/legislature.

Contact:  Michael Lane, Chair of the Legislature, 274-5434, 844-8313 or 844-8440

 Administrator Proposes Alternative Strategy for Tax Relief in New York State

County Administrator Joe Mareane provided the Legislature an overview the targeted tax relief measures— including a two-year “freeze” on local property taxes— that have been recommended by a New York State Tax Relief Commission and endorsed by Governor Cuomo as a high priority in the State of the State Address and today’s Budget Message.  But Mr. Mareane said that he agrees with the Commission and the Governor that local property taxes in New York State are too high and that creative realignments are needed.  But he added that the way to achieve meaningful, sustainable property tax relief is not through a one-shot, high-cost, low-impact  rebate program but through a major realignment of responsibilities between the State and its counties—with the State, over a phased four-year period assuming the full cost of its major programs, now administered and co-funded by counties.

 “By doing so, the State will produce the largest property tax cut in the history of the State—a deep, sustained, across-the-board reduction in property tax burdens for the owners of all classes and types of property,” Administrator Mareane stated.   “The realignment of these responsibilities should produce greater efficiencies in administering the State’s programs, opportunities to realize economies of scale, a more equitable distribution of costs, and better decision-making.  For the first time in generations, the State will be responsible for the full cost of its program and policy decisions,” he said.  “Decisions are always better when the full cost and consequence of the decision is borne by the entity making those decisions.”

 Using Tompkins County’s 2014 Budget as an example, the administrator noted that the recommended rebate program would have required more than $300,000 in cuts to reach the County’s 2.26% property tax cap, and would have resulted in a $14.81 saving, including a $7.31 rebate check, for the owner of a median-priced $163,000 home.

 Under Mareane’s proposal, in the first year, the State would pay the full state share of its Medicaid program—resulting in an $11.8 million (26%) property tax cut that would save the annual homeowner $294 per year.  In year two, it would take over the full cost of its PreK Special Education and Early Intervention programs—producing an additional $2.6 million (8%) property tax cut, saving the average taxpayer another $64.  In year three, it would assume the full cost of its constitutional obligation to provide legal defense to the indigent, as well as the full cost of its child welfare programs (another $4.2 million, or 14% cut, saving the average taxpayer $105); and in year four, the State would take over full cost of its Temporary Assistance programs and remaining programs that have been delegated to county social services departments, resulting in another $6.9 million (26%) tax cut. 

 At the end of four years, once realignment of costs was complete, the administrator said County taxes could be cut by over $25.5 million, or 57%.  The average County tax bill (on the median $163,000 home) would drop from $1,122 to $487—an estimated savings of $636 per year for the average homeowner.  Mareane said the proposal would have a profound impact on the financial and programmatic structure of State and county government.  “By being willing to rethink the way services are delivered and funded, the State and its counties can engage in an important discussion about realigning our relationship in a way that serves the interests of the State, counties, and the taxpayers,” he said.  “...if the State is willing to broaden the scope of the discussion about realignment of responsibilities, the door would be opened to historic levels of sustainable property tax relief in every quarter of New York State.” 

 Legislators’ reaction to the proposal was favorable, and the Legislature, by unanimous vote, approved a motion that states the Legislature’s support of the proposal and its approach as a basis for further discussion, and encourages Administrator Mareane and members of the Legislature to bring it forward to the New York State Association of Counties and other appropriate partners in the State.

 Administrator Mareane’s report to the Legislature is posted on the County Administration page of the County website at www.tompkinscountyny.gov/ctyadmin.

Contact:  County Administrator Joe Mareane, 274-5434.

 Legislature Supports Creation of Independent Election-Law Enforcement Agency

The Legislature went on record strongly endorsing the creation of an independent Election Law Enforcement Agency, as described and recommended by the Moreland Commission in its December report to the Governor.  The measure, filed by Legislator Dooley Kiefer, was approved by a vote of 13-1, Legislator Kathy Luz Herrera dissenting.  The action makes reference to the Moreland Commission report’s criticism of the New York State Board of Elections, which the Commission maintains “lacks the structural independence, the resources, and the will to enforce election and campaign finance laws,” with inefficient procedures and frequent inexplicable delays, concluding that “Our State needs an independent, professional watchdog for our elections and campaign finance laws.”  Legislator Luz Herrera said she favors reform, but objected to provisions that blamed the problems on a “party divide” within the agency; she believes the paralysis there stems from enforcement of party discipline. 

Contact:  Legislator Dooley Kiefer, 257-7453.

Among other actions:

 The Legislature welcomed new 9-1-1 Communications Center Manager Christina Dravis, introduced by interim manager Brian Wilbur.

 Chair Lane recognized a number of County employees who responded to assist the City of Ithaca with emergency management of the flood situation in the Fall Creek neighborhood earlier this month.  Among those employees were personnel from the Highway Division, Health Department, County Administration, and Department of Emergency Response, who assisted in the field and at the City’s Emergency Operations Center.  Chair Lane said the service by the employees was an example of the way intermunicipal cooperation should be handled.

 Several residents concerned about plans to renovate the County Jail addressed the Legislature, asking the Legislature to delay by one year any consideration of the project, which would build an outdoor recreation area at the jail and convert an existing indoor recreation area to seven dormitory spaces.  They asked for the delay to allow time to consider further alternatives-to-incarceration programs.

 Chair Lane announced his reappointment for a second year of County Poet Laureate Tish Perlman, who told legislators she had a “wonderful” first year as poet laureate and looks forward to continued positive experiences in the year ahead.