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O'Mara, Danks Burke Face Questions on Climate Change, Homelessness

Updated: 10/2/2020 - 4:30 P.M.

TOMPKINS COUNTY, NY (WSKG) - A question about homelessness came up early in a debate between New York State senator Tom O’Mara (R-Elmira) and Democratic challenger Leslie Danks Burke. The debate was conducted online on Thursday night.

Neither candidate's answer offered solutions to homelessness.

Danks Burke spoke first and referred to the fact that before the pandemic, thousands of people commute into Tompkins County daily to work.

"Take a real hard look not just inside the city of Ithaca and the municipal boundaries and not even just inside Tompkins County and making sure there is transportation and housing for people all across this region," said Danks Burke.

O’Mara focused his answer on the the pandemic and housing. He said tenants have received relief but landlords have not. 

Relief for New York tenants during the pandemic has been a patchwork of executive orders and legislation all of which carry eligibility requirements. None provide total rent forgiveness, meaning tenants are still responsible for unpaid rent accumulated unless they have a specific arrangement with their landlord. There has not been any state or federal financial rent relief. No rent moratoria protect against all evictions or completely block courts from accepting new eviction cases.

"We have to remember that the landlords still have to pay the property taxes, they still have to pay the insurance, they still have to pay the mortgage bills. So they need to be taken into consideration as well with whatever relief package we have going forward, O'Mara said.

Cindy Domingue-Hendrickson is an attorney with Legal Aid of Central New York. She said some landlords would have been eligible for some financial relief under the federal Paycheck Protection Program which ended Aug. 8. Domingue-Hendrickson said some may also have been eligible for other Small Business Administration (SBA) grants or through mortgage forbearance or deferment programs with their bank.

Landlords also could benefit from tenants who received PPP loans or increased unemployment benefits making it possible for them to continue paying some or all of their rent.

There are no legislative actions that provides total forgiveness of mortgage or property tax payments. Like their tenants, landlords may still be responsible for missed payments even after they are able to begin paying bills again.

In the second half of the debate, moderators posed questions submitted by audience members. One question about climate change resulted in the only moment of real agreement between the candidates.

They were asked if they support a bill requiring the state’s Comptroller to divest the state’s pension fund from fossil fuels.

Neither candidate likes the proposal, but for different reasons.

O’Mara says the state pension fund is one of the good things about New York.

He said part of the reason is the independence of the Comptroller. O'Mara said the Comptroller's job is to make investments based on the best return possible.

Danks Burke says the Comptroller should consider climate impact when making investment decisions.  However, she also want to keep the office independent of political pressures.

"I do not think the New York State Comptroller’s Office should be forced by a legislature which is made up of individual legislators that don’t necessarily have that expertise -- should not be forced by the legislature to make that decision," she said.

Both candidates support various legislative remedies to regional problems caused by climate change.

This is the second time Danks Burke has challenged O’Mara to represent the 58th senate district.Geographically, the district is the largest in the state senate. It includes Ithaca, Elmira and Hornell.

The debate was sponsored by the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University and moderated by two Cornell professors.*

Full Disclosure: Cornell University is a WSKG Underwriter.

*This story has been updated to add more context around the issue of housing amid the COVID-19 pandemic