LANSING, N.Y. — After being active on committees in the Village of Lansing, Tompkins County Legislature candidate Deborah Dawson wants to step into county-level problem solving and decision making.

Dawson is running for the District 10 seat, which represents the villages of Lansing and Cayuga Heights.

Dawson is running on the Democratic and Working Families lines and is uncontested for the seat. Longtime legislator Dooley Kiefer is retiring.

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Ithaca Voice Intern Anna Lamb spoke with Dawson about why she is running and what her thoughts are on a few local issues.

Why do you want to be a Legislator versus any other elected role?

Well, I guess part of that is about where I live. I’m in the village of Lansing. I’ve been very active in the village — in planning board activities, greenway committee, I was on a small committee that rewrote our comprehensive plan. But, the village is pretty well stocked. We have fairly experienced trustees, my husband’s one of them, and I don’t see anyone getting ready to step down — so that’s not an option. Our town’s politics are extremely partisan and I don’t really want to get involved in that. One of the things I’ve really liked about working in village politics, is that it really isn’t political — it’s village government. And even though there are people on our boards who are Republicans and Democrats and some people are Conservative and I’m probably at the far progressive end of the spectrum … village politics is not particularly ideological. In many ways I see the same dynamic in county government. I mean yeah, there are Democrats and there are Republicans and occasionally the dialogue tracks party lines but most of the time people on the Legislature really try to work together to solve problems and that’s what I like to do.

What’s your background in politics like?

I grew up in an FDR Democratic family — pro union, they were public employees, both my parents and they thought elected politics was a form of public service, the highest form of public service which is an attitude that you don’t see around very much anymore. But I still feel that it is a high form of public service.

I’ve been a political junkie most of my life. I lived in Washington, D.C., for 10 years. I worked in a federal agency and for a while I did liaison work with legislative committees, and I had friends who worked for legislators and lobbying organizations and it’s exciting … once you get that bug it’s really difficult to distance yourself from what’s going on politically. So I’ve stayed in touch with even though I haven’t even though I haven’t lived in Washington in a very long time. But I also worked for the federal government for a number of years and when you work for the feds there’s not a lot of political stuff that you do. It wasn’t until I retired and moved up here that I started to get involved in local government or politics.

What do you think the biggest issues facing Tompkins County are?

I think the biggest issues are fiscal right now.

Our county like every county in New York is ridiculously burdened with unfunded mandates from Albany. We depend a great deal on various federal reimbursement programs. The biggest single piece is Medicaid. If the Republicans succeed somehow in killing the (Affordablel Care Act). And they’ve been so determined to try —  I’m not relaxed enough to think that it’s over … If something happens to federal Medicaid reimbursement we are going to have a huge problem filling the gap left by that money. I calculated at one point that if we lost just the federal reimbursement from Medicaid Expansion Under ACA, we would have to raise taxes 2 percent just to make that gain up and that wouldn’t even begin to cover any additional expenditures that we have and also I’ve noticed that Albany is going to cheat us. It sometimes seems as if our good governor is going to tax and restrict counties right out of existence.

So I think our fiscal issues are the biggest issues facing us and although that doesn’t sound very progressive compared to housing, childcare, jobs and the environment … it’s not that I’m not worried about those things but all the good intentions and initiatives in the world aren’t going to be helpful if you don’t have the money to do it. So that continues to be my major concern.

What was your career before this?

I was a federal attorney — I was an attorney for several federal agencies, mostly a litigator. I worked for the tax division of justice so fiscal policy stuff. Something like that I have a familiarity with and a sensitivity to. And then I worked for the RTC and FDIC which basically basically what I did was bail out failing banks and then manage those banks so I’m pretty familiar with Financial regulation and also real estate issues because what happens when a bank fails is the federal government ends up owning a large pool of what they call distressed assets which are non performing loans and construction projects that go belly up.

What do you think Tompkins County legislation can do as a group to address problems?

The Legislature’s main function is to levy taxes and to spend money. That’s pretty much the main thing that it does. If you look at how it spends its money, my last property tax bill had a little pie chart that showed 62 percent of my tax bill went to pay for only unfunded mandates which means that only 38 percent of the property tax bill revenue the county takes in is available to legislators to spend on the things that we need and some of the things our residents want. That’s not a lot.

We’ve got to figure out how do we build up our tax base, because if we build up our tax base, we don’t need to keep raising the tax rate. How do we get our tax exempt property owners to pitch a little in? I read somewhere that are our county is the second-highest county in New York State in terms of the percentage of our property base that’s owned by tax exempt institutions. And those exemptions aren’t something we can get around those are dictated by state law. So that’s a problem — the large amount of our property that’s owned by tax exempt institutions.

I was really concerned six months or so ago because the other piece of our revenue base is sales taxes. And for the last couple of years our sales tax revenues in the county outside the City of Ithaca were just plummeting consistently. We’ve had a really good year this year so far. They’re up really high over the past year. In fact, I think in the first quarter of the year it was the highest jump in sales tax revenue we’ve ever had. Nobody knows why. Nobody knows why they were tanking, nobody knows why they were going up. So how do you plan for that? All which is to say, there’s not a lot we can do. We do have to focus on our tax base and I think that we need to be focused on helping with commercial development outside the City of Ithaca because we have these development notes that were identified in a county study a couple of years ago, and I don’t see for example our IDA, that they pay a lot of attention to those notes outside the city. The focus seems to be all those big projects that are going in on the Commons. Which is great for the city. But I don’t know how much — and it does build the tax base up — but I don’t know how much it helps the overall economy because the IDA’s local labor unionization policy is not framed in terms of requiring a contractor to hire local labor to build these things.

They encourage it, but they don’t require it, so you could conceivably build one of these things without using local workers at all. And then once those big developments are in, the big apartment buildings with retail on the bottom or the big hotels, the jobs they create are minimum wage jobs, so that doesn’t help our economy either, so I would like to see the county’s IDA start focusing their efforts outside the city of Ithaca and maybe some projects that would create jobs that were better than minimum wage jobs. On the other hand even if they were retail jobs, that would increase sales tax revenue for the county. I’m just really worried about the money because all our progressive intentions, and all our initiatives and plans depend on getting the money to follow through.

Are there any projects in Lansing that you’ve been thinking about? 

The Village of Lansing is not considered a separate economic nova from this county study that they did, it’s considered part of the city.

But, because I live in the village and I deal with village government I tend to think of it as a separate and distinct thing, I know it’s been painful to watch our mall die a slow and ugly death. I know that the mall has recently changed hands, and I know that the people who bought it probably have plans.

To the extent the county has the mechanisms to support that … I hope that it will. I also think that when we did our own comprehensive plan update a couple of years ago, one of the big needs that we identified was housing for seniors. And because it was people over 55, if you lump the smaller categories together … 55 and over is the fastest growing portion of the population in the Village of Lansing certainly and I suspect also in the county. I think Lansing central area, right around (Route) 13 and Triphammer (Road) is a great place to build senior housing because there are quite a few medical offices on Triphammer Road. There’s a health and human services district, there’s lots of retail supermarkets that you can walk to. So if you want to live in a little area and minimize your use of a car and have access to parks, and shopping, and doctors, and the movies — Lansing’s a great place to live.

I know that we have one high-rise senior living facility going in on Cinema Drive. … We have a couple of other projects we’re applying for that perfect for seniors. I would like to see Cornell work with the village and the county. It has property in our village that is unlikely to be developed and middle density, medium density residential, but it’s ideally like how you do a cluster development. If they sold us the land at a discount or donated the land we could make and if we could make use of their engineering expertise and architectural expertise we could build housing that would be affordable, that could be occupied by both seniors and students which would create a nice cross-generational synergy. It would benefit Cornell, it would benefit the community. That’s a pet project that I would really like to see happen.

Do you think seniors are the ones hit hardest by housing?

I think it’s young singles and families probably in the first 10 years out of college, or out of high school if they don’t go to college.

They’re the ones who have trouble finding well paying jobs. They haven’t had an opportunity to build up some wealth. They’re saddled in many cases with student loans. They’re the ones hit hardest by the housing crisis. And the other group in terms of sheer numbers, they’re more seniors. There was an article about how the economic forecast for Tompkins County that there were going to be more jobs coming down than there was going to be people to fill them. So maybe the economic forecast for you youngsters might be turning around in the coming years. But I think right now, I know a lot of young people in their 20s and early 30s who are really struggling to be able to afford a place to live and find a job that would allow them to live somewhere that’s decent. It’s ridiculous, and that needs to be addressed.

Do you think there are any voices are communities under-represented in Tompkins County?

Well, if you just want to look at the makeup of our Legislature, we have substantial LBGTQ community here that is currently not represented on the Legislature.

Now there is a possibility we will have three LGBTQ legislators next year. So that group certainly might be represented. We have one person of color, that’s way under. We may get another person of color elected out of our third district because Carolina Osorio Gil and Henry Granison are both running there. People your age, young people, we don’t have many of those. If you look at our Legislature, it’s kind of a bunch of old folks. And some of that is that it’s a part-time job that pays like a part-time job. And so if you’re still paying off student loans, and raising a young family, and are trying to live somewhere decent in this housing market you can’t afford to run for Legislature. That said, I urge more people to try and find the time to volunteer for one of the various task forces or advisory committees that the county has, get involved in county government, and also you can participate in your village, town, or city in a job that’s not so time consuming. In village courts, town courts … but you need to get involved.

What do you think are the biggest takeaways from the recent Jail Study?  

Well, I actually don’t think the takeaways are any big surprise. A lot of people were fond of the idea that the jail study was going to paper over this secret plan to build a new jail. Nobody ever wanted to build a bigger jail. A bigger jail is expensive — it’s expensive to build, it’s expensive to staff.

So I’m hoping the release of that study will at least calm people down about this jail expansion that never existed. That said, I think that it’s pretty clear that what we need to be spending our money on is social services. Poverty is created by this system of government that we’ve got that seems to be moving towards benefiting the wealthiest Americans and big corporations at the expense of everybody else. We’ve created pretty much a permanent underclass and for people in the underclass, crime often seems like the only out. Plus, that underclass probably experiences more problems with substance abuse which of course also leads to crime. We need to address those issues. We need to address substance abuse; we need to address mental health issues. I think that jail study gives us a basis for doing that both within our jail and in the larger social system. I think though people need to be aware our jail facility is old and there’s been a lot of deferred maintenance and they’re probably have to be some capital expenditures to bring it up to speed. That does not mean we’ll be expanding it.

So next I wanted to talk about Cargill, so they’ve been a continued source of contention amongst people in the community — what are your thoughts on it?

Well, believe it or not there has never been an environmental impact study done on the 13,000 acres of salt mine under our lake.

Cargill’s position is that because they’re mining under the lake and because they have a license to mine under the lake that was granted by the state government’s general services administration the DEC doesn’t really have any jurisdiction over them and can’t inspect their mine unless they’re invited in. I can actually give you lots of information on this. I have a lot of documents on the history of this, but basically there is a consent decree that was entered in … I’m trying to think if it’s around 2002 in which basically Cargill said you have no jurisdiction over us and the DEC said oh yes we do. But they reached an agreement that basically Cargill would furnish reports on the mine structure, the geology, the hydrology, the seismic data all of that stuff that was done by their hired guns.

They would submit that to DEC, then DEC would hire an outside consultant to evaluate whether he agreed or not with Cargill’s assessment. And that’s what passes for environmental review of that mine. So, here’s my issue. I don’t think Cargill’s a bad guy. Cargill’s a good corporation that’s in the business to make money and looks at it’s bottom line. And it weighs the risks of mining in a particular location based on it’s bottom line. That being said, it’s cheaper to mine under the lake because they negotiate one lease with the state of New York rather than negotiate a bunch of different leases with people who own land and have to pay them. It’s just easier and cheaper to mine under the lake. I don’t blame them for wanting to do it cheaper and easier. They’re not the villain here. There is no villain. I’m just upset the Department of Environmental Conservation has allowed itself to be shut out of the process of doing what it was created to do, which is to enforce the environmental laws that protect you and me from bad consequences of environmental disaster. I want to see a DEIS done. When a full DEIS is done and the information is available publicly, and we can assess whether it’s safe to mine under the lake I’ll be happy.

If that says it’s not safe then I want that mine to move under the ground. Because they have a lot of mining places where they could mine under land in the town of Lansing. Which would produce additional income for the town of Lansing. The town of Lansing is particularly upset about this uproar. They seem to regard this as an attack on Lansing. I don’t view it that way. I just want the Department of Environmental Conservation to do its job.

You’re not looking for like a moratorium or anything like that on this project?

I’m not ready to say we need a moratorium and here’s why.

The only way you can justify a moratorium is if someone has made a scientific determination, pursue through a legal process for that determination to be made, that it’s not safe. A moratorium kind of skips that process. I think given the number of jobs and the economic impact that a moratorium like that would have. We need to follow the process. And that means DEC needs to enforce the law. They need to do the DEIS, they need to give hearings if that’s necessary, it needs to be evaluated in a transparent way. And then you reach a determination, and if that determination is that it’s not safe … then it’s not safe. Part of the problem with the way Cargill has conducted business is that they’re very secretive about their data. When you FOIA it … I’m part of a group called CLEAN, Cayuga Lake Environmental Action Now, and I’m involved because I want the environmental impact statement done and I want DEC involved in the process but one of our family members has filed countless FOIA requests for DEC’s files with Cargill’s files that were submitted and were used by DEC’s consultant to evaluate the safety of the mine. Every time we ask for those they say ‘oh that’s proprietary information.’ They don’t give you the information — they hog it. And I think that creates the impression that they’re hiding something. And that’s a problem. Have I bored you yet?

No, absolutely not. Besides like the environmental impacts, do you think that those mining jobs are valuable to the local economy?

Yes I do. I do. When we make this overall transition from fossil fuels, to alternative energy sources, people talk about the fear of transitioning. You don’t want to dump hundreds of people out of work overnight. And it’s not an answer to say there are jobs in the new industries, because those are jobs that require skills the people you just fired don’t have. And I think the same analysis applies to some extent when you take an employer like Cargill. We’re not a huge county. There’s like a 110,000 people maybe at most.

I did a calculation once. Almost 40,000 of them are kindergarten through university students, so they’re not taking up jobs. And then there are people — stay at home moms, little kids that don’t count. I mean how many people are working in this county? Maybe 50,000? Okay, so 200 jobs doesn’t sound like a lot. But in that context these are pretty well-paying jobs by Ithaca standards. Because we have a huge economic inequality problem in this county. We’ve got tons of people working for minimum wage, we’ve got a small group doing really well, we don’t have a lot of jobs in the middle. And this is 200 middle jobs. I don’t want to see those jobs disappear by any means. If there’s a way to make a transition and keep those jobs, if it turns out it’s perfectly safe to mine under the lake which I gotta say I don’t think is the case … either way, I want those people to continue to be employed.

So speaking of jobs, what do you think about a living wage in Tompkins County?

Definitely. I think that the experiences of places that have instituted a living wage has been positive for the health of their economy. And I know that there was a study that came out that suggested it really wasn’t working, but I also have read articles that have suggested that study is flawed. I think it’s absurd to think that in a county where decent housing starts at a $1,000 a month, it’s OK to have people that are earning $10.79 an hour.

Featured image by Anna Lamb/Ithaca Voice