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 11, which covers the Town of Ithaca, will see a new legislator leading the way, as incumbent Legislator Peter Stein is not running for re-election. Throwing her hat into the ring was Democrat Shawna Black, who is running unopposed for the seat. In addition to non-profit work, she organized the buses that traveled from Ithaca to Washington, D.C., for the Women’s March.
Here is what she had to say to our questions about issues facing the county, and what to expect from her as a legislator.
Tompkins Weekly: What are the top three issues facing Tompkins County?
Shawna Black: The top three issues that the people of Tompkins County are facing are: Affordable and Accessible Housing, Living Wage, and the Opiate Crisis.
Tompkins County has recently released the Tompkins County Housing Strategy, which outlines the ideas moving forward to provide affordable housing and a wider range of housing options to Tompkins County residents. One of the focus areas that needs to be stressed is Senior Housing. We have a growing population of seniors in our area that are looking for senior apartments, assisted living, and skilled nursing facility options. Unfortunately, due to the high demand and low supply many people that have lived in Tompkins County must move out of the area to find appropriate housing. This needs to change.
The housing strategy aims at providing 80 beds of senior housing per year. This number would include senior apartments, assisted living, and nursing care. Even with adding 80 beds per year this number does not allow for the growth needed in order to provide care for the aging population. Tompkins County needs to work hard to recruit organizations that will build low-income and Medicaid Assisted Living in our area.
There is a real issue regarding public perception and moving these affordable housing projects forward. Many INHS projects are met with backlash from the public. We need affordable housing with full transparency in our communities. We also need to hold the developers responsible for building quality housing, using fair labor practices, and including energy efficiency standards.
An increase in senior housing availability in our area will allow many of the seniors that are current homeowners to move to a comfortable setting and also allow their home to enter into the marketplace. Many times these homes are under market rate because they need repair and/or updates.
The second issue that I will be working on is increasing the Living Wage in Tompkins County. Alternatives Federal Credit Union has noted that the Livable Wage in Tompkins County this year is $14.34/hour. That number could increase to approximately $15.25/hour. I believe in hardworking people earning a livable wage. There will be many discussions around this topic in the upcoming year. We need to look at whether it will hurt or help single parents that currently receive daycare/Medicaid/SNAP benefits. If they receive $15.25/hour would they be eligible for the same benefits? Would increasing the hourly wage in Tompkins County hurt a group of individuals who currently receive services? How will our local small businesses be impacted? These are all valid questions that we need to research and discuss.
Working at the Southern Tier AIDS Program in corporate compliance, I see firsthand the struggle that many residents are facing in Tompkins County with drug addiction, and how widespread the impact. Addiction is blind to economic, racial and class status; the stigma of addiction needs to be erased and the public needs to be made aware so that improvements to support and resources can be enhanced.
I believe in harm reduction. As a county, we need to look at all of the services that are offered and we need to make sure that we are not duplicating services. With the start of Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Programs in the Ithaca Police Department, we will see a decrease of people that are going through our court and jail systems. LEAD is a much kinder approach to people that are struggling with addiction. The idea is that people will get the help that they need with trained care managers that can assist with housing, food, clothing, healthcare, harm reduction, detox, treatment, and mental health services. Ultimately I feel that it is a better use of our shared resources to provide the appropriate support services, and to provide opportunities for treatment. This has the potential of reducing the loads on our jail system.
TW: What skills do you possess that would be an asset as a Tompkins County legislator?
SB: I have lived in Ithaca for over 20 years. I live with my wife, Margot, and three children – Graem (12), Emerson (9) and Keane (5). My kids attend school in the Ithaca City School District. As a parent, I want my kids to grow up in a safe environment with the best schools available. As a 15-year homeowner, first in the Town of Ulysses and now in the Town of Ithaca, I have a keen understanding in the availability in housing stock and the struggles as a first-time homebuyer. These struggles often further plague young families – housing prices, property taxes combine with the high cost of daycare in the county are quite burdensome.
I have worked as executive director at Brookdale Senior Living, a recruiter at TCAT, and most recently in corporate compliance at Southern Tier AIDS Program. Each position I have held has helped me understand and given me experience to add as a legislator.
At Brookdale, I was able to see how the shortage of affordable senior housing options affects people in Tompkins County. Seniors need choice and they need clean and safe options.
While at TCAT, I saw the constant struggle to recruit and maintain drivers. I was also at TCAT when the Town of Ithaca decreased their contribution from $50,000 to $25,000 annually. (Now the Town of Ithaca does not contribute at all to TCAT!) TCAT is a service in our area that provides many residents with stable and consistent transportation. It is also a service that helps provide equity in transportation across all income brackets. When housing affordability within the city/county is an issue, it is public transportation that fills the gap in making jobs accessible. I believe we need to continue to support TCAT and look for ways to increase funding in order to offer rural services and more park-and-ride options.
Currently, my role at STAP allows me to see firsthand the opiate crisis that is plaguing our county, state, and nation. I have come to realize that addiction does not discriminate. The “War on Drugs” is not working and we must do something different. We need to realize that we have to approach addiction differently and meet that person at their time of need.
TW: What is something that would surprise people to know about you?
SB: I have been honored that the current legislator, Peter Stein, has mentored me in this process. Mr. Stein and I have petitioned and canvassed together, and continue to talk on a weekly basis. He has much to offer from his years on the town board and Legislature, and I’m humbled that he has chosen me to pass the torch to.
TW: How would you balance the desires of your constituents and your own personal beliefs when making decisions as a member of the Legislature?
SB: Running unopposed has allowed me to put party politics aside. Since I don’t have a primary in September, I have made it a goal to reach out to my full district regardless of party affiliation. In fact, the past few weeks I have been knocking on doors of my Republican neighbors. Our conversations have been insightful and at the end of the day we both agree that we want good schools for our kids, safe neighborhoods, and people want to make enough money to afford to live in Tompkins County.
My job as legislator is to represent the people in my area. As a legislator, I will continue to have conversations with the people that I represent. I promise to always listen and be available. I am accessible via phone and email.
TW: Why should people vote for you?
SB: I hope everyone comes to the polls November 7 so that they can have a voice in our local government. The next four years in the Tompkins County Legislature will be challenging. We are already seeing budgetary constraints on the state and federal level that will impact our spending in the county. We need legislators that are open-minded, think out of the box, and represent the working people of Tompkins County.
See you at the polls Tuesday, November 7th!