I'm happy to announce that I will be running for reelection to the Tompkins County Legislature in 2021!
I have served on the Legislature since 2018, during which time I have been an advocate for environmental protections, health and human services, and good government. I have served on the Planning, Energy, and Environmental Quality Committee, the Budget, Capitol, and Personnel Committee, the Health and Human Services Committee, the Complete Count Census Committee, and the Government Operations Committee, which I chaired in 2020 and will chair in 2021. Additionally, I have served as liaison or member to a variety of agency boards including, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County, Tompkins County Public Library, County Office for the Aging, Health Planning Council, Environmental Management Council and Waste Reduction subcommittee, Water Resources Council and HABs subcommittee, and Public Information Advisory Board.
A few of the projects I have focused on include fighting for a local plastic bag ban, supporting the TC Poet Laureate program, passing a policy to cease purchase of plastics and Styrofoam within County operations, revising the County forest management plan, updating the County website, undertaking a revision of the Rules of the Legislature, and more.
“I’m proud to serve the people of the Town of Ithaca as their County Legislator. It has been an incredible learning experience to get to know the policies and procedures of County government and I feel honored to have a seat at the table. Most importantly, I have learned that this job is about listening to people, hearing their concerns, and doing what I can to connect them to the help they need. Particularly during this difficult year of 2020, I see my role as a conduit between the constantly shifting landscape of our government response to Covid-19 and the people who very much need information and support. It has been a tough year and I’m grateful to have been in a position to help others.
I am excited to serve the community for another four years as a Legislator, and hope my neighbors and fellow District 12 residents will see me fit to continue in this position.”
All 14 Legislature seats are up for election this year. The designated petitioning process begins February 23rd, with the primary on June 22nd, and the general election on November 2nd. Find more information at the Tompkins County Board of Elections.
2020 was more than just a challenge, it pushed us all right to the edge to see how hard we could hang on. Whether with economic, emotional, mental, or physical struggles, we all faced the pandemic as best we could and we made it through to 2021.
While 2021 will have many similar, and possibly more difficult challenges, we in Tompkins County and New York have grown and changed and adapted to our new circumstances with unprecedented strength. One thing that helped me immensely was the opportunity to get outside and walk in the woods, and I was lucky to be able to do that with my family on many occasions. I hope that you, too, found ways to cope and escape the hardship with loved ones and friends.
We have a busy and uncertain year ahead, but whatever comes, we'll get through it together.
Happy New Year from my family to yours!
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.