koplinka-loehr_120At the Lansing Democratic Caucus Michael Koplinka-Loehr seemed surprised when he was nominated for to run for a seat on the Lansing Town Board.  But he jumped in with both feet and is running a campaign that has already sent out a mailer asking for voters' support.

He and his wife Carrie moved to Lansing only a year ago, but he has lived and participated in Tompkins County politics and community for years.  They have four grown children.

Koplinka-Loehr served on the Tompkins County legislature for 12 years, chairing the legislature in 2008 and 2009. He is a member of the Lansing Community Council, is a Senior Energy Management Coordinator for Cornell Cooperative Extension, a member of Living Hope Fellowship, coordinator of The village of ithaca non-profit, in addition to wearing many other hats.

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Lansing Star: Why are you running for Town Board and what makes you the best choice?

Michael Koplinka-Loehr: I have been in public service for a long time.  I was involved in local non-profits for many years, which I see as public service.  I was in elected office for 15 years, three on the school board in Ithaca, and 12 at the county legislature.

I bring a lot of that experience and I think that experience and that legacy shows that I am passionate about public service.  That's the quick answer to the question of why I am drawn to it and why I am running.

I see the need.  Not everyone is able to run for public office, although many people have lots of ideas, whether it's Barbershop or an around the coffee table eventing sessions about government.  But I think people who have the aptitude and have the skills and the time -- and my family is able to support me in this way.  I certainly have a regular job, but this is a way that I can also contribute.

So, commitment to public service, passion about public service... but this is also a phenomenal time in the Town of Lansing in terms of opportunity and potential.  We're almost looking at our 200th anniversary and we're finally looking at a town center, which is very exciting.  We're looking at a standalone sewer that would actually be the infrastructure to support not just a town center, but other ancillary areas to build up around that town center.  So that's exciting.

And of course it's a very critical time regarding our natural resources in terms of the threat of gas drilling.  Even if you look ahead 20 or 30 years clean water is going to be a critical resource for this planet.  We certainly have an abundance of that and we want to preserve that.

And of course all the other exciting elements of Lansing in terms of the high volunteerism, the human capital, our schools, all the things from trails to economic development to Myers point.

That combination of potential from my passion for public service is drawing me here.  I did not expect to be putting my hat in the ring this early, having moved here only a year ago.  But I think I can bring that experience to Lansing and continue to make that contribution.  I am ready and willing.

LS: I think you just answered this question, but I'm going to ask it anyway: is Lansing at a crossroads in it's history?  What are your top two or three issues over the next four years?

MK-L: People may not be aware that we are approaching our 200th anniversary, which will be in 2017.  Of course you're always at a crossroads of history depending on how you look at it.  In terms of both the potential and also the threats of what Lansing is looking at...

As you know the sewer issue came up several years ago.  We had a committee looking at it for five or six years.  The line going down to the Cayuga Heights treatment plant... the capital investment would have been too costly for citizens to bear.

But now we have this standalone sewer system which New York State is actually applauding.  They see the need is here from all kinds of effluent going into the lake from failed systems.  From that standpoint alone in terms of this cross section of challenge, in terms of gas drilling and opportunity, yes, we are at a crossroads, and those are some of the issues that I would highlight.

I would say the top three issues, from petitioning and going door to door and talking to citizens... very much it is taxes.  We have a proposal on the table now on where the tax rate might be, but we certainly don't want it going up.  I have a view on where the proposal on the table is now, but we want to make sure that there are very modest increases if any at all, definitely under the rate of inflation, and hopefully they can be flat.

I think I can bring skills to make that happen.  I've got a lot of background in terms of partnerships and cost savings, and consolidating across municipalities.  That's one of the top issues, saving taxes, keeping taxes low.

And getting a good return for your taxes.  The Village of Lansing residents don't actually know what their town tax bill gets them.  They should have an accounting.  They should have report cards.  The school district gets a report card, we should have a report card.  Communication hasn't been high.

So keeping taxes low, but knowing what you get for your taxes is going to be a very high priority no matter who gets elected.

I think gas drilling is an issue that many people are concerned about.  41% of the land in town has drilling contracts.  You cannot void those contracts, but you can protect Lansing.  You can do an assessment of your road conditions, water quality, and air quality, so that if, indeed, New York State does get to the point where they allow gas drilling and trucks are roaring through here whether they are drilling on our lands or not, we are protected.  So we have a baseline study, then we have a possibility of bonding, a permitting process. If there is degradation then we can have the gas companies that are extracting those resources pay for bringing them back to that level.

It's very, very dicey to compromise our aquafir, for instance.  We have to have the science behind it.  That's another key issue.  We're a little bit behind the eight ball in terms of the )Town of Lansing.  So being prepared, doing an assessment of our base line, then putting into practice those permits, codes, and ordinances that will protect us on into the future.

Economic development would be the third thing.  I alluded to it as part of the potential of the town center and the infrastructure that could support that.  I think that is key.  We all know that AES is struggling.  They are looking for buyers.  Even the owners are taking it off the books in a sense for a year, trying to say we don't want them to be a loss leader.

Will they be able to sell it? We don't know.  Will they go bankrupt?  We don't know.  That will have a huge impact on our school district, and to a smaller extent on the Town of Lansing.  You can't have taxpayers pick up that difference.  It would be astronomical.  So we do have to develop sustainable, wise, sound, smart development, probably around that node around the town hall and the land across from it.

So I think those three things are the key issues that most people are concerned about and that Lansing is facing at a crossroads sense, but also in an opportunity and potential sense.

LS: You hit the nail on the head when you said the AES problem especially impacts the school district.  But it's not the school district that shapes development.  So what kind of timetable would you like to see for a town center bringing that kind of healthy development here?

MK-L: As you are aware we have over $80 million of development proposals in the pipeline, if we have infrastructure.  What's the key piece of infrastructure?  Sewer.  We do have the map plan report now that the Town Board is going to be looking at in their October meeting.  The first-cut rough analysis depending on the lagoon system or any other systems is without any support.  It could be $1,000 per unit... how do we get that down to $500 or even $300?  Can we have a bond to pay for future people tying into that sewer?  Different financing mechanisms are possible.

So I would say that within a year we should be able to be breaking ground on a sewer system.  Again, with all the approval processes from DEC.  With all the public hearings from the town residents, appropriately sited so you don't have high water flushing your sewer contents into the lake and increasing the phosphorus.  I think that would be a timetable that is realistic.

When developers know that that's coming... for instance one of the proposals that came from the Economic Development Committee to the Town Board is a small industrial park so that we can be shovel-ready for developers.  There was a proposal for a processing center for dairy farmers, for example.  Whether they want to come back to this area is not the question, but IF they want to come should each one of those proposals have to go through that permitting process or can we have a campus essentially ready with certain square footage and hookups for storm water, water, sewer prepared so they can have a quicker time from concept to financing to actually building.

That's the thing that when we have the infrastructure we can prepare those development sites and also have our code enforcement officer and engineering staff work very closely.

Even in the interim stage before we get the sewer on line can we get permits from the present agreement with the Villages of Lansing and Cayuga Heights  to use their plants?  I think the lines will take that.  A few junctions may need some support.  Water pressure issues may have an increase.  But those are the kinds of things that we can take the lead on as a town board, as an economic development committee, as an engineering staff, to work with developers pro-actively to smooth that process along.

Our own laws, our own codes have to be looked at to make sure that we're not a barrier.  We want smart growth.  We don't want low paying jobs.  We want good quality jobs and long term development.  If we have an incentive zone and someone comes in and then pulls out, we have to have a claw-back plan so we can get some of that investment back.

We're ready for wise, long-term development.  The Town can take a very strong leap.

LS: How agressive to you think the Town should be in making the sewer happen?

MK-L: You were at the Town Board meeting when the Economic Development Committee essentially asked for permission to start scoping out the idea of an industrial zone.  The Town nodded assent to that.

The same thing with the sewer.  We were delayed by a month in terms of the actual map plan, but I think the Town is supporting it.  They just have to continue that schedule in terms of bringing it to public review, making changes if the public (wants them).  That's the place we're at, to get that public hearing.

LS: When would you like to see the first hole dug?

MK-L: Well, the plant is one thing and the trunk line is another.  The plant could be started within a year.  I think we could actually be breaking ground by September of 2012.

LS: And it's realistic to find funding in that time?

MK-L: I really do think so.  There are a couple of funding mechanisms.  For instance, we have some healthy fund balances now.  There is a proposal to maintain those fund balances, but not grow them.  But if, indeed, we think we knew that we want to make an investment in sewer we might actually decide to grow them slightly.

So we would not be bonding, necessarily, for a future sewer, but we would have the money in the bank.  The Village of Lansing hardly ever bonds.  They pay cash for a new addition to their building or other kinds of things.   So we don't have to resort to that.  There are reasons to bond for the public good over a period of years.   But I'm just saying that with appropriate financing mechanisms we could be breaking ground.

LS: About infrastructure: apparently I stirred up a hornet's nest in which some town officials say that eventually the cuts in the highway maintenance budget are going to have to stop if the highways are to stay as good as they are now.  Others say the opposite, saying that a 25 year maintenance schedule is fine and that we don't need a 10 year rotation any more.  Do you think taxes are going to have to go up somewhat to sustain the roads ar the current level?

MK-L: One thing that should be looked at is capital replacement plans.  When you make an investment in a road, when you make an investment in equipment, are you actually budgeting over a period of the life of that so that taxpayers know... 'I don't want a big hit in 2018 for my pavers and my graders.'  You should actually be planning for the full cycle of the road.  For the full cycle of the equipment to maintain that road.

Does that mean that every year taxpayers know... suppose we have steady zero or one percent tax increase, but you know what percentage of that is going for infrastructure.  You're aware of that and you say, 'That's a good plan.'

LS: That's what the fire district does.

MK-L: That's right, and I believe we should be able to do that not just for the roads, but for all our capital planning.  We should be putting a percentage of the tax levy, whatever it's going to be, in there and let people know.  'Part of this is going to be for staff, part is going to be for recreation, but part of this is going to be for long term capital planning, whether it's infrastructure or roads.

So stirring up the pot in terms of whether I believe we should be increasing taxes or keeping taxes level and therefore compromising our roads?  We do have very good quality roads.  We have a very good standard.  I think that's one of the things that Lansing residents are proud of. That's the kind of thing where we should do a survey (to find out whether) that's a priority.

Because if the combination of town county and school are taxing you out of your homes you may want to make a decision to lower the gradation of quality if, indeed, that means keeping people able to stay in their homes.  So there's a balancing act there and it's a question of priorities, and I think that's the kind of thing you want to do a survey around.

Similarly to hydrofracking, for instance.  you could do a survey around that.

LS: Broadband is a new piece of infrastructure.  How important is it for this town to offer it town-wide and what, or how should the town pay?

MK-L: Last night there was a Regional Economic Development Council meeting at the Women's Community Building.  Input was gathered around eight key priority areas.  Broadband is one of those in terms of rural infrastructure.

It was interesting to see in some of the slides that they had many bullet points.  Under infrastructure there were only three bullet points, and one of them was broadband.

We in New york State and the New York State Economic Development Council of the SOuthern Tier see this as key.  Should Lansing be part of that? Absolutely.

As you know we have a county-wide broadband committee.  We have Pat Pryor heading that, doing research, doing surveys.  I think to be off of that cutting edge network is leaving us behind.  Whether it's marketing our products and goods, whether it's communicating with your daughter who has now moved to Australia... all these things are adding to our quality of life and we have to invest in them.

How can lansing be ahead of the curve instead of waiting for these dollars?  There are proposals at the county level, and I think Lansing can be part of the inter-municipal cooperation agreement where we can approach vendors and do contractor services.  We can look at grant funding from federal or state sources because we already have emergency communication systems with cell towers that the public is funding, so we can piggyback on that for the good of Lansing.

There are creative ways to partner that wouldn't necessarily be a huge tax burden for those who don't have it now.

LS: What unique benefits will you bring to the Town Board?

MK-L: I was budget chair of the Tompkins County legislature.  They have an over hundred million dollar budget -- for four years.  I was legislature chairman for two years.  For those six years I think it's very important to look at the tax levy increase.  I helped steer the budget committee.  I helped steer the legislature to keep it below inflation.

This is not what the present legislature is looking at.  They're going over the tax cap and they're probably going to go above inflation.

I think that kind of... how do you set up processes?  how do you set up a climate and expectations, and educate the public?  One of the things I am proud of is that we set up a community advisory panel for our budget.  Tompkins County needed external advisors, people who are familiar with public finance and public employees to look at expenses, revenues, how can you improve your proceses?

We used to have a way that committees would present parts of the budget and they would get voted in piece by piece.  What we changed was that we tried to have a process early in the year.  We had a budget retreat in April after early conversations starting in January about what the outlook was like for New York State and how that would impact the county.  In our budget retreat we set a target, and that was a direction we gave to our county administrator, and directly to our county employees to say please hit this target, we have lots of time to plan.

Before that it could have been eleventh hour budgeting saying, 'we have to find two more percent to cut out of the budget to get back to a reasonable level.  Where will we find it?  It's October 29th.  Oh, will we do an across the board cut?' ... It was not as wise across the board information gathering and sifting of priorities across department heads who are professionals who know exactly where the impact would be less on the taxpayer.  Or where they could collaborate with other department heads.  Or where they could contract something out, who knows?

We ave them lots of time to do that and to submit their budgets, and lots more budget presentations to the full legislature so they were all aware of the full impacts.  And then the voting started.

It was less urgent, more relaxed, more informed.  Not just keeping the tax rate low by some waving of the wand, but actually setting up systems and processes to have really well informed internal stakeholders, external stakeholders, and then we could make wise decisions, not in the heat of the moment  and feeling frenzied.

That's the kind of thing I could bring.  Just the basic sentence that Koplinka-Loehr has a record of keeping tax rates low, is wise, is good, is helpful for Lansing.  But how do I do that?

By involving stakeholders.  Understanding the processes.  one of the things I talked to (Town bookkeeper Sharon Butler Bowman) about is that the town budget is not reader friendly.  I know budgets.  That's one strength I bring.  The way the budget is, it's very hard for someone not used to budgets to say, 'here's the recreation department, here's the revenues, here's the expenses, how does it balance out?'

There must be a way we can make this more reader friendly.  There must be a way to do simple graphs and charts.  It could be on the first page of the budget.  It could be very easy for somebody to say 40% is spent on our highways and roads (I made up that number).  Just for an exercise, how much money is spent on recreation and youth?  You have to go through seven or eight different budget lines, put it together from different places in the budget, look at the expenses and the revenues.

Those kinds of things are a strength I would bring.  Then i would bring the breadth of experience regarding many, many things that a chair of a legislature or a representative on the county legislature for 12 years has to understand.  Whether it's gas drilling, or whether it's health department, whether it's senior issues or youth issues -- I've steered those and I was on almost every single committee.

That breadth of experience, and I would say depth of experience will serve Lansing well.  Certainly as a candidate I bring lots of strengths that should stand out for voters.