TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—The biggest ticket item of Tuesday evening’s Tompkins County Legislature meeting came from County Administrator Lisa Holmes, who provided some details about the county’s plans to build a $30.6 million Center of Government that would consolidate departments and services that are either outgrowing their spaces or would be easier to access in a central location.
“Having a central campus would contribute to a vibrant downtown and it would assist the county in meeting the sustainability and greenhouse gas emissions goals we set for ourselves,” Holmes said, adding that it would use recently acquired land downtown for the project.
There are a host of reasons other than that, and they have grown more urgent in the four years since the idea of creating a new consolidated county center was first brought forward. The state has told Tompkins County that its courthouse is no longer sufficient and that it must be vacated. Similar issues have arisen with the Old Jail building and the County Annex C, where “renovations would only achieve modest workflow improvements or energy efficiencies,” according to Holmes.
The Workforce Development Board, Assigned Council, Office of Human Rights and Office of Employment Training also all rent spaces instead of being in their own locations and would theoretically be included in the Center of Government. Holmes mentioned that the DMV would not, at this point, be moved to the Center of Government.
Holmes said the amount that the county currently pays in rent could be reallocated to $1.8 million in debt service for the new building. A litany of other possibilities exist too—Holmes mentioned that the county will be seeking funding from the federal government or New York State to help offset costs, and mentioned the possibility of employing geothermal heat if feasible at the Center of Government site. It’s just too early to determine how realistic some of that is.
It appears destined for the 300-400 block of North Tioga Street considering where the county has purchased land, but no renderings were made available during the meeting.
Discussion then began about different machinations the county could go about appeasing the neighborhood surrounding the potential area for the Center of Government, which might be especially tough since it’s likely part of the new land will be used for surface-level parking.
“At this point, I would just urge us all not to think that there’s some perfect answer, that we’re going to have to get to that perfect place and everything will be perfect,” said Legislator Amanda Champion. “We’ve been waiting to do something for four years. I think we need to make some decisions and move ahead. Not everyone’s going to like the decisions, but we can’t just keep letting these properties sit there.”
Legislator Anne Koreman also pointed out that the county’s strategy of waiting on the Center of Government to get approved before undertaking space-generating renovations in its buildings can work in the short-term, but now that the strategy is four years old the cracks are beginning to show, literally and figuratively.
“Our employees are really great, I don’t hear a lot of complaining, but when I ask them about it, it’s hard,” Koreman said, emphasizing that the inaction may be affecting staff morale. “They’ve lost their conference rooms, there’s people in storage areas. […] They’re doing that because they’re waiting, they have the faith because we made a commitment that we were going to do something.”
Parking is always a major factor in downtown development, and this project will eliminate 17 parking spots (from 142 to 125) for about 210 employees (since HOLT Architects has estimated that there will be 30-60 additional employees in the Center of Government). The county may have to get creative on that front, particularly with the Seneca Street Parking Garage slated for rehabilitation and redevelopment likely soon. Legislator Greg Mezey added that the county will have to weigh the need for more parking to accommodate the influx of people who will theoretically be coming to this Center of Government.
“I have come around, gradually and reluctantly, to the idea that we need this Center of Government here,” said legislator Dan Klein. “We just don’t seem to have other options,” but he did state his thought that the building as it is proposed doesn’t allow for much growth and that he’s apprehensive about that fact.
“There’s this gnawing feeling inside of me that we’re going to spend, I guess, like $40 million to do this thing, we move everything in there, but it’s going to be full from day 1, and five or ten years down the line we’re going to be looking for space again,” Klein said. “I don’t know if all that will come to [fruition] but I want to say it out loud. […] I don’t think that’s left over in this plan.”
One note of particular interest is that Holmes said currently the demolition of the Red House at 408 North Tioga Street is not part of the plan, and that the county is only currently considering either selling it or reusing the property and building in some way. Renovations would cost about $2 million, according to Holmes’ estimate. Rumors of the 408 North Tioga Street building, deemed the “Red House,” rankled local residents, particularly those interested in historic preservation.
The legislature moved up a resolution supporting Governor Kathy Hochul’s move to ban flavored tobacco sales in New York State, part of the governor’s proposed budget that is currently being debated, renovated and negotiated before a tentative deadline next week.
“Tobacco sales and taxes are an economic engine of sorts, but we have to wrestle with weighing the health consequences, but I do think that there’s no place for flavored tobacco products in our young population,” said Legislator Greg Mezey, who introduced the resolution supporting the ban. “If we can curb a generation of smokers by not creating flavors that are enticing to a younger generation, I think we’ll be a much better society in the years to come.”
One part of Hochul’s proposal has drawn particular criticism, though. The law would also ban menthol cigarettes, basically the only flavored cigarette that is still allowed to be produced. Historically, that type of cigarette has been heavily marketed towards Black people, an effort that, like many others in Big Tobacco’s history, has been successful. A Stanford University analysis stated that 85 percent of Black adults who smoke cigarettes smoke menthols, which deliver a peppermint-esque flavor.
Thus, the law has been criticized as unfairly targeting Black Americans who smoke, lumping their habit in with the more festively flavored cigars, vapes and other tobacco products more obviously aimed at young people.
“I’m reminded of Mayor Bloomberg a couple years ago in New York City was roundly criticized for efforts to address obesity, which I would argue is as much of a threat as tobacco products,” legislator Lee Shurtleff said. “We kind of backed away from it. I think of this as a bit of a slippery slope, there’s a lot of things marketed throughout our state and the businesses in our communities that just plain aren’t good for us. I can’t support the resolution.”
“I do smoke menthol cigarettes, and if they do raise the tax by a dollar a pack, they may just solve that problem,” Shurtleff added with a smile.
Legislator Deborah Dawson responded that they should take the opportunity to voice their concerns while it’s there being debated in the state’s budget, even if they’re not fully satisfied with the law.
“We’re basically banning the favorite cigarette of African-Americans and we’re not touching the cigarettes smoked by white people,” legislator Mike Sigler followed. “I undertstand that that’s not exactly how people are looking at it, but if I’m an African-American, and I’m of age, and that’s my favorite cigarette, I would be annoyed if you banned that and yet my buddy over here can smoke whatever they want.”
In response to a theoretical question from colleague Greg Mezey, Sigler said he would consider supporting a full tobacco ban. Chair Shawna Black read a statement from the NAACP Fellow legislator Travis Brooks pushed back on Sigler’s sentiment as well, arguing that the tobacco ban is a “people issue” as opposed to a race issue. He did, though, invoke the memory of Eric Garner, a Black New York City man killed by police during an arrest over Garner selling individual loose cigarettes.
“I am worried that it does create another avenue to criminalize young Black folks for the sale of the product,” Brooks said. “I don’t think it goes far enough, near far enough. It should ban all tobacco products.”
Eventually, though, the resolution was approved.
Other News and Notes
- Tompkins County Barbara Eckstrom was celebrated for her career with the county, as she plans to retire this week after more than 30 years.
- The legislature also offered commemorations of Dooley Kiefer and Irene Stein, both large figures in the local political scene. Shurtleff also mentioned Ben Bucko, a former Tompkins County District Attorney from Groton who also passed away recently.