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Walaa Maharem-Horan

Walaa Maharem-Horan (D) is running for Town Councilwoman, her first time running for elected office.  Proper budgeting is her biggest concern in the campaign, as well as proper planning to make sure infrastructure is in place before big projects come to fruition.

She and her husband met in high school in Connecticut, and married after college.  He went to Ithaca College and only planned to stay in Lansing for a year after they married, but have been here for 12 years so far.  Executive Director for Ithaca Montessori School in Lansing.  She invited the Lansing Star to her home to discuss her campaign.

Lansing Star  Lansing Star: Why are you running for Town Board?  What makes you a better choice than your opponents?

Walaa Maharem-Horan  Walaa Maharem-Horan: I am running for Town Board because this is my home.  This is where I want to be when we decide to have children.  This is where I want to raise them. Growing up as a child I moved around a lot, so, for me to have finally settled and have a home be a place in addition to my family and not just be my mother and my sister and my husband is a new, interesting thing for me.  So the future of Lansing is important to me.

In having become a citizen and a resident here, unfortunately, we don't have access to information that we, as citizens, need and I feel like a lot of stuff is happening without our conversations and without our input.  While I appreciate the work that has been done, I feel like Lansing has stagnated in the last five years.  We haven't seen a lot of growth business-wise.  We're going to be seeing a lot of change happening in our tax base, and I don't think things were planned accordingly.

The school board planned for the power plant since 2009, and has been planning.  With the town Board I don't think proper planning has taken place.  You're seeing business growth in Danby, West Danby, Trumansburg, Dryden, and we're not seeing any of that growth in Lansing at all.  Residential growth is great, but at the end of the day residential costs more in taxes than the business growth.  You're going to continue to grow residential by having jobs available here.  By having amenities available here, and we don't really have that.

So when I'm talking growth I'm thinking commercial and business growth to make our town sustainable and to continue to have opportunities for residential growth so people can experience the blue ribbon schools.  That's why we pick Lansing, because of the schools district.

I would love to see that flourish and I would love to see that happen.  I think the problem is that it hasn't been happening in a corrected way.

We fixed some things from 12 years ago when i first moved here.  You've seen growth in the mall and development happen in the Village.  Unfortunately we're just not seeing that development happen in the Town, in my opinion.

That's why I'm running.  I want this town to be flourishing when we have children, and I want this town to be flourishing for my friends that do have children here, and I want them to see them grow.  I have friends here in their 60s and 70s, some in their 80s, and their children are leaving because there is nothing for them here.  Tompkins County is expensive.  The County Legislature has its own responsibilities, but I think we in the Town have to take care of our own and we can't just blame the County when things don't go our way.

Lansing StarThere seems to be some opposition to the projects proposed for the so-called ‘Town Center’ land across the street from the town ball fields.  What is your vision for that land, and what issues do you think its sale should answer?

Walaa Maharem-Horan  If we're developing a true downtown, or a true town center it needs to meet commercial.  It would be great to see small businesses there like boutique-style businesses, small restaurants, small coffee shops, coffee shops, clothing stores, so you're bringing in that brick and mortar that is going to bring people to that area.  I think it would be great to see it have some senior housing, and some lower income housing, housing for people that are first time homeowners and who are choosing to live in Lansing because they have small children, grad students, people like that need to be able to afford it.

Right now it's not really affordable, so i would love to see it meet all of those needs, because it would be really wonderful to see these small families and young people who don't necessarily have families yet grow into Lansing.  So I would like to see small apartments there, and small businesses there.  I think if we can do that around the existing hiking trails that were created and that people are invested in... private citizens are going out and mowing part of those trails.  The track and field team is running on those trails.  people are coming to do that.  That's part of the draw of Lansing, so I would like to see that preserved, and whatever comes in comes in around what's already part of Lansing instead of mowing over it.

Again, it comes back to proper planning and listening to the citizens.  Any developer that really wants to come here and really is interested in keeping the integrity of what Lansing is would be willing to work around those items.

Lansing StarThe new comprehensive plan revision has taken many years to craft, and it may not be ready this year.  Has it taken too long?  How would you have handled it if it were up to you?

Walaa Maharem-Horan  Honestly it hasn't and it has taken too long.  It hasn't taken too long, because if you look at what's been around us, Tompkins County has been changing so much that all the other places are taking just as long in developing.  It's not just Lansing, but you have to look at how Lansing fits into this bigger puzzle.  We have to work together to do that.  In working in conjunction with other towns it really hasn't taken any longer than any other town in this area.

The problem is -- and part of this is my understanding in speaking with people that are on the Planning Board and speaking with Joe Wetmore, and in reading the comprehensive plan -- it's not cohesive.  It doesn't make sense.  Look at the census component.  They're looking at 2007 and then 2011 and 2015 -- well what happened between 2007 and 2011.

You're looking at the demographics of what's happening, so you're looking at the data points.  You have it and then there's been a 54% change.  Well, 54% in Lansing could mean 100 people or it could mean two people.  So it doesn't paint a complete picture.  So I think it needs to start from the beginning in that, well, here's Column A, and these are the changes B and C so you end up with column D.  You have to have a linear way of thinking.

You're talking about people understanding zoning.  Until I decided to run I didn't know what R1 and R2 or any of that meant.  We didn't make it clear to the citizens, the people that live here, what these plans are.  I think there would be a lot less need for revision if people knew right off the bat, hey- we want to make this land commercial; we want to make this land agriculture; we want to make this land high density residential; and we want to make this one moderate to low.  I think if we put it in layman's terms for the average person who is not in this day in and day out, I think we would have gotten a lot more input from the citizens, so now, when you are ready to present the plan, you would not be getting such push-back and feel like you have to go back to the drawing board.

This is where the conversation of letting your citizens know what happens saves money, saves time, saves energy.

Where my strengths are in every job that I've had in the last 10 years... I'm really good with numbers.  That's what people bring me in for.  I come in, I streamline, I get rid of the unnecessary expenditures.

And sometimes, believe it or not, the thing that's going to save you money is spending money to do the job right.  I don't believe in band-aids, and I fell like that's what we've been doing.  We've been slapping band-aids on these little things, and now it's become a bigger problem.  We haven't really addressed what's happening with the power plant.  We should have started on that from 2009 -- what were we going to do?  We kind of put a band-aid on it because nothing happened, nothing happened... and now it's happened and look at where we are.

So with the Comprehensive Plan, if we start with a clean slate.  Put a call out.  I've lived in my house for five years and this is the first time I've got a mailer that says 'we're having a planning board meeting'.  So I am curious as to why this didn't happen five years ago when we were working on this comprehensive plan.  Notify the citizens, and if they choose not to participate that's on them.  But if they do choose to participate listen to what they say.  Don't say we won't have time to listen to people's comments.  These are the people you represent.  These are the voices you speak for.    So when you say I don't have time to listen to you, that's a problem.  That's why we are eight years into a comprehensive plan and now people are upset about it.

Listen to people from the beginning and it might save you some time in the end.

Lansing StarThe absence of a new comp plan revision has been used as an argument to postpone development, and that may have been a factor in killing the original batch of town land proposals.  Should the Town move forward with proposals using the officially approved 2006 plan, which is still in effect, as a guide?  Why or why not?

Walaa Maharem-Horan  I don't think so.  you're talking about something that's over a decade old.  The landscape has definitely changed.  the demographic has definitely changed.  the population has changed, so I think to do something based on something that's over 10 years old doesn't make sense.

Lansing StarEven with the financial stress caused by the power plant, the GAP elimination, all of those things that we've seen over the past 5 years?

Walaa Maharem-Horan  You've got to look at what part of the project you are talking about continuing with.  You're talking about residential development, but it can't just be this rental property that's going to go in, because how is that affecting the roads?  It's not just a clear cut situation.  I would love to see a Comp Plan revision come into place quickly, but you you know what's going to happen is... if you say, 'Listen, you have a month to get me your comments or concerns', great.  but if no one responds in a month, fantastic, then you can go ahead and pass the revision as-is and say 'We gave you a month'.

But when you're giving people a week or two weeks... when you're putting notifications in places people aren't reading then you're setting yourself up for these situations, so no, I don't think we should use a decade old approval because it's not relevant to where we are now.

The problem is, where has the Town Board been pushing for a comprehensive plan?  Where have we been putting these deadlines?  Have we been posting notices?  Have we been trying to get conversations going so that we can get a comprehensive plan?

If we set a deadline that says January 1, 2018 we are going to have a comprehensive plan.  You need to have all of your concerns to me by November, so from November to December we are going to handle it.

And if we need to have a meeting once a week, and if we need to sit down and hammer this out, this is what we're going to do -- it's crunch time.  That's what should have happened, but it's not what happened.

I understand that this is a public service job, and I appreciate everything that everybody does.  And I realize that people have their own personal lives as well.  But at the same time, you decided to run for this position.  You decided to lead this town.  That comes with responsibility. That comes with you sitting down and saying 'I need a plan by this date'.

Lansing StarProtest groups, particularly environmentalist groups have attacked the repowering plan from Cayuga Power Plant repowering plan and now are calling state mining permits for the Cayuga Salt Mine into question.  Where do you stand on these two companies and the issues the protests have raised?

Walaa Maharem-Horan  First of all the power plant is a private entity.  The town Board really doesn't have a lot of say in how a private entity functions.  it's going to seem like an odd response, but I believe in utilizing technology to the best of our abilities.  If you look at what's happening world wide, a lot more places are going to cleaner energy.

Do I think that's where we need to go?  Absolutely, because it's more sustainable.  However, I don't believe in 'shut the door, put a lock on it, and move along' because that's also not realistic.  you cannot put people out of work.  You cannot just shut doors.

Like you do with business, you come up with a three year plan, a five year plan, a seven year plan.  You do the same thing, and you do a phase out into a phase in.  You don't just shut one project down and start a project, because people can't afford to live without jobs.  We can't afford for that to happen to the tax revenue base, and you can't do that.

So have a something in place.  Have a safety net in place.  Have a phase-in for jobs.  et's find grants to help people with job training so the people who are moving out of the power plant can move into the next sector of whatever comes in.  if the solar plant is coming in, great, let's train the people that are currently at the power plant.  Let's help them figure out how to move into their next phase.

There are tons of grants available now for job training.  A ton of them.  I would love to see the Town apply for these grants so we can help people.  The power plant right now is planning on eventually closing.

Lansing StarThey're not.  At least publicly they've said that they hope to repower it.

Walaa Maharem-Horan  Great, if they can repower it in a way that's sustainable for everyone.  If they can repower it in a way that is actually sustainable for them business-wise... I don't think we should be getting our power from Ohio.  that's ridiculous.  if we can do local I am 100% for local.  I prefer local businesses.  I prefer smaller businesses, because that's what keeps our towns going.

But you have to be realistic if people don't want their power from that.  If more people are going to solar power or wind power, great.  If the power plant has asked us for help, how do we help them move so that they can repower?  In a way that's sustainable?  In a way that works?  Work it as a partnership.  What can we do to help, instead of having this decisiveness.

I'm so sick and tired of being divided in everything from everybody.  It needs to be a partnership.  The protesters are bringing a valid concern.  They're worried about the environment.  We're seeing this happen in the environment right now.  We're seeing what's happening with the weather.

OK, what can we do to help  the power plant.  I do not think you should just shut the doors.  I think that's ridiculous.  People need their jobs.  We need this as part of Lansing.  It's part of Lansing, and will continue to be part of Lansing, great.  So how do we transition it instead of just shut the door on one and open the door on the other?

Lansing StarWhat do you think the best solution to the natural gas moratorium in Lansing should be?

Walaa Maharem-Horan  To be honest with you, I don't know.  i haven't attended enough meetings to really know about other options.  There's the heat pump option, which, from the limited knowledge that I have on it, seems like a good thing.  There are apartment buildings in Lansing that currently use heat pumps, and they don't seem to be having issues with it.  I think the cost up front is offset by what you are able to save over the years of use, and it's environmentally friendly, and it produces just as well.

As of right now I know this is already in use in Lansing, and its already working in Lansing.  But that's not my field of expertise by any means, so I don't know.  I wouldn't mind a gas stove, because I love to cook.  I would love to give you an answer, but I need more information.

The problem is people are getting their information from one sided sources.  I would love to see an unbiased report that says 'here's why heat pumps work, here's why a gas line would be great, and here's maybe a third option that we don't know about.'   But to take the stance of 'we need a gas line'... well why do we need a gas line?  Or to say 'we don't need a gas line', well, why don't we need one?

It's ridiculous because you don't really know what you're talking about unless you have been attending the meetings, and the few meetings I've gone to, there haven't been that many people there.  This the problem with protesting when you're uninformed and you're just taking a stance on something.  I can't give you an answer one way or another because I don't know enough.

Lansing StarHas the spottiness of rural broadband in Lansing been solved with the Clarity Connect/County wifi solution?

Walaa Maharem-Horan  I don't think so.

Lansing StarAnd should the town do more to bring high speed broadband to its citizens?

Walaa Maharem-Horan  I'm a technology fiend.  My phone speaks to my car all the time... honestly, if we're going to grow Lansing, if we're going to bring in these residential projects, if we're going to appeal to a younger generation and want them to stay, yes we have to do more.  I know people who get frustrated when their phone takes five seconds.

In this day and age that is such a trivial problem, but it is a problem when you are trying to appeal to a generation to have them purchase homes here and to grow here.  To fill these complexes that we're putting in we have to resolve that problem, especially when we want to appeal to the students in the university and Ithaca College to do their work... if we want to bring that population out here we have to do something about it.

It's better.  There's definitely an improvement, but I think there is room for growth.

Lansing StarAre town taxes what they should be?  Too high, too low?  If elected what will you do to adjust them?

Walaa Maharem-Horan  Town taxes are interesting.  I can show you my giant folder on them.  Let's be honest, out of the nine municipalities in Tompkins County Lansing is one of the lowest.  As far as where it should be -- comparatively I'm happy with where we are.

That being said, I actually did sit down with the 2016 budget.  I went as far back as 2012 and did a comparative analysis.  There are very few line items I see are OK, and there are benefits and salaries that are pretty steady.  There are certain things that, to me, are flags.  There are some areas where we budget $100,000 and for the last five years we've only spent $14,000.  Well, why are we budgeting $100,000 when we know the trend has been between ten and fourteen thousand dollars?  It's an over-inflation.

Then there are other line items where we're budgeting $3,000, but for the last five years it's been $20,000.  So why are we under-budgeting?

It's dysfunctional.  I want to know where they're getting these estimates from and where these numbers are coming from.  As someone who is currently working on a budget -- and I've worked on budgets for non-profits and for businesses -- if I submitted that budget to my boss he would look at me like... what were you thinking?  I feel that is part of where the problems are with our budgets.

Also there are parts of the budget that I don't really understand.  Like, we had a bit of a windfall when the appraisals on lakefront properties were redone.  They went up, so we got a lot more money than we were expecting.  there's no really accounting for it, or allocation for that money in our budget.  So I'd like to see where that money is being spent or saved, or how much do we have in our reserves?  Are we using our reserves to pay our bills?  We really shouldn't be doing that.

There are all these budgetary questions that I have and I am not really sure where we can go to get the answers.  I asked a couple of times and haven't really gotten the response I need.  I think the budget doesn't make sense.

Lansing StarWhat one or two issues we have not talked about, if any, should be addressed in the next four year term and what will you do to address them if elected?

Walaa Maharem-Horan  I am a huge proponent of grants.  There is a ton of grants available for many different things.  In the Adirondacks they got a $250,000 grant to grow their city center, and there are other grants available for rural communities that are looking to do broadband expansion.  The fact that we don't have a grant writer is fine, because we could work with college students that need those jobs.

I know there is one in the works right now, but we haven't submitted grants, and they are available for everything from our Rec program which is a phenomenal Rec program.  If you think what we could do if we can get them an influx of cash so they can grow that program, that would be huge.  It would be amazing for the students to have a theater program, to have a cooking program... I know they have robotics, but to have a coding program and talk about giving them real, matchable skills for college...

So I would like to see grants written and I would like to see it done in a way that we can work with some of our students here, or some of the residents here, if they want to write these grants.  Try to create these partnerships with the residents of Lansing and see what we can come up with.  I think it would be a really great asset, incorporating much needed funds with speaking to and involving our communities.

The other thing is our shared services.  There are shared services meetings, and I've been attending those meetings.  We don't have a presence there.  We don't have a presence at the TCAT meetings.  When you're going to complain about the fact that we don't have TCAT, that we don't have a park-and-ride here... What are we doing to advocate for that?

If we can't raise the money or we don't have the money for a service that we need, why aren't we reaching to other towns?  It's one thing to have a relationship with the Village, but the Village is part of the Town.  We are already a family.  That's a sibling.  But why aren't we reaching out to other towns on shared services that we think would better improve our town?  We really need to do better with that, and we really need to work on being better neighbors, to be better involved with our county, and with our community.  In the long run it will help us grow and give us access to things we don't have, and help us share things that we do have.

We have a fantastic highway department.  To be able to share their skill-set with other people that may not necessarily have the better highway department would be a really good thing to show what we do so well.  So we need to develop these quid pro quo relationships we are so lacking in.

Lansing StarWhat else would you like voters to know about your campaign?

Walaa Maharem-Horan  With me, what you see is what you get.  I don't like playing politics.  What you hear me say is really what I want to do.  Am I going to fix every problem?  Absolutely not.  I think it's ridiculous for me to say that, but what i can tell you is I will absolutely listen to everybody.  It's not going to be a 'let me just talk to my friends' kind of situation.  I really do actively want to hear what people want to say.

I do think what makes me unique, and makes my skill-set different is I'm really good at thinking outside of the box.  I'm really good at figuring things out that, maybe, somebody hasn't considered before.  I've had a lot of worldly views from traveling, and people I've been very lucky to call my friends and family.  So it's given me an outside perspective on a lot of things.

One of my best friends in the world was telling me about how she and her family grew up living in their car, and I also have friends that have grown up in mini-mansions.  Having listened to both sides it can give you a different perspective.  I would love to continue to hear from people, and hear their perspectives and hear their experiences and skills, because I don't know everything, but I would love to hear what people have to say and take my skill-set and what they have to say to figure out the best solution for Lansing.

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