When I think of a budget, I think of a bunch of numbers that either do or don't add up. Each of those numbers has a value, meaning they correspond to a "magnitude; quantity; number represented by a figure, symbol, or the like" (dictionary.com). Budget numbers are represented by this symbol $$$.
But as the Tompkins County Legislature moves into budget season, I'm coming to understand the phrase a government's budget is a statement of its values. A budget is a bunch of $$$ indeed, but it's not the symbols that matter. It's what underlies them that defines the principles, the "the quality (positive or negative) that renders something desirable" (vocabulary.com), the values that we want to live by.
But we start with the numbers. Over the past few months, Tompkins County Administrator, Jason Molino and his staff spent much time talking with the 45+ departments and agencies in the County about what they need to keep their operations going, and what they need or want to enhance their department. The result of this work was a presentation to last Tuesday to the Legislature of the draft 2019 budget.
What we're working with is, (to borrow from the County's press release) "total expenditures of $186.5 million (an increase of 2.57%) and local dollar spending of $89.9 million (an increase of 2.05%). The budget is balanced with a 1.43% increase in the County property tax levy, which is less than the Legislature’s 2.2% levy goal, and well below the County’s tax cap."
Scroll down all those lists of numbers and you'll see that the bottom line for the property owner is an increase on their tax bill of about $15 (for the median assessed property of $185,000).
Last year at this time, I was sitting in the audience of the Legislature with my knitting, watching the Legislators with their giant budget books filled with page after page of numbers, trying to decipher the process. This year, I get to participate every step of the way (and still intend to bring my knitting).
Thursday evening, we had our first Expanded Budget Committee Meeting, which equaled three hours of presentations by some of the department and agency heads. They each took a turn explaining their budget and the extras they are asking for - called Over Target Requests (OTRs). We heard from the County Clerk, The History Center, Transportation Planning, the Tompkins County Soil and Water Conservation District, Board of Elections, Opportunities, Alternatives, and Resources (OAR), Animal Control/SPCA, the County Historian, and the Legislative Clerk. Each was followed by a chance for Legislators to ask questions.
For the next month, we'll meet six times to listen to such presentations and weigh the importance of each department and each OTR. We'll look at their quantitative value along with their qualitative value. Eventually, in October, we'll move to voting meetings, where any Legislator can move to add an OTR or other amendment to the budget. If the item gets eight votes, the majority, it will be added to the full budget. Then, when all that is done, we'll need to get eight votes on the entire budget to make it official for 2019.
I ran into a neighbor and constituent the other day at the grocery store and mentioned budget season. When I told him we're working with $186 million, he reminded me that "That's a huge responsibility!" Indeed, and not something I take lightly.
From the past eight months of work on the Legislature, I have an understanding of what each department does, but listening to each presentation, I got a better sense of who each department is, what population they serve, and what their values are. And it's that last one that is most important. The budget process won't be simple, but when I hear the numbers, the principles, the positive qualities that align with my own, raising my hand to vote for those values will be easy.
Yesterday I had the huge honor to participate in a Naturalization ceremony. The County Clerk, Maureen Reynolds, runs these ceremonies four times a year, and this month, 33 applicants from 20 different countries became American citizens. The packed courtroom was alive with color and children and smiles and so much hope.
I can't claim to know how people feel or why they decided to become American citizens, but it was so inspiring that these people have chosen to renounce their country of origin and claim allegiance to America. It's hard to imagine for those of us who grew up in a place that, at the core of its being, celebrates the freedom to speak your mind, freedom to make your own choices, freedom to pursue your own brand of happiness. We assume that the rest of the world is like ours, because we don't know any differently. But other governments do not necessarily holds the same views. And the reality is that we who were born here take it for granted.
I recently saw a sign that went something like this:
There are only four ways people arrived in America-
-You were Native American
-You were a slave
-You were a refugee
-You were an immigrant.
It's a huge risk when we forget that all our ancestors, except for the native peoples', came here from somewhere else. When it wasn't our parents, or our grandparents who immigrated to America, but ancestors farther back who we never knew, we lose sight of what this country is all about. When we forget that this country was built with diversity, hope, suffering, community, love, and hardship by people from elsewhere, we tend to forget what who we are and what we stand for.
We're in a period of history when I am constantly questioning America, worrying about our future, wondering how Democracy will survive the horrors I am seeing. The core of our country, the Constitution, is in crisis. And yet, today I saw 33 people of all colors and creeds raise their rights hands and pledge to honor and protect the Constitution of the United States. There is something that America stands for that people around the world still want. Maybe we haven't totally f'ed it up yet. And indeed, there's something that America stands for that I still want.
That's why I ran for office. To be a part of protecting that core freedom and justice. America is great already. But we need to reinvest in our ethics, in our community, in our respect for each and every person. Yesterday's ceremony reminded me that now more than ever we need to celebrate our differences, find ways to talk, and to listen, listen, listen to each other.
Here's what I said yesterday:
"Thank you for this asking me to be a part of this wonderful ceremony. And congratulations to our newest Americans!
America was built by immigrants. Our founding fathers and mothers were all immigrants. My own ancestors came from England, Poland, Germany, and only a few generations ago, my great grandfather came here to escape war in Austria. Except the native people who were here for many centuries before we were, all Americans came here from somewhere else. This history is now your history too.
You come from 20 different countries, from large cities and small villages, from different climates and landscapes, and you bring all your past experiences and stories with you. This is one thing I love about America- the variety of backgrounds, the differences in cultures and beliefs, the wide range of experiences we each have. When we come together and celebrate and respect our diversity we become stronger, more resilient, more powerful. When we honor each of our individual stories, we build a community that is vibrant and thriving.
Your path to becoming an American citizen has no doubt been a learning process. You’ve probably had some challenging experiences along the way. That is also the story of this country. America is certainly not perfect. We’ve faced many challenges, we’ve made mistakes, we’ve struggled again and again as we’ve tried to figure out Democracy through trial and error. But I think what keeps us moving forward, what keeps America united, is our belief in the same ideals: freedom to be who you are and speak your mind, opportunity to work hard and create happiness, love of community, commitment to supporting those who need help, and a desire to build a better world for our children.
Being a part of a Democracy is hard. It is not a form of government where people can just sit back and let things happen. Democracy only works when the people are engaged. This means that now, as citizens, you are responsible to be informed and to vote, to voice your opinions to your elected officials, and to teach your children to get involved. Maybe you’ll even run for office yourself.
Like all the immigrants who came before you, America needs your inspiration, your ideas, your energy to make her strong. Honor your past, but as you go forward into your new country I hope you will celebrate our diversity, protect our Democracy, and love and embrace America as your own. Welcome."
I'll never forget the day. A cold, snowy wind blasted through Ithaca that morning. Six-year-old Cedar and twelve-year-old Tahlya were at school and I sat in front of my computer and worked on editing some posts for my blog. In between that and cleaning the house, I listened to the Stephanie Miller Show on AM radio. As the morning went on, she began to speak of some breaking news coming out of Connecticut. It was unclear, but it seemed there had been another school shooting. My stomach clenched at the thought of it.
The details began to come clear and it only got worse. And worse. Students, five- and six-year-old children, practically babies, were murdered in their first-grade classrooms, by a man with a gun and a vendetta. My head reeled as I listened to the horrific details, one by one, dribbling out of the radio speakers. It was all I could do to prevent myself from jumping in the car and driving across town to my son's classroom and finding him and never letting go.
A few hours later, Cedar arrived home on his school bus. Little brown-head of innocence bobbing through the rows of seats, small voice thanking the driver, short legs climbing those big steps down to greet me once more. His face lit up when he saw me. I started to cry.
There was nothing fair about that day. My child was safe, my life would go on, but so many lives were shattered.
Since then, there have been dozens more school shootings, and countless incidents of gun violence in America. With one kid now in middle school, and another in college, it's hard to know how to handle this kind of thing. Will my life be irrevocably changed some day, when someone with access to a gun decides to enter one of their schools? I would be destroyed. I don't know how anyone could recover from that.
A few weeks ago, the Tompkins County Sheriff's Department hosted a gun buyback event. The purpose was to get unwanted guns out of people's homes and possession. People brought in guns that had been willed to them, guns that sat in their attics and basements unlocked, guns that they simple didn't want or know what to do with.
Legislator Anna Kelles was instrumental in working with Tompkins County Sheriff Ken Lansing and the Sheriff's department in organizing the event. The Tompkins County DA offered funding to pay for their guns. And a few of us Legislators showed up on the day with coffee, snacks, and cheery attitudes. Eager to support the good work.
The day-long event brought in about 45 guns, all of which will be destroyed.
One small step.
The Monday after the buyback, I attended the Health and Human Services Committee meeting, of which I am a member. The topic for the meeting was suicide, and we heard from several organizations who are working on a Zero Suicide model of mental health care. One fact that was offered, though not central to the conversation, was that about 2/3 of suicides are by guns. That's about 58 people per day. A horrifying, sobering number.
School shootings. Suicide. This says nothing of the countless other ways that guns are used to harm, torture, and kill people. How many people have to die from this epidemic before we as a society reevaluate what we are doing and make a change? When will we push back hard enough on the NRA and the gun lobby in Washington? When will children be valued more than guns and money?
I'm ready for that change. Now. In my book, guns kill people. Period. There should be serious restrictions on gun ownership. And assault rifles and weapons should be banned.
A gun buyback isn't the only answer. It was one thing that we could do. It's 45 guns that will never kill a child, never be turned on a loved one or on the hand that holds it, never be used in a fit of rage. There are many more guns out there, being used right now to hurt someone.
We can talk about rights, about the Second Amendment, about America's long history. We should. But for now, I want to talk about those six-year-old children who were murdered in their Newtown school on that dark, cold day. I want to talk about the loss their parents have suffered. I want to talk about the fact that I live every day grateful that my family has not faced gun violence, and in fear that someday it might all come crashing down. I want to talk about the fact that those babies would be about twelve years old now and that I'll never forget it because my son will always be the age that those beautiful children never will.
The question I hear most often these days is, How's it going?
When I run into old friends from Cedar's elementary school, or cross paths with constituents I haven't seen in a few months, or sit down with a department head to learn about their agency, it's the inevitable question: How's the new job going?
People are curious. Hell, I've been curious myself as to how this would go. As you know, I'm just a regular person who decided it was time to serve my community, and I've never been friends with or worked much at all with any elected officials. My previous interactions with elected officials include: I emailed with Barbara Lifton in 2017 regarding the Women's March; I got to know Will Burbank and Martha Robertson while I was campaigning last year; and I had the opportunity to shake Bill Clinton's hand once, back when he was President, but I refused because I was so mad at him for cheating on his wife.
So yeah, pretty much zero elected official interaction. So if someone I knew ran for office and won, my first question would definitely be, How's it going?
What I think people mean to ask is: What's it like? Are politicians as shady and shifty as the media portrays them? Is all the work worth the small paycheck? I saw you in the news, wasn't that cool? But mainly, I think they mean: How the hell are you coping with such a thankless and controversial job?
Part of the answer to the question is in my daily activities. On one Monday in April I went to the Department of Health for the Health Planning Council meeting, where I learned about the success of the HIV prevention drug. Then I met with Will to catch up and ask for a little advice. Then I attended the Health and Human Services committee meeting, where I am a member, and we discussed the County's medical examiner program and the Human Services Coalition's 211 program.
The next day, I met with one of the County's planners to look at maps and discuss the County forest land we own in Newfield. Then I met with one of the guys from IT to get oriented to my brand new County-issued laptop. Later in the day, I joined a group of concerned neighbors at one of my constituents' homes to discuss issues in their neighborhood.
In between all that, I've been reading emails and articles about the airport expansion, plastic bag bans, Safe Injection Facilities, and agendas for upcoming meetings of the Library Board, Cornell Cooperative Extension, and the Environmental Management Council.
When I look at this list, I feel like I have the best job in the world. Not one aspect of it was repetitive, mundane, or boring. And I'm a person who doesn't take kindly to mundanity.
As for the pay, I'm not in this for the money. I receive about $1200 a month, after taxes and health insurance costs have been taken out. The past few months I've had to keep track of my hours to show the NYS retirement system my average work amount, which has been about 40 hours per week. So, you can do the math there.
Politicians are a shady lot. It's a pretty standard stereotype. Just look at Albany or Washington. Here in Tompkins County, so far, I believe things are different.
I haven't become friends with all the other Legislators (though a couple, I have). I don't hold the same values as they all do. I don't vote one way or another because someone told me to or tried to coerce me.
Each of our votes counts the same. One time. We can debate, argue, or try to beat each other down with facts and figures from our side. TC Legislators are an opinionated, loud, passionate bunch. Most of us can easily get swept up in emotion of a topic. But I don't see corruption, coercion, underhanded dealings. Instead, what I see are a group of people trying to do their best for the people they represent. Their way of thinking might be different from mine, but what matters is that at the end of the day, I am trying to be my best self, and I believe they are doing the same.
So, you ask, How's it going?
My answer is that it is intense. It's busy--I have meetings every day, one day I had six. It's overwhelming--there are hundreds of pages of reports, articles, studies, and other documents to read every week. It's emotional--when I'm passionate about something, I'm passionately fighting for it, and that takes a toll. It's a huge learning curve--I knew nothing about Robert's Rules, how most County departments are run, and the hardest one for me, speaking in public (hence the reason I am a writer).
But it is also fun--some of us make jokes and laugh at any and every opportunity. It's entertaining--I've seen some great presentations, been on a dozen awesome facilities tours, and many of my advisory board assignments offer cake, cookies, or dinner each time! It's never, ever dull--there have been rousing debates over hot topics, a chance to meet Chuck Schumer, and an insightful LGBTQ+ sensitivity in the workplace training.
It's worth it. I'm contributing. I'm making choices for my community. I'm seeing, from the inside, the power that Democracy holds, and the responsibility that comes with having a seat at the table. All that adds up to make me think that it's going pretty damn well.
Eight million dollars.
It's an amount that I'll never truly grasp--figuratively or literally. And yet, last night I raised my hand to agree that Tompkins County will take on an eight to ten million dollar risk. To be ponied up by the end of 2019.
You may have heard, but last month Governor Cuomo stopped by the Ithaca-Tompkins Regional Airport to announce that the state will grant us 14.2 million dollars to upgrade our terminal and move our facility into the future. It was a huge deal that was years in the making, to which many great people gave their time and energy. It will add a concourse with four new jetways, update the baggage facility, create an international customs center, and give a general facelift to the whole property. It's an impressive project that will not cost $14.2 million, but rather a minimum of $22.2 million. The state will give us some money, but in accepting their grant, we agree that we will come up with the rest.
At least eight million dollars.
Last night at our regular Legislative meeting, we listened to a presentation from Mike Hall, airport manager. As I sat in the dimmed room and watched the colorful slides go by, questions raced through my head, and my heart began to beat rather fast. Could I accept this kind of risk for my constituents? There were many thought-out explanations and suggestions for grants from all over Timbuktu that we could apply for to cover that extra cost. Sure, great, makes sense. But still, eight million dollars?
After the vote was counted, unanimous for, there was a great round of applause and congratulations over this long-awaited project. Eventually, the air of excitement waned and Mike Hall left the room, no doubt to get back to work making good things happen, as he is so skilled at doing.
I'm a newbie here, and deciding on something as consequential as eight million dollars for the airport was a bit of a wild moment. It's not something I've done before and I admit to being overwhelmed by the reality of it.
The mood remained high as the Legislature took a brief break before returning for the rest of the meeting. From there, things shifted. The lights were turned back up. Legislators fidgeted after more than two and a half hours in our seats. Bystanders and the press left. But there was still business to do.
And so came a presentation from Sue Dale-Hall, Chief Executive Officer of the Child Development Council (CDC). Sue had sat through the entire meeting, listening to all of the airport (and other) hubbub, patiently waiting her turn. She was in front of us to present an innovative idea to increase childcare options in Tompkins County. Childcare is undervalued, expensive for parents and low-paying for providers, and there is never enough. Many women (because it's generally women who are primary caregivers for children) can't reenter the workforce because they can't find or afford child care.
Sue and several others devised a plan to expand and support a network of Group Family Day Care (CFDC) facilities, which are generally run out of peoples' homes and can accommodate about a dozen children. The idea is to design and build homes that are functional for use as both a child care and a home, and recruit people to live in those homes who would run the child care operation, with support from Child Development Council and other investors and organizations. If there are shared services (like accounting or substitute teacher pools), help with grant-funding or legal services, and new affordable housing options within a network of GFDC homes, the operational costs could drop, earning workers more income, and lowering the cost passed on to parents.
It's a new and fascinating way of looking at the problem; one that the CDC came to us to help fund. Sue was asking for $25,000 for the second half of this year. With request that the Legislature give $50,000 for two more years. It was noted at this juncture that the Legislature can reconsider the next years' funding if we want to.
That's $125,000 for three years. Maybe.
Compared to eight to ten million in the next 18 months. Absolutely without question.
We voted to give the CDC $25,000. There were smiles and appreciations. But there was no fanfare, no excitement. And it got me thinking about priorities.
I believe the airport expansion will be good for Tompkins County, so I voted for it. I also believe that expanding child care options will be good for Tompkins County, so I voted for that. There were at least two articles from local newspapers today about the Legislature accepting the state airport grant. There were none about the childcare project.
Why is it that getting people, women, back to work after having children is so seemingly unimportant? Why is making sure we have enough quality, affordable childcare in our community so incredibly difficult? Why are we investing $25,000 in women and children, and eight to ten million in the airport?
The imbalance is real. It is not imagined. And I think the reason is simple. Our society as a whole, not just here in Ithaca, places more energy, time, and money into things that are shiny, sexy, male-dominated, and big revenue generators. Children don't fit that bill. Nor do things that women do that don't involve sex.
My heart didn't race when I voted to give the CDC $25,ooo. But I did wonder what it would be like if we gave more to mothers and children. What would it be like to shift our societal priorities, to put community first, to value above all else caring for our kids and supporting our parents? I'd love to raise my hand for that vote; I'm guessing my heart would go haywire. I hope that day comes, because when it does, I'll suggest a nice round number.
How about eight million dollars?