TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Tompkins County took another step this week toward fulfilling its Center of Government plans, which would bring a new county facility to downtown Ithaca and consolidate several county departments, though not all, at a single location.
On Tuesday, the County Legislature authorized county leaders to begin soliciting bids for the building design. The downtown Ithaca facility is currently estimated to be 43,000-51,000 square feet and cost about $40 million, though those numbers are subject to change.
The plan is still in its early stages, as Tuesday’s vote dealt only with directing the county administration to move forward with “space, architectural, and engineering plans” for the Center of Government. It has not been decided which services will migrate to the new facility if it is built.
Currently, the county is eyeing a site at the corner of North Tioga Street and East Buffalo Street in downtown Ithaca. The Key Bank and Ithaca Professional Buildings currently occupy the site, though both buildings will be vacant by February 2024.
The resolution passed 12-2, with legislators Lee Shurtleff and Mike Lane voting in opposition.
During the brief discussion Tuesday, which followed a lengthier debate at the Facilities and Infrastructure Committee last month, Lane maintained his critiques of the Center of Government process. He said that such a significant piece of legislation should not have been introduced via a member-filed resolution from legislator Deborah Dawson in the F&I Committee, of which Lane is chair.
Lane added he felt the resolution wrongly prioritized the Center of Government proposal before the potential Public Safety building expansion, which has also been frequently discussed among county officials for years.
Lane’s sentiments were outweighed during the meeting, though. Several legislators said the county had waited long enough and needed to move forward. The project was first proposed in 2019 in response to an oft-cited lack of space for staff members.
“We need more space for many, many departments,” said Legislator Anne Koreman. “This is a step in getting us there.”
That issue was highlighted in a study presented by HOLT Architects in July 2022, which determined the county needs about 33,000 more square feet to house all its staffers adequately.
“The construction of a Center of Government best fulfills the criteria of meeting departmental space needs, providing space efficiency and equity for staff, centralizing numerous services for the public in a government campus, eliminating the need for leased spaces, and complying with the county’s sustainability goals in a manner that is comparable in cost to the other options,” the resolution states.
Legislature Chair Shawna Black and County Administrator Lisa Holmes went back-and-forth over the financial burden the county would incur by trying to undertake the Center of Government and Public Safety building expansion simultaneously.
“They will be tight,” Holmes said. “We can take on both of those projects. It’s going to take some prioritization on the part of county administration and the legislature to come up with plans that are going to meet the needs of the county.”
Holmes hypothesized the county could start one of the projects this year and another in 2028 or 2029.
Legislators Randy Brown, Deborah Dawson and Greg Mezey all spoke in favor of moving the proposal forward as well.
Shurtleff said legislators should consider growing concerns about safety downtown when evaluating the project. He cited requests from employees for increased safety measures at the downtown Department of Social Services building.
“I’m not comfortable going back to my constituency and saying, with a straight face, that I truly believe this is the safest move in the interest of our constituents, our clients and our personnel,” Shurtleff said.
In a related move, Tompkins County also authorized the sale of the “Red House” at 408 North Tioga Street, determining that it is “no longer needed for public use.” The property was first purchased in 2019 as a potential future component of the Center of Government plan, but has deteriorated since then and fell out of the Center of Government plans after the county bought the 300 block properties.