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?
I recently spent the morning at Ecovillage at Ithaca, a co-housing neighborhood on West Hill in District 12. Ecovillage is a three-neighborhood village with about 100 homes, where families also share a common house, laundry, meals, play space, and many acres of undeveloped forests and fields to enjoy.
I lived in Ecovillage for a few years back in the early 00's, and have lived a short five minute walk away ever since. I felt great support from these neighbors last year as I was campaigning for the Legislature, and spent many hours knocking on doors and getting to know more residents.
The reason for my visit this time was not just to check in with friends and constituents or reminisce about the ole neighborhood, but to participate in a workshop for municipal officials called "Asking the Right Questions," co-sponsored by the Park Foundation, Taitem Engineering, and the TC Planning Board. The questions we were learning to ask related to the ins and outs of green building.
Liz Walker, one of the founders of Ecovillage, and Ian Shapiro, of Taitem Engineering, led the discussion. We learned about LEED ratings, the NYS stretch code, net zero building, green technologies like solar panels, heat pumps, and LED lighting, and more.
The newest neighborhood in Ecovillage, TREE, has a four story common house, inside which are apartments of all sizes on the upper three levels. But the TREE common house is not just any old building, it was designed and built at passive house standards. This means that per square foot, the heating, cooling, and general energy demands of the building must be under a certain level - a level about 90% more efficient than the average currently standing building.
With the County's goal of reducing carbon emissions 80% by 2050, there is a lot of work to do. Greening the buildings in our community is one major way to do it.
I'm not a designer or developer (though I am married to a home builder who built some of the houses in SONG- the Second Neighborhood Group at Ecovillage), and I don't decide what projects come in to Tompkins County. I'll never know every detail of all green energy systems; we have stellar people in all the municipal planning departments who know all that. The whole point of the workshop was to give those of us who sit at the table and deliberate on those projects, the tools to ask the right questions. My job is to ensure that when developers propose their projects in Tompkins County, I can determine if they are heading in a green direction, and how much greener they need to get.
I'm grateful for the chance to participate in this event. It's inspiring to see what can be done with new technologies and dedicated efforts. I only hope I get a chance to use some of what I learned and I look forward to seeing just how green buildings in Tompkins County can get.
One of the things we new Legislators are working on during these first months on the job is getting to know the 30+ County departments and the people who run them. Four months in, we have almost completed this task, which is enabling us to understand more about what each department faces. A few months back, we sat down with Barb Eckstrom, Director of Tompkins County Recycling and Materials Management Center (TCRMMC). But today, Leo Riley, Assistant Director, and Nancy W., Waste Reduction and Recycling Specialist, led us on a tour of the facility. It was great to get up close and personal with Tompkins County's Recycling and Solid Waste Center (RSWC), where about 13,000 visitors stop by each year to drop their waste.
Of particular interest to me is the food waste program. You may remember that back in April, the TC Legislature voted to support Governor Cuomo's proposed Legislation, and urge the State Legislature to enact a statewide ban on food scraps entering the waste stream. It's unsure what the outcome will be at the state level, but if the state can't get it together, I support a local ban. This means that large producers of food waste--restaurants, grocery stores, colleges, the hospital, etc.-- would be required by law to keep food waste out of the trash.
Think about that can of beans you bought last week to make tacos. Think about all the water, fossil fuels, and human energy that went into growing, harvesting, shipping, and packaging them, then shipping them again. Then you spent your hard-earned money at the grocery store for those beans, drove them home, ate a few tacos, and the rest is growing a smelly green fuzz in the back of the fridge. If those fuzzy beans go into a plastic bag and out to the curb and get shipped to a landfill (using more fossil fuels), they will produce methane gas, a greenhouse gas much more potent that carbon dioxide. Now image your one can of beans multiplied by hundreds, by thousands, and all the energy expended to deal with such vast quantities of green fuzz. Food waste is exactly that, wasteful. We could be saving money, time, and so much energy if that food waste is simple taken out of the stream altogether.
Cayuga Compost in Trumansburg deals with large amounts of food waste, with Tompkins County's help. Residents can bring food waste to the Recycling Center, or there are regular food drop locations all over the county every month. The collected scraps are hauled to Cayuga Compost to be recycled into food for the soil! A much better outcome than trapped in a landfill for all of eternity.
Once things enter the landfill, they are there forever. Period.
The mission of the TCRMM is to prevent as many things as possible from going to the landfill to begin with. And Tompkins County is ahead of the curve here. Our Center accepts far more than I ever knew. Here are a small few of the items you can recycle:
-Button and rechargeable batteries, regular AA and AAA batteries go in the landfill stream
-Used cooking oils and fats, which is purchased by Buffalo Biodiesel
-Plastic films, such as bread and veggie grocery bags
-Electronics, from blenders to cell phones to fax machines
-Propane tanks, large ones for your grill or small ones you use for camping
Check out the full list here.
The facility is pretty damn cool. The hopper, the conveyor belts, the sorting machines, the giant spools of wire to tie bales together, the massive machines driving all over the place. We humans are so incredibly ingenious and inventive. We have used our smarts to build all this. Surely was can use those same smarts to create ways to stop the excess waste we produce and protect this one and only planet we have to live on.
Clearly, I could ramble on about garbage for some time. I may have missed my true calling. I am happy to say that as a member of Tompkins County's Environmental Management Council, I am a part of the newly formed subcommittee on waste reduction, aka Zero Waste. We plan to tackle the local plastic bag ban. Beyond that we're looking at food waste and microplastics.
One of my goals in my time on the Legislature is to work on encouraging our residents bring less eventual garbage items into their homes, put less in the landfill stream, and put more into reuse and recycle piles. But I'm only scratching the surface. It's folks like Leo, Nancy, Barb, and all the others who work at TCRMMC who are real leaders in the field, getting their hands dirty to make change in our County. I'm learning from them. My hope is that my support on the policy side of things can be of some help along their way.