Ithaca mayoral candidates agree to disagree on local issues
With little more than a month until the Nov. 8 general election, five candidates are vying for votes to serve as the next City of Ithaca mayor.
After winning the Sept. 13 primary against 2nd Ward Alderperson J.R. Clairborne and Tompkins County Legislator Pam Mackesey, 4th Ward Alderperson Svante Myrick will be the Democratic candidate.
His opponents include Republican candidate Janis Kelly, chair of the city’s Republican committee; independent candidate Wade Wykstra, a Board of Public Works commissioner; independent candidate Christopher Kusznir, owner of the Subway restaurant on the Commons and manager of Jack’s Grill in Collegetown; and Clairborne, who is also an independent candidate.
Despite being members of different parties and platforms, the candidates agree one of the biggest issues facing the city is balancing the budget for the next fiscal year. An estimated $3 million to $3.5 million budget deficit is expected for 2012, said Kusznir, which means 7 percent needs to be cut.
“When you look at a 7 percent reduction to a budget on the background — the labor agreements and salaries — a lot of the raises that come in are mandated, so it doesn’t matter what’s going on with the budget,” he said. “So to have 7 percent less, or even to have 0 percent budget, is actually a very difficult situation.”
Kusznir’s solution is to grow the city’s tax base from tax-exempt properties, such as Cornell University, and turn to privatization and other methods of revenue.
“We’re not going to get there by cutting,” he said. “We’re going to have to grow the other side to get to a ratio that’s more balanced because you can’t ask 38 percent of your population to pay 100 percent of your tax base.”
Wykstra agrees that now is the time to be proactive.
“I don’t believe we can hang around waiting for the next state money to come through,” he said.
As an independent candidate, Wykstra said he would take party politics out of the mix, look for efficiencies in collaboration and grow the tax base by fixing up homes and property.
“We have a lot of space in the city – the Cherry Street area, Carpenter Business Park, the Emerson property; we could be putting all sorts of green businesses in these places, all sorts of light manufacturing and creating some wealth instead of waiting for service jobs and retail tax dollars,” he said.
Myrick said it will take a balanced approach to resolving the deficit, which means moderate tax increases, spending and personnel cuts, working with public unions and looking for opportunities for growth and development in the Collegetown and Commons areas.
“If you look upon Collegetown, we can raise hundreds and thousands of dollars each year in property tax revenue,” he said. “Between Collegetown alone, that’s more than half a million dollars by itself in property tax, half a million dollars in tax refund.”
Kelly said while there is no alternative to some “deep and painful budget cuts” as a short term solution, her fear is that out-going Mayor Carolyn Peterson has asked city departments 7 percent across the line in recommendations for cuts.
“I don’t think that’s the way to approach this budget crisis because it puts all the different things the city does on the same level and I frankly should think that some protection probably has somewhat of a higher value to citizens and taxpayers than even very wonderful recreational things like the Stewart Park Carousel,” she said.
Like Kusznir, Kelly said she would also turn to the private sector. By replacing some city services, such as maintenance of roads, utility patching, street cleaning and snow removal, with contractors, she estimates $3.8 million dollars in savings.
“There are some services that are currently provided by unionized workers, some we can no longer afford to provide in that way, and the reason is the way the state retirement and benefits are structured within the state is determined by the number of people currently on city payroll,” she said.
The Environment & Sustainability
With the economic concern, some candidates see now as the proper time to address Emerson Power Transmission, which closed their 368,000-square-foot Ithaca plant on South Hill in Dec. 2010.
“Next year, you’ve got a new mayor, you’ve got an opportunity to spend something and work proactively with the town,” Myrick said.
If everything falls into place, a project like the Emerson site could take five to 10 years, said Myrick, but there are many variables involved.
“We don’t know how widespread the TCE [Trichloroethylene] contamination is, we don’t know what it will cost to alleviate and we don’t know what agreement we will come to with the town,” Myrick said.
After walking the site with a security guard and reading geological surveys, Kelly said the site is dangerous and the city needs to manage the toxins from spreading to nearby neighborhoods. She demands an adequate cleaning and protection plan with the state‘s Department of Environmental Conservation.
“The initial thought was the toxins were contained in an underground reservoir of water that was there for fire control when the plant was operating,” she said. “It turns out when they drained the fire pit, that guess what, it wasn’t all there.”
Kelly said she was upset by the way the city tackled the problem, avoiding the DEC in court.
“It looks to me like the city is coming down on the side of the polluters and the side of pollution in those places,” she said. “They talk about not wanting to take on the DEC because it would require going to court, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, O.K., that makes sense. And that’s worth it, and we owe it to those homeowners.’”
After the clean-up process, Wykstra said he would like to see residential and housing space, manufacturing space, a business park and a power plant with district heating capabilities in the vacant space.
“We need to start making things in the City of Ithaca again,” he said. “That’s what built the city and the universities.”
Kusznir also sees the Emerson space as a possible power source for district energy in Tompkins County, as well as a way to introduce alternatives hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking.
“This is the kind of thing we should be looking at – not fracking – not how can we destroy our environment to get a couple bucks today,” he said. “I’m at the mindset that if the money that is put into the fracking fight was put into a fracking alternative, we would have it.”
While the DEC released a 1,537-page draft on Sept. 7 addressing how hydrofracking could bring jobs to some areas of New York.
Myrick said while hydrofracking may be a short-term solution to job creation, the jobs created would not be local.
“They’re going to go to people who have been doing this job, who know how to do it – people from Texas, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, etcetera, and they will bring in these people who come, drill and move on,” he said.
Kelly said the focus should not be put on hydrofracking, but rather on how the city could generate revenue from workers staying in hotels if the procedure were to pass.
“If there is any chance that hydrofracking will come here any time soon, I’m all for taxing the people if they are going to be in the Hilton Garden area or wherever they are going to be,” she said.
The city planning committee is currently reviewing a ban on hydrofracking within city limits. The Town of Ithaca has already established a ban.
Candidates would like to see college students engage with civic involvement, whether through local politics or volunteering.
Kelly said she would like to see an “Adopt a Block” program where students would be assigned neighborhoods to engage with and to facilitate social media and communication.
She also said she would like to see a revival of a student volunteer firefighter program that she remembers from her college days at Cornell University.
“You can say that the years as a student enable them to have a safe base from which to get involved in another community outside of where they grew up,” he said.
This was the case for Myrick, who was elected as an alderperson serving Ithaca’s 4th Ward when he was a senior at Cornell University.
“You know, I got involved as a student in this community, and I was made to feel like my voice matters, like I could make a difference,” he said.
Besides bringing local volunteer opportunities to students, Kusznir said the city should be a destination for students.
“To ignore that is crazy,” he said, “and I think we let Lansing address what the students want. We let Lansing take the Targets, the BJs, the Best Buys and all the stores that I count busloads of kids going to.”
But it’s not too late to be heard.
“I would urge students and young people to know that you matter, and you have a voice,” Kusznir said.
Voters can register for the election or submit party changes by Oct. 14. The winning candidate will replace Mayor Peterson, a Democrat, whose term expires Dec. 31.
Qina Liu is a junior journalism major who will vote for Bomber the Flying Squirrel for mayor. Email her at qliu1[at]ithaca.edu.