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Last week we interviewed County Legislature candidates, this week Town Board incumbents, and next week Town Board Challengers.  Click here for all 2013 interviews publiched to date.
Robert Cree is running for a second term on the Lansing Town Board.  He has lived in Lansing with his wife Elizabeth for 20 years.  They have two children , a son in college in Ohio and a daughter at Lansing High School.  He is Associate Vice President for Business and Finance at Ithaca College.

The Town Board position is Cree's first elected office.  He ran four years ago because he felt the board didn't have financial expertise among the members then.  Since taking office he has been conducting the annual audit, saving the Town about $10,000 per year.  He also vets monthly expenses.  The Lansing Star spoke to him in his office Tuesday.

lso_star35x35 Lansing Star: After the debate that stemmed from the latest and failed sewer project I think the question has to be asked: does the Town Board have an overarching vision for the Town?  I understand that we are all waiting for the Comprehensive Plan Committee to come up with its revision, but I also think that people will vote for representatives who have an overall leadership plan.  What is your own overall vision for Lansing's future in the next four years?

Robert Cree Robert Cree: I believe the current board does have a vision.  Whether or not all five of us agree on how to get there -- that might be a little different.  Obviously we have the land across the road.  There is great interest in trying to determine what to do with that land.  And you're right -- the timing is really perfect.  We engaged a subcommittee to review the Town's comprehensive plan, update it.  Separate from that, and also in conjunction, was the survey of residents to try to get their opinions about what they would like to see for the Town going forward. 

As that comes together that should be the primary road map to direct not only the Town Board, but the Planning Board and any other subcommittees going forward.  I believe we have a vision for putting the right pieces in place to help drive that.

What single town issue to you see as the most important and challenging for the Town Board as a whole now, and what do you intend to do about it if re-elected?

Robert Cree Right now one of the primary issues is AES and whether or not to repower Cayuga.  The unfortunate part about that is for all intents and purposes that's out of our hands.  The (New York State) Public Service Commission is the one that, unfortunately, has the authority there.

We have supplied our input and tried to make sure they're aware of the impacts to the Town so they make their decisions, hopefully, taking all that into consideration.

Beyond that I would say it really is insuring that our taxes remain as low as possible.  I say that in the context of providing the good services, the excellent services that the Town offers.  I think the residents get a good value for the taxes they pay.

I can tell you that every year that I have been on the board so far, the discussion has always been that we understand, when we look at our budget, that we really need to look at it holistically from the standpoint that we know the County has raised taxes... the school taxes may also be going up...

(Laughs) May?

Robert Cree We always keep that in mind.  If you look at the Town tax rate relative to those two, it's low.  But every little bit impacts everyone, so I believe that the five of us are all ont he same page for that aspect.  We have to keep our taxes as low as possible because we don't have control over the others.

Let me ask you this as a follow-up because you were on the board when this happened.  In the Pinney administration he was pushing for, and you were supportive of, lowering taxes.  Then when Kathy Miller was elected Supervisor she said she does not ever want to raise taxes, but thought it would not be prudent -- at a different time -- to lower them again, because of various uncertainties, the power plant and everything else.  At this point in time which of those paths do you support?

Robert Cree That's a good point.  The argument that was made, I think it was three years ago -- and I heard this when I was running for office four years ago -- was that the Town had a sizable fund balance.  The argument was that its tax rate was arguably a little too high for the level of services that it was providing.  So we looked at that and did some analysis and found that we were able to lower the tax rate.

I was pretty sure during that time that I had said that all my projections at that point would have gone out four or five years, and that we should be able to sustain that tax rate or effect a slight increase.  But it was never in perpetuity.

Things change. We now have a clear idea that AES may have an impact.  The economy has not bounced back.  You would have thought in '08 it wouldn't last this long.  But it has.

Again, I did not go into any budget season with the intent to raise taxes.  The intent is to either keep the status quo, decrease it if possible, but if the tax rate has to go up keep that as minimal as we can.

Two things go into that equation: the amount of expenditures that we budget for that we need to service all of the residents relative to the entire assessment base.  That piece we can't control.  That is, unfortunately, one of the driving pieces of the calculation.  So if the assessments go up more than projected that helps offset what we can or can't do with the tax rate.

What town issue is closest to your own heart, and what do you intend to do about that?

Robert Cree Fairly recently the rest of the Town Board members asked me to sit on the RFP committee (to assess 'Request For Proposal' responses solicited by the Town from developers interested in building on the town center land across the street from the Town ballfields).  Assuming I get re-elected I very much look forward to sitting down with the other residents that have volunteered to be on this committee, in conjunction with one or two Planning Board representatives, to go through the RFPs and compare that to what the Comprehensive Plan Update Committee has come up with and see if what we got a year, a year and a half ago still makes sense for now.

Do we go back to the drawing board?  Do we have what we need?  That's yet to be determined.

In a sense the RFP committee is a Town Center committee, isn't it?  In a way?

Robert Cree Yes, I guess you could say that in a way, but their focus is really to review the RFPs.  I would argue that we then need to look at those in comparison to our updated comprehensive plan.

And you're right.  Good point bringing up the previous Town Center Committee's work and compare that, too.  Are we still on the same path?  Have things changed immensely?  If so, where do we go from there?

That leads into the next question.  A year ago I wouldn't have even asked this question because I thought everybody knew the answer, but now I am not so sure.  Is there going to be a town center?  What would you like to see happen to the town center land?

Robert Cree That's a good question.  I think conceptually there are still a lot of people that would like to see a town center.  I think the bigger question is what does that mean.  You're right, what goes there?

At one point there was discussion around looking at some kind of business and technology park.  And I always liked the idea of having some smaller businesses, maybe some mom and pop type shops, some small medical offices... a mixture of that type of stuff for the residents of Lansing to go to.  Depending on what goes there I think it would augment the Lansing Market that's there, the gas station... that's what I really see.

From a personal standpoint those are things that I want to see, too, but what I am being told is that unless you build up residential density to support it, there is not enough density now to support those businesses.  And we know that existing businesses in the Town Center area -- they're not failing, but they're not thriving in a big way with the current population.  I don't know, what do you think about that?

Robert Cree I've heard from some residents who say, arguably, isn't our town center already the Village?  The Village is so close.  That's where a lot of people go if they're not at our grocery store or our gas station or any of the other shops in town.

So you could flip that questions and say the more density you have, that's just more people who would already go to the current location.  My hope would be that those types of businesses would not only attract current residents, but draw from outside of Lansing much like the Village currently does, or downtown Ithaca.

In the final sewer meeting there was some discussion of a 'split Lansing' with relatively affluent neighborhoods in the south of the town that see themselves more a part of Ithaca than Lansing and more traditional families in the north that grew up here and want to maintain the character of the town they remember.  Do you agree with this 'two Lansings' concept and if you do – or don't, how does that impact your vision of how the Town should led by the Board?  Also, if 'yes' is there a political divide in Lansing and how is that driving the campaign?

Robert Cree To answer the first question, I think the Board certainly needs to understand that dichotomy.  Clearly there is a long history with many residents in Lansing, we're talking generational.  Understandably they like Lansing the way it is. Some people moved to Lansing for that reason as well.  Then you also have people who end up being residents in the Village or just outside the Village, further into the town, for whom there isn't that clear line.  And of course the school district divide doesn't help that, right?  You've got residents in the Town of Lansing yet they're really in the Ithaca City School District. 

So that does get confusing... whether you have an Ithaca mailing address, an Ithaca phone number... all these things do complicate that to some extent.  I think the important piece is that the Board as a whole keep that in mind.  There are people who, while they may live in Lansing, may not fully associate themselves as being part of the Town.

I think I see or hear that more frequently from residents of the Village.  The comments that I hear are that they really think they're an extension of Ithaca.  That's certainly not the case.

Going forward that's certainly important to keep in mind, both points of view: the general long-time Lansing families that have been here for a long time and those that may not necessarily associate themselves with the Town yet do pay taxes to the Town, and what is it they would like to see?

cree400_2013Robert Cree

Does that create a political divide?

Robert Cree A political divide on the board? Not so much.  It could get that way, though, because those two points of view, the dichotomy of those residents who live in Lansing but may not feel they really are part of Lansing and those who have been there their whole lives, and their families and families before them -- the key is how do you go forward and continue to provide services that both sets of those residents want and/or need?  That could create a political divide.

That's one of the things I feel fortunate about being on the Town Board -- I think for the most part the members have been able to keep that at bay.

While some people have told me that town taxes are too high I think most people agree that school and county taxes are the real culprits that are burdening property taxpayers.  One of the most oft-sited justifications of the sewer and town center projects was to increase the tax base to mitigate the school tax rate for current property owners.  Is it the town's job to do something about school taxes (if no, whose is it)?  And what should the responsible entities do about it?

Robert Cree That's really a function of the School Board.   I know at least the current members of the Town Board, every year when we go into the budget season we do try to take into account the impact that we see coming from the County and the School District when we levy the town taxes.

The Town Board has taked before about having a joint session once or twice a year with the school board just to make sure that we are all on the same page.  Because it is very confusing.  You get two tax bills a year, and out tax bill gets lumped on with the County.

Right, County, town and fire district.

Robert Cree Then the school bill comes separately.  You get one bill and you see it and it's confusing, even though they are, arguably, three separate tax rates, taxing authorities and what have you.

So I think there would be some benefit to getting the Lansing Town Board and the Lansing School Board together once or twice to talk about these things.

When you talk specifically about that sewer project I would argue that the fact that the schools were going to take advantage of the proposed district was a benefit.  I do not believe it was the sole intent of the Sewer Committee to try to solve the school sewer problems and build a district around it.  It was just a nice coincidental benefit.  We knew the schools were in need of repairing their current septic systems, and if this could have gone in... the old adage is kill two birds with one stone, right?

A lot of the committee members including Kathy Miller were saying it would attract more people to the Town tax base and mitigate school taxes that way.  My impression was that that was primary and the fact that the schools could hook up and have eventual savings was almost secondary, but still a benefit.  Do you think the Town failed to help the schools in that way because the sewer didn't happen?

Robert Cree I wouldn't say the Town failed the schools in that way other than that it took so long to come to the end result.  I was hearing for some time that the schools knew they had to do something.  If they had their choice between doing it on their own or getting onto a town solution, the ideal solution for them would have been to get on a town sewer district.  But I don't think, at the end of the day, that we failed the schools.  It might have caused some problems with their processes, but no, I don't think that we failed the School District.

Now for some lightning round questions.  Hydro-fracking: yea or nay?

Robert Cree I said this a while ago. Lansing is in a very precarious situation with that.  I say that because when I look at Lansing's proximity to Cayuga Lake, to me that just enhances the severity of this issue.

So whether or not I believe fracking should be allowed, I really try to put that aside and look at it as we have to take extra caution given the residents that either get their water supply from the lake currently, or from their own wells.  Yet their proximity to the lake lends itself to potentially contaminate not only our drinking supply, but arguably, surrounding towns on Cayuga Lake.

Ideally, with that in mind, I think it really should be a state issue.  They should come in and say there are so many towns and residents that rely on Cayuga Lake as its supply that they should deem our area as 'no fracking'.

On a town level so far I have heard more on one side, the concern about what fracking can do, than I have about the positives.  The Town has passed a moratorium for the last two years primarily so we can continue to do our research to make sure that we're making decisions based on as much information as we can get, and in the hope that maybe the State will come to some conclusion themselves.

I voted for the moratorium for the last two years.  My concern is the work that should be done to prove that we're making progress to allow for another moratorium may not have been enough at this point.  In other words, have we done enough around aquifer studies?  Have we done enough around infrastructure studies, roads and the like?

Our proximity to Cayuga Lake is what I keep in mind and the concern that whether it be during my term on the board or twenty years down the road I don't want to find out that a decision I made twenty years ago is not impacting peoples' drinking supplies.

This wasn't originally going to be one of my questions, but a number of the other candidates have brought up the idea of encouraging tourism.  In the wake of the power plant and then the sewer not happening, coming up with creative ideas to increase revenues to the Town.  Do you think tit would be worthwhile to have a Department of Tourism in the Town?  It could be a part time person, a full time person, a grant writing person -- I don't know what it would be.  But somebody who would focus on encouraging tourism in Lansing.

Robert Cree That's a good question.  A dedicated person on the Town payroll -- I don't know if we're there yet.  I would rather see some type of joint effort with the County's tourism bureau to make sure that they're aware of all Lansing has to offer in whatever work they do.  And see if we can't prove the value of a part time or full time person.

I would almost think that would be putting the cart before the horse, so to speak. But if there is enough data there to prove that a person dedicated to tourism could generate X number of dollars of revenue... I'm a numbers guy, so if it makes sense that's one thing.  But I don't think that the data that we have right now would support that.

Is the level of services too much, too little or just right in Lansing today?  If not just right, what do you plan to do to adjust it?

Robert Cree You're asking my personal opinion, so I would say that I think the level of services is at a very high level.  if I were to compare the work that comes out of our Highway Department relative to other towns' highway departments I think we get more than what a typical highway department would provide for a town.  A case in point is all the work that they were able to do for us at Myers Park.

We're fortunate that we're along the lake so we have a park there that our residents get to enjoy.  My God, our Parks and Rec Department is just phenomenal.  I understand that on an annual basis we're constantly drawing from parents and kids from other towns because we have such a strong program.

I think our level of services is just right for where we are right now.

It seems that the town courts are busier these days.  Should Lansing be looking at expanding its law enforcement, ie. Hiring a full time or more part time constables or considering a modest police force?

Robert Cree I know that the justices have -- I believe it was a year ago -- requested more support on the constable level.  As a board member I have to rely on them to tell me what they feel they need in the courthouse.

What we're hearing right now more than additional constable services is that we need a reconfiguration of the court rooms.  The people who come to court come right in the main town hall door.  The door for our Town Clerk's office is there.  The door for our Parks and Rec office is there.  You have access to the Supervisor's office and the Code Enforcement office.

Arguably the door for the courtroom should be off a different entrance, so a reconfiguration of the Town Hall would help solve a number of our problems, as opposed to additional constable services.

But you're right, at the end of the day if traffic through our courts continues to grow or stays the same I would have to defer to the justices to say 'we feel we need additional support'.

What do you bring to the Town Board that the other three candidates don't offer?

Robert Cree Well, as an incumbent I have the luxury of saying four years of experience.  People decide to run for office for various reasons and to some extent, probably with some bit of naivety.  I know I did.  One of my first questions was, 'what's involved?'  There is always more to the picture than the perception of it is.  I've certainly learned a lot over the last four years and I believe that experience would lend itself to providing enhanced support on the Town Board over the next four years.

My financial experience... I don't know if you're aware that prior to my coming on board the Town Board had paid an outside auditing firm to some in on an annual basis to perform an audit of the town books.  When anyone is newly elected to office the State puts on a seminar for newly elected officials.  One of the things I walked away with was that it's ultimately the Town Board's responsibility to be auditing the Town's records.  I came back with that information and reminded the other board members.  Some of them had performed audits in the past, but the process was clunky as I understand it.

At that time Scott Pinney, who was the Supervisor, asked me to lead that charge.  So going forward every year we removed that charge out of the annual budget, because the Town Board was going to take over. That was $10,000 in savings to the Town every year.

I facilitated that every year.  So I bring a strong accounting background, making sure things are accounted for in a proper way.  I think any of the board members look to me waiting for the questions to come up: how are we going to pay for that? Has this been accounted for properly?  The few questions I typically come up with.  Or they laugh when I pull my calculator out, verifying calculations.

So I would say overall town board experience and financial experience.

Would you like to add anything we haven't talked about?

Robert Cree No, that last bit about the auditing, that was a good point.  That allows the Town to focus on internal controls and I believe it's even in the town records where a number of the Town Board members, including (Supervisor Kathy Miller), indicated that my report of this past year's audit completion, that she finds it an invaluable process, and is thankful for having me on the board for that.

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