ITHACA, N.Y. — Tompkins County Legislator Anna Kelles is seeking re-election for District 2 this year.

Since being elected in 2015, Kelles has become involved in the Health and Human Services committee, the Jail committee, and the Planning, Development, and Environmental Quality committee, to name a few.

Kelles has been passionately involved in environmental activism efforts at the state and local level throughout her political career.

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Ithaca Voice reporter Alyvia Covert sat down with Kelles to discuss housing, alternatives to incarceration and environmental issues facing Tompkins County.

What brought you to local government? 

I was concerned about the lack of housing for students, the subsequent movement a lot of students into the rest of the area and the relationship of that to gentrification. That was several years before I ran for office, but later I became involved with the county library.

I think that project is where people saw me the most and where I became very passionate about mixed-income and mixed-use buildings and their relationship with the vibrancy of neighborhoods.

What are the biggest issues facing your constituency and Tompkins County?

We are all paying for the government to take care of the needs of the collective. Fundamentally, under everything is that question: how are you balancing between the needs of the community and the money that we are all contributing to make sure that all needs are met? That’s always the most tricky balance and something I am very conscientious of.

I would say as an issue right now, housing is such a battle. There’s just not enough, which means that each unit is being sold and the demand is going up so each unit is costing more and more which then leads to people being priced out and that is the basic conversation about gentrification.

What do you think the biggest gaps in housing are in Tompkins County? Who is getting left behind? And how can Tompkins County Legislature make progress in the area of housing?

There are a lot of things that we are trying to do to encourage responsible development and stabilize the market. It’s generally thought that a stable vacancy rate lands somewhere between 3% and 6% – we’re at 1% or less in the city.

People can’t live in the city, many of them can’t even afford to live in the county, but they go one mile outside the county and prices drop precipitously.

We’re working on development, for example, that will help the vacancy rate which will stabilize the market. You have to do it in a way that doesn’t leave anybody behind – investing in education and helping landlords prepare to reevaluate their business models so that they are creating a business model that is established around the 1%, which we need to do.

Tompkins County recently received the results from the Jail Study. What do you think the biggest takeaways from the report are? What steps do you think Tompkins County should take in the future regarding jail population and the Tompkins County Jail?

We have to reduce the number of inmates on a day-to-day basis in the jail and increase mental health support so that people are being assessed sooner.

We need to make sure inmates are being re-connected in the community with those supports to reduce recidivism and they’re getting to where they need to be faster. We also have to increase the assessment for drug addiction and drug use so that they are also going to where they need to go. We need to increase efficiencies and programming and support for the probation efforts so that the transition out of jail to back into the community is better. We also need to look at the housing issue specifically to support people and legal support for people once they’re out of jail because many of them are still dealing with legal issues that were the results of what happened in the first place.

The opioid epidemic is creating massive huge pressures on the mental health system, housing, the jail, it embeds in everything and if we don’t approach it as a public health issue then we’re just because we’re basically giving up on them and it is a public health issue.

Parents are now working multiple jobs, live further away from their jobs, spend more time driving to their jobs, with not enough necessary transportation if they live outside the county. Now, what do people do when they’re that stressed out? They need a pressure valve. Some people smoke, some people do yoga, some people go for walks, some people drink – heroin right now costs about $10 a hit, which is actually cheaper than alcohol.

On top of that, one of the biggest pathways into the opioid epidemic and people getting lost in it is from pain management. Pain often comes from situations like working too much, spending too much time driving in a car, you aren’t exercising, you’re eating poorly.

So we have this situation where people need major pressure valves and then here’s this environment where this is one of the cheapest pressure valves.

What are your thoughts on alternatives to incarceration?

We also need to remember that alternatives to incarceration, just because they’re not a jail, they aren’t cheap, but they’re just the right thing to do. So now we need to really sit down and roll up our sleeves and figure out how we do this in a way that is that all stakeholders are involved. We should have as many alternatives available addressing mental health and drug-related issues as possible and do it efficiently.  A huge percentage of people who are currently in the jail are dealing with either one or both of those things, which means that the most effective way to reduce recidivism is to address these issues in the community. Our hope is that the mental health department is going to increase significantly in the jail so that we can identify these issues much sooner.

Do you think there are any voices or communities that are underrepresented on Tompkins County Legislature?

Like any community, underrepresented populations in the community are still feeling marginalized. If they still feel that they don’t have a voice, we’re not there yet – but we are we working towards it. I think come January we will have a very diverse legislature.

We need to ensure we’re creating a support system so that the marginalized communities and low-income communities feel empowered and safe and have dignity and can be a part of the community.

Are you in favor of having a living wage in Tompkins County?

Incomes have been flatlined in this country for about 50 years – we need to fix that. We have a situation where income is not enough for the cost of living, and the question isn’t whether or not the issue needs to be addressed, the question is what rate of change is sustainable. The answer to that we don’t know yet. There is an effort being put in place to bring people together to actually evaluate that what the feasibility is, and it’s important that we understand it for ourselves. We are an isolated community, and we certainly need to evaluate before doing the work.

Some of the ideas we’ve come up with would be to host a business class where we could help people re-evaluate business model with a new possible business model to adjust to changing personnel line, which should happen anyway.  The state has already said it’s changing between now and 2021 so that should happen regardless. We’re all crazy overworked, businesses are overworked and it’s hard to plan ahead. This could put many businesses the small businesses at risk in the future.

Cargill has continued to be a source of contention for many in the community, from the tax abatement in the fall to now environmental concerns about mining under Cayuga Lake. What are your thoughts on Cargill generally? Do you think concerns about mining under the lake are well-founded?

There are two salt mine companies in the state the other one is currently going through an environmental impact statement. They have made a statement that going through the EIS is has helped them identify any issues and ultimately tends to make their project more viable. The EIS is not asking for them to not go through with the project, we just want a review.

That’s one part of the conversation – the other part of the conversation is that Cargill has been given a negative declaration of environmental impact. They are trying to extend their proposal. We would like there to be a process of review. Depending on where you stand, you’re going to have different opinions. I think the problem with this whole thing is that there has been a muddling of things in the conversation.

Featured image: Anna Kelles, who chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, which brought the T21 legislation forward. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice

Alyvia is a Crime Reporter with The Ithaca Voice. She graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in Journalism and Photography.