Cameron Pollack / Sun File Photo

The Common Council discussed issues of 5G installation and the budget deficit.

August 7, 2020

Ithaca to Avoid Worst Case Scenario in Budget Deficit, City Controller Predicts

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Following the form of their last several meetings, Ithaca Common Council received numerous concerns from the public about the proposed installation of 5G service and heard an in-depth budget report from city controller Steve Thayer.

The public submitted 70 comments opposing the installation of 5G in Ithaca, a project proposed to the city by Verizon, which still needs city council approval to move forward. All 70 comments expressed opposition on the grounds of health concerns to humans and the environment.

The opposition to the 5G installation has been met with skepticism by council members in prior meetings, who have cited a lack of evidence of 5G’s harmful health effects. But after public comment, Alderperson Cynthia Brock (D-1st Ward) expressed frustration at this treatment of the opposition, saying that those opposed to 5G had been unfairly grouped with anti-vaxxers or conspiracy theorists.

“It’s belittling and silencing of people coming forward with concerns that should be taken seriously,” Brock said. “I hope this is something that will cease.”

The timeline for the 5G project is not yet entirely determined. Verizon submitted a proposal to the city in April, but the project will not proceed until Verizon meets the city’s design guidelines, and the city signs off on the project.

As in other common council meetings during the pandemic, City of Ithaca Controller Steve Thayer presented the current state of the city’s budget.

At the outset of the pandemic, city officials predicted that the city would fall into a deficit of between $4 and $13 million. Partly aided by returning students from both Ithaca College and Cornell University, Thayer said that $4 million — the best case scenario — is now the most likely outcome.

Fees collected by the city from building permits have increased this year compared to last year, indicating that COVID-19 has not significantly halted ongoing development projects in Ithaca. Forty-one city employees who were previously “emergency furloughed” as a money saving measure are now back on payroll, according to Thayer. However, 39 city employees are still on furlough.

Thayer said that the city is committed to returning employees to payroll as soon as possible given the July 26 termination of enhanced unemployment benefits that were part of the CARES Act.

The city has also received substantial donations from local businesses and individuals, including $110,000 for youth programming, $25,000 for playground reopening and $85,000 for the reopening of the Alex Haley Pool.

Still, the city has lost significant revenue from a shortage of trash collection, parking fees and fines. On top of revenue losses, the city also lost roughly $522,000 in state aid through New York state’s Aid and Incentives to Municipalities program, which allocates state funds to localities. In this year’s state budget, passed in April, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) cut AIM funding as a money-saving measure for the state.

Another significant detriment to Ithaca’s economy is the sharp decline in sales taxes that has corresponded with the pandemic — a 15.5 percent reduction in sales tax collection in the first quarter and 32.5 percent reduction in sales taxes in the second quarter. But Thayer was optimistic about an uptick in sales tax collection given returning students.

Council then discussed the finances of Newman Golf Course, considering alternate methods of funding and managing the facility. There was consensus among council members that the golf course is a popular and important asset to the community, but many were concerned that it is not sufficiently funded and is not in good condition.

The golf course’s deficit has doubled over the last four years, Alderperson Graham Kerslick (D-4th Ward) said. But according to Ithaca Chief of Staff Dan Cogan, it is standard for recreational facilities to run a small deficit.

Council also discussed revising the process for submission of public comments. They considered allowing members of the public into the Zoom meetings based on prior registration, asking people to submit videos of their comments and hosting separate Zoom meetings exclusively for public comments.

But many council members appreciated the current model — where members of the public submit written comments — saying that it increases accessibility, as commenters do not need to be available to sign onto the meeting at any particular time.

The Common Council did not vote to make any changes to this process.

Several council members took the discussion as an opportunity to remind the public that they are accessible by email and phone, and that interaction between city officials and the public does not have to be limited to the formal public comment section of monthly common council meetings.Fri