- By Dan Veaner
Steve Farkas has served on the Lansing Town Board for nine and a half years, eight of them as Lansing Town Supervisor. He grew up in Lansing, and even attended school in what later became the Town Hall and is now the Lansing Community Library Center.
During a career at the New York State Office of Children and Family Services that took him to the Adirondaks, he returned to Lansing, spending the last two years as Director of the Louis Gossett Jr. Center here in town. During much of that time he also participated in local government, not only in Lansing, but in Clinton County as well. He served on the Lansing Planning Board in the '70s, and was the town's first code enforcement officer before the Village of Lansing split off from the Town.
The Lansing Star met with him in his office in the Town Hall on his last day as Supervisor, and asked him to recall his last ten years in Lansing government. The office had been cleaned out to make it ready for incoming Supervisor Pinney. But Farkas was working , signing end of year bills and other tasks, including meeting with the Supervisor Elect to make the transition go as smoothly as possible.
Nine and a half years ago Farkas was appointed to the Lansing Town Council to finish out Larry Tvaroha's term of office when he passed away. A year later he successfully challenged Janinne Kirby for her position as Town Supervisor, and served in that capacity for eight years. In November he was defeated by Scott Pinney, whose term officially began Tuesday.
I believed in planning. I believed in zoning, and I believed it was the right thing to do, to control growth and have it happen where it should.
The transition has been cordial and respectful. In fact, the day the absentee ballots were counted and it became clear that Pinney had won, Farkas congratulated him and offered his help. Pinney says he has asked Farkas to continue as liason between the Town and the Gossett Center, and to help with COuncil of Governments issues. Farkas says he will help Pinney in any way in the future if asked. "I think Scott will do a good job," Farkas says. "He's got a good group of people working with him."
Lansing Star: You have always been in a service industry. Was that what attracted you to serving in government?
Steve Farkas: It dates back to the late 60s, early 70s. I was initially on the Town of Lansing Planning Board in the early 70s. I was the first code enforcement officer for the Town, when it also encompassed the Village. At that point I finished graduate school, and I got transferred to Salamanca, NY. There was a 60 bed forestry camp there. From the Fall of '69 to the Spring of '71 I was at graduate school at Syracuse under a State scholarship. Four of us in the agency were selected. The State wanted to upgrade their administrative positions to professional positions. We got MSW, Masters of Social Work.
I transferred back here to McCormick. For some reason something clicked in for me. I started going to Town Board meetings in the building that is now the library. I just went to see what was going on. Then I got involved in the planning situation. I became the 'Bastard of Drake Road,' because my Father was a die-hard anti-zoning person.
I came back here from '73 to '76. They transferred me to Plattsburgh to open a new program. I had written up a program to address my concerns about the effect on rural kids being placed in facilities with inner city kids. My feeling was that they learned more than they should have. So they assigned me to a 20 bed facility that just took rural kids from upstate New York, from this area north.
Then I got involved in politics up there in Clinton County. The Adirondack Park Agency (APA) controlled most of the planning and zoning laws. The only place where the towns had jurisdiction was in the hamlets. I lived n the Town of Saranac. I became part of the Planning Board there. I was a member of the Advisory Board at the School of Social Work at Plattsburgh State. I was in the Alternatives to Incarceration Board for Clinton County.
It's just in my blood. From that point on I was just meant for public service. I enjoy being around people. It was an opportunity, and it has been a great ride for me to do that throughout my career.
LS: So ten years ago the Lansing Republicans knew they had a sucker!
SF: (Laughs) Yeah, basically! My predecessor, Jeannie Kirby, did a lot of work, there were a lot of things that happened. But there was a group of people in the Town that thought there were better ideas. I had been appointed by the seated board at that time to replace Larry Tvaroha who had died. I was approached to run for Town Supervisor, so I threw my hat in the ring.
It all happened in the primary, because there was no Democratic challenger. I was supported by the Democrats even though I was a Republican. I won the primary. I serve two consecutive two-year terms, and then we changed the term to four years, and I served one four year term.
LS: What were some of the 'better ideas' when you ran for Supervisor?
SF: A lot of people thought there was a real loss of communication, and there were a lot of things that were going on at a very slow pace. There was a lot of development going on, and I think people weren't planning for it. I got involved in those issues as I had way back in the '70s.
I believed in planning. I believed in zoning, and I believed it was the right thing to do, to control growth and have it happen where it should. At that time we were starting to see in Lansing that we had pockets of growth all over the town, and it wasn't really consolidated. If you were going to have that nasty word -- sewer -- it made it very difficult. We found that out, that it was difficult to put in infrastructure when you had large gaps of vacant land... so therefore individuals were going to pay a lot of money for infrastructure.
The original plan for sewer was to have a standalone plant and build out from that. For whatever reason all of a sudden the focus turned. The State said 'We'll give you about 5 million to run a major transmission line to Ithaca.' It really changed the whole focus of the thing. Instead of being able to build out the infrastructure as you go, it hurt that whole issue.
With water, had it not been for the fact that NYSEG, now Milliken Station, wanted water, the whole lakeshore wouldn't have water right now. It's been building out to areas like Algerine road.
LS: You're putting it where it makes sense to have it?
It's just in my blood. From that point on I was just meant for public service. I enjoy being around people. It was an opportunity, and it has been a great ride for me to do that throughout my career.
SF: Right. And there are still a lot of areas in the Town that really need it. There are a lot of developments to the east, like Asbury Road and areas through there that need that infrastructure -- both water and sewer.
That's where the planning part came in. Somebody wanted to build a development and bang! it happened. There wasn't really a lot of forethought about what are you going to do with the buildup, or how you were going to cover those gaps between the developments. And that is still going to continue to be a problem.
LS: Some people in the last campaign accused you of the same things you are talking about from eight years ago -- communication problems, not being as friendly to business development are some of the things Scott brought up in his campaign against you. I remember the time before you were elected, and I did see a change. I didn't know you at the time, but things were clearly different in those ways.
What do you suppose happened? Are these old perceptions, or are they just campaign things that always are leveled at incumbents?
SF: I think they come from a broader spectrum of thought and ideas. We brought in people like (board members) Bud (Shattuck) and Connie (Wilcox), Marty (Christopher), and Matt (Besemer). You have different outlooks, and sometimes change is good. I looked at the year and a half that I was on the board as a councilperson, and there was not a lot going on. A lot of work-a-day things were happening. There were some people on the board using forethought and looking down the road, but it wasn't really left open to the light bulb going on, saying I have a better idea.
I can't say what I accomplished. I think it was a group of people on the board during my tenure that really wanted to see something happen. It didn't all happen.
The time that went into this sewer study -- it had to be done. The information is there. It's in a package. If some time cheaper money becomes available... I guess the only change I would have liked to see in the sewer if the DEC wanted everything to go into one tube, was that we started in the southern end and built the infrastructure up north.
The way it was set up you had a pocket up by the airport and to the north. Pockets here and pockets there, and nothing in between. I sat one night talking with my wife, and said, 'There's something wrong with this picture. We're asking people in these gaps to be paying for a log time and they're not going to get it.' I had a hard time with that. That was the point where we sat down as a board and asked ,' Are we really doing the right thing for right now? Is it the best bang for the dollar?' Because of the fact that there was this spotty type of development and that there wasn't a lot of cheap money out there...
LS: So the rock was the DEC wanting the shared solution, the hard place was the topography of the Town and that the money was not there...
SF: Yes, and it took so long. When I first came aboard as a councilman would have been the Fall of '97 or so, and they were talking about sewer. They had a big meeting with the six municipalities to make an agreement. They said, 'By Spring we could have an agreement and be ready to roll.' Six years later we finally had something on a piece of paper that everybody accepted.
It unfortunately became territorialism, and bogged the situation down. We were the impetus to getting money to make it happen, but the roadblocks were coming from people outside of Lansing that just didn't want to see it happen.
LS: You're being nice -- you're not saying it was the city. But what I have been hearing is that it was the city holding it up.
SF: Right. There was this thought that if Lansing gets the sewer it will destroy the City of Ithaca. That we were going to take development away from them.
LS: That is interesting, because at the time the city was pretty anti-development.
SF: Yes, but they wanted it all. So it was an interesting situation there for a while.
LS: I've been covering the Town Board for two and a half years, and my impression has been that you and Bud Shattuck make a good team for the Town. You're more political than he is in terms of schmoozing and getting to know people -- not just people in the Town, but people at higher levels of government that can be helpful to the town -- and leveraging that kind of connection to help the Town in different ways. Whereas Bud focuses more on details and kinds of initiatives. He is less naturally outgoing, but your talents compliment each other.
There are two types of people that are successful in life: scavengers and buzzards. A buzzard knows what he's going after, and a scavenger takes anything he can get.
I'm a scavenger.
How do you go about meeting a state senator or the Governor, or whomever? I've also noticed that you reach out to Democrats as well as Republicans. I've seen you do it.
SF: I had a boss once that told me that there were two types of people that are successful in life: scavengers and buzzards. A buzzard knows what he's going after, and a scavenger takes anything he can get. I'm a scavenger.
I guess in my own down home way I can say to somebody, 'Hey we need help. Are you willing to help?' The tradeoff is that, without verbally saying it, 'I'll help you in any way I can help you.' And then go ahead and do that. A lot of people make promises... It doesn't make any difference to me. If that person is at this level up above me, I don't care if they're a Democrat or Republican. I will go and ask them for something, and if there's a tradeoff, there's a tradeoff.
I think over the 33 years I worked for the State I met a lot of people. Maybe they weren't at the very top, but they knew how to get to the person at the top. Mike Nozzolio has been very, very supportive of me. And Jim Seward was, for the short time he was our Senator. And I don't have a problem calling Barbara Lifton and saying, 'Barbara, can you help us?'
Sherry Boehlert when he was Congressman, and now Mike Arcuri.
Lansing is an interesting place. Right now it's getting closer to the 50/50 (Republican/Democrat) balance if you want to look at it politically. I think we also have a significant group of people that know people. That's something I think you really have to learn if you are going to be in public service. It's not to use people. They put themselves there. One thing I learned early on is that people can only say 'yes' or 'no,' but you've got to ask them first.
If you're going to look at someone and say, 'I don't think that person can help me,' they won't. Help comes from strange places. My old friend Senator Ron Stafford said, 'People can only say no if you don't ask.'
LS: So it's a lot like being a salesman?
I can't say what I accomplished. I think it was a group of people on the board during my tenure that really wanted to see something happen.
SF: Yes, you've got to be willing to knock on doors.
Within the county itself we also have this cross section of people. We have the Council of Governments, the Municipal Officer's Association. You are really able to sit down and share things and talk about things. I don't really care if (Caroline Town Supervisor) Don Barber gets something and I don't. Because there are times where I get something and he doesn't. And we're two ends of the spectrum -- I'm as much of a Republican as he is a Democrat.
But in the end it's those folks out there (indicates the Lansing area) that are paying the freight. So they expect you to do something.
I get a lot of phone calls from Bob Messenger, who is Mike Arcuri's representative in Cortland. I was disappointed -- Bob made an attempt to have these meetings with constituents that didn't work out. But I said to them, 'We want you to come to our town. We have nothing to hide. If people are going to complain to Bob Messenger that Steve Farkas is a bum, that's OK. At least you're getting a reaction out of them.'
That's the thing that I feel special about, that I've been able to get those people to come to town. I've gone to Albany many times to talk to Mike (Nozzolio) especially when the sewer project was going. He has always opened the doors to whatever I needed. The Environmental Facilities Corporation... and we're now working with DEC to get some funds out of that $4.8 million that was set aside for sewer here to 1) pay back what it cost us for that engineering map plan and review, and 2) hopefully help us develop the Warren Road project.
I hope it comes to fruition. And maybe it will start the process the way it should have happened: to start at the south end of town and go north, picking up the sensitive areas that really need to get covered.
LS: Right, the Warren Road Industrial Park is a place that really makes sense to have sewer to keep good jobs in Lansing that are here, and create new ones. And it's part of the Empire Zone as well.
To move to a different topic, you and all the board members have stated at least once in the past few months that this is a very cohesive board. The five of you come from very different points of view and have disagreed. But you have found a way to come to a consensus using those ideas and disagreements. Do you attribute that to your leadership, or just the coincidence of personalities that have meshed together? Or both?
SF: I think it might be a combination of all. I learned very early in my life how to be a good listener. Maybe that's why I enjoyed doing group counselling. Being a good listener and being able, at some point, to bring a group around to a consensus. At different points in my eight years there were people who didn't agree. That's why I say you have to agree to disagree and still go forward. I think that's been the success of the board, and maybe it's been the luck of the draw that we had those people who were willing to listen and then make a decision.
Periodically somebody (on the board) has come in and been dead solid that 'This is the way I want it to happen' and they don't waver from that. And I don't ask them to. You have a right to an opinion, and when the game is all over... I look back to my sports career (playing sports as a Lansing school student)... I hated Groton and Dryden with a passion. But (Dryden Town Supervisor) Steve Trumbull is one of my best friends right now.
At the end of the day you shake hands and walk away. I feel bad for somebody that can't just shake it off and then go on. You're going to win some and you're going to lose some. But to sit there and dwell on it kills progress. If you've got people who are really interested in doing what is right for their constituency there is a point where you have to let it go.
LS: You win some, you lose some -- you just lost one. How do you see yourself in public service going forward?
SF: I will probably stay in some way or another. I have said to Scott (Pinney) if there is any place you need help I am more than happy to.
The Town is very fortunate to have the staff we have in this place. The level of competency of the people we have working for the Town is a major factor. Steve Farkas can work for a couple of hours and then go to the Pit Stop for a cup of coffee and listen to people bad mouthing whatever. But these people that are here -- this is their career, and day in and day out they are put in the position of having to ask the tough question or backing people off long enough that me or somebody else with the responsibility can come in and handle it. They are the rock in this place.
In civil service you are at the mercy of the populace. That person is coming here and the only important question is their question. You've got to be able to put all the parts together and handle it.
You get a letter like I did last week from somebody who wants to know why their road wasn't plowed, when it was actually plowed four or five times through the night -- and then they don't sign it. Yet these people still go out day after day, night after night and still do their job.
We (the current Town Board) have been very supportive of the people who are here that do such a good job. This place would not function with five politicians who sit up there in the board room once a month! The other part is that those five people who sit up there once a month are here every day, or every other day. We're always available. That was something that did not happen previously.
LS: Over the ten years what are some of your favorite things that have happened?
SF: Probably the most difficult process was the consolidation of the water districts. They were piecemeal all over the place. We made it a logical process, the payment schedules, all consolidated into one bundle. That was probably the number one thing.
That's the thing that I feel special about, that I've been able to get those people to come to town. I've gone to Albany many times to talk to Mike (Nozzolio) especially when the sewer project was going. He has always opened the doors to whatever I needed.
The other, of course, is Salt Point (which the Town now leases from the DEC and manages for that agency). It's slowly getting there. To go from a garbage dump to what can be, in the next two or three years, a very nice area. I think the board is strong enough to make that happen. Everybody hollers about it, but I think there is far better communication. There is a lot more real, important information out there, and people know they can go and get that information. I think we've been an open book.
LS: I agree with that -- you have always been very open with the Lansing Star. You restarted the Town newsletter this year. I thought there were a lot of public information meetings when the sewer was an issue. In some ways that may have hurt the sewer, because people thought it must be a done deal if the meetings were happening, but they were really just informational meetings to gather and give information.
SF: People never really understood that. There was never any decision by the Board to move forward. It was totally for gathering information. It certainly was open. The doors were always open. And I think that was the important thing. Then there came a time where five people had to step up to the plate and say, 'It just can't happen now.'
LS: What do you want to see completed that started on your watch?
SF: One of the things that I hope continues is the building across the parking lot. I really hope the library stays together. It's been a lot of work, and I think it's an important thing for the Town of Lansing. I could not picture myself looking at my granddaughter reading 'Tom Sawyer' on a monitor, but I can see her when she comes over to our house. We've got a big overstuffed chair by the fireplace. She's sitting with her legs up over one side of the chair and her head on the other side, reading a book. That's important. That's important for this Town.
Some people can say what's $15, or $20, or $30? When I look at what things cost today it doesn't take many loaves of bread to make up $30. So I really hope that stays together.