Gregory Eells is the Director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Cornell University. He and his wife Michelle have lived in the Village for just over 13 years. He has a daughter in college and two sons in the Ithaca School District. While he has run for boards in professional organizations, this is his first run for public office.
Lansing Star: Why are you running and what will make you a good Trustee? What qualifications do you bring?
Gregory T. Eells: Politically I've always been a pretty independent person. I think there has been pretty stable leadership in the Village of Lansing. I think there is a time for voters to have some more options. I wanted to run to bring a fresh perspective, and hopefully a fresh voice around growth, development -- how we look at those things -- tax rates... for me those are really important questions for someone who is a political independent I think it's important to think about those things in a really open way.
In terms of my qualifications I would say I'm trained as a psychologist. I try to listen to people. That's what I am trained to do. I try to hear with empathy where they're coming from and why their perspective is important to them. Then I'm going to bring my own judgement to that, so I consider myself a scientist around those things to bring, at least, an attempt to be objective in a way, different perspectives in a way, but psychologically and emotionally flexible.
Even though I'm not running to be a psychologist I think my training in that area can be applied to politics when politics is at its best.
I'm going to ask the “elephant in the room” question: if the zoning change on the Bomax Road lot were to be voted on a second time, how would you vote and why?
Well, based on what I heard as a concerned resident I would probably vote against it. That being said, I don't have all the information that I would as a trustee. So I would also reserve my judgement. Having the limited information I have now and what's available publicly I would say that it feels like they rushed that decision.
For me, I feel it would be important to at least look at some of the environmental impacts a second time before moving on that quickly. It wouldn't be a "no". It would be a "let's definitely slow down. Let's look at the information." I'd want to see that. I'd want to be more immersed in that information as a Trustee. But what I know as a concerned resident (I would vote) no.
As a trustee I think it's important to reserve judgement until I have the information and perspective of working with the Planning Board and some of those sorts of things.
What key challenges do you see the Village facing in the next two years?
The key challenges are around economic development, around sustainability, and balancing those things. Those are the challenges of any metropolitan area. The tax rate can be prohibitive. Looking at some of the things that the Village is spending money on, putting a fresh eye on that around snow plows and contracting and some of those sort of things -- are there ways to cut costs, cut the tax rate and still maintain the service you want and still have environmentally friendly development. I think those are the biggest challenging issues for the Village.
How do we sustain some of our commercial areas when they're clearly struggling? And can the village do anything to facilitate some more growth there?
What would you like to make happen that the current board has not worked on? (If incumbent also what have you worked on so far?)
I think the main thing is listening to residents. When we talked about how we get together, and I think to get people involved in these development issues. Some people obviously don't want to, but I think other people, when we were out getting signatures and looking for support, there are other people who really do want to get involved. I think the primary initiative is taking time to hear from people on the issues that are important to them. (To listen to what) they think about some of these development issues.
In some ways it probably does speak to the Board has done a good job and people are satisfied and aren't really getting as involved. But for me that would be the biggest initiative, to get people involved. See what the nuts and bolts issues that people are passionate about are. A trustee role is about getting things done for the people you represent, so I would like to get people involved, hear what their issues are and then move on that.
The Greenway Committee has been active for some time, working on an update to the Greenway Plan and a new park on Northwoods Road. When the new park is complete will there be enough public parks in the Village? Will Poison Ivy Point ever be a park?
I'm just looking at the Greenway Plan right now. Some of the things in the plan look really good. Some of the parcels... I'm really glad to see that they included pieces about environmental benefits, the physical and mental health benefits, the economic benefits. Supporting park development would be very important. From what I'm looking at right now, the draft version as of April 3rd, it looks pretty good. It looks pretty comprehensive on connecting some of these things with bikeways, walkways -- to get benefits from a physical and mental health perspective.
Those are definitely things that would be important to me, and I would support efforts to do that.
Do you think more parks in the future, or does the Village have enough?
I would generally err on the side of more parks because I think the research on the impact of population density and not enough green space on people's physical and mental health is pretty clear. It has pretty deleterious impact on people's health and their mental health. So I would support more parks and connecting those parks in a way where you get the people out. You get them walking and moving and seeing each other and socializing.
I would support the efforts to have more parks and have those connected by networks of trails and other connections.
At this point with most Village business-zoned areas built out, what should the Village do to support business here?
That's a great question -- a kind of a million dollar question and I don't have an easy answer for it. You've hit on one of the key challenges for the Village. As the zoned areas are being filled out, what is the next step, and then how do you do that in a way that is responsible and responsive to the people's needs? And how do you develop other areas, other properties and do that in a way that really looks at environmental impact? For me that's a huge question, and I don't really have an easy answer for that.
The big split in the Village is the school district split. In a way the Village is a village without a village -- there is no central area that is definable as a village. One of the other things that defines a community and brings it together is its schools. This villge doesn't even have that as a unifying thing. What would you think about redistricting so that all of the Village of Lansing was in one district, either Lansing or Ithaca?
There are things, obviously, that are beyond the scope of a trustee position. This would have to do with the State. This would have to do with the superintendents. When we first moved here we had been here a year and a half when Ithaca underwent its very political redistricting process. Boy, there aren't many things that bring so much vitriol as redistricting schools.
A lot of this also speaks to taxes, speaks to expense. From moving here from other states was I surprised at the number of school districts in close proximity to each other and the overlap of districts? Yeah, I was, because of the cost. it costs a lot. I mean, how many superintendents do you have in the different districts? Groton, Newfield, Lansing, Ithaca, Trumansburg...
I've lived in the south. Their model was clear because their taxes were lower and they didn't want to spend on that. All of those areas would be bused to the urban center 15 miles out. You would have one superintendent and you would have a bare school system. But New York has a very different history.
I think from a tax perspective it makes sense (for all Villagers to be in the same school district). But would you get a lot of very angry people in Lansing if they had to consider being moved to Ithaca? Yeah, you would. We were in the middle of that when we first moved here.
That being said, our kids had a great experience in the Ithaca School District. I have no complaints about the way the School District handled their education. I think they were very lucky. In most other states I've lived in I don't think they would have gotten as good of a public education as they had in Ithaca, New York.
I would be open to that, but, boy, I'm aware you would open up a lot of anger. And there's probably not a lot of support for that, from what I've seen and people that I know.
Village officials say the Village will never merge with the Town and there is no cost benefit in doing so. Town officials say there is a cost benefit in merging. It's something the Governor wants and the cultures and values of the municipalities are much closer together than they were when the Village was formed. How do you stand on merging, and why?
I mentioned the snow plows earlier. I would support, early on, at least looking at ways we can share some of the costs, defray costs of equipment maintenance, staffing and some of those other things.
In terms of cultural difference I'm not sure I see a massive cultural difference between the Village and the Town of Lansing. This isn't India and Pakistan. A lot of people work in Ithaca. They're kind of suburban areas to the community. That's an open question. We'd definitely be supportive of looking at ways we could defray costs for both, whether it's around snow plows or other things.
One of the things I've heard from some constituents are concerns about hy the Village is buying equipment for snow plowing when they've had the opportunity to either contract it out with the Town of Lansing? What are the real issues. This is a huge cost for something you use a couple of months a year, and given climate change, probably a little less than that. Occasional big storms once or twice a year.. looking at some of those things, what's the cost?
So I would be supportive of looking at how the Village and the Town can cooperate.
There are two tax issues the Village is challenged with currently. For many years Mayor Hartill has been trying to get taxes reduced for Villagers or bring the money in line with services provided to the Village. The other piece is with all the big projects in the Village reserves are down and taxes are going up, dollar-wise not a whole lot, but percent-wise a lot.
Yes, a chunk, especially if the trend continues. If there are percentage increase over successive years...
How do you respond to that? Are things the way they ought to be or are there different things you would do, if elected?
I would want to take a very close look at any project and the cost of that project. If you're an elected official you have a strong responsibility to your constituents about how you're spending their tax money. That's probably where I'm more on the conservative side of things. I think we have a responsibility to be fiscally prudent and to be very clear and give a strong rationale for why we're spending their tax dollars for various projects.
I would want to immerse myself into that. From what I've seen it looks like, as a village, we could be a little more careful with that. How necessary are some of these projects? What's the need for the tax it creates? Are there ways we can trim that? That is every New Yorker's complaint about all the different levels and layers of taxes and the ways in which your taxed by various municipalities.
That can also hamper economic growth and spending and that sort of thing. So I would want to look very closely at that.
What would you like people to know about your candidacy that we haven't already discussed?
The primary thing is that I want to be someone who represents all members of the Village. I want them to feel like they can speak with me and bring their concerns to me. Part of why I want to get into this is to listen to the voters. My main reason for getting into this was attending the meetings and feeling like the folks who have been elected don't seem really interested in what people have to say. There was a kind of defensiveness around this meeting. People were saying they are clearly upset about this - they could do a better job of hearing you. I would want to bring that. That's the reason I'm running.