Lisa Bonniwell is running for Village of Lansing Mayor. An Ithaca native, Bonniwell and her husband Timothy have lived in the Village of Lansing for seven years. Their children are 20 an 19 years old. She runs her family's land developer business, which, among others, includes the Lansing Trails and Janivar Road neighborhoods in the Village, where the Bonniwells make their home. She and her mother Janet Jonson, both with real estate licenses, also own a real estate company and apartments n Tompkins County. This is her first run for public office.
Lansing Star: Why are you running and what will make you a good Trustee? What qualifications do you bring?
Lisa Bonniwell: At first when I thought about running it was personal because of what was happening to the Village. Not only am I a resident, but I also have a business in the Village, developing land. What they had done with the rezoning really affected what's happening to our neighborhood, and also to the cost and price of the homes.
People will say "You don't know that. You can't say that's going to happen." But the people that you talk to, even when we're trying to sell these homes... we've had many people look, but once they know about the rezoning and that the apartment complex might go in they don't want to buy.
So at first it became personal. And then when I started looking more closely at what the Village was doing, the budget, the overspending, the new Village Office that went over budget by $300,000. I just can't imagine in my own business that if I overspent by $300,000 in one year... I'd be out of business.
And then to have a vacant village building (the old Village Hall) with no anticipation, no thought about what that building is going to be used for other than it's vacant and for storage.
Well, they do. They have it on the agenda to clean up the old room and make it available for community groups to use.
But it hasn't been done. We're talking, now, a good year and it's still sitting there. So that's unfortunate to see.
Then you consider the meetings that we've gone to. The first village board room, in my opinion, sat a lot more people than the new board room is sitting. We were really squeezed in and there weren't enough seats. I know we haven't had so many people at a board meeting in a long time.
It was that busy when they wanted to put Home Depot in, and there were a lot of people there. Since there there haven't been a lot of people finding it important to go to these meetings, because it doesn't affect them personally. I think we need to get more people involved in our local and Village level.
You said you said it started being personal, but there were other things.
Yes. The budget. Then you're looking at our taxes. The Village and the people that are working in the Village - the Mayor and the Trustees - they're working for us. And I believe that they're not listening to us. They're listening to all the people on the outside.
When I've been to these meetings the people that were in favor, for example, of the rezoning... the Chamber of Commerce. I've never heard the Chamber of Commerce ever get involved with a development. They're for businesses. That should be for businesses, and that's what it was originally zoned for. So for the Chamber of Commerce to come in and say "we're for this" -- wait a minute... when did they stop promoting businesses and start promoting a complex?
A residential complex.
Yes, exactly. Everybody else that was even for this... none of them lived in the Village. Everybody that was against this development lived here, but the ones who were for it, none of them live here and pay taxes.
I also find it frustrating... let's say I wasn't a home owner but I have a business here, like my husband has a business in the Village of Lansing. But he has no say. He can not go and vote for his business in the election. He can vote because he lives here, but as a business owner you can not vote. They pay taxes to the Village, but their say.. all of them. Ciao!... all of them. Where is their say in what's happening?
I want to talk about the zoning change on the Bomax Road, so I put it at the top of my questions. I'll just state my perception of the two points of view: from your point of view your father (Ivar Jonson) had a grand plan for this area. He's done a nice job of building out some of it... two thirds of it? Were there three phases?
Two of them are done and there are two more to go, so we're half way. We do plan to build a six-plex and we plan to go to the Board for approval within the month. One of the things that has put us at a standstill is the gas (NYSEG's moratorium on new natural gas customers in the Town and Village of Lansing).
When we met with Don (Mayor Donald Hartill) at one of out lunches... because I think a lot of people were concerned. We own a lot of land that's meant to be developed for homes for purchase... single family, town houses... After my father had passed people were wondering what was going to happen and they are still concerned.
Let me get back on track... that's your point of view. The other point of view... nobody said this to me, so I'm just reading between the lines... obviously you live in this neighborhood, so you have a personal stake, but also you are the developer of this neighborhood, so you have a business stake in it as well. It could be viewed by some people that here's a business person trying to prevent a competing developer from locating nearby, however that might effect the business of finishing the next two phases and selling them at favorable prices.
On your side it sounds like a lot of people had said at those meetings and since then that there's a fear that if this apartment complex, which is supposed to be high end, will affect property values in a negative way. People with the opposing point of view are saying because it is residential and not some factory that you can see down the street, that it would affect property values in a positive way. I'm not saying I know the right answer -- I'm just trying to paraphrase the two sides' points of view.
One thing you said that really stuck out was competition. Competition is excellent. Competition is a good thing. This is not competition. If that land was for sale as residential homes, that would be one thing, but apartments are not the same competition.
When you say "residential" you mean single family homes or duplexes where the owner lives in them?
Exactly. So my thought is I'm for competition. I think it brings more choice to the community. But we're not talking about homes for sale. We're talking about apartments. People that live in apartments don't care.
Then you have to talk about the people who own the apartments. If they're not there and it's a big company -- this company that wants to go in, as a matter of fact, owns apartments near the apartments that we own. They're not high end. You can say that you want to get high end apartments in, but the bottom line is if you have a mortgage you're going to rent to whoever you can to get the apartments filled.
The other thing with the Village is that there are a lot of apartments they've given approval to, the ones by BJ's. Then there's the other one by the Triphammer Marketplace. Before this approval I think what they need to do is step back and let what they have approved go in, and see how they do. What's the vacancy rate before they approve another 140 units.
I think they're jumping in too fast because they need money.
I have one more "pre-question" before the question. (Trustee) John O'Neil happened to mention that you would be running at the end of a recent trustee meeting after you had filed for candidacy, and the Mayor said, "I don't know whether she would be able to vote to repeal the rezoning law because she would have to recuse herself", because of your business interest, I presume. I thought about that and it's probably right... so then you start doing the math. Let's say all three of your candidates win. You still don't have enough votes. You may have a tie.
How it works is there are five of us. So let's say I have to recuse myself. That's saying that I have to. That's not saying we've made a decision. So we could go down to 50/50 unless one of the other trustees changes their mind and votes in our favor.
So you could look at it the way Don had done it, and how he had canvassed for all of them to vote a super-majority, because he knew he needed a super-majority for it to go through.
So you're talking about leadership skills to make your case successfully?
Yes, exactly. You might think you know the answer, but there's always an alternative. You just have to be open minded.
So here's what the question is, and after all that you're going to laugh when you hear it: if the zoning change on the Bomax Road lot were to be voted on a second time, how would you vote and why. Well, you've already told me the "why". But just to get it on the record you would vote to repeal it?
Yes, I would.
What key challenges do you see the Village facing in the next two years?
Their spending. I think they really need to cut back on their spending. If you look from 2015, they increased the budget by one million dollars. Our neighborhood, or our village is not newly being developed. We don't have as many places or much land to continue to develop.
We're also paying for a lawyer that sits in all the meetings. Is that necessary? A lot of these other boards don't have a lot of the expense that this village has. I'm not saying you just want to cut everything out completely, but I think there's some streamlining that needs to be done. Somewhere along the way Don's lost site of that. Being in office for 20 years, if you start to look at the increases that they've had... it's gone up quite high.
There are some things that definitely need repair and that he had to spend the money on.
Repaving Triphammer road, for example. It was due.
Exactly. Then there's still another part of the road that people would like to see done that still hasn't happened and he knows that. There definitely is a process. It doesn't happen at the snap of your fingers. But I definitely think our spending has gone too high.
What would you like to make happen that the current board has not worked on, some kind of new initiative?
I've been listening, and I've been to these meetings. they're all quite passionate about what they want to do and what they see as important, and they justify why things are done. This park land that developers give back to the Village, open space that is not being really used. It's deemed park land, but it's not being used for what we're saying that it is. Maybe we could do a little bit more.
The walkways... Ivar, working with the Village, put in beautiful walkways behind the houses to continue places for people in the community to walk. A lot of the business people that work at Transact... they are constantly walking down our road. There's no sidewalk. There's no lighting.
This neighborhood always wheels their suitcases to the airport. And there are no sidewalks. Where we've done a great job in this neighborhood, and people have asked "Are you going to connect this anywhere else?" And I say "It's growth. We only build to the potential of growth within the community. We're not like a big city that can go in and put in a neighborhood over night. We have to build to the needs of the community.
I'd definitely like to see more done with our parks. I recently picked up tennis. I would love to see a tennis court. I would give all my money as Mayor to put in a tennis court. And a gazebo. And then give it to the community so some of these coaches could bring kids to practice. Give back a little bit instead of taking.
The whole sense of greenway and connecting trails has always been embedded in the Village intent and culture. We have Dankert Park, the little park across the street from Dankert Park, Shannon Park, Poison Ivy Point -- which isn't a park, but it' could be one), and the new one that they're building on Northwood. When the new park is complete will there be enough public parks in the Village? Or should they be more?
Well, we have a park down here, but it's just an open field and some pine trees that they don't mow all the time.
Was it conveyed to the Village?
So it is a Village park?
Yes. And that's where they want the new road to come in. To answer your question, a park has to be used. I think more so than the walkways, the throughways through neighborhoods, to keep the community exercising. More of that.
My other concern with that is to make sure that they do a good job maintaining it once a developer gives the Village that space. Some of this back here (in her neighborhood) needs to be repaired and that takes money.
But I would say, as we develop, and the lands that we still have to put in go in, that possibly we'll need more parks in those areas, for sure.
At this point with most Village business-zoned areas built out, what should the Village do to support business here?
There still is a lot to be developed. The one area that they took away (on Bomax Road) was to be for businesses. And what I find frustrating is there were two areas for apartment complexes. So are they planning to change the zoning for that eventually? I don't know.
Are the businesses reaching out asking for more? Are there things that they're lacking they would like to see the Village offer to them?
Let me give you a minor example... at one point both the Town and Village were talking about wayfinding signs, signs that point out businesses that may not be easy to see from the road, or that people typically look for. Like Sumo restaurant - you can't really see it from Triphammer Road. That would be a way.
I think that's an excellent idea. We do have some signs when you're turning off Route 13 for the Marriott...
Right, those are the ones... I think they pay the State to get on those, so that's not a Village thing....
Right. Again you have to think that they're paying to be a part of the Village. We need to make sure that they're still being heard and their needs are being met. If that's something that they want I think that would be a wonderful idea.
Lansing has been split up by the post office, the phone company and the school districts. It seems to me in a village without a village, so to speak, because it's not like Trumansburg or Groton or Dryden that have these obvious village areas, the thing after that that defines a community is the schools. I know it's not within the Village's jurisdiction, but if there were a movement to rezone so the Village children would all go to Lansing schools or all Ithaca schools, would you support that?
What I would support more is choice. We live in the Village of Lansing and people ask "Do you go to the Lansing schools?" No, we're in the Ithaca schools. I'd like to see that people had a choice so if somebody from our area wanted to go to Lansing they could. Or somebody from Lansing wanted to go to Ithaca.
Let's say maybe at our elementary level, make it more specific to arts, science... and kids and parents could choose. I'd like to see that. Not so much that all of the Village of Lansing go to Lansing or or all Ithaca go to Ithaca, because we are a community together even though we're separated by a name or the perimeter of where you live.
Are you talking about the County community that's obviously centered in Ithaca, but includes the surrounding municipalities that radiate out?
Yes. Options. More choice for people. Charter schools or magnet schools... not so much that Lansing has to go to Lansing or Ithaca has to go to Ithaca.
One more thing is, for example, my son did a most amazing program through BOCES, the New Visions Program. That was wonderful. All of them coming together (students from all over the county)... I think that should happen more with everything.
I've asked this question for a dozen years. Village officials say the Village will never merge with the Town and there is no cost benefit in doing so. The cultures of the Town and the Village are too different. Town officials say there is a benefit. The economy of scale would mean less taxes for villagers and possibly also for townspeople outside of the village, and that the cultures and values of the municipalities are much closer together than they were when the Village was formed. And town officials always bring up that Governor Cuomo has been pushing villages to merge.
Or to work together.
How do you stand on merging, and why?
I definitely think that we need to work more closely with the Town. We need to get back into working together, for example, with the plowing. I know that we recently lost Marty (Code Enforcement/Zoning Officer Stormwater Management Officer Marty Moseley left for a job at the Town of Ithaca. The position was recently filled by Adam Robbs). I definitely thing that we need to cut down on our costs. Whether we need to merge is something I would have to reach out to the people of the Village to see about.
But I do agree that the reason the Village started all those years ago was that the Town wasn't listening. The Village probably feels very strongly that if they merge again that there's a good possibility that they wouldn't be heard again. So you can see both sides of it. You need to do what's best for the people that are living in the Village.
There are two tax issues in the Village right now. You mentioned the first one, the value of services for the amount of taxes villagers pay to the town. The Mayor has been trying to get that closer together for many years now. The other issue, of course is that Village taxes went down too low, and now they're coming up at 18% this year. I did the math, and if you have a $200,000 home, which is slightly above the county median -- I think -- you're only taking about $40. So it's not a huge amount in terms of dollars, but it's a big percentage amount.
18% is absolutely a big percentage amount. Think about what people normally make what they make when they get a raise. 3 percent. So if you look at $40 as not a lot. But when you look at 18%... if it's 18% this year what is it the next year? How many 18%s can we take.
With our children, instead of having their checks directly deposited in their account, we said you need to see it. You need to see how much is being taken out in taxes to really appreciate it. So when you look at your dollar, when you see that out of that one dollar 48 cents is paying for taxes... I think that's important to realize how hard you have to work for what you're actually getting. So 18% is a lot of money.
So you're saying you would not like to do that again? Reduce taxes?
I think the rationale for asking for the increase isn't crazy -- the Village has paid for all these projects out of pocket, avoiding the need for loan and interest payments. that's good to save the money and don't do the project until you have it. Now that's gotten down to what Don says is an unsustainable level in part because the tax cap came at an unfortunate time right after he lowered the tax rate to 99 cents. So I can understand that reason, but also that 18% is an eyebrow raiser.
Absolutely. The thing to think about, also, is why is the Village so well off? Think about what really makes up our village? We have the mall. We have a lot of businesses in one concentrated area that serves the whole county. Now some of those businesses aren't doing as well as they would have liked to have done. Now they are asking for reductions in value.
Of course we've been able to pay for these things, because we've always been successful, and will be. But at the same time we need to be conscious of our spending, or what we're doing.
To put it in a nutshell you are saying spend less, tax less?
What would you like people to know about your candidacy that we haven't already discussed?
I'm there for them. I will listen. I really feel at this point the people that are in office now aren't listening to people that live in the Village. They're listening to everybody but the people that voted them in. And honestly, it's time for a change. For the new to come in and provide a new set of eyes and ears.
I'd also like to see more of the community involved, do a little bit more.