This is the fourth and final part of a series of articles The Ithaca Voice will be posting each day throughout the week previewing the contested elections in the Democratic primaries for Ithaca’s Common Council. Included is a recap of last week’s candidate forum, as well as the audio and a transcript from the relevant Candidate Conversation collaboration between WRFI and The Ithaca Voice, sponsored in part by Cayuga Health. Early voting begins June 17 and primary Election Day is June 27. Ward 1 can be found here, Ward 2 can be found here and Ward 3 can be found here.
ITHACA, N.Y.—The candidates for Ward Five’s Common Council seats are Margaret Fabrizio, Jason Houghton, Clyde Lederman and Michelle Song, all newcomers to elected office hoping to represent one of the city’s most significantly changed voting populations thanks to this year’s new district lines.
The candidates jousted over how to best extract more value from Cornell’s annual contributions, balancing tenant-landlord relations and how to best staff the city’s various labor-short departments, like the Department of Public Works and the police department. All can be found below, with audio of the Candidate Conversation with all four candidates, a collaboration between The Ithaca Voice and WRFI as well as a transcript of the conversation.
Fabrizio is facing Song for the Democratic nomination for the ward’s four-year seat, while Houghton and Lederman are squaring off for the two-year seat. The Fifth Ward’s current representatives on Common Council are Robert Cantelmo, who is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination for mayor, and Kris Haines-Sharp, an appointed incumbent who was redistricted into the Second Ward, where she is campaigning for a full term.
While Lederman and Song are currently Cornell students, and Fabrizio is a former employee, all four candidates strongly advocated for Cornell to contribute some combination of more money and other non-monetary contributions. Song called the current $1.6 million annual contribution from Cornell to Ithaca “shameful” during a candidate forum held last week, and several candidates pushed for Cornell to help facilitate expanded TCAT service considering the percentage of public transportation riders are Cornell students or staff. Fabrizio even penned an article on the topic for The Ithaca Times earlier this year.
Though other candidates have been more visible during their campaigns, Song told The Ithaca Voice she wanted voters to meet her in person rather than announce her campaign via the media—her candidate profile will run Friday before early voting begins.
Candidate Conversation Audio
Candidate Conversation Transcript
Why do you think the approach taken over the last five to 10 years has been ineffective at stopping rent climbs? Does it need more time or does it need to change?
Clyde Lederman: One of the things I hear most from talking to folks who are renters is that rents are really out of control, and that threatens the housing stability of all sorts of folks. I think the ineffective approach has been allowing the free market to rip and what we’ve seen are monopoly landlords, who are able to minimize the bargaining power of tenants and artificially increase rent prices. My solution to this, which has worked in places like Kingston and Albany and across New York State, is implementing the Emergency Tenant Protection Act. This would allow the city to regulate rent prices, not strict rent control, but rather rent stabilization. So we could say you could only have a 2 or 3% increase year over year. If you’re a senior on fixed income or a student alike, this is really important that we don’t have people who are being pushed out of their homes. I’ve worked for rent guidelines boards before and I’ve brought tenants to testify before them and I think it is a great approach where we would be able to ensure more housing stability here in the city of Ithaca, 70% of the residents of whom are renters.
Michelle Song: Absolutely. So after speaking with hundreds of people in Ward Five, we’ve all come to the conclusion that housing affordability is out of control in Ithaca and something needs to change. I really suggest prioritizing a 10 year plan that protects both the tenants and lowering costs for homeowners. First on the parts of tenants. I believe in order to fully protect our tenants we do have to practice measures such as rent control or rent rates stabilization. Right now as Clyde previously stated, the Emergency Tenants Protection Act is something that could greatly benefit Ithaca, on the other hand, would be passing Good Cause Eviction laws and right to renew. We need to ensure that our tenants do not fear whether or not they’ll be able to afford to live or whether they can live in Ithaca at all next year. Our residents should not have to fear being priced out. The second is lowering costs for homeowners by making workable zoning laws for accessory dwelling units (ADUs) or by reducing parking minimums. We can also lower costs for homeowners there. Ultimately everything comes down to us needing to prioritize the well-being of our residents, whether they’re tenants or whether they’re homeowners. And in the future, prioritizing sustainable housing development. Ithaca really has a problem with this. We need to learn to build up, not out, and prioritize the well-being of our neighbors.
Jason Houghton: So I’m in support of the approach we’ve taken over the last five years. I think some of the benefits of the approach we’ve taken with denser development downtown will reap some benefits still in the future. That said, I think we need to take in additional measures. I’d like to see Albany pass Good Cause Eviction legislation. I think government has an interest in stable housing for all and I think good cause eviction is a step in that direction. I’m also open to exploring ETPA I think it directly affects a smaller number of rental units in Ithaca. You have to be over a certain size and built before 1974, so that can help but it’s not going to address our entire market. Again, I support zoning changes that might help more dense development throughout the city. I would definitely encourage any policies that promote ADUs but in addition to building up that we’ve done, I think we do have to build out some we need to create market forces that drive down the costs. And unfortunately our city is very small. We will need to work with other surrounding municipalities in order to have development that affects the market.
Margaret Fabrizio: I’m not sure that we have an identifiable approach. Over the last five or 10 years we’ve seen a huge amount of building, we’ve seen a lot of abatements go to high end luxury housing, which I totally am opposed to. We have a problem because we have a housing shortage like every place else and we have a captive audience. We have people who need to come here, they’re coming here to study and they need housing. So there are always going to be people who take advantage of that, unfortunately. I don’t know what the percentage of out of town landlords compared to in-town landlords, but while I am absolutely sympathetic to renters I think our housing stock is in, actually, terrible shape, not overall but a lot of it is in our ward. I’ve seen it as I’m walking around. I think we need to have better control within our building department so that things are being inspected in a timely way and that would require better staffing in our department. The landlords also have a problem because they have to pay exorbitantly high taxes. So not all of these landlords are outside landlords with big corporations. We also have a lot of small landlords, and they’re struggling to make the bills too. So while I am interested in looking at rent stabilization, I also want to make sure that we’re doing something that’s fair and recognizing that landlords have very high costs here as well.
There’s been a lot of talk this year about how much Cornell pays the city because so much of its property is tax exempt. What would you like the financial relationship between the city and Cornell to look like?
MF: I spent a lot of time looking at this and researching this. Cornell owns so much property here. They have like more than $2 billion worth of property that’s tax-exempt, that they’re not paying taxes on. That is a huge gap to try to make up, if they were paying taxes at the same rate as the rest of us they would owe almost $100 million between city, county and school taxes. So we need to get them to be responsible partners in this, we are all looking for the same things we want good, adequate fire and police protection. We want good roads, we need clean water, all of these. We need parks, we need great schools. All of these things are things that Cornell needs for its students and its faculty and its staff. So we just need to get them to come to an understanding that they need to step up to the plate, get on board, look at their peer institutions. They’re doing much better than Cornell is at this point. It’s going to take really a groundswell within the community. It’s not just students, faculty, the staff, the Faculty Senate, the trustees, it’s also going to take all of the entire Ithaca community to come together and to exert this kind of pressure. That’s how it’s worked in other places. That’s why people have won some very big strides in some other Ivy League host communities and we’re going to need to do the same.
JH: So I think our approach to Cornell has to be twofold. We have to have a long term strategy and a short term strategy. The long term strategy: the city needs to be in a position where it’s not feeling like it’s taking a handout and that its relationship with Cornell is subordinate. In the long term, I would like to see a pilot that obligates Cornell to pay a percentage of what it would be obligated to pay if it were not tax-exempt. That’s going to require legislation in Albany, that’s going to require a large effort by many parties. So I see that as a long-term strategy. In the short term, I think that the city should be doing an assessment of where its shortfalls are, what those shortfalls are. For many of the basic city services, fire, police, public safety, water treatment. If the city can go to Cornell and say here’s where our shortfalls are, here’s what those shortfalls are. You can help us provide basic city services, pay our staff market rate, and these are services that are to your benefit and ours. I think that’s a strong argument that is in the interest of both the city and Cornell. And I think that’s the short term approach we should take. And I think the city should be transparent about that and open about its negotiations and what its goals are.
MS: We’re fortunate in that every Ward Five candidate believes that Cornell needs to pay a more equitable and fair share to the city of Ithaca. Cornell likes to believe it lives in a void but at the end of the day, the students, the faculty, we all use Ithaca’s resources. We all use the parks, we all use the streets, we all rely on the fire department, just to name a few. And the upcoming cohort the most recent 20 year [memorandum] of understanding with the city of Ithaca will expire and we will be responsible for renegotiating Cornell’s contribution to Ithaca. And this time, we must push for an increase in Cornell’s contribution. The theme of my campaign is building bridges not walls. And that’s because I believe the only way forward is by uniting as a front to tackle Ithaca’s most pertinent issues and this means we need to come together as a community to pressure Cornell administration. As a student, I have unparalleled access to our stakeholders, the students, the trustees, the alumni who must work together with Ithaca residents and the greater community to push for a greater increase in Cornell’s contribution. Beyond that, though, I think Cornell could benefit greatly to the community of Ithaca by paying lump sums towards smaller initiatives such as community housing, expanding TCAT—Cornell recently denied a $74,000 increase to expanding TCAT—as well as paying for flood dredging that’s occurring in Fall Creek. With this, I think that we can establish a more equitable relationship with Cornell where everyone in the community is able to thrive.
CL: Absolutely. Cornell needs to pay more and this is an issue that cuts across the city. It means we can’t fully staff for departments. It means people who should be paid higher wages, their wages are artificially depressed. My approach though, is asking the question, how can we get this done? I think coming from a union background, it’s a matter of looking at what these pressure points are, I think the reason we were able to get an increase 20 years ago and hopefully we can again is by understanding where our interests in Cornell’s push in the same direction. I think this is vital. So one of that is TCAT and staff, staff depend on TCAT. Another one is housing. I’ve spoken with folks who say that their faculty who have been given offers here who simply can’t afford to move to Ithaca. The housing fund that’s done with the county that’s a separate MOU is a great example. But it’s been stuck at $200,000 a year so I think that’s a great area where we can look at a reexamination as for an approach in Albany, I don’t think it’s necessarily a PILOT [Payment in lieu of taxes] on everything, but it might be the fact that Cornell is in part a public institution. And since the mid-1990s, New York State has a variety of programs for PILOT payments for public lands to local municipalities. This came after a Supreme Court decision at that time. Right now my understanding is there are approximately 350 Cornell buildings that are owned by the state of New York. And I think that would be a great place to start in looking at how we can get additional payments from Cornell.
Do you like the Reimagining Public Safety plan? Why or why not? And what should the Ithaca Police Department look like in three years?
JH: So I do support the Reimagining Public Safety plan in its current form. I like the idea of unarmed responders in many situations, but I also support the maintenance of the Ithaca Police Department. I understand that, with the initial approach to reimagining public safety, many stakeholders felt that they had been excluded and rightfully so. I think the police department felt that they weren’t being consulted, and we will rely on the police department to implement many parts of the reimagining public safety but overall, yes I do support reimagining public safety. I think it gave voice to a lot of people who felt that law enforcement was not reflecting their values, being responsive to their communities, and that’s very important. We need everyone to feel that law enforcement is working for them. I personally feel more tense when I’m around someone with a gun. I think having unarmed responders in many situations can help defuse a tense situation. I fully support that. So in three years, what I would like to see is hopefully by that time, we have determined how we’re going to respond to certain crises when the unarmed responders are most appropriate, when police are most appropriate. But I would like to see a fully staffed police department that’s supported by the community and integrated well into the community.
MS: I think we really need to understand who reimagining public safety is for. And that’s because there were many marginalized communities in our greater community who felt that the current law enforcement wasn’t working for them. I’m a great proponent of reimagining public safety. Currently, about a third of all calls made to the IPD can be handled by an unarmed respondent. But unfortunately, the council’s hands have been tied and we couldn’t adequately fund it. There are currently only four respondents for the reimagined public safety initiative. I believe that this can be expanded. We need law enforcement that makes everyone feel protected that makes everyone feel comfortable asking for help. Because if we don’t have that, at the end of the day, we can’t keep our community safe. But beyond this, any solution forward needs to be some form of hybrid approach that takes into account both the voices of those that would like to push for reimagining public safety while also not disenfranchising our police department. Everyone needs to be consulted. Beyond this just at a broader scale, there needs to be more sensitivity training. We also need to put a greater emphasis on hiring more diverse voices to the IPD. Whatever happens in the future needs to be a solution that brings everyone together, makes everyone feel safe, makes everyone feel protected, makes everyone feel heard.
CL: Absolutely. I think we’re all on the same page that you need city departments, including the police department that are fully staffed. I particularly believe in the importance of community responders. Not only because they sort of expand our ability to respond to issues and are based in the community, but that they can serve as violence interrupters. And it was a great article in the Times about Brownsville, Brooklyn recently and how they were able to reduce gun crime. And we have a huge gun crime problem in this country. But beyond that, I also think it’s independent oversight long term. You know, many people like the police, but there are a lot of communities that are seriously marginalized. And with our new city manager role, I think it’s important that the police really be under strong independent oversight. So that going forward we can have a community-centered ability to manage policing. And I’ll just add, beyond that, that Ithaca is largely a safe community. But I think it’s important that we deal with issues like gun violence that are sort of that threaten the lives of so many folks and it becomes such a huge issue in this country. So three years from now, I’d like to see a community that has a police force and has community responders that are both fully staffed, that is able to be better-integrated community and that is subject to vigorous independent oversight. So that all communities feel protected. And I think to echo what Michelle said, you know, this wasn’t done for white guys like me, so I think that’s sort of my the place where I start.
MF: I totally support the Reimagining process. Everyone needs to feel respected and safe within this community. And I think we’re long overdue in having unarmed responders. I also fully support IPD and recognize that at this moment in time, we are severely understaffed. We currently have about three to four officers on any given shift to manage the entire city, and that’s with mandatory overtime. The department has been feeling demoralized and unsupported, and I think that was it’s very unfortunate. And that was from, I think, some unfortunate rhetoric that began at the very start of this process. So we used to set the bar in New York State for training. We had people from all over the state coming here. We did proactive, community policing. We’ve lost a lot of that over these last years. We no longer have bike patrols and foot patrols, neighborhood patrols. We don’t have special details like speeding, school zone or crime prevention because we just don’t have enough people. So I think what we need is a permanent police chief as soon as possible. We need to build back the department, we need to build it up. And incorporate the unarmed responders into that, obviously we’ve seen a rise in violent crime here, and then shootings, and I think we need to get that under control.
What is the most important quality the incoming city manager should possess? What should the dynamic be between Common Council and the city manager?
MS: With the incoming city manager, Ithaca is going to experience nothing short of a grand paradigm shift. This is going to be a completely new city model. To me, the city manager needs to possess two intrinsic qualities. The first is being compassionate, but the second is being level-headed. Ithaca has struggled for decades, with problems of disorganization, having lack of direction and overall, having a lack of long-term planning. Everything from now on will have to be rigged through with a fine toothed comb that goes from our budgets, that’s going to our allocations, that’s going to what Ithaca will be doing on a year to year to achieve our very ambitious goals. We have many. The first is carbon neutrality. The second is tackling housing affordability. Last is really just trying to get our flood mitigation under control. Everything needs to be planned carefully. But in doing, so we also need to be prudent about where our city funds are going and how we’re going to be funding everything in the future, to have prosperity not just for the foreseeable future, but for the sustainable future. So with that being said the role of the city manager does need to work, it does need to communicate closely with Common Council. The public should have full transparency about what’s going on behind doors in the cities in the city of Ithaca. We deserve to understand what is going on what decisions are being made, as well as how our futures are being protected and how our voices are being heard in the process, which has to be nothing short of collaborative.
CL: I think this is an important question. I’m excited for the city manager model. I mean, I think the county has tremendous success with their current County Administrator model. I think there are a couple things I want to point out. One is with the budget and making it more participatory cities across the state in the country have had tremendous successes with participatory budgeting. And that’s a way where we can really develop a budget that meets the needs of our communities, and is done by someone who is apolitical and has the goal of developing a fiscally sound municipality long term in mind. Those are two key things. I think beyond that, though, the key is really dealing with the lack of comprehensive planning we have at the city right now. I mean, I see that with the housing issue all the time, is that the city really doesn’t have a plan. And I think by bringing in more apolitical expertise, we can better develop to meet our climate challenges to meet our housing challenges to meet our public safety and Community Justice challenges, and so I’m really excited that we could have a city manager going forward and want to be engaged with that process.
MF: I believe that a city manager position is long overdue in Ithaca. I completely agree that our Comprehensive Planning and Budget oversight is sorely lacking and we need to fix this. So I think that the person who comes into this position is going to need to be a very excellent manager who can work closely with the city controller in particular, there will be a new city controller that which is going to add extra challenges to the game. They also need to be able to work carefully with department heads and they need to be able to present material and a really objective way they are not the elected official for the city, right? They need to be able to gather the research, have the people who are in the departments pull together the data and the information that we need and then they need to be able to present that to council members in a very objective way. So I think that’s going to be really important. I also think that the city manager could help with regard to engagement and participation by the general community. We are, I think, a very disengaged group right now. Things happen with our budget, people aren’t paying attention. Our last increase in local taxes was like almost 10%. We need to figure out how to better connect communities and our neighborhoods through citywide neighborhood associations, through individual neighborhood listservs. We need to better communicate with each other and get involved in the working of the city to make the changes that we need to make.
JH: I would echo what everyone has basically said here. I’m very much looking forward to the city manager model. I think it will bring a level of professionalism to the budgeting and oversight that we just can’t achieve with a political position. Also, it’s going to be a well paid position, currently our mayor that is CEO of the city, it’s designed as a half-time job and it’s just not receiving a full-time salary. So we’ll have a full-time professional in that position. I think it’s gonna be very beneficial. I’ll tell you what I’m concerned about is the fact that we are six months out from implementing a city manager and we don’t yet have a full job description. I would like to see us get that completed quickly and start a job search very soon. We need to have a very competitive job search for the city manager despite our issues, I think Ithaca’s a very desirable place to be. I’d like to see someone in that position with a proven track record of many of the things we’ve talked about, someone who communicates well with the community, designs responsible budgets and reflects the values of Ithaca, and I think if we have a competitive search that starts soon we can achieve that, and I’m concerned that we’re lacking in that right now. With respect to communication with the Common Council, again, I hope we can find someone who has a track record of doing that well. The city manager will report to the Common Council. And so you know, we need someone who can communicate and is responsive to the values of the community that council will express.
The Seneca Street parking garage is facing similar issues as the Green Street garage was five years ago. What do you think is the best future for that site?
CL: I think is an important concern. I mean, I personally think while having downtown parking is important for the local economy. We can do a lot more in terms of using these sites to develop housing for green space and other places where it’s not just a concrete jungle to support folks who may be coming in on a short-term basis. So I think that’s really important. Also, one other thing, and just in terms of thinking about how we develop downtown, that is really important to me is with our flood mitigation problems. These may not seem linked but they are. A 40-year study of municipalities across the country showed when you have a 1% increase in non-porous pavement, which is almost all paving that’s done, you have a 3% increase in the amount of residual water from flooding. So I think, going forward, when we do downtown developments in places where you are fully covering the ground and there is sort of no possibility for absorption. We do need to be thoughtful about how we can address those flooding issues. Flooding is a tremendous climate problem, it will cause enormous cost for our residents. And so that’s something I want to keep in keep in mind. I think the other part of this too is the downtown parking and is more public transportation if we have an adequate TCAT network that people can rely on which many folks feel like they can’t right now. We won’t need as much downtown parking. We can have other uses such as housing or green space.
MS: Absolutely. I think when we think of any way forward, we absolutely need to consider development that is sustainable. Ithaca has a very ambitious goal of achieving carbon neutrality. And in order to do this, we need to invest in a lot of green infrastructure and also really consider how Ithaca will be developing in the future. So when it comes to further developments, especially those in downtown we need to have several considerations in place. The first is not building on toxic sites. Not a lot of research is done about buildings before we build on those sites, and as a result, there’s a lot of waste runoff. There’s a lot of toxic materials entering the city and affecting our children. So we really need to have assessors come in properly before we take any action on development. Beyond this, this was alluded to earlier but Ithaca’s current parking minimum requirements mean that for every building that’s built, there needs to be a certain number of parking spots that come along with it. What this does is create a lot of impermeable surfaces in Ithaca, and as a result this means when rain comes down, there’s nowhere for the rain to go. And when this happens, our flood risk gets higher because there is nowhere for the water to go. They just go into the reservoirs, they go into the creeks. Beyond this one thing we can do about replacing this is investing in TCAT. By investing in more public transportation options such as bike lanes, investing in TCAT, we can reduce our dependence on cars but also reduce our dependence on parking spaces.
JH: So for the Seneca Street garage, I would like to see perhaps a mixed use building replace the current garage. I think we need to support downtown businesses, the Commons is a gem. I walk down the Commons every day with my dog, and it pains me to see the number of vacancies that we’re currently seeing. I really want to support our downtown businesses. And the fact of the matter is they’re going to have to continue to be supported by people who arrive by car and those people are going to need some places to park I fully support expanding public transportation to the best of our abilities so that people don’t have to rely on their cars but the truth is, for the foreseeable future, they will I also think mixed use makes sense because the goal of denser downtown development, people who can live downtown walk to amenities walk to services, that’s a very green approach. And there’s a need for it and a desire for that. So I think mixed use makes a lot of sense there.
MF: Well, I totally support the use of the idea of a mixed-use development on that site. I think it’s actually a pity that one of the most prime pieces of real estate in the core of downtown is being used as a parking garage. That said, I do recognize that we also do need to support downtown businesses and we need to be able to have spaces for people to park. I think that we might be able to, with good planning, with a shuttle service, we might be able to make better use of all of the Route 13 parking lots, which are not at full capacity most of the time and have people who are leasing parking, like for instance all the Cornell Alumni Affairs and Development staff that are downtown and they’re getting parking spaces in the parking garage, to be able to instead move that kind of leasing to outside of the city core and shuttle people in so that we can make better use of that space. I think the county board has scooped up some incredibly prime real estate just down the block from there, and I think I am absolutely adamantly opposed to that. We need more housing in the city core and we need housing that meets the middle of the market. We have thousands of people in this county who are 60 and older, and they’ve been here for many, many years and they’re looking to downsize. We have no place for people to go to right in the city core where they can walk to services.
The city’s struggling to attract and retain workers for various departments. How can the city realistically address this problem?
MF: This is a huge problem for the city and we’ve been dealing with this problem for a very long time but not actually dealing with it. We are at a critical moment in time now where we are understaffed in the most vital departments that we have fire, police, water, DPW. That’s why our roads are probably in the worst state that they’ve been in the entire you know, four decades that I’ve been here. It is not going to be easy. We need more funds. That, simply put, we need to do cost sharing, we need to go through the budget with a fine tooth comb. We need to get a good equitable partnership established with Cornell so that we have some other sources of money. Again, just to go back to this gap. We are looking at a huge amount of money to make up with all of the property that’s tax exempt in the city. And it’s just an impossibility to put that on the backs of property owners here when we’re already paying exorbitant property taxes that are 5, 6, 7 times what the national averages
JH: So this was one of my primary motivations for running for Common Council. I think the city is really struggling to provide some of the basic services. Our wastewater treatment plant cannot retain employees. We’re contracting out that work at an exorbitant cost. We have a very understaffed Police Department. We all recognize that the DPW has insufficient funds. So that was one of my primary motivations for running for council, we need we need a city that can provide its basic services reliably and well. And, I think the immediate way to fill that, as Margaret said, we are a city that has a large amount of tax-exempt property. We need to assess exactly what those shortfalls are. We need to quantify those numbers. And I think with our negotiation with Cornell within the next year, we asked for them to contribute to bridge that gap. I think that’s a persuasive argument. These are services that benefit the broader community Cornell as well. That’s how I see us immediately addressing this issue. But also we need to look to other municipalities around us to share services to gain economies of scale tp find efficiencies. We are a broader economic unit, a broader infrastructure than just the city alone. We need to be sure we’re doing the best we can to gain efficiencies.
MS: This is an issue that absolutely matters to me. My parents are immigrants and I grew up in a working class environment. I believe the issues facing Ithaca needs to happen in twofold. The first is prioritizing the well-being of our workers. And the second would be thinking about the long-term or long-term plan. As far as prioritizing the well-being of our workers, we had a good start with the Pay Transparency Act, but we need to ensure that everyone in the future is paid a livable wage. Ithaca used to be a model for employment, everyone in the county wanted to come to Ithaca, but now we see with departments like the Department of Public Works, everyone’s going to land and everyone’s going somewhere more affordable. Everyone’s going somewhere that pays them a livable wage. We need to prioritize paying our workers a livable wage and making them feel respected. Second, comes with our issues with long term planning. This is a constant theme, right? Now two-thirds of it, because annual expenditures go towards debt repayments for items that should have never been part of borrowing programs, they should have been in our operating or annual budgets. So what this means is Ithaca needs to have a very long term plan with how we plan our budget. We need to have a stronger push for making Cornell pay and increasing their contributions to the city of Ithaca. And with the new city manager model. I’m hopeful that through participation with our communities and making sure everyone is involved, we can prioritize the issues that matter the most to us, and that starts with prioritizing the well being of our workers.
CL: I think we’re all in agreement on the issues and how essential municipal services are. One thing I haven’t heard from anyone else here that I think is absolutely critical at the core of this is that we have folks in the city who are operating without a union contract right now. I mean, the City Fire Department does not have a contract. We had terrible, terrible labor management negotiations, which the City Hall can absolutely be faulted for earlier this year. I don’t know how we can expect to retain workers when we have a city hall that is beating down on them all the time and is not bargaining in good faith. So that’s why I’m proud to have the endorsement of Bangs Ambulance Workers Union, because these are a lot of folks who work in the city, city government as well with our fire department, and they understand that we need to have an approach that is more conciliatory with the folks who make the city run. I think beyond that a little longer term. Ithaca is at a unique advantage. Unlike other municipalities, we collect sales tax none of the other municipalities and Tompkins County do and we generate $90 million in revenue so we do have a certain financial boost there. But it is expensive. We are falling behind. We should be repaving 5% of all roads each year and right now we’re repaving only 1%. So I want to make sure that we have all of our departments fully staffed, that we have equitable contracts for folks who make this city run and that we can get to a place where we have a city that’s providing services for all its residents.
What do you think of the progress of the Ithaca Green New Deal? And what do you think Common Council should be doing about it, if anything?
JH: So I’m in support of the goals of the Green New Deal. I think there’s been some good progress made in that regard. But I think that we need to spell out some real achievable goals with respect to the Green New Deal. I would like to see us take approach toward infrastructure that is very green friendly, for example, as we’ve said, discuss about development that allows for permeable grounds. Can we talk about sidewalks that might be more permeable. I’d also like to see you know, small steps that the city can take as we resurface roads, can we add green strip sides for biking? Biking is my primary mode of transportation around the city. I drive my car very little. Oftentimes, I feel unsafe driving my bike because there’s no designated areas for bicycles on the roads. Simple things, like can we have storm drainage grates that are actually a little more bike friendly? I’ve noticed there are various ones around the city. Some are bike friendly, some aren’t small little things that I think the city can do to help promote green lifestyles and also, you know, help reduce our carbon footprint. But again, overall, I support the Green New Deal and I think we need some very well articulated and spelled out achievable goals.
MS: I am in 100% support of the sentiments of the Green New Deals. However, I do think we need to be realistic about how we’re going to achieve them and how we’re going to go about having to reach carbon neutrality. The first part of the plan is expanding TCAT, and this means making sure that everyone has a reliable public transport system so that they’re no longer car dependent on having to get to work or even drop their children off for school. Beyond this, we could focus on electrifying our fleets and doing research on which buses need to have more running on certain routes, which could probably have less. This really comes down to having more data and research done so that we can properly schedule our buses and make sure that it is a system that works for everyone. Second, it really is investing in other modes of transportation like biking. I know that the Ithaca bikeshare has been extremely successful. They had over 3000 people use their services in the first month. I think that’s something we could further subsidize for residents to use. I also rely on bikes primarily as my form of transportation. And I can name you every single pothole on University Ave, East Court, the list goes on right? So in order to encourage residents we also need to make the city bike-friendly, that starts with bike lanes. This means making sure our roads are safe for biking in the future. In the long term I think it needs to look towards moving our energy sources to be electric, to be renewable, to be sustainable. And I think this is a fantastic initiative. We just really need to plan for it.
CL: Absolutely. I think my approach here is looking at climate mitigation as the biggest issue. So right now in the city of Ithaca we have a tremendous flooding challenge and it’s incoming, we’ll have a lot of folks in the new much expanded 100-year flood zone that will have to pay for expensive flood insurance that looks to be approximately $4,000 to $6,000 per year and that’ll affect both tenants and homeowners. I think making sure we prioritize working with our federal partners to get the creek wall project done to make sure that we eliminate the high costs of the climate crisis for residents of Ithaca and to make sure that we work with the Department of Environmental Conservation at the state level to get the canal, the flood control canal dredged Beyond that, I think all these other steps are great to make, Ithaca sort of reduce its carbon impact and decarbonisation. I think the decarbonisation of city buildings is wonderful. And the county’s really been a leader here with electrifying their fleet and they got a grant from the federal government to do that earlier this year. But I really think at the end of the day, it’s climate mitigation to make sure that we do not displace people as a result of the climate crisis. It has a high cost and a lot of folks are not necessarily thinking about it, but I want to make sure that Ithaca can be a leader in terms of protecting people from the very serious impacts of increased rains, increased flooding. I think this week, if nothing else, is a perfect example of what happens with the climate crisis. The idea that we couldn’t go outside without masks for a couple of days, which was previously unthinkable in New York is very, very much an indication of the challenging future that we face.
MF: Well, to echo what Clyde just said, this past week has certainly underscored the urgency of having an attainable climate plan. I think that I applaud the new building code which we’ve put in place already, which has a near-net zero energy requirement for all new buildings by 2026. The common choice aggregation, the idea of pooling our energy needs so that we can get access to affordable clean energy. Excellent, I totally applaud that. I do think that some of our some of the details of the plan, though, are not so easily attainable, like reducing emissions of the city fleet by 50% by 2025. We don’t have the funds to do it, right? So that’s going to be tricky. Electrifying all buildings by 2025. That’s just not realistic, even if we had had the money to do it. I do think that we need an alternative to the current use of BlocPower in the city. Certainly we should be supporting homeowners as they look at better insulation and heat pump units but I think we should be doing that with local contractors who can present some kind of group pricing that’s actually affordable for people. I’ve seen some of the proposals from Bloc Power and they are extraordinarily expensive. I also think we need to fix our potholes. We can have a bicycle-friendly city with the roads in the state that they’re in. TCAT needs a very careful analysis to get more people to be able to use it. If it takes too long to get from point A to point B. No matter how much we put in public transportation, it’s not going to be helpful.
So last question before closing remarks is what do you think is the most underrated issue facing your ward? Think of an issue that isn’t often talked about or debated.
MS: So it’s come up frequently in debates, but after knocking on hundreds of doors in Ward Five, I’ve come to realize that the most underrated issue is actually talking about flood mitigation, and how the city has not adequately prioritized it in a way that externalizes costs away from homeowners. Because instead it’s being pushed onto them. FEMA recently came in and reassessed the properties for flood risk, and about 25% of the properties near Fall Creek, and can eventually spread, will be affected and will have premiums raised. This was mentioned previously, but for some homeowners, this means their annual cost for flood insurance will be raised $4,000 to $6,000. The severity of this cannot be understated. What’s going to be happening is a lot of Ithacans will be priced out of their homes. Anyone that currently has a mortgage will be forced to pay the insurance or move out. So what this means is that only the rich will be able to afford a home in Ithaca. What we need to do now is think of ways in which we can externalize these costs. One creative solution I’ve thought of is following the Vermont model, in which they’ve been able to call on the NFIP, the National Flood Insurance Program to subsidize parts for people that live in very high-risk flood zone areas so that they do not have to be the ones paying flood insurance. In Ithaca, everyone deserves to feel protected, to feel safe, but also feel confident that they can raise a family in the future and that they have a sustainable life in Ithaca. And part of this starts with ensuring that costs stay low for our residents.
MF: Well, I have walked around the ward and it is extraordinary. How many units are really student housing in our ward, we have pockets of permanent, long-term residents and we have a lot of residence halls, so a lot of dormitories. And then there are a lot of housing rental housing units, and I do think walking along and knocking on these doors, some of them are in pretty rough shape. And I think that hasn’t been addressed. I know that the city building department is understaffed, I think they’re way behind in terms of being able to actually do the inspections that we need. I think that that is something that needs to be addressed. I think more integration or better integration. More intergenerational community sorts of events would be super fun in our neighborhood. You know, we could have a dog walk. We should, we have permanent residents and we have lots of students but they’re not really interacting in fun and in ways that would be really helpful for the community. I think we have streetscape issues that could be addressed by both groups, and I’m talking about, like, litter. So just basic kinds of adopt-a-block kinds of programs and other sorts of maintenance, like ice-covered sidewalks when fraternities and sororities go away for winter break. These are things that are not really talked about but I think we should be working together, permanent residents and students.
CL: Yes. I think the biggest thing and this isn’t one particular issue, are there a lot of ways the city passes along costs to residents that through changes in regulation, we could really change and I’ll give you a couple examples of these. But I think this comes from an emphasis on a city government that’s more compassionate, that’s really accessible and really doesn’t only deal with the big issues but deals with the small ones as well. One of them is, for instance, if you’re an older folk, older person and you’re falling in your home, the City Fire Department, if they respond, can’t do lift assist, right, so they just simply can’t pick you up and help you, you have to call an ambulance company which doesn’t take insurance and will charge you $800, right? That’s a city risk management requirement, but it’s something we should look at. There are older folks who fall frequently, we should reduce the living costs for them. Another one, there are a lot of young people who are native Ithacans who want to live on the Hill, which is a beautiful area, but most landlords won’t rent to them and I think that’s a huge problem. And I’ve heard from folks who are feeling pushed out, and there are landlords that are really aggressive. So there are a lot of small issues that only affect particular pockets, but that’s why I love this. I love talking to people and figuring out how we can use municipal government to solve their problems because I think we really need a government that is attentive to the small things as well. As the big ones, and there’s really compassion in it and I hope to work hard over the next two years to deliver on that.
JH: Yes. So we all agree that affordability is a big issue, rising rents, but everyone’s kind of touched on this, but I’m gonna frame it as the underrated issue I see is engagement and interaction. I don’t think enough of our constituents are aware of what’s happening in city government and how it’s impacting them. I think we really need to have a city government that reaches out more to its constituents. One thing I would like to see is a town hall that’s not just an individual council member, but a town hall that consists of all council members, fielding and responding to questions from constituents. Currently, the setup at council meetings doesn’t really allow for interaction. I understand that they have to stick to an agenda but I’d like to see an interactive opportunity for the council while it’s sitting in full. Secondly, our ward is highly populated by students. I would really like to see a permanent Student Advisory Board to council, they could really focus that could engage more students. They could really focus on student-centric issues, off-campus issues that are important to them and have a permanent voice that wouldn’t have to depend on someone getting elected to Common Council they’d have a guaranteed voice to the city, that could encourage student engagement.
MF: Throughout my 40 plus years in Ithaca, I’ve been involved in many political battles and community efforts. I’ve built skills and community organizing advocacy, thinking outside the box and building alliances. I’m good at researching and questioning. I look forward to bringing these decades of experience to Common Council to help focus on Ithaca’s most pressing needs. Many of the problems we face stem from being cash-strapped, despite property owners paying five, six, to seven times the national average in local taxes. These high costs are then passed on to renters making us one of the most unaffordable cities in the country. There is no one solution to all that needs to be addressed. Here are my priorities. We must secure an equitable financial agreement with Cornell. We must reprioritize how we spend our money and explore cost sharing and consolidation of services with neighboring municipalities. Work closely with our county reps to get a fair share of county funding for the regional services the city provides like roads, parks and youth services. Fully staff our critical departments: fire, police, building and Public Works, and fairly compensate our employees. Institute smart changes to the police department to ensure anti-racist community policing, while fully supporting our officers and adding an unarmed unit. We need to work with county, state and federal reps and our nonprofits to provide the best support services possible for those unhoused. We need transparency and engagement and better communication between council members and residents. Let’s create a city-wide neighborhood association and a student advisory board. Let’s tap our local talent and form a student-faculty research and internship program. I am long invested in this community and ready to help us focus on our most urgent needs. I’ll be very grateful for your vote. Thank you for voting.
JH: So I am a 17-year resident of the Ithaca area and I’ve lived in the Fifth Ward for six years. Ithaca is my home, I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my life. I feel the city is really at a critical point. With affordability, there are some very critical challenges ahead of us and some important changes that will be happening in the near future. And that is my motivation for running for Common Council. I want Ithaca to remain a diverse place where anyone across the economic spectrum can call home. I want it to be a place where people who are entering retirement don’t need to fear that they’re going to have to move out of the city and uproot their lives because it has become so unaffordable. I may find myself in that position in 10 years and I’d like to work to avoid that. So that is my motivation for running for Common Council. Again, the issues I see we’re facing are affordability, we need to tackle that on multiple fronts. We need a responsible city budget. We need to have development that involves the entire area, not just Ithaca, our surrounding areas, so that we can actually have a housing market that works for all of the people here. We need to implement Reimagining Public Safety. I think I’ve seen crime increase in Ithaca, it disheartens me. I think now that we’ve gone through the process of articulating what Reimagining Public Safety is we need to really focus on implementing that and fully staffing our police department so that we feel safe in our community. I’ve worked the last 23 years as a software developer and consultant. I enjoy complex problem-solving and collaborative environments and I’m hoping I can bring that history and my love of the community to Common Council.
MS: it’s imperative that we unite to put people and planet over profit by building bridges, not walls. Ithaca has long since been renowned as a city of possibilities, where once you could be a student, raise a family and retire, but we’ve sorely been missing the mark. But it’s not too late to change this for our future. I want to reiterate the three most pressing concerns that the council will have to face in the upcoming years, as well as how we can address them. The first is the biggest topic making Cornell pay. Our [memorandum] of understanding is set to expire after 20 years in which we need to renegotiate Cornell paying a more fair and equitable payment to the city of Ithaca. This cannot be understated, it has to be a community effort. The students, alumni, trustees of Cornell need to unite with the long-term residents to put pressure on the administration. But this starts with community building. We need to make sure everyone is heard by having town halls, blasting information through emails, flyers, making sure that, especially with the new city manager model, we’re transparent about what we’re doing so that we can adequately put pressure on the Cornell administration to fund the city of Ithaca, which everyone uses the resources of. The second, again, is flood mitigation. It’s ensuring that we prioritize the dredging to ensure that the flood risk does not get higher, and that we could also look into creative solutions such as the Vermont plan that I’d mentioned earlier, in which we could call on the National Flood Insurance Program to potentially subsidize flood insurance costs. The last of which is housing affordability. We need to protect tenants by prioritizing Good Cause Eviction laws and the Emergency Tenant Protection Act. And we also need to prioritize the livelihoods of homeowners by lowering their costs through the passing of accessory dwelling units, reducing parking minimums, and ultimately for housing development, we need to build up not out. I’m running for Common Council because it’s because my home and I believe that just like everyone else, everyone should be able to thrive.
CL: Well, first thank you for having me here. These are really important issues. These are issues of generational consequence our city faces. I think the biggest thing that distinguishes me and sort of why I’m running is a belief that we need to be a lot bolder and we need to plan more. Perhaps I’m a student of public policy, but I really see a city that isn’t taking the necessary steps to make sure we deal with the worst impacts of the climate crisis with flooding, or to make sure that we have zoning plans that adequately reflect our future housing needs. But beyond that, I really want to be aggressive. We need to tackle these issues and I think simply saying that we have revenue problems, which we certainly do, isn’t enough. We’re going to need to be a lot more aggressive. We’re going to need to be more creative as a city. We’ve seen municipalities across the country be really innovative with public safety reforms with generating new revenues from unique streams and working on how to deal with a large not-for-profit landholder. And beyond that, I want to address something else here as a student, but also as a resident of Ithaca, through a lot of legitimate concerns I have about our ability to make sure we have a council that represents both homeowners and renters alike. This is a serious challenge for people and I think it comes down to affordability. I think one of the unfortunate undercurrents in this campaign is the idea of students that we don’t necessarily have a say or have concerns about how the city is run and I don’t think that’s true. I want to be in a position where I can buy a home in Ithaca and where people I know and where people whose grandparents I know are able to live here affordably. So I think my approach is being more aggressive. It’s really having a policy centered and data driven vision. And it’s about making sure that we are more inclusive and not just focused on narrow interests and that’s why I’m running for Common Council.