By Rob Montana
With at least 20 people announcing their plans to run for Tompkins County Legislature in the fall, Tompkins Weekly will be offering readers an opportunity to learn more about the people who will be appearing on ballots in September and November.
District 5, which covers the Town of Ulysses and portions of the towns of Enfield and Ithaca, has been represented by Democrat Jim Dennis for the last three terms. After initially planning to seek re-election, Dennis announced the suspension of his campaign last week, meaning that there will be a new face in the District 5 seat – either Democrat Anne Koreman or independent Keith Hannon.
Here is what Hannon had to say in response to the questions we asked about the county and the role of legislators.
Tompkins Weekly: What are the top three issues facing Tompkins County?
Keith Hannon: Housing, especially affordable/family homes in the $200,000-$250,000 range, are a well-documented need throughout the county. Many talented people are working hard on it, but there is still much work to be done. We must do a better job prioritizing housing for young families. It’s estimated we have 14,000 people who commute to Tompkins County earning paychecks here but not paying taxes here, and our county has seen a 13-year decline in the 25-44 population. We need to be a place where families can afford to live and grow.
Development in the county is also a major issue. While I support strategic development, I do not feel wealthy companies should be the recipient of tax breaks, while residents throughout the county continue to feel squeezed by tax burdens they’re forced to carry. I appreciate the complexities and expense associated with building projects, but I feel tax breaks should be reserved for companies who maximize local labor and bring long-term, high-paying jobs, not expensive apartment buildings that employ very few people. Tax breaks should also be accompanied by Community Benefit Agreements, so residents feel more involved in projects and have the opportunity to negotiate enhancements to their neighborhood.
Opioid use, transportation, and a carbon tax are pivotal issues, but the biggest threat to Tompkins County might be the state of New York. Unfunded mandates, such as Medicaid, are causing financial burdens for counties around the state. Governor Andrew Cuomo continues to balance Albany’s books on the backs of the counties, an ongoing frustration that will require us to work with other counties and municipalities to push back against Albany. Unreliable support from our capital stresses the importance of looking for innovative new ways to grow our tax base.
TW: What skills do you possess that would be an asset as a Tompkins County legislator?
KH: My experience as a professional communicator will improve the connection between my district and county government, while offering more transparency into the work being done on their behalf. When representing many different communities, communication is essential. You must articulate the concerns of your entire district to the Legislature, and you must have the ability, and desire, to explain the work of the Legislature to the people you represent in a variety of ways, ensuring it’s consumable for everyone.
I know being a good communicator means being a great listener. I take pride in acknowledging opposing viewpoints with respect and finding the compromise needed to advance legislation. A communications career offers much experience dealing with criticism. This has helped me develop a thick skin and taught me to maintain focus and a cordial attitude in the face of harsh opposition. It can be difficult to broadcast your opinion when you know it might upset people, but I will be a representative that believes I am obligated to offer that transparency.
Having worked in academia for many years, I see many parallels between government and educational institutions. Both are slow to change and frequently lack innovation. This experience helps me see ways in which government can modernize, which will improve efficiencies, cut costs, and enhance life for county residents.
TW: What is something that would surprise people to know about you?
KH: My first job ever was working as a summer custodian at my high school. I scraped gum off desks, cleaned lockers and scrubbed floors. The work wasn’t glorious, but the experience of working alongside the full-time custodians was profound. They all had a unique life story that provided the kind of perspective teenagers typically lack and the lessons you can only learn from real people. A few of them even became golfing buddies and I learned that, often times, bad breaks in life are not the fault of the individual and that we must continue to create conditions where everyone is treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their profession or income.
TW: How would you balance the desires of your constituents and your own personal beliefs when making decisions as a member of the Legislature?
KH: Legislators must embrace ongoing feedback loops between themselves and their community. That means utilizing tools that provide frequent opportunities for comment. We’ll have our differences, but everyone should feel heard.
I will offer monthly public “office hours” for residents to meet me for coffee and talk openly about their issues and my performance. I’ll create an email newsletter written by me, offering insights into the issues on the table and how I plan to vote. Live chats on Facebook or YouTube will allow us to have virtual discussions, an important opportunity for young families who have a hard time getting out of the house. The key to balance is offering diverse methods in which to solicit feedback. We can’t always agree, but I can offer the respect residents deserve by being transparent and proactive in revealing how I feel about a particular issue.
TW: Why should people vote for you?
KH: We moved back because, like many of our neighbors, we believed Tompkins County offered the best environment in which to raise our family. This is an exceptional community, but I believe we can and should demand more. The future of our county has to be one where we do what’s right, not only what feels right. Attacking Washington makes headlines, but I want to keep us focused on making Tompkins County a viable home for all residents.
I’ll advocate for families and education, support workers, demand sustainable solutions to energy, challenge Albany, and demand increased investments in arts, culture, and agro-tourism. I’ll raise the expectations for what our community can achieve and what you should expect from a representative. I will examine issues independently, allowing those I represent to be my sounding board, not the expectations of a particular political party.