hopkins2When Connie Wilcox pulled out as a Democratic candidate for Lansing Town Board to campaign as an independent for the Supervisor position, Ruth Hopkins was chosen by the Lansing Democratic Committee to replace her.  Hopkins has served on the Lansing Zoning Ordinance Review Committee, and currently on the Lansing Pathways Committee.  She is an active member of the Lansing Lions Club, and this year brought the Flare Sale to Lansing.

Hopkins and her husband Roger have lived in Lansing for 11 years.  They have two grown children, and their first grandchild was born last weekend.  She is retired from the University of Rochester, where she worked for 30 years.  She is a consultant, currently working with SUNY Leadership Institute, where she is developing leadership development programs for faculty, staff, and administrators.  She talked to the Star Tuesday about her campaign.

Lansing Star: Why are you running and what makes you the best candidate?

Click here for all Elections 2011 Articles published so far.
Ruth Hopkins: I care about Lansing.  I think it's a great place to live.  I've been actively involved in Lansing.  As a citizen I think it's my responsibility to be involved.  I've been involved in the Lansing Zoning Ordinance Committee, the Lansing Lions Club, certainly the Pathways committee, and various other things including attending town board meetings.

I've come to realize that some things work pretty well and other things don't work so well.  I think I have a lot of skills and experience from my professional and volunteer background that I could contribute to the Town and help strengthen what we do.

LS: Can you be specific about some of your strengths?

RH: I served as Director of Finance and Administration for over ten years at the University of Rochester.  That job involves budgeting, planning, people management, day to day process development, policy development.  I think those are skills that are much like the activities going on in the Town.

Leadership skills are important.  Since I retired from the U of R I took a different direction.  I got a PhD at Cornell in adult learning.  I got into leadership development.  I think that brings another nice balance to how you help people do their best in the job, bringing people together.

LS: Do you think Lansing is at a crossroads in its history right now?

RH: I think there are a lot of challenging and exciting things happening in Lansing.  I know that the town center has been part of our comprehensive plan since it was put together in the '90s.  The town at that point wanted a town center for several reasons.  One, it's smart.  It allows the town to preserve open space.  It allows the town to cluster housing so you can eventually bring in the amenities that a village would want like public transportation, pathways, light commercial kinds of shops that you would want.

I think it could be complimented.  What I hear about the town center is that there are proposals coming for some light industrial along the edges.  Any town would want that.

I think growth and development has been fairly regular over the past.  (Former Planning Board Member) Larry Zuidema tracks the permits and I happen to have his charts.  I know we've had somewhere around 30 (building) permits per year and not too many of them have been industrial.  So that would be an exciting kind of thing somewhere.

I haven't seen the plan for the business tech park.  I think it's a perfect opportunity to get more citizens involved.  Clearly one of the reasons I'm running and, I think, one of the most important things we can be doing is involving citizens in our decision making process.  I think involving them not only helps us tap their expertise, and garners more perspectives on how the town grows, but also helps make it more open.

For instance I happened to come to the Town Board meeting when Andy Sciarabba proposed the business/tech park.  I don't know how much of it is being shared yet.  I haven't seen a plan.

LS: I don't think they have a plan yet.

RH: Right, he says he's going to put something forward.

LS: What are the top two or three issues you'll face as a councilwoman if you are elected?  Is that one of them?

RH: Yes, open, transparent planning and decision making is very important in this town.  When I talk to citizens they say they would like to know what's going on.

How do you do that?  We do it by involving citizens on committees.  Other towns have boards like infrastructure committees or conservation boards, or nominating committees or executive oversight committees, financial advisory boards...  It's not a huge town operation, but we could have some of those liek the other towns do.  it would help involve people.

Another important challenge, I think, is the overall planning for growth and development.  I see it both in the financial planning area and the comprehensive planning area.

I think our comprehensive plan is really good.  It's amazing, it's 15 years old, but a lot of it is still solid.  I think it's time, perhaps, to have an update that involves citizens.  It had an update in 2006, but my understanding is that was done by staff, and not a citizen-wide review.  I think we could easily do that.  It wouldn't cost much.  We have a lot of skilled people who would probably help.

I think the financial planning is really important as well.  When I talk about financial planning I'm not just talking about the budget in the fall.  I'm talking about the year long process of evaluating your priorities in the town because most of them come down to the use of resources, again involving folks in evaluating those.  Not just surveys, but discussions amongst committee members.

I also think that financial planning is important when it comes to looking at proposals like the town center, like the business tech park, like the sewer.  I like to see the costs and the revenues.  I like to see them for one year, five years, ten years.  I'm used to doing that.

LS: How agressive do you think the Town should be in developing the town center?

RH: Should the Town be agressive?  I would say as agressive as possible.  But not without a good planning procedure.  Agressive to me means first have plans that citizens are involved in reviewing and commenting on.  Second, have some financial scenarios, at least, on how it plays out.  If, indeed you want to go ahead with development of infrastructure, then you need a financial plan that shows how that is covered by those who benefit in the long run.

LS: The first one of those we have to some extent in the plan the Town Center Committee developed.

: They came up with a nice conceptual plan.  It wasn't the detail I think you need to go forward with the roads and the plots of land.

LS: Are you saying the Town should now take this next step to develop that plan?

RH: The next step would be starting a more rigorous planning process.  I wouldn't start building roads tomorrow.  I would want to know how it all fits together.

I think it's exciting.  It's part of the broader economic development going on in our community.  We're lucky we are a town that's healthy financially and economically.  I think we are one of the few towns that are growing.  I think we're dependent on some of the bigger employers in town, like Cornell.  I think when we're planning we need Cornell's projections for hiring, who they see living here, their projections for spin-offs that would populate our business/tech park.  A lot of those spin-offs are what's in our parks right now.

LS: You probably know there's a sewer project and the Town board will be looking at a map plan later this month.  Do you think the project should be a shovel-ready project waiting for funding, or should the Town be, again, more agressive about getting funding and making it happen sooner?

RH: Well, I haven't seen the plan.  I did see that other people you interviewed were talking about it, so I went in and asked to see both the map that they were talking about and any financial plans.  I was told there was nothing the Planning office could share.  I think that's something that could be more open.  If there are plans some folks are seeing... I haven't seen anything that would allow me to say that.

Back to your question, it's difficult to comment without seeing at least a framework for that proposal...

LS: We know they're talking about a stand-alone sewage treatment plant, and we know the basic map will take the sewer roughly from the school campus along 34B and up to the juvenile detention centers, more or less through the proposed town center area.

RH: Right, and the beneficiaries would initially be the Finger Lakes Center, the town center, the schools, and the folks in between.  And we will be picking up some folks around Myers Park that would like to be on it.

Should we make it shovel ready?  As much as possible.

LS: Should town officials be actively seeking funding at this point?

RH: If they've got a plan, and have some reasonable assurance that the beneficiaries will in the long run be able to pay for it, I think it's reasonable to go forward with looking for funds if they're out there.  You're talking about funding from the federal and state governments.  That's the way it used to be done.  Unfortunately we didn't develop our sewer back when it was easier to get such funding.  It's definitely held development back.

LS: When would you like to see the first shovel go into the ground?

RH: When there's a solid financial plan for it.

LS: On taxes and infrastructure - we know now that the town is financially healthy.  But we also know over the past four years the budget for infrastructure maintenance has gone down and costs have gone up.  Do you think the Town should a lot more money now to infrastructure than it has in the past few years?

RH: In my experience with budgeting, I have usually approached what I characterize as capital equipment replacement and big maintenance activities such as highway, by putting together schedules with the folks responsible for those areas.  They're usually weighted amortization type schedules so that you have some predictability in your budgeting.

So I would expect to see a budget with funds budgeted every year.  If things aren't purchased those years that money would go into reserve funds so that when the replacement comes along you have the funds.

I did notice the budget for next year does not have those items for capital equipment.  So at some point we probably need to insert that back into the budget.  Without seeing that schedule I don't know to what extent the reserve fund for the highways is adequate.

LS: Are you saying that capital planning is something you would actively pursue as a council member?

RH: As a participant in the budgeting process, absolutely.

I would say that the tax rate has gone down for the past four years.  My taxes that are derived from the town tax levy have not gone down every year.  Three years ago the town tax levy went up by 15%.  That resulted in my taxes going up approximately the same amount.  The next year my taxes were pretty close to the same and the following year they went down again.  So I would say taxes have been going up and down, not just down.

I've put this (a chart showing the percentage of taxes we pay to each taxing authority) together as an example of something that helps explain that the town budget is a small piece of the total property tax pie.

LS: Right.  You're showing it as 6.3%

RH:  Yes, so when we talk about my town taxes going up 15% we're not talking about a great deal on the average house.

While the tax rate has gone down the taxes that we pay have not necessarily gone down.  Part of the reason is because everybody's assessment was increased 18%.  So that automatically allows for a reduction in the tax rate.  Another year the tax bas went up, and that allows for a decrease in the tax rate.  So it's a derivative.

LS: What do you think the town can or should do to control gas drilling and contain its consequences?

RH: Gas drilling is the number one question people have brought up as I have campaigned door to door.  There is a lot of interest in that and in what the Town is doing.  I think the current risks from gas exploration are great.  Environmentally, economically, health... and to the community as well.  I think the risk of pitting neighbor against neighbor is very high.  I would hate to see that happen in our town.

For that reason I would like to see the committee that is addressing drilling begin meetings, and public information sessions, as well as facilitated conversations about the ways people view it.  I think people are going to need to share a great deal if we don't want to pit neighbor against neighbor.

That said, I think the risks are great.  I think that the Town needs to move forward and review its comprehensive plan soon.  I know the County is going to be conducting a lot of sessions to help towns do this in the next three weeks.  I think that after the comprehensive plan is revised based on the interests of the Town, we need to move forward with ordinances to support that plan.  It is the Town's responsibility to protect it's environment.  It's not the role of DEC.  I think we need to move forward and do something.  If we wait then we allow the DEC and the gas companies to take the risks for us.  I would prefer we decide what risks we want ourselves.

LS: Do you think the Town should have leases with drilling companies for town-owned lands?

RH:  If we're talking about the central lands in and around the town center I think it would be a very sad decision that we would want to lease those lands and forego a community.  Geologically I'm not sure it's even possible to drill on those lands because of the salt mines.  But I'm not a geologist.

LS: For any lands the town owns.  Thsat spans from the parks to the roads to the gravel quarry... the Town owns a lot of land.

RH: Those lands belong to the Town and the citizens who live here.  I think the residents should be involved in the decision.  If the majority of people I'm talking to are a good example, they wouldn't want to.  I personally wouldn't want to see hydrofracking in any of the town lands, particularly in the park and the town center.

LS:  How important do you think rural broadband is?

RH:  I happen to know that about 8% of people in the county don't have broadband.  The unfortunate part is they are widely dispersed, so getting to them is difficult.  I know that the County committee is going to out forward a recommendation in December.  It's working with the Regional Economic Council, trying to get some funds there.

I think the towns could come together.  If Dryden brought broadband to their community then we should be able to do it.  I don't know the costs yet.  i know that's going to be in the recommendation from the county.  So we have to see the costs.  I don't want to say we should do it if the costs aere greater than the Town can conceivably pay.

But I think it's a high priority.

LS: Do you think the Town as a whole should pay into this infrastructure, or do you think it should be like a sewer district where the beneficiaries pay?

RH:  Those are all good options and ways of looking at it.  I would hope that's what we would do once we find out what the costs are.  I thnk partnering with other towns is going to be the way to go on this.  It may even be the county next to us, Cayuga County.  We're not going to be able to afford it alone, and clearly the people aren't.

Hurf Sheldon is in charge of our town committee.  It was interesting.  He said that he offered to pay the expenses up front as long as he could benefit from people (on his road) as they tie in, and the cable company wouldn't accept that arrangement.

I could see having a more active town committee.  I think Hurf's done a great job carrying the load, but once we have the information I could see a task force on this.

LS:  Town/Village relations have deteriorated since the snow plowing incident, and now the Village Mayor wants to reduce villagers' town taxes by $600,000.  Do you think the Town should do something to improve the level of congeniality and cooperation, and if so, what would you do to make that happen?

RH:  I think there are two components to the issue.  One being the willingness of both the Town and the Village to work together and to engage in conversations and problem solving.  I think we share a lot of mutual concerns.  We live next to each other.  We share some of the same roads.  The folks in the town certainly access the resources in the village.  I think the Village enjoys a lot of the real character that we offer in the Town.

LS: And, indeed, the Village is in the Town.

RH: Indeed they're in the Town, and indeed they're paying, i think it's around 38% or 39% of the taxes.

The other component is the one you mentioned, namely the amount of the taxes.  I would need to go back, and would want to go back... the Town as a whole would benefit from going back and understanding the relationship and the historical agreements that were made.  The expectations under those agreements, examine whether those are occurring.  I don't think anything drastic can happen over night, but there are ways we can meet the concerns the Village has.  And they can meet some of the concerns we have.

The snow plowing incident is one I've heard about and I know we have not had to pay for snow plowing in the Village for the past years since they bought their own snow plow and are doing it themselves.

Yet, I don't know to what extent it would be more efficient for us to get back together and try to do it again.  Those are discussions that I think we could have.

LS: You were appointed by the Democratic Committee to replace a candidate so you didn't really go through the beginning part of the campaigning process.  DId you approach the committee with an interest in running?

RH: It went both ways.  In conversations with the people on the committee we began talking about ways to find a candidate and what kind of candidate we'd like... I realized I was very interested in a lot of the issues and felt I could do it.  I said 'I'm interested' about the same time they asked me if I would express an interest.

LS: So this wasn't something you were thinking about before the caucus when candidates were deciding to throw their hats in the ring?

RH: I was looking at whether or not I thought my skills and experience would be of benefit, but I wasn't ready and i was concentrating on other things like the caucus and helping the committee put that together.

LS: Was the process of knowing that there would be a candidate who would almost certainly drop out what sparked you to look at it?

RH:  It prompted me to say yes, I think I have something to give and I think I'd like to do it.

LS:  What unique benefits will you bring to the board?

RH:  I'll go back full circle and talk about some of the things I talked about at the beginning.  I think I have a very strong track record in financial, administrative, management positions, and can bring that kind of oversight, plus the leadership development perspective from my more recent work.