Onondaga County legislators held their usual monthly session on Tuesday, but not in their chambers on the fourth floor of the county courthouse.
"The clerk will please call the roll," said Legislature Chairman Dave Knapp. Debbie Maturo then called out lawmakers names.
All 17 responded they were present, just as if they were in chambers. Except on this day, most lawmakers were chiming in virtually from home or work. Only Chairman Knapp, the legislature's clerks, and lawyers were on hand in the courthouse. The governor has permitted local governments to hold virtual meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic to avoid the risk of infection.
The unusual circumstances didn’t keep lawmakers from tackling issues that have stirred significant debate. One was starting the process of consolidating ownership of aging town and village sewer systems under the county. Tuesday’s measure begins with the leasing of the Meadowbrook-Limestone district covering Manlius, Dewitt, Fayetteville, and parts of Syracuse. It’s been over a year in the making, and is the first of many agreements across the county. Legislator Kevin Holmquist represents parts of Manlius, and says sewers are the most expensive issue facing town and village governments in the next decade or more.
"Smaller municipalities like villages and towns don't have economies of scale for maintenance and replacement. That's one of the primary reasons we're consolidating this, because the county is in a much better position to take over the system. We are all in this together."
Holmquist says this agreement is the first of its kind in the state, and will likely serve as a template for future sewer consolidations. Legislator Jim Rowley is concerned the agreement will no longer allow towns and villages a seat at the table.
"For many reasons, this is a dangerous precedent in my opinion. There's no check or balance, no input from the municipality on capacity issues in this agreement."
Rowley is a former town supervisor, and says he wouldn't want to be put in a position to consider legal action against the county if an issue ever arose.
Others like Bill Kinne and Mary Kuhn felt they needed a clearer vision of the larger consolidation plan before they could support the first step. Legislature Chairman Dave Knapp reminded them the initial agreement has the support of the state DEC.
"As you remember, last month we accepted a $2.25 million grant from the DEC to go towards the Meadowbrook-Limestone improvement because they really liked this agreement."
The final vote was 11 to 4 in support of the plan. By roughly the same margin, lawmakers agreed to remain a landlord at the Galleries downtown to continue to cover $2.3 million in Central Library improvements, and to accept $625,000 from Honeywell to acquire property near Onondaga Lake for parking.