AUBURN — The Cayuga County Legislature is still on the fence about joining a statewide lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies that produce opioid medications.
Three New York City law firms met with the body's Government Operations Committee in executive session earlier this month, and while the committee majority had chosen to recommend a law firm and proceed with the litigation to the full Legislature, committee members have since backtracked.
Ways and Means Committee Chair Aileen McNabb-Coleman presented an overview before the Legislature and Cayuga County high school seniors attending Student Government Day Tuesday morning. She explained that some of the law firms are targeting manufacturers, distributors, pharmacies and doctors, while others are focusing solely on the manufacturers and distributors of opioid pain medications.
Staff, she added, would have to collect specific data on how the issue has impacted the county financially. The time needed to do that, she said, is a concern. But the county would not be responsible for any financial obligation should it join, including attorney's fees. Government Operations Committee Chair Ryan Foley said the law firms estimated that litigation could take between two and six years.
Legislator Tucker Whitman said while Cayuga County has a heroin problem, he was not sure that would translate with this lawsuit dealing with opioid prescriptions.
"I think we're going to be disappointed in spending the next two to six years dragging ourselves through this lawsuit," he said. "I think we're going to regret it, and all we're going to do is make a bunch of attorneys rich in the meantime."
Judicial and Public Safety Chair Patrick Mahunik disagreed, and said the point of the lawsuit is about sending a message.
"I don't care if we see a penny out of this lawsuit, because that's not what this is about," he said. "It's about correcting the problem and sending message and putting those people on notice that are writing these prescriptions on a whim."
Legislator Andy Dennison and Tim Lattimore supported litigation, too, pointing to the spike in drug overdose deaths in Cayuga County recently. Dennison said with the potential for the lawsuit to last years, the problem will likely continue.
Despite his skepticism, Whitman said the only way he would support the lawsuit is if any monies awarded to the county was put back into rehabilitation expenses for addicts and "not on renovating the county office building." Many other legislators agreed.
The Legislature did not vote on whether to join the lawsuit, but rather opted to contact the three law firms again to present in executive session at November's full meeting.
AUBURN — Meeting in the district which they hope to represent, Cayuga County Legislature candidates Mike Lesch and Elane Daly faced off at a forum held in Cayuga Community College Tuesday.
The two running for the District 11 seat, which represents the northeastern part of the city of Auburn, had different ideas for tackling the opioid epidemic and whether the county Legislature should join a class action lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies.
Lesch, a certified public accountant, said he would support the county joining the lawsuit. He later made the caveat that he'd want to know more about the staff time required to compile data supporting the litigation.
"I don't think there isn't a family directly affected or affected closely," he said about the drug problem. "We need to do anything we can to help decrease this problem in our county."
Daly, former director of the county's health and human services department, would not say whether she'd support the lawsuit or not. She felt Cayuga County was doing its due diligence in learning about the litigation, and she said she'd want to hear from counties that may have chosen not to join and why they made that decision.
Executive Editor of The Citizen Jeremy Boyer asked the candidates what else they would do to fight the drug crisis in the county. Lesch said he'd work to lobby state and federal representatives to put more limitations on doctors prescribing pain medications. He'd also designate more funds to the Finger Lakes Drug Task Force.
"I don't think we can arrest our way out of this problem," Daly said in return.
Daly highlighted a number of programs already working in the county to help those struggling with addiction and said she'd continue to support those things.
Daly and Lesch discussed another health problem threatening Cayuga County — toxins from harmful algal blooms in Owasco Lake. When asked to evaluate how local officials are doing currently to address the issue, Daly said she thought there were a lot of efforts happening and listed the county's Water Quality Management Agency's manure management guidelines, ditch erosion strategies and the Owasco Lake Watershed Management Council's work to take on the Owasco Lake Watershed Inspection Program and update the watershed rules.
Lesch said there's many different groups working on issues in the watershed. It's good, he added, because they're all working to the same basic goal, but with the county working on one plan in the watershed and a lake advocacy organization called Save Owasco Now! advocating for a different one, he'd like to see "everybody getting on the same page and for us to be able to provide a direct message."
Switching gears, candidates discussed the fate of the Cayuga County Office Building. Legislators have debated between building a new one or making repairs to the current one on 160 Genesee St. in the city, despite asbestos concerns.
Daly said she felt a lot more work had to be done before she would make a decision on repairs or a new building. She didn't feel the issue was pressing, either, and didn't understand why it was getting so much discussion.
Lesch, however, said based on some of the estimates the Legislature has been given, he'd advocate for renovating the current building.
"Expenditures such as this one (a new office building) would be hard for me to swallow," he said.
Voters will go to the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 7. Lesch is running on the Conservative and Republican party lines. Daly is running on the Democratic, Working Families and Auburn First party lines.
An important hurdle has been cleared to allow for the sale of the former Cayuga County Nursing Home to Auburn Community Hospital.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation late Monday that authorizes the county to sell or lease the vacant property in Sennett. The bill was sponsored by state Sen. John DeFrancisco and Assemblyman Gary Finch, both of whom represent the city of Auburn and several Cayuga County towns.
The nursing home on County House Road has been closed since 2015 after a merger with Mercy Health & Rehabilitation Center in Auburn, which is now known as The Commons on St. Anthony.
Auburn Community Hospital expressed interest in buying the former county nursing home earlier this year. The hospital plans to move its nursing home, Finger Lakes Center for the Living, to the Sennett facility.
"We've outgrown this building," Abby Bovie, director of nursing at Finger Lakes Center for the Living, told legislators in April. "We are very limited with our private bed ability."
Moving to the county nursing home would allow Finger Lakes Center for the Living to expand its private bed capacity, Bovie added. It would also give the center more space for future projects.
The current home of Finger Lakes Center for the Living at 20 Park Ave. would be used to house more of the hospital's doctors and establish a drug rehabilitation center.
Matt Chadderdon, a spokesperson for Auburn Community Hospital, said the legislation signed by Cuomo was necessary because without it, the hospital couldn't advance its plan to buy the nursing home.
He praised DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse, and Finch, R-Springport, for their support. The lawmakers helped usher the bill through the state Legislature.
Now that the bill has been approved by Cuomo, the hospital can begin negotiations with the county.
"The county has been great in working with us," Chadderdon said. "Our plan now is to look at all the different plans and work with the county and see where it goes from here."
The head of an Auburn landmark is one of 14 people who will serve on the national Women's Suffrage Centennial Commission.
Karen Hill, president and CEO of the Harriet Tubman Home, was appointed by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand supported Hill's selection.
Gillibrand, D-N.Y., called Hill a "champion for women's rights."
"Her dedication to preserving Harriet Tubman's legacy and the history of the Harriet Tubman Home and national historical park shows her commitment to lifting up the ideals of the Underground Railroad conductor and suffragist," she said.
Schumer, D-N.Y., added: "Having worked side-by-side with Karen Hill for many years as we fought to establish the Harriet Tubman Home as a national historic park, I know firsthand how dedicated she is to public service. I am honored to appoint Karen to the Women's Suffrage Commission and I have no doubt she will use her role to help all Americans celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment's ratification."
The Women's Suffrage Centennial Commission will be tasked with developing educational programs to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the U.S. ratifying the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.
The 19th Amendment was ratified in August 1920.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Hill said she believes her appointment was based on the work to establish the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Auburn. Gillibrand and Schumer cosponsored legislation that led to the formal establishment of the park.
"I think it will bring more attention to Tubman's legacy," Hill said. "I think it will bring greater attention for the need of active programming to make sure that we're embracing freedom as a fundamental element of our rights as American citizens. And it will also shine a great light, I believe, on the fact that Harriet Tubman was a part of the Freedom Church, which is what the A.M.E. Zion Church is known as."
Hill recalled being approached about serving on the commission a few months ago. As Senate minority leader, Schumer has the power to appoint two members of the commission. Each congressional leader — House speaker, House minority leader and Senate majority leader — will appoint two members. The president will select two members, too.
The remaining seats will be filled by the librarian of Congress, the archivist of the United States, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and the National Park Service director.
As of Tuesday, Hill is the lone New Yorker to be appointed to the panel.
The legislation to establish the women's suffrage commission was included in a larger spending bill earlier this year. Gillibrand was a cosponsor of the measure to create the commission.
The commission's initial meeting will be held no more than 30 days after the 14 members have been appointed. Following the inaugural gathering, the commission will meet at least once every six months.
The group's main focus will be programs to celebrate the centennial. They will also encourage private entities and state and local governments to commemorate the anniversary.
Hill said her role on the commission could bring more attention to Tubman and the sites in Auburn. The Tubman park, which will include the abolitionist's former residence and the Home for the Aged on South Street, is expected to be farther along in its development around the time the country is marking the women's suffrage centennial.
"It's a good day, and this will lead to a level of curiosity and momentum as we build toward 2020," she said.