TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Conversations around affordable housing, reimagining public safety and public health during the COVID-19 pandemic convened at the League of Women Voters Tompkins County Virtual Candidates’ Debate, held March 11. The two candidates, Leslie Schill and Veronica Pillar, are vying for the Tompkins County Legislator position with Tompkins County District 2, which represents much of Ithaca, in a Special Election that will take place March 23 to replace the departed Anna Kelles. 

With early voting starting March 13, Schill and Pillar discussed a series of issues affecting District 2 residents. If elected, one of the two would fill the role previously held by Anna Kelles, who now serves in the New York State Assembly. The debate was hosted and moderated by the League of Women Voters, and each candidate had one minute for their opening and statements and answers to questions, as well as an additional 45 seconds to respond to the other.

Pillar, a local teacher and community organizer, expressed a need for social justice in her platform. In her opening statement, she emphasized the necessity of collaboration between grassroots organizations and local government, with her top priorities to address through those efforts being affordable housing, workforce development through green jobs and municipal broadband.

“Through my varied community involvement over the years, I’ve (…) come to really love our county and those who run it but also seen plenty of barriers to access to institutions and limitations and who’s at the table making decisions,” Pillar said. “I’m committed to making all my decisions through a lens of justice and equity for all people in the county.”

With public health at the heart of her platform, municipal planner Schill crafted an opening statement around tackling the COVID-19 pandemic locally.

“I’m a seasoned leader, and I am focusing my platform on public health,” Schill said. “I think that the critical time is facing us right now to address COVID. I am very focused on supporting our County Department of Health in its efforts in making sure we address COVID locally. There’s a much broader platform I’m excited to talk about tonight, but that is the first and foremost.”

Affordable housing and transportation as well as the cost of living in Ithaca defined the early portion of the conversation. Schill affirmed that growing the county’s tax base is essential and adding affordable housing, senior housing and market housing to the county’s tax base also offers residents more choice. Pillar said affordable housing and transportation are not just equity issues but climate issues as well. 

“As the cost of living here [gets] higher, people whose communities are here, who work in the city, can no longer afford to live here and end up living in other parts of the county, which becomes an equity issue as well as a climate justice issue as people are using cars to get around,” Pillar said. “Two things I would do are build more housing that is affordable to people at lower income levels, understand that even in this district we have a huge diversity of incomes, all the way down to zero, and also I would propose moving some of our tax burden from property taxes to an income tax and advocating for the state to allow us to do so.”

When discussing COVID-19 vaccinations, Schill said information, accessibility and education will be key as the county strives to get to the 75 percent necessary for herd immunity locally. 

“Right now, we need to support our county department of health and make sure that the COVID vaccine is distributed as quickly as possible,” Schill said. “We need to reach out to communities and meet them where they are, to go to folks that are homebound. We need to meet senior citizens in their senior homes, (…) making sure that folks that might be a little hesitant about the vaccine has the best information.”

Beyond quick, efficient and widespread vaccinations, a healthy economic recovery from the pandemic would also include workforce development, Pillar said.

“On top of that, I would support increasing (…) everyone’s wages up to a living wage as much as possible, requiring that when the county can and advocating it when maybe can’t because we know that (…) when people have money to spend, they’ll spend more,” Pillar said. “If they just don’t have the money, that’s not going into the economy.”

The candidates also touched on the 19-recommendation proposal to reimagine the Ithaca Police Department (IPD) and Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office. Highlights from the draft include reforming the IPD as the “Community Solutions and Public Safety Department.” The draft also recommends repurposing the IPD SWAT vehicle amid a slew of other recommendations. The plan has prompted mixed reactions as well as conversations like the recent “The Future of Public Safety,” a Black Town Hall hosted by the Southside Community Center.

Schill said she has been attending public meetings to hear what community members are saying about the proposal. 

“I do think people appreciate the sincerity of the effort,” she said. “I’m not sure whether people think it goes far enough. And I think that happens on both sides of the discussion right now.”

Pillar seemed to side with community members who think the proposal does not adequately address concerns of defunding the police, an act that would move money away from the IPD and toward social programs to help reduce crime as a whole. As a result, preventative changes are missing from the draft, Pillar said.

“Through this reimagining process, and before for a long time, there have been strong calls from many members of the public to (…) defund the police, and how I interpret that is, ‘Think about what are our priorities as a community and what keeps us safe,’” she said. “The police are an important part of many scenarios that people (…) rely on, but they respond to crises that are already happening. (…) How can we, instead of funding response to crisis, fund preventative measures like housing living wages, health care, things of that nature.”