After three years, County Administrator Jason Molino is leaving his position with Tompkins County and heading west to become the Executive Director of the Livingston County, New York Water and Sewer Authority.
Molino described the decision as a personal one stemming from the long hours and generally high demand of the job.
“I have four children,” he explained. “They’re 6, 8, 10 and 21 […] We felt there was a change we needed to make in our lives as a family to spend more time together, and this was an opportunity that would bring us closer to our extended family. The choice came from that.”
The Legislature is expected to name an interim administrator soon, and a comprehensive search for the next county administrator will begin later in 2021. Molino said he plans to work closely with the Legislature and administration over his final weeks to ensure a smooth transition following his departure.
Prior to coming to Tompkins County in 2018, Molino had been the city manager in his wife’s hometown of Batavia for over a decade. He said his perception of Tompkins County was that it was a place unafraid to be a leader, and said he’s found that to be true in the three years he was here.
“It had a reputation of always being progressive and not being afraid to take risks,” he said. “And that’s been true since I’ve been here. That reputation of progressiveness and willingness to try new things to move forward.”
Since taking over as county administrator in January 2018, Molino has taken on typical duties such as budget planning and managing the day-to-day operations of a county, but he’s also been faced with challenges like navigating a pandemic and finding ways to dismantle systemic racism in policing.
He also oversaw the establishment of the county’s Office of Veteran’s Services and hiring its first director, the establishment of the county’s first Chief Equity and Diversity Officer and led the review and recommendation to merge the Mental Health and Public Health Departments.
Throughout arguably his two biggest challenges — the pandemic and the reimagining public safety process — Molino has expressed his belief in putting real resources into finding a solution. As of April 19, the county had spent over $3 million on the COVID response effort, much of which is related to staffing hours and testing; the county has conducted over one million COVID tests in the past year, which is more than some entire states. Additionally, about 60% of the county has received one dose of the vaccine and 41% is fully vaccinated. Those vaccination numbers are good for second best in the state, only behind Hamilton County, which has a population a fraction of the size.
Molino said that while he hopes to never go through another pandemic, if he had to, he wouldn’t do anything differently.
“COVID in general was a tragedy,” he said. “But the people I’ve worked with, the county staff, the community partners, it’s been a remarkable experience to have partnered with them.”
Molino credits the county’s partners often, and said he thinks it’s one of the biggest strengths Tompkins County has.
“The big thing I noticed is the relationships with our partners in the community are incredibly important,” he said. “We need to make sure we’re in good terms and good standing, and make sure we can work through issues. When those relationships succeed, we all succeed.”
The Reimagining Public Safety also relied heavily on those partnerships, particularly with the City of Ithaca as the two administrations teamed up to come up with recommendations for changes in law enforcement in the county’s two biggest police forces.
“One of the big hurdles that both the Legislature and Common Council got over was adopting a plan that hopefully focuses on addressing systemic challenges in law enforcement,” Molino said. “I think that first step was taken, and we are on a path now and as long as I’m here we’ll continue to push that forward.”
He recently made a step toward achieving that plan by getting approval from the Public Safety Committee to spend over $144,000 to establish the Community Justice Center, which will be in charge of implementing the Reimagining Public Safety Plan. The Budget Committee and then Legislature will vote on it next.
Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, chair of the Tompkins County Legislature, thanked Molino for his service.
“Jason has served this county with integrity every single day in this role,” she said. “He has brought a thoughtful presence as our administrator, showing deep support for our staff and fiduciary tact putting together budgets under ever more complicated circumstances. The Legislature wishes Jason our best as he embarks on the next chapter in his career. Livingston County will be lucky to have him.”
She also lauded his accomplishments, particularly his efforts in the Reimagining Public Safety process.
“Tompkins County has had a track record of excellence under Jason’s leadership,” she said. “We’re often first in the state and a community that others look to and admire. Jason has shown compassion for our community, especially visible in the fast forwarding of our movement toward safety and equity for all residents, with a keen focus on those most marginalized.”
Perhaps the most recognizable and visible part of a county administrator’s job is budgeting. He left Batavia with an impressive record: minimal if any tax increases each year, a $10 million downtown revitalization grant from the state and creative cost-cutting measures to stabilize the city’s budget. When he came to Tompkins County, he inherited a budget in the black, but with less flexibility as he’s required to navigate the county’s discretionary funding, funding social services and paying for state mandated programs.
Molino called the budget process in Tompkins County “interesting,” and said though it’s different than a lot of different counties, it works here.
This past budget season was particularly difficult due to COVID shortfalls from sales tax and state aid, Molino was able to pass a 2021 budget that saw a decreased tax rate for the seventh consecutive year. The budget overall was down by 5.64%, or nearly $11 million from the year previous. The Legislature approved the use of $1.4 million from the county’s fund balance in concurrence with a 2.21% tax levy increase to get the decreased tax rate.
At the time, Molino said it was one of the more difficult budgets he had worked on, because though it was easy to identify the problem, it was impossible to find a solution when the variables were constantly changing. As a feather in his cap, it’s worth noting that no county employees were laid off during the pandemic.
Molino will finish up with Tompkins County at the end of May, and reflects back on his time in Tompkins County fondly. He said most of all, he appreciated the people he worked with.
“The staff of the county are very special people,” he said. “They’re incredibly passionate and take pride in what they do. It’s interesting, I’ve been able to communicate more with my staff when they’re working remotely than I did when they were working in the office. I do a town hall every Friday where I answer questions submitted beforehand and take live questions. It’s an opportunity for a half hour or so to connect with the workforce in a way I never did before. That connection with the staff and the camaraderie we’ve had over the past year is what I’ll miss the most.”
He also again pointed out the relationships with community partners as something he’ll miss.
“The community is incredibly compassionate and has a lot of heart and passion. It’s been incredibly rewarding,” he said. “I’ve gotten to develop some great partnerships with great folks. Folks in the city, people at Cornell…I meet with town leaders every Thursday and it’s one of the phone calls I most look forward to every week.”
He said though it was a difficult decision to make, he’s confident it’s the right one for his family, and he’s looking forward to his new position.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “I did a lot of water and sewer work as a city manager, and it’s huge in respect to community development. It’s a relatively young authority, about 20-25 years old, and I think there are opportunities for more collaboration with other towns. Plus it’s in an area I’m fairly familiar with, and I’ll be close to extended family.”
As for what’s next for the county once he’s gone, Molino said he isn’t worried, and again praised his colleagues.
“I don’t think the county will miss a beat,” he said. “I’ve been surrounded by great people, amazing people, and amazing leaders in the community and public service. That’s the reason the county’s success has been what it has been.”
He added that the county administration team knows everything on the table, and that him leaving won’t force anyone to scramble.
“One person doesn’t know everything going on,” he said. “We’ve made sure the team is aware where certain initiatives stand and what steps are being taken.”