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 10, which covers the villages of Lansing and Cayuga Heights, has been represented by Dooley Kiefer for more than two decades, since 1994. Her decision not to run for re-election means the seat will have a new face in the new year. Democrat Deborah Dawson, whose work on the Village of Lansing’s Comprehensive Plan is what led her to her Legislature candidacy, is running unopposed for the seat.
For a better understanding of Dawson, we asked her about issues facing the county, and what makes her a good person for the job.
Tompkins Weekly: What are the top three issues facing Tompkins County?
Deborah Dawson: The issue that concerns me the most is money. Our sales tax revenues over the past couple of years have been unpredictable. Sixty-two percent of our real property tax revenues are “spoken for” – dedicated to pay for unfunded mandates imposed by Albany. What will we do if (when?) an unpredictable Republican administration cuts a major funding stream? For example, if the ACA were repealed and we lost Federal reimbursement for the costs of the Medicaid expansion, we would have to raise our real property tax rate by 2 percent, just to make up for that one cut! Most of our property owners simply could not afford that. And imagine how a major property tax increase would exacerbate our affordable housing problem!
And it’s not just the Federal government that we have to worry about: The state seems to have declared war on its county governments. Albany imposes burdensome unfunded mandates, and then demands that we give our residents local “tax relief.” Tompkins County set the state standard for shared services, but our governor now demands that we come up with more shared services initiatives, and, oh, by the way, the ones we’ve already instituted don’t count. Next year, he’ll probably want more. All in all, I think we’re in for a very bumpy fiscal ride.
A second issue that will occupy us for at least the next decade is the tension between the pace of climate change and the limitations on available technologies for fossil free energy. The science of climate demands a much faster transition to a fossil free energy economy than the rate of developing technology would seem to allow. The most optimistic strategies for the transition suggest that we won’t have the necessary technology before 2050 and 2055, at the earliest. That’s over 30 years from now. What are we supposed to do until then? Can we afford to structure a transition that minimizes negative impacts on our local workers and on economic development in Tompkins County? Can we afford not to? And what would that transition look like? These issues have become so politicized and divisive that they will be very difficult to resolve.
The final issue I see – at least over the next year or so – is the impending loss of experience in county government. Long-time legislators Burbank, Chock, Dennis, Kiefer and Stein are retiring. Legislators Lane, Sigler and John face strong challengers. County Administrator Joe Mareane is scheduled to leave in February. The county must find a successor for him, as well as Ed Marx and Patricia Carey. I recognize that change is inevitable and often a good thing, and I am disposed to welcome new people and new ideas. But it IS going to require exceptional effort and good will all around to blend so many new people into the existing mix to create an effective and efficient leadership team for our county in a short time.
TW: What skills do you possess that would be an asset as a Tompkins County legislator?
DD: Over 30 years of litigating and managing litigation for several Federal agencies, I’ve acquired a familiarity with tax and fiscal policy, financial regulation, distressed asset management, and consumer protection. I’ve also become a pretty quick study, and I truly enjoy diving into new areas and learning. I’ve also served for several years on the Village of Lansing Planning Board, and on a couple of other village committees, and have learned a lot about zoning and land use planning. I believe that I would bring a broad and useful set of skills to the role of legislator.
TW: What is something that would surprise people to know about you?
DD: Just before starting law school in Buffalo, I joined an Army Reserve unit – the 402nd Civil Affairs Company. It was a military government unit that would have been activated if the United States Military were ever to occupy any country or area in northern Africa. I scored 100 percent on the mechanical section of the aptitude test, but declined placement in the Motor Pool. For the most part, my duties were focused on running an Explorer Scout Troop for would-be lawyers. Nevertheless, I did go to basic training and summer camps, passed weapons training, crawled under barbed wire and machine gun fire, marched through dummy artillery rounds and tear gas at night, travelled in military air transport, and slept on duffel bags in the back of a deuce-and-a-half.
I also brake for squirrels, rabbits, turtles, and snakes.
TW: How would you balance the desires of your constituents and your own personal beliefs when making decisions as a member of the Legislature?
DD: I doubt that anyone could come up with one stock answer that would address every situation in which there was disagreement between a legislator and her constituents. For me, it would very much depend on what percentage of my constituents disagreed with me, and their reasons for doing so. I am capable of changing my mind, which is probably another factoid that I should have included in response to Question 3.
TW: Why should people vote for you?
DD: I’m committed to doing the job thoroughly and well. I’ve attended almost every Legislative meeting since January of 2016, and quite a few Committee meetings, too. I will continue to do my best to learn the issues, to inform and listen to constituents, and to be transparent in my positions.