After retiring from teaching she served on the Ithaca Common Council from 2000 to 2003. She moved to Lansing in 2005, and defeated her current opponent for the Lansing County Legislature seat by a seven votes in 2009. Pryor stopped by the Lansing Star Saturday to talk about her accomplishments, goals, and the upcoming campaign.
Lansing Star: You're running for a second term so I assume that you feel there is still work to be done.
Pat Pryor: Oh yes. There will always be work that needs to be done.
One of the things I am in the middle of in once sense, but hopefully helping to bring to completion is my work on the Special Committee on Broadband. In 2010 I was asked whether I would be willing to chair a committee that would take a look at the possible expansion of high speed Internet service to rural parts of our county where people could not get good Internet service. So I have been working on that as chair of that committee since 2010.
And you have a project now.
We have a project. I am very excited about it. We formed a public/private partnership. Through that partnership there was an application for state funding. The grant has come through, although no money has actually come to us yet. They have told us we are going to get that funding.
I really want to be part of seeing that project through to completion. that's pretty exciting.
What are you doing with the big Lansing issues the Legislature can have an impact on, and how do you define those?
A good example that is happening right now has to do with the Cayuga Power Plant, which formerly was known as AES Cayuga. At the time that I first started on the Legislature there was a series of meetings just starting to talk with the power plant folks about the tax situation. It was clear that there were some questions about the actual value of the plant, and there was some disagreement between the plant and the County Assessment Department about its value.
So a committee was formed to (negotiate) between the County and the plant. Even though I was very new on the Legislature at the time, I felt because I represented the Town of Lansing, or most of it, that it was important that there be representation from the community on that committee. So I asked if I could be part of it, and became part of that committee that negotiated the current PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes) agreement. It's been updated a couple of times since and I have continued to be part of that.
Now, that's a contrast, I would say, between myself and my opponent Mike Sigler. There had been negotiations with AES Cayuga prior to the time I came on the Legislature. I asked if the Lansing Representative, Mike at that time, had been involved. They said no, that he had never expressed any interest in that. So I think that's a good example of something that I felt there was a clear interest on the part of the residents here in Lansing in those decisions that were going to be made, and that as their representative I need to be part of that.
So that's an example of the way I operate.
The other big issue in the Town is the sewer, which has become a major controversy. Is there any significant participation the County can have to help one way or the other?
The whole sewer question is not a county issue. There's very little that the County can offer to the Town. The kind of planning that's required to go into a sewer project is way beyond the kind of resources that the County could offer. So in my opinion this is not a county issue.
I have been told that a rumor out there is that I have taken a position in support of the sewer. That's not true. I'd like to make very clear that that's not true. I don't see this as a county issue. It's a town issue. It's something that the townspeople here in Lansing are going to have to make a decision about. While I have my own private opinion about it, I am not going to try to influence that one way or the other.
I understood it was a county issue in the sense that the Legislature wants to create situations in which affordable housing is available to people who work in Tompkins County but can't currently afford to live here.
Absolutely the County is interested in encouraging housing, to provide moderate and low income housing. There's lots of market rate housing. Market rate housing is very attractive to developers. It's not as easy to do moderate or low income housing.
We know there are of people who move out ot Tompkins County because they can't afford to live here. So, yes, clearly the County has an interest in housing development here. But that's really a separate question from whether or not we have a direct interest in the sewer project down here in Lansing. I think the convergence of those two interests is so tenuous that it would not support my taking a position out here on the sewer.
What would you say are the top issues for the Legislature in the next four years?
For me, and probably most of my colleagues would agree with this, the fact that we have just come through the worst recession since the Great Recession and it has been a huge challenge for us. And it's not over yet. During the course of these four years we have had to find a way to manage county resources to come through this as best we can for the residents of the County. That's going to continue.
To the degree that the general economy seems to be getting back on its feet and we seem to be moving aheadagain, that's going to have a huge imp[act on the County in the way we continue to manage resources going forward. It is probably one of the biggest challenges we're going to have to face.
Some of out very important organizations and agencies in the County have struggled to keep afloat during the recession. In order to do so one of the things that they've done more than they should have, or more than they would have liked to have to, is dip into their reserves.
The county library is a good example of that. The county library is heavily used. I can't tell you the number, but thousands of people visit the library every year. We're the main library for this part of the Finger Lakes system. The county library is struggling financially, so we are going to have to find ways to support and help those agencies get back on their feet financially.
So even thought the economy is getting better we're still left with results of that recession, and that's a huge issue. TCAD (Tompkins County Area Development) is another example of the same thing. And the airport is struggling. TCAT (Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit), which has won national awards for its operation as a small community transit system, is struggling financially. So even though the economy is getting better we're still facing some really tough choices.
I hear two different stories from different people. One is the County did make cuts in personnel and programming, but not nearly enough. The other is that the County cut to the bone and now it's the State's fault that every dollar pays for state mandates. Where are we really between those two?
There are elements of both those statements that are true. I don't think it's totally one or totally the other. We certainly have made cuts. Right now our work force is nine percent smaller than it was back in 2010 when I first came on the Legislature. We've tried to make those cuts in what I would call smart ways. In fact, one of the things that we have done is initiate a program called 'Smart Work' which basically says that if we look carefully at the way , say, a department is functioning, we can find ways to get the work done and keep up the quality of the work, but do it more efficiently.
We're still in the process of doing this. We are systematically going through the various departments in the County, taking a look at how we work, and figuring out how to do the work better with fewer resources. And resources includes people.
So one of the things we look to do is consolidate. We look for places where we're overlapping with services. We have been able to find considerable ways to save money simply by looking at what we're doing very, very carefully.
In some cases we have also eliminated programs. A good example is the program we had for the elderly, which we have totally turned over to the private sector. We felt very very bad about that. We really did not want to do it. It was a tough decision. And we didn't do it until we were assured that every single one of our clients had some place to go. We didn't leave anybody in the lurch.
So we have eliminated programs. We've consolidated programs. You may have recently see the records management consolidation which won a state award for efficiency. We have been able to convert our records management to an electronic system which is less expensive that the system that we had used previously. Not only has that benefitted the County but we have been able to offer that same system to all the local towns. Every municipality in Tompkins County has been able to save money because of that work.
Are they all participating?
The last I knew they were expecting that the last couple of towns were going to be brought into the system. If they're not already they very soon will be.
All those things we have done to better manage our resources have been done very thoughtfully. We haven't just gone in full scale and cut, cut, cut. We've done it with a lot of thought as to how we can continue to manage with reduced resources.
At the same time it's equally true that the things that are mandated by the State -- we don't have control over those costs. One of the things that's mandated that goes higher during the recession is the demand for public services. Whether it's food stamps or public assistance or whatever... when people are out of jobs and can't find work they are more apt to look to the County for assistance.
The numbers have grown in those systems and we have to meet that. We don't have any choice about it. At this point those numbers have not come back down. We are hoping that those numbers will begin to drop in this next year or two. Considering the context of the situation that we've been dealing with for the last four years, I think we have done a very good job of managing our resources here in Tompkins COunty.
We just passed a resolution at our last meeting that is going to increase our goal for our reserves from five percent to ten percent. One of the things that a lot of counties in New York State have done during the recession was to dip into their reserves to the point where there is concern their reserves are not enough to meet emergencies that might come along. We have been able to manage our reserves, and in the future we're going to try to get a slightly higher reserve in case of emergencies.
Have you been happy with your votes on the budgets during this past term?
I'm not sure what you mean by 'happy'. What do you mean?
I've talked to you about your thoughts on taxes and how money is spent and how taxes are impacting your constituents. Sometimes I think 'she's going to vote against the budget' and then you vote for it.
That's a fair question. I would say that consistently throughout each budget process I have been one of the voices that has been looking at our budget very carefully and conservatively. I have consistently looked to see if we can do more with less.
As we go through the process I have expressed a lot of concern every year and I have questioned very carefully the various things that we're asked to spend money on.
However I have satisfied myself that by the time we have gotten through that process, because those questions have been asked and answered, and we have looked at all the possibilities, we have come to a conclusion that was something that I could support, not because I necessarily liked where we were, but because I felt it was where we had to be given the situation.
It was the best solution for that time?
That's right. That's right.
What are you looking forward to in a second four year term?
I'm looking forward to continuing to serve my constituents out here in Lansing. I would say one of the things that I have most enjoyed, being on the Legislature -- as much as I enjoy the actual work of the Legislature, which I do -- has been the opportunities it's given me to help people solve problems. I am contacted by constituents who have something come up that they need help with, or don't understand why something is happening, or just need to understand where to go to get the resources they need. The opportunity to be of service to residents is one of the biggest things that I enjoy and look forward to in a second term.
A good example is that there's a family -- I'm going to be very careful because I don't want to reveal any identities. Because of an unexpected disability their income was greatly reduced. They had to use HEAP funding -- that's the heating funding -- for fuel in the winter time. They had been eligible for HEAP funding for several years. Then last year with no warning they were told that they were cut off. So they called me.
I was able to sit down with them and get their information. I was able to talk to the folks at the County that establish eligibility for that funding. We found out there was, in fact, a mistake made. When we corrected the mistake they were again eligible for HEAP funding. Had they not known that they could call me and have an expectation that I would do what I could... that was one that I felt really good about because that family got heat last winter.
That's the kind of thing that gives me more pleasure than anything else that I do on the Legislature. Now there are other things that I am looking forward to.
I think as your colleagues get to know you they begin to recognize if you're willing to take on more leadership. At this point, in addition to the Broadband Committee this year I chair the Government Operations COmmittee, which is one of the standing committees of the Legislature. There are several parts of the county organization that report to that committee, including County Administration, County Finance, The Public Information Office, the County Attorney as well as several other departments that report to the Government Operations Committee.
I feel very good, first of all, that my colleagues have the confidence in me that I would be chosen or asked to be the chair of that committee. I look forward to continuing with that.
I also serve on other committees that I really like. Another thing I really like is my liaison work that I do. I am the liaison to the Ag and Farmland Protection Board. Especially given the fact that we have a large farming community here in North Lansing it is important that our county rep has some involvement in an organization that is so critical to the life of the farming community. I really like that.
I am also on the board of the Soil and Water Conservation District. I think that's important to people in Lansing. I don't think there's much I don't like about being on the Legislature actually! (laughs)
That speaks to the next thing. I asked your opponent last week about communicating back to constituents. My observation has been that you have been a leader among legislators in communicating back to the community. You have been very proactive about it. You've been to all but one Town Board meeting to report on Legislature activities, you've got your email list, you have brought Joe Mareane and sometimes Martha Robertson to Lansing to talk about upcoming budget concerns, and I understand that other legislators have been inspired by your doing that and followed your example.
One of the things that came up in my discussion with your opponent las week was, what is the tangible value of doing that?
Well, I would say there are tangible as well as intangible values. The tangible value for me is that I am able to keep in touch with the concerns of folks out here in Lansing. I don't know how you can be a representative for people if you don't have a chance to talk to them, to know what they'er thinking, to be aware of what their concerns are. Without communicating how can that happen? I just think that that's critical when you represent people, to try to let them know first of all that you want to hear from them. And second of all, that you will listen.
When I say listen that doesn't necessarily mean that I'm going to agree with every single person that gives me feedback. But I will certainly be very respectful of whatever information they give me. And it will certainly be part of my thinking and my decision making. It's important that I hear different viewpoints. I don't always expect people to agree with each other but I would really like to hear those differing viewpoints. It helps to inform my own decision making, so I think that's a critical part of any representative's job.
A piece of it has been reporting on what the Legislature has been doing.
Right. I have found that the Town has been very receptive to hearing more about what's happening in the County. One of the things it appeared to me when I started on the Legislature is that there didn't seem to be any regular communication or information flow back and forth from the County to the Town or from the Town to the County. As I offered to try to do more of that I found Town Board members have been very receptive. And people who follow the Town Board have also expressed their appreciation of the fact that I try to keep people up to date with what's going on with the County. It's their taxes. County tax money comes from our pockets so I would think people would want to know.
Wrapping up, what are you planning for the campaign?
That's been interesting, planning a campaign. At one point we had to keep track of how much time we spend on Legislature business. It has to do with the state pension system. By the way I'm not earning any credit for the time I spend on the Legislature. I'm already in the pension system as a retired teacher, but when I went on the Legislature I chose not to be part of that, so I'm not double dipping.
But as a member of the Legislature we were all asked to keep track of our time for three months. This wasn't even during budget season when we have a lot of extra meetings. I found that I spent about 30 hours a week on average on Legislature stuff.
So finding time to campaign and still keep up with everything I'm doing on the Legislature -- I'm finding that's a challenge. However at the same time I am working on getting signs ready. That will be a few more weeks, I think.
A lot of the things I'm doing for my campaign are things that I do anyway: trying to reach out to people, to let them know what I'm doing, what I stand for... getting their input on what they think is important... I will be continuing with all those things.
I've been out getting signatures on petitions. Me and my supporters are going to be carrying petitions for the Lighthouse line again. We'll be doing that for the rest of the month of July and into August so you may see people coming around asking for signatures.
I will be doing a lot of door to door. My first campaign I found it was invaluable to go door to door and talk to people. I will continue doing that every night that I'm either not in a meeting or it's not raining. You'll find me someplace out in the town knocking on somebody's door and talking to people. All the kinds of things that you do in a campaign.