ITHACA, N.Y.—With some extra funding in tow, the Department of Public Works laid out its plan for 2024 during a budget hearing held last week.
The budget shows increased maintenance needs and labor costs, though a recently approved labor contract has begun to address the department’s prolonged staffing woes. The department’s operating budget now includes a $800,000 boost from the newly negotiated $4 million contribution to the city from Cornell University.
“I ran down to [City Comptroller Steven Thayer’s] office when I saw that. I said ‘Steve, is that a typo?’” Department of Public Works Superintendent Michael Thorne told council members at a budget meeting last Thursday.
The $800,000 figure represents 20 percent of the total $4 million yearly contribution to the city under the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the city and the University. Under the agreement, at least 20 percent of the contribution must be spent on projects of “mutual interest, like infrastructure” according to a statement from Cornell’s negotiating team.
“We’ve got Stewart Avenue Bridge, that Stewart Avenue sidewalk reconstruction, there’s University Avenue, other parts of Stewart Avenue, the five corners intersection,” Thorne said. “There’s a lot of projects that we just have never been able to get funding for.”
Thorne said he’s not sure what project will come first, but elsewhere in the meeting did mention that road improvement projects on the hills tend to be more challenging compared to projects on flat ground.
Labor is also a limiting factor, and Thorne said that while the city will contract out simpler road maintenance projects, he wants city crews to tackle the more complex repairs.
Thorne said the labor contract negotiated this year with the union that represents some DPW workers has helped bring in new job applicants.
Progress has been stilted for workers not covered by the renegotiated contract, particularly those in the water treatment plants, Thorne said. The department still relies on private contractors to fill some of the vacant roles.
Thorne said some of the higher level positions in the skilled trades, like plumbing and electrical inspectors, are still vacant due to what he said were insufficient wages.
Homeless encampment infrastructure
Last year, the city allocated $100,000 from its restricted contingency fund to pay for basic infrastructure development in the large homeless encampment on Ithaca’s West End, colloquially called “the Jungle.”
But that funding is missing in the department’s 2024 budget. Thorne said the DPW hadn’t spent the money allocated last year, in part because city and county officials had struggled to come to a consensus on how to handle safety issues in the encampment.
“I think we spent a little bit of money on a chain link fence and a few other things — some of the dumpster costs and things like that, but I think most of the money is still there,” Thorne said.
The Common Council recently approved a pilot “land use policy” for parts of city land, which governs where people can legally camp. Tompkins County is currently in the process of determining what services it will provide, if any, for the residents of the encampment.
Councilperson Cynthia Brock said she wanted city staff to start the process of using that money to improve conditions in the encampment.
Thorne said that while parking rates at Ithaca’s three municipal parking garages would remain the same next year, he warned the council would need to revisit the issue soon.
“I mean, if we raise the rates 50 cents an hour, that’s a 50% increase in revenue,” Thorne said. “That’s a discussion that we’ll have to have probably sometime next year, certainly before the next budget.”
Expenses for the city’s garages are set to nearly double next year for a new total of just over $3 million. Thorne said much of that increase is due to lease payments on the recently renovated Green Street Garage. Bond payments and rising maintenance costs have also contributed to the added expense.
Of the city’s three parking structures, the Seneca Street Garage requires the most significant repairs. Thorne said that if the city can keep up with repairs, the garage would last about 10 more years.
A little under a quarter of the buildings in Ithaca receive a water bill based on estimates because of a faulty water meter, Thorne said. He said estimates are usually “pretty good” but replacing water meters would make it easier to detect leaks and could eventually allow for monthly billing.
Thorne’s department is planning to replace about half of the city’s faulty meters this year as part of a capital project.
There are also concerns about the city’s water supply. Ithaca Reservoir, which sits between South and East Hills. The reservoir has been slowly filling up with silt over the decades. Built-up sediment can place too much pressure on the face of aging dams and reduce water quality, Thorne said.
Thorne said that safety standards for dams have become more stringent, and Ithaca’s dams may no longer meet minimum standards.
Thorne said dredging the silt would be prohibitively expensive, but that certain safety improvements to the dams could help the city eventually drain the silt out of the reservoir system and down into Cayuga Lake, where it would then fall under the purview — and budget — of the state.