TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — Tompkins County has stated its intentions to build a new “Center of Government” to address its long standing need for more office space since 2019. But exact plans, like location and size, still remain up in the air.

In 2021, the county acquired two properties along the 300 block of North Tioga Street: the midcentury Ithaca Professional Building and the the KeyBank building. The acquisition of that corner of Tioga Street marked a switch — the location was deemed a more desirable location for a Center of Government than where the county had originally indicated its intention to build new offices, along the 400 block of North Tioga, in 2019. 

At the time that the county acquired the properties the intention to build a new Center of Government appeared to be practically a settled matter — deconstruct the KeyBank building, the Ithaca Professional building, as well as the county Annex Building which currently houses the Tompkins County Board of Elections, and that would be the site of the new Center of Government. 

But at a special meeting of the Tompkins County Legislature’s Facilities and Infrastructure Committee on Tuesday — which saw 10 of the county’s 14 legislators attend — legislators would spitball, proposing new ideas and reprising old ones for how to address the county’s need for new office space. And while some legislators wanted to put more options on the table, other legislators insisted that this process has dragged on for too long and it’s time for the county to move ahead with their plan to build a Center of Government. 

Adding pressure to the entire debate is a looming need to get county offices out of the Tompkins County Courthouse. The New York Office of Court Administration has allowed the Tompkins County District Attorney and County Clerk’s offices to be housed at the courthouse, but county officials and legislators have openly discussed that their welcome in the building will wear out — the Office of Court Administration wants the county to have a plan to move the clerk’s and district attorney’s offices elsewhere, and have a plan to do it.

Legislator Mike Sigler (R – Lansing) said he wanted to see several options explored before committing to deconstruct anything. He said that he would like to see competing plans presented to the county legislature.

He put forward the idea of the county involving the City of Ithaca with its plans for a new Center of Government saying that the city, having outgrown the space of City Hall long ago, might make for an ideal lessee if the County were to build a large center of Government. Sigler also said he would like to see a plan that details the pros and cons of not knocking down any of the buildings currently standing along Tioga Street, and instead investing in them to make them suitable office spaces for staff.

And what about buying property at the largely empty Ithaca Mall in Lansing and putting a new Center of Government there, Sigler said, hedging the suggestion by saying that it “sounds like a crazy idea.”

“I would like to get three options. And then we, as a legislature, just pick an option. And I may not like the option that gets the eight votes. But at least then I can say listen, that’s the one that got the votes,” said Sigler. 

The suggestion for more options did not find support from the Chair of the Legislature, Shawna Black. “I feel like instead of adding options, we should be taking down options. We’ve been discussing the Center of Government for […] a good five years.”

Hiring consultants and architects to develop the plans Sigler was suggesting would be “wasting money,” said Black.

On the idea of trying to bring the City of Ithaca into the fold, Black said, “As far as the city, I’m not sure that we would want to do any more partnerships until there’s stability there. My understanding is that, from a fiscal standpoint, I have concerns being a partner with them.”

She added that, given how long it’s taken for the county to come to a decision on a new center of government, bringing the city in would be like “adding a third person to the marriage.”

The space that’s actually available in the KeyBank building and the Ithaca Professional Building also stands far below what the county has projected it would need for its new office space. 

Arel Lemaro, the county’s Director of Facilities, told the Facilities and Infrastructure Committee that the KeyBank building offers 7,236 square feet of space and the Ithaca Professional Building offers 6,237 feet of space. 

County Administrator Lisa Holmes would add that the county had intended for the new Center of Government to have between 43,000 and 51,000 square feet. “The Key Bank and the professional building combined don’t get us there,” said Holmes. 

Starting deconstruction of the KeyBank building, the Ithaca Professional Building, and the Annex building has been identified by county legislators as an affirmative step toward an eventual Center of Government building. A draft resolution to authorize the deconstruction of the Ithaca Professional Building has been pending in the Facilities and Infrastructure Committee, but the legal standing of going forward with that plan remains unclear for county legislators. 

Without an actual plan to build a new center of government — while there are commitments to build a Center of Government there is no actual plan — the county would conflict with the City of Ithaca’s land use policies, Administrator Holmes told legislators last week. Legislators have discussed the idea of evoking a higher government purpose to exercise authority to deconstruct the buildings to avoid the obstacle of city land use laws, but whether they can or will do that remains unclear.

The Facilities and Infrastructure Committee sought the advice of Tompkins County Attorney Bill Troy to determine what the path toward deconstructing the buildings might look like. Before the committee entered into a 45-minute executive session to receive legal counsel in private, Troy said, “This is what I would call the land of the gray, which is what most of the law is. So there are some black and white rules, and this is really a lot of gray here.”

The committee meeting would end with legislators agreeing that Administrator Holmes and county staff should finish putting together a plan for a new Center of Government that could be brought back to legislators. 

But much of Tuesday’s discussion would leave the county’s elected officials feeling a sense of impatience with the process. 

“Quite honestly, our employees — some of them are working in offices that are the size of closets. And they’ve been hanging in there, because we’ve promised them that we’re going to be building a center of government, and that will improve the environment in which they work. I mean we talk all the time about how valuable our employees are. I think it’s time we put our money where our mouths are,” said Legislator Deborah Dawson (D – Lansing).

Legislator Greg Mezey (D – Dryden) said, “At some point, we got to make a decision because this plan and project has been in this debate-purgatory of a process for quite some time.”

Jimmy Jordan is Senior Reporter for The Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn