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 6, which covers the Town of Lansing, has been represented by Republican Mike Sigler since 2014; he also served a four-year term for District 6 from 2006-10. Sigler is seeking re-election to his seat, and is being challenged by Democrat Mike Koplinka-Loehr, who is a former Tompkins County legislator, serving from 1998-2009 and as board chairperson during 2008-2009.
Here is what Koplinka-Loehr 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?
Mike Koplinka-Loehr: Taxes, Taxes and Taxes. Yes, there are many complex and substantive issues the county is facing – incarceration rates, affordable housing, diversity and inclusion challenges to name a few – and yet each one is inextricably linked to the bottom line of how Tompkins County will pay for the services and quality of life that we have come to expect in our 200-year history, at a realistically affordable and sustainable level.
I have visited over 1,000 households to date as I’ve collected signatures to be on the November 7 ballot and I will continue to do so until election day. Across the political, economic and social spectrum, the most consistent comment is, “My taxes are too high!” Of course county taxes are just a part of that equation, and having so much property off the tax rolls doesn’t help, but each candidate must ask, “How will I keep taxes affordable while maintaining services?”
Tompkins County experienced two years of double-digit tax increases before I became chair of the Budget Committee from 2004-2007. I promptly created a Budget Community Advisory Panel Committee that, with bi-partisan support of legislators, ultimately flipped the budget process upside-down. Instead of a high initial budget recommendation requiring elected leaders to cut programs to achieve a sustainable tax rate, we required a budget recommendation at a tax “target” level that was below inflation. This resulted in legislators raising that recommendation only if departmental justifications were strong from all perspectives.
No other candidate has offered such a consensus-building county budget process that has lasted to the present. This is the kind of leadership I will continue if elected.
TW: What skills do you possess that would be an asset as a Tompkins County legislator?
MK-L: My training is in regional planning (Cornell MRP ‘84) and my career experience is human service planning, leading many local nonprofits to successfully meet their short- and long-term goals. I am a long-distance athlete and have the staying power necessary to guide issues from formation to completion, including mundane details, community collaborations and inspiring implementation. Finally, I bring an essential element of perspective to elected representation. I am able to summarize discussions that help parties be heard and represented, while bringing the larger perspective, goals and interests of those stakeholders to fruition, whether it’s a neighborhood meeting or a county-wide or regional effort that aligns the values of all involved.
TW: What is something that would surprise people to know about you?
MK-L: Some may know that my wife, four children and I worked and lived with a Native American community in Davis Inlet, Canada, for two years, 200 miles from the nearest road. I raised grants for almost $500,000 (Canadian) for the community to invest in its infrastructure, youth development and healing from the ravages of alcoholism.
Others may remember that I attempted to swim the length of Cayuga Lake to raise funds for county government. While I was able to swim only half way, we raised $42,000 from voluntary contributions, showing that people are willing to give beyond their taxed amounts when inspired. I created an Innovation Fund that departments could apply for, to try something creative for the benefit of county residents.
TW: How would you balance the desires of your constituents and your own personal beliefs when making decisions as a member of the Legislature?
MK-L: Educate! This means educating myself: Listening deeply to constituents from every background, discounting no one and respecting the minds of all constituents in their opinions about their community.
This also means educating community members: Taking the time to hold meaningful forums and engagement sessions so concerned citizens can be brought into dialogue with decision makers. (We did this each year with our budget forums to gather feedback well before any votes would begin.)
Finally, this means educating all involved about the processes required, communicating in a timely fashion about how to effectively participate at every step of the way toward eventual decisions, as well as framing meetings in a way that’s safe to bring out the best of all involved, even those not at the table. When such systems are in place, I support the best thinking of a group – not my isolated point of view alone – and strive to represent that with my vote.
TW: Why should people vote for you?
MK-L: Many residents have shared with me their belief that at our 200-year anniversary, Lansing is at a crossroads. We have incredible assets and quality of life to preserve and daunting challenges at our doorstep. Will we elect someone who is reactive, or a leader who takes initiative? Will residents choose someone who talks about ideas, or a candidate with a clear track record of results for the public good?
My 12 years on the county Legislature, three years on a local school board, and 35-plus years of community leadership prove that I am deeply passionate about public service (see Koplinka-Loehr.com for details). I have already accomplished a great deal for the residents of Lansing and will work tirelessly on their behalf if elected.
Those who know me state that I am uniquely qualified for this position. No other candidate has worked as a county employee for four years and later assisted with hiring county department heads and the county administrator with an eye for the long-term, balanced needs of the county and its taxpayers. No other candidate has negotiated contracts as part of the county employees’ union (CSEA) as well as from the management side. No other candidate has chaired a majority of the county standing committees and certain special committees (like “Tompkins County Quality of Life 2000”) and has strong relationships with both leaders and grassroots employees alike in the nonprofit, business, grant-making and government sectors. No other candidate has served on the boards of the IDA and the Chamber of Commerce as well as Light on the Hill, a local retreat center with a mission of spiritual growth.
I humbly ask for the support of each and every Lansing voter on November 7 to allow me to continue to serve them by electing me to the county Legislature.