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Red light cameras along Route 25A. File photo by Elana Glowatz
Since 2010, Suffolk County has been authorized by New York State to install red-light cameras at intersections. Today, 215 cameras operate at 100 intersections. The program is intended to reduce the number of cars running red traffic lights and by extension reduce the number of crashes and the severity of the crashes. The county has as its vendor for the red-light camera program Conduent, a divestiture from Xerox. Conduent receives from Suffolk County 42 percent of all fines as per contract terms, and its contract was set to expire December 2019. Graphic by TBR News Media

The next five years of red-light cameras’ survival in Suffolk County has finally been decided.

After lengthy debate and public comment period, Suffolk lawmakers voted along party lines to extend the program for another five years Sept. 4. The program was set to expire by the end of the year.

Legislators speak out on the red light camera program. Photo by David Luces

The issue of red-light cameras has been a divisive topic since its inception nearly a decade ago. Republicans, who unanimously opposed the program, have called it a ‘money grab’ for the county, which has generated $20 million in revenue annually. Democrats, on the other hand, supported the extension though acknowledged that it needs to be fixed.

Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), who co-sponsored a bill for a report on the county’s red-light camera program, said she remained frustrated with its findings but ultimately supported the program. She also called for more education on distracted driving prevention.

“There needs to be improvements [to the program], the program right now is not acceptable,” she said.

Legislators proposed the idea of payment plans for fines, waiving administrative fees for first-time offenders and the implementation of an annual report on all camera locations.

Republicans said the program has negatively affected driver behavior, as many drivers stop short at red lights to avoid getting a ticket. The county has seen a marked increase in rear-end accidents in the last few years.

Paul Margiotta, executive director of the Traffic and Parking Violations Agency, disagreed and pointed to the increased prevalence of distracted driving as the culprit. He said he believed the program has been working.

Republicans continue to disagree.

“It has become clear that the program isn’t working said Comptroller John Kennedy, who is running for county executive in the fall against Steve Bellone (D). “Suffolk’s residents realize it’s little more than a money grab,”

Supporters have said the program has saved lives by reducing red-light running and serious accidents on roadways.

“The minority caucus led by Rob Trotta and his band of conspiracy theorists were dealt a resounding defeat. This is a victory for common sense and effective public safety programs,” said Jason Elan, a Bellone spokesperson, in a statement.

Though before the vote, many of those who attended the Sept 4. meeting spoke negatively about the program.

“Red light cameras are disproportionately located in lower income neighborhoods.”

— Hector Gavilla

Hector Gavilla, a Huntington-based lawyer who is running for county legislature, said Suffolk is trying to come up with reasons to say the program works.

“Red light cameras are disproportionately located in lower income neighborhoods,” he said. “This red-light camera tax is placed on the most vulnerable people in our communities… we all agree that whoever intentionally tries to run a red-light should definitely get a ticket, however the vast majority of these tickets are on right turns on red.”

Previously, legislators proposed relocating red-light cameras to areas and intersections where the most serious accidents occur.

Other speakers said the program is failing in its original goal to improve public safety.

As one individual put it: “If it’s [red-light cameras] causing more accidents than it’s not safe,”

Another concerned county resident said it is a no-brainer to not extend the program.

“You can’t delay this to another five years, fix the flaws of this program, fix the quality of life in Suffolk County,” he said.

Legislators have already put in a request for proposal to find a new vendor for the program. They stressed the need for the new vendor to be either locally based or be required to have an office in the county. Also, Margiotta said county officials plan to look for a vendor that provides a payment plan.

Public Works Committee to vote on extending the program Aug. 29

Suffolk County's Public Works Committee will vote Aug. 29 to decide the future of red-light camera program. TBR News Media file photo

The future of red-light cameras in Suffolk County remains up in the air. 

Legislators took issue with a report on the county’s red-light camera program in a meeting Aug. 26. It left some with more questions than answers regarding the divisive program as they prepare for a vote that could extend the program’s lifespan this Thursday, Aug. 29.

The countywide report carried out by Brookhaven-based L.K. McLean Associates found that the number of total crashes at 100 intersections with red-light cameras increased by nearly 60 percent from 2015 through 2017, compared to the time period (2007-09) before the cameras were installed beginning in 2010. The study found that at red-light intersections the number of crashes exceeded projections by 42 percent in total. 

Also, it found that a total of 17 fatal crashes occurred at red-light intersections for the duration of the report. Crashes that resulted in injuries decreased by nearly 11 percent, while the number of rear-end crashes increased by 46 percent. 

Officials from the consulting firm presented the report, which cost the county $250,000, to the county Legislature’s Public Works Committee Aug. 26 and disclosed they estimated the red-light program had generated more than $5 million in savings by reducing serious accidents. 

Despite those findings, legislators on the committee took issue with the results and said it left them with more questions than answers. 

One criticism levied was the way the consultants collected their data and how they determined if an accident was linked to an intersection with a red-light camera.

Raymond DiBiase, president and chief executive of L.K. McLean Associates, said they based their parameters from the New York State Department of Transportation. 

“The DOT in their crash data analysis and summaries identify an intersection crash as one that occurs within 10 meters or 33 feet from the center of the intersection,” he said. 

The consultants for the report expanded the crash area to within 200 feet of the center of the intersection, but some legislators questioned that decision and argued it could have captured crashes that fall in line with the definition of an intersection crash.

Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said she was deeply disappointed in the report’s findings and criticized the firm with not looking at the link between distracted driving and crashes at red-light intersections. 

“What has not been mentioned at all during your report is distracted driving,” she said. “I have a traffic safety issue in my district; I have two of the most dangerous roads on Long Island —[routes] 25 and 25A.”

DiBiase responded by saying it is difficult to prove what exactly caused a crash from the data. Their goal was to make the study objective as possible and said distracted driving falls in a gray area as it is difficult to prove due to factors like lack of witnesses or evidence. 

“Distracted driving is why a lot of these accidents are happening,” Anker said. “We are here to try and understand how to make this program better. We know it’s saving lives, but we also know it’s also creating problems.”

The red-light program has generated more than $20 million in revenue annually for the county.

Legislator Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), who has long been a severe critic of red-light cameras, said the program is a money grab and a tax on the taxpayers. He also criticized the consultants for only mentioning that fatal accidents at red-light camera intersections were lower than projected, and not also including data on fatal crashes that occurred at intersections without red-light cameras. 

“You can take these reports and throw them in the garbage can, it’s a joke — literally embarrassing,” Trotta said. “Everything here is jaded to make this program look good, it is a $32 million sham on the people of this county.”

Despite the lukewarm response to its report, the firm recommended continuing the red-light program, pointing to a decrease in crashes resulting in injuries and fatalities as well as a reduction in left-turn crashes.

The Public Works Committee is expected to vote Thursday, Aug. 29, on whether it will extend the countywide red-light camera program for another five years. If it were to pass it will go to the Legislature for a vote that could take place as soon as next Wednesday, Sept. 4.

 

A rendering of the planned Heatherwood Golf & Villas in South Setauket. Rendering from Town of Brookhaven Planning Board

The proposed apartment complex project on the property of the Heatherwood Golf Course in South Setauket will not receive a tax benefits package after the Brookhaven Industrial Agency rejected a proposal that would cut property taxes on the land by $3.76 million over 13 years at a hearing Aug. 21.

Also included would be $2,854,000 in sales tax exemptions and $420,000 in mortgage recording tax exemptions. In total the developers would see savings of more than $7 million.

The decision proved to be a small victory for some area residents who have been against the project since its inception. They were concerned that the proposed tax breaks could negatively affect local school districts and development would increase traffic congestion at the intersection of Route 347 and Arrowhead Lane.

Representatives for Heatherwood said at the meeting that they could not move forward with development without the tax breaks.

Salvatore Pitti, president of the Port Jefferson Station-Terryville Civic Association, said the notion of developers abandoning the project was wishful thinking.

“We never wanted it from the beginning,” he said. “The entire community has been against it.”

The proposed project dates back to 2014 when it was brought up to the Town of Brookhaven zoning board and was approved of a crucial zone change that allowed for apartments on the property. As a part of the approval, the town board required the property owner to donate 40 acres of land to the Manorville Farm Protection Area, remove a billboard at the golf course and construct a sidewalk on the east side of Arrowhead Lane.

“The zone changes already occurred,” Pitti said. “We’ve already accepted the fact that it will be developed [eventually].

“Why do you need tax breaks if you don’t have the money to build it? It came off as them being more greedy.”

–Salvatore Pitti

In 2018, the Planning Board approved the proposed plans for the company to build on nearly 26 acres of its more than 70-acre property. The project, dubbed the Heatherwood Golf & Villas, will be a 200-unit senior apartment complex catering to individuals 55 and over.

The planned project would reduce the 18-hole golf course to nine holes to allow developers to build the apartments and would supposedly bring more revenue to the golf course.

IDA members questioned the reason Heatherwood needed tax breaks to move forward with the project. Heatherwood said that the project would create six permanent full-time jobs, though IDA members said it wasn’t enough jobs to grant it the benefits package.

Herb Mones, chair of the Three Village Civic Association land use committee, was shocked when he first heard that Heatherwood was looking for tax breaks.

“I was like ‘You gotta be kidding me,’” Mones said. “It wasn’t enough that they got the zoning approval, but now they need tax breaks — at some point enough is enough. It is corporate greed.”

Mones argued that the project would forever affect the surrounding communities.

“It adds to the over development, we lose open space and a golf course,” he said. “…We are happy the IDA turned them down.”

Mones along with Pitti wasn’t buying that the project would be abandoned if Heatherwood didn’t receive the tax benefits package.

“There is no possibility that they will not develop that land after they got the zone change, they are going ahead with the project,” Mones said. “It will yield a gold mine for the corporation. We believe this will bring no benefits to the community.”

Despite, the IDA rejecting the package, Pitti said he wouldn’t be surprised if Heatherwood broke ground on the project in the next few months.

A representative from Heatherwood did not return messages requesting a phone interview by press time.

 

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Former Ward Melville girls basketball head coach Samantha Prahalis coaches the Patriots from the sidelines at a January 2018 game. Photo by Jm Ferchland

Ward Melville High School girls varsity basketball players, parents and residents lent their voices in support for former coach Samantha Prahalis at a district board of education meeting Aug. 21.

The speakers during the board’s public session hoped that they could convince the board to reconsider the decision to dismiss the varsity girls’ basketball coach, which was made earlier this month. But after nearly a one-hour public comment session, the board ultimately sealed the coach’s fate. It would not reevaluate their initial decision to sever ties with Prahalis, a former WNBA player, and she would not be returning to the sidelines.

William Connors, Three Village board of education president, delivered the news to the crowd through a prepared statement.

“While the district does not comment on matters of personnel, I can say the coaching position for the Ward Melville [girls] high school varsity team currently remains open for the 2019-20 school year,” the board of education president said. “The district will not be filling this annual appointment with the individual who served in that role for the past two years. As such, we are in the process of selecting the most qualified individual to lead our team next year.”

Supporters of Prahalis questioned the board’s reasons for the dismissal and argued they acted too harshly. Some also felt that the district ignored and chose not to meet with students during the board’s investigation of the former coach.

“They have been trying to reach out to you from May 19,” said parent Gina Agostino. “We sent out a letter that day because players wanted to share their feelings on coach. Emails have been ignored, phone calls were not returned, request for meetings were blown off. You chose not to hear their voices … and treated them like adversaries the entire time.”

District officials disputed those claims saying they had reached out to parents.

Chris Agostino said the fact that the district would have their own agenda is embarrassing.

“I’ll tell you something, if I had students like this standing up for a coach the way these young ladies are, its powerful,” he said. “… What I don’t understand is that you get one complaint, maybe two complaints from parents or players and as a board you acted. You never listened to these students. You’re not looking out for them. If you were, you would understand how they feel.”

A parent of a former varsity girls basketball player said he supported the decision to release the coach. He detailed how in May he received a phone call from the district asking for permission for his daughter to be surveyed by the district’s athletic department regarding Prahalis and the basketball team.

He said he told his daughter to tell the truth and others did too and added that it was more than two complaints.

“My daughter for three years was treated terribly and was abused verbally and mentally without the board knowing, she wanted it that way and I stood by her,” he said. “Sammy’s [Prahalis] abusive record speaks for itself and anyone that asked about her knew about her reputation.”

Six former players of Prahalis were present at the meeting. Many of them spoke of how their coach was the best mentor they ever had and how they had learned and grown so much as a player during that time.

“Coach has transformed me not only as a better basketball player but also as a better person,” said Katherine Kelly, a rising senior on the varsity team. “She helped me gain the confidence I’ve been lacking on and off the court. She helped recognize my potential … She has made this team a family.”

This summer the team won in their league during the Brookhaven Town recreation program playoffs and credited their former coach for the strong summer season.

Cheryl Pedisich, Three Village superintendent of schools, spoke toward the end of the meeting to clarify some things parents brought up, including that she had said to Prahalis in a meeting that the district had failed her.

“I said the district had failed her in not giving her the proper mentorship, that I think every coach deserves, every new coach deserves,” she said. “For new coaches that don’t have that opportunity to know how to work with students is a travesty. That was something incumbent on the district and the former athletic director to make sure that happened for all new coaches. Moving forward every coach that is new will be mentored in an appropriate way.”

Post was updated Aug. 30 to include a statement from Three Village district officials. 

Officials train residents on how to avoid being taken

Phone scams are on the rise, and officials say these and other scams are targeting the senior population.

Local government representatives emphasize that the elderly need to be better informed about what to look out for and how to avoid them.

On Aug. 20, at the Huntington Senior Center, state Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport),Town of Huntington Receiver of Taxes Jillian Guthman and state attorney general representative T.J. Hatter held a Smart Seniors event. Together they cautioned seniors against handing over large sums of money through phone, email, letter and internet scams. 

“These scammers will use fear if they think that will work, they will use kindness and they will use intimidation,” Hatter said. “The important thing is to please do not send these people your money. It is very hard to get it back once it is gone.” 

One of the most common scams targeting the senior population includes the sweepstakes scam, which requests the “winner” to send a check or wire money to cover taxes for their prize. Another one is where the scammer will act as a relative, such as a grandchild, and claim to be in danger. Sometimes, the scammer acts as a lawyer or police officer. In each case, they ask for money immediately. 

“There are two approaches to dealing with these types of scams,” Hatter said. “Ask for the person’s name and a call-back number.” He also recommends answering the phone only if you recognize the number as a friend or a loved one. “Let everyone else leave you a message,” he said. 

“The important thing is to please do not send these people your money. It is very hard to get it back once it is gone.”

— T.J Hatter

Hatter said the scammers are often out-of-the country and can’t be traced. 

“These scammers are using something called routing technology,” he said. “The idea is to make the number they are calling from have a ‘631’ or ‘516’ area code to make it look more local and make it more likely someone will answer.”

According to Suffolk County officials, in 2018, there were 68 phone scam incidents reported, targeting the elderly and non-English speakers. Of the 68 victims, 40 were elderly, as reported in a January 2019 TBR News Media article. Between 2017 and 2018, the largest amount of money taken in once incident was $800,000, according to Suffolk County police. 

In 2019, nearly half of all calls to mobile phones will be scammers looking to fraudulently gain access to financial information, according to a report from telecommunications firm First Orion. 

One of the latest scams to target seniors urges them to purchase gift cards to help a relative in trouble. 

“We are finding that [scammers] are asking for those prepaid gift cards and then they will ask you to scratch off the back and read them the numbers,” he said. “That’s the most common one we are finding right now.” 

Home improvement scams are also common and often offer “free inspections.” The inspections will almost always find a problem that requires an expensive solution.

“Someone will knock on your door and say they are a repair person and ask if something is wrong with your home,” Hatter said. “They will say they can fix it and even offer you a discounted rate. Do not pay this person.” 

Hatter said ultimately you hold the power so if you are not sure that you recognize the caller, you are not forced to answer the phone. 

The Office of the Attorney General urges people to use strong passwords and avoid using birth dates, Social Security numbers and mother’s maiden names in them.

If you shop online, be sure the sites you use are secure. A secure site will start with https:// and most use a padlock icon, which will tell you the name of the owner. Also, use only credit card rather than debit or check cards.

“Debit cards, even those with a credit card name and logo, do not carry the same protections,” the Smart Seniors program states. If credit card information is stolen, you are only liable for $50 in fraudulent charges. If your debit card information is stolen and the thief wipes out your bank account, the money is gone. 

It’s also important to remember that email scammers often masquerade as a familiar and trustworthy company, such as your bank, online store or credit card company. Sometimes they pretend to be a government agency. These scammers are “phishing” for personal data and often claim that there’s a problem with your account. Do not click on a link no matter who they claim to be. You may be directed to a bogus, look-alike website that spoofs a real company. 

“The key to the phishing scams is that they ask you to provide personal information, such as your Social Security number or password, so they can “confirm your identity,” the program warns. 

“If you get a call, text or email from a company claiming there’s a problem do not respond,” the Attorney General’s Office states. Instead delete the message or hang up, and contact the company yourself. It’s important to protect your personal information. Papers should be shredded before you throw them away. 

New Yorkers donate more than $10 billion to charitable organizations each year, with older New Yorkers being the most generous, the Attorney General’s Office states. It is suggested that you confirm that a charity is registered with the Attorney General’s Office, as required by law and find out if the funds will be used for programs, administrative costs and fundraising. Avoid charities that will not answer questions about its programs and finances. 

Residents can greatly reduce the number of unsolicited calls, mailings and internet offerings they receive. The National Do Not Call Registry can be reached at 800-382-1222. You can place your landline and your mobile number on the Do Not Call List. Registration never expires. Political organizations, charities and telephone surveyors are still permitted. 

Patricia Wagner, a Huntington resident who attended the session, said she was grateful. 

“This was really informative and I’m going to share this information with my friends [who are not here],” she said. “We are getting older … we need an event like this every year.” 

Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) and Interim SBU President Michael Bernstein meet with Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul to discuss energy effeciency improvements. Photo by David Luces

In an effort to fight climate change, Stony Brook University will receive $79 million in energy efficiency improvements and upgrades throughout the campus. 

New York State Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul was on hand at the school Aug. 19 to announce the planned upgrades in front of the university’s Center of Molecular Medicine. 

The improvements build upon the State University of New York’s Clean Energy Roadmap, a partnership between SUNY and state energy agencies that aims to accelerate progress toward the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030. 

The energy efficient upgrades will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 28,000 tons a year, which is the equivalent of taking over 5,000 cars off the road. It will also save the university nearly $6 million in energy and maintenance costs annually. 

“As the largest single site employer on Long Island, Stony Brook University must remain committed to reducing our carbon footprint,” Interim President Michael Bernstein said. 

The improvements, which will be financed and implemented by the New York Power Authority, will include a number of energy-saving upgrades such as lighting, ventilation and building management upgrades at university buildings, including residence halls, science buildings and the hospital. 

“As the largest single site employer on Long Island, Stony Brook University must remain committed to reducing our carbon footprint.”

— Michael Bernstein

The planned upgrades continue the university’s effort to reduce its carbon footprint. NYPA and SUNY have already partnered to complete more than $50 million in energy efficiency improvements at Stony Brook. If all goes according to plan, expectations are for the removal of nearly 16,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere. 

Some of those projects included interior and exterior LED lighting upgrades, replacement of older HVAC equipment, pipe insulation and lab HVAC modernization. 

PSEG Long Island provided more than $500,000 in rebates to Stony Brook University for projects underway. 

“We have a moral responsibility to protect this Earth while it is in our hands,” said Hochul. “Forty percent of buildings owned by the state of New York are on SUNY campuses … If we are going to make an impact this is where we start.” 

SUNY and NYPA, together, have completed energy-saving projects at more than 600 SUNY facilities, reducing energy consumption by more than 6.2 megawatts, removing more than 48,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere, and saving $12.1 million annually, according to SUNY. The public college institution and power authority are currently partnering to implement energy-saving measures at more than 30 additional SUNY buildings. Once completed, they expect it will reduce SUNY’s energy consumption by an additional 1.6 megawatts.

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Rendering of the Brockport apartment complex. Construction is expected to be complete in December 2020. Photo from the Gitto Group

As one of the latest apartment complex project in Port Jefferson inches closer to construction, another apartment complex has received tax breaks from an IDA.

Last month, the Brookhaven Industrial Development Agency approved an economic benefits package, which includes a 10-year payment in lieu of taxes, to the apartment complex expected to be built out of the current Cappy’s Carpets building, to be known as The Brockport. Construction is expected to begin this fall. 

The site plan calls for a three-story structure with a total of 44 one-bedroom units and two two-bedroom units. The $16.5 million project headed by Port Jefferson-based The Gitto Group, will have stores, office spaces and a restaurant on the first floor and apartments on the other two floors. 

The current taxes on the property, which was once occupied by Cappy’s Carpets and a boat storage lot are approximately $35,000 annually, according to Rob Gitto of The Gitto Group. The 10-year PILOT would see taxes increasing to $99,183 in the first year and then gradually escalate until the last year when it reaches $213,360. According to Gitto, the retail portion of the

property will be fully assessed as it is not part of the IDA program. 

“We are planning to commence the construction on the site within the next 30 days and we anticipate to be completed with the project by December 2020 — all of this is dependent on what type of winter we have,” Gitto said. 

Paul Casciano, Port Jeff Superintendent of Schools, made it clear he and the district are not against the planned project. 

“We just had concerns and questions,” the superintendent said. “As a district we have to do our due diligence to see if there is any potential impacts — this is what we do. It doesn’t mean we are against the project.”

As part of the response to the SEQR referral for the project in November 2018, the district sent in a letter outlining their questions and concerns. 

With the construction site close to the Port Jefferson high school, the district had concerns over access to the driveway on Barnum Avenue. Also, due to the  close proximity to the site there were concerns of potential dust, fumes and noise from the construction. 

Though questions were raised about how many students this particular apartment complex will bring, Casciano said it’s routine to ask how new developments will impact the district. Other complexes in the village have offered more two-bedroom options. The Shipyard complex has 18 and The Hills has seven. The upcoming complex on Main Street will have two.

The district sent the same letter for the July 17 Brookhaven IDA public hearing.  

Casciano reiterated that they support the project, adding the information is important for them to know for a variety of things including future planning of the district. 

“I think this project will benefit us [the Port Jeff community],” he said. 

Responding to concerns from the community about the impact of construction on the area, Gitto said they do not anticipate any major issues relating to the construction of the complex. 

“The project does not include any road improvements that would require us to close down the road,” he said. “There may be some minor work that needs to be completed by the utility companies, but that would really be it. We are the owners of the adjacent office building to the north [414 Main St.] and the mixed-use property located to the south of the subject property [464 Main St./50 Barnum Ave.] which will enable us to stage any construction equipment or materials without impacting the surrounding areas. The early stages of the project will include typical noise associated with a construction project.”

The development group, which also owns and manages The Hills and the Barnum House apartments, said Brockport will have a minimal impact to the student population of local school districts.  

“The two properties [the Hills and Barnum House] combined have 104 apartments [one- and two-bedroom units] and our records are showing that we only have two school-aged children within these 104 units,” Gitto said. “The majority of our units are one-bedroom apartments which typically do not work well with families with school age children.”  

Once construction on The Brockport is completed, Gitto said they are estimating the one-bedroom units to be around $2,650 per month and the two-bedroom units to be $3,800 per month. The building will be more than 65,000 square feet and have approximately 2,700 square feet of retail space.

 

A Q&A with Michael Bernstein

Stony Brook University has been awarded more than $2 million in grants. Photo from SBU

Michael Bernstein, the new interim president of Stony Brook University, came by TBR News Media’s office for an exclusive interview where he spoke on his new role, challenges the school faces and his thoughts on the future. Here is what he had to say. 

Is there any chance you will stay in this role permanently?

This past January, I talked through with [previous SBU President Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr.] about concluding my tenure as provost [at the university]. 

My partner Patty and I have made plans to go to San Diego, where we’ve had a home for 20-plus years. It’s been a prime directive to get back to San Diego. 

Michael Bernstein. Photo from SBU

Things changed, when Sam announced he would be leaving, and he asked if I’d be willing to serve in the interim [president] role if the chancellor of SUNY, Kristina Johnson, asked me to do so. 

I remember at that meeting, I was like, “I need to talk to Patty and then I’ll talk to you again.”

Patty and I talked it through and here we are. I am delighted to be in this role. As for the longer-term future, we have open minds and will take it one day at a time. 

Let’s see if I like the job and more importantly let’s see if the job likes me and we’ll go from there. 

So you don’t see yourself as a placeholder?

No, I am the interim president. My goal, my hope and my intention is to do the job — that’s what the chancellor expects from me and I think that’s what all our colleagues on campus expect of me. I’m going to do my best.

It’s true when you are serving in an interim role, you have to balance the reality of the role with the tasks that have to be done. 

There are some things an interim president might not be able to do. Some lifts might be too heavy. I’m here to serve the campus the best I can. 

What do you see as your biggest challenges?

Challenges are also opportunities. We want to maintain the trajectory that Sam established in his decade-long tenure [as president]. 

Our student success metrics have been improving in the past 10 years. Graduation rates have gone up and we want to keep that momentum.

Right now, our six-year rate is at the high mid-60th percentile. Roughly 62, 63 percent of our students have their degrees in hand within six years of their initial matriculation. The goal is to get that number up into the 70th percentile and that’s doable. It will take work, resources and determination. 

The quality of our students keeps going up. We are doing a much better job in advising, tutoring, counseling and making sure they have a clear path to graduation. 

There’s still this general anxiety over whether or not the school focuses more on STEM than the humanities and arts. What do you think should be done in those terms?

I’m certainly aware of the sentiments. We do have outstanding departments and units in STEM base fields. That’s been true probably since the day the school opened. 

It is not something we would ever ignore or look past. I actually feel the sense that we are overlooking the arts and humanities is sometimes misconstrued. We have some excellent programs — political science is a nationally ranked program, our Hispanic language and literature program is one of the best in the field, our music department competes with Julliard for MFA [master of fine arts] students.

I’ve just used those programs as an example … could we strengthen other units? Of course, when we have the ability to do so, but that’s in the sciences too. 

Is there a chance the theatre arts major will come back?  

Sure, there is a chance. There are no plans on the table today. The decision to deactivate the theatre arts major was a tough one made under stressful budgetary circumstances. 

It is always a relative judgment — do you do this before you do that. I know it is a tough conversation to have with colleagues, especially if they are in the area where you said, “No, we are not going to invest here.” 

“We are simply not the kind of university of size and resources where we can do everything at once.”

— Michael Bernstein

We are simply not the kind of university of size and resources where we can do everything at once. 

We have to make some tough choices. I always say to people, “The word’s not ‘never,’ the word is ‘not right now,’ and we’ll have to see what the future brings. 

Is there a way to bridge the gap with commuters and residents so they both feel like they are a part of the campus?

At the moment, we can’t envision a future where we have 100 percent residency for our undergraduates. It just doesn’t seem practical in terms of the site, the amenities and infrastructure. 

Also, I don’t think it is something the student community wants. We have a significant community of students who prefer to be commuters for any number of reasons. We want to make sure we are delivering an outstanding experience for both the resident and commuter students. 

That’s challenging. We do have a student affairs team that is looking at the issue of commuter students. Thinking of ways of making the experience better.

Title IX [regarding sexual harassment, discrimination in education law]?

I think SUNY as a whole and here at the Stony Brook campus is resolutely committed to robust Title IX processes and procedures. We have good leadership at the Title IX office. We are constantly trying to make sure we are doing the best we possibly can. How can procedures be improved. 

One of our biggest concerns is that the information about Title IX processes and procedures is disseminated effectively, so that everyone at the university community is aware. 

I’m determined ongoing in this role to supply as much support as possible to them and let them know I have my hand on their back; making sure the campus is safe, secure and welcoming to all constituents is job No. 1. 

Rumors of the possibility of more shops on campus?

We’ve always been involved in thinking through opportunities for potential partnerships or ways to improve amenities and capacity on campus. 

I have no concrete contract to pull out and say we are doing this. We are exploring things all the time. We know we have to build more dorm capacity, which means we have to bring more amenities to campus.

If we can find partnership to do that, like we did with the hotel, we would explore that. Why wouldn’t we? I don’t know if it will happen but it is something worth exploring. 

What is the status of the new MART (Medical and Research Translation) building/Children’s Hospital?   

We have been frustrated by delays, but I’m told the latest is end of October for the MART and the beginning of November for the Children’s Hospital. 

Has the problem been in the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system or foundation?

In response to this question, Nicholas Scibetta, vice president for marketing and communications, stepped in:

Not foundation. It’s more quality checks and things like that. It’s been our drive on our side -— the Stony Brook side — to make sure that everything is exactly where it needs to be.

Stock Photo

With the start of the school year less than a month away, school officials and parents are in the midst of adjusting to stricter state immunization requirements for children that will eliminate exemption from vaccines due to religious beliefs.  

The new measure, which took effect immediately after Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed it into law June 13, comes in the wake of numerous measles cases throughout the country including cases in Brooklyn and Rockland County. This year, over 1,000 new measles cases have been reported — the highest in 27 years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

“We are responsible for implementing the new state immunization regulations exactly as they are written.”

— Marianne Cartisano

New York joins four other states — California, Maine, Mississippi and West Virginia — in eliminating the religious exemption.

While school districts have been notifying parents and guardians about the new requirements through posts on their websites and letters sent in the mail, the new law remains to be a divisive topic. 

Advocates of the religious exemption say that eliminating it violates their freedom of religion rights. 

South Setauket and Setauket parents Dayna Whaley and Trisha Vasquez, respectively, both ardent anti-vaccine advocates, both said they had a religious exemption for their children but they and others are now considering home-schooling or even moving out of the state. 

“God made us in his image and didn’t make us with an incomplete immune system that needed to be injected with toxic chemicals in order to keep us healthy,” said Vasquez, 50. She added she does not subscribe to any one religion but still believes in God. She has a 9-year-old child in the Three Village Central School District. 

Whaley, 41, of the Jewish faith, said the options are very limited for her daughter, Grayson, who will be entering kindergarten. 

“With religious exemption eliminated, what other things can I look at that maybe could get my child [back] into school,” she said. 

In mid-June, the Three Village school district sent out a letter to parents/guardians alerting them of the new legislation signed by the governor. It advised them that every student entering or attending public school must be immunized against poliomyelitis, mumps, measles, Haemophilus influenzae type b, pneumococcal disease and meningococcal disease. 

Other school districts have also had to quickly deal with the law over the summer. Marianne Cartisano, superintendent of the Miller Place School District, said the number of exemptions in the district was estimated at 60 students, but the number has been reduced over the past several weeks. 

“Miller Place School District remains committed to ensuring a safe school environment for all of our students, while understanding parents have the right to choose if and when they immunize their children,” the superintendent said in an email. “We are responsible for implementing the new state immunization regulations exactly as they are written.”

“You look at the plastic bag ban — you have until 2020 to adjust to that, but our children are thrown out of school immediately and we are scrambling to figure out what to do here.”

— Dayna Whaley

The Miller Place super added the district has no option but to comply.

“We have no authority to deviate from these regulations and must adhere to the guidance provided to our district from the Department of Health and or Office of Children and Family Services,” she said. “During this time of potential transition, we look forward to supporting students and families throughout the vaccination and enrollment processes.”

The New York law requires that parents and guardians provide proof of their child’s immunization within 14 days after the first day of school. Also, within 30 days of the first day of school, parents or guardians must show that they scheduled appointments for follow-up doses for their children. 

Some required immunizations include those against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), measles, mumps, rubella and varicella (chicken pox).

Until June 30, 2020, a child can attend school if they receive the first age-appropriate dose in each immunization series within 14 days from the first day of school attendance and can show within 30 days that they have scheduled age-appropriate appointments for required follow-up doses, according to NYS Department of Health officials. By June 30, 2020, all students attending school should be fully up-to-date with their required immunizations. 

One option Whaley and others have looked at is seeking a medical exemption from state, but she said it is extremely difficult to obtain one as an individual has to fit a certain medical profile. 

“Even if we wanted a medical exemption, try finding a doctor that will write one for you or even allow you in their practice,” the South Setauket resident said.

Anti-vaccine proponents are a small but growing group of advocates who argue against vaccination. The group often relies on scientifically disputed pieces of information. The vast majority of the scientific and medical communities have rejected their arguments. 

Beyond the scientific arguments, the Setauket parents took issue with the law going into effect immediately. 

“You look at the plastic bag ban — you have until 2020 to adjust to that, but our children are thrown out of school immediately and we are scrambling to figure out what to do here,” Whaley said. 

Both parents say they are weighing potential co-op and home-schooling options for their children. They said moving would introduce its own host of difficulties.

Dr. Sharon Nachman, division chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, said she is glad to have this level of protection for all children in Suffolk County. 

“Just as seat belts protect all kids, even those that don’t like them or feel they are too confining, vaccines will now protect all of our children,” the division chief said. “There is abundant data that shows that when we vaccinate all kids, we not only protect them, but also their parents and grandparents. The vaccine law is not specific to measles and includes all vaccines appropriate for school-aged children.”

“Just as seat belts protect all kids, even those that don’t like them or feel they are too confining, vaccines will now protect all of our children.”

— Sharon Nachman

According to a report by the New York Health Foundation, 26,217 students statewide, had religious exemptions from vaccinations during the 2017-18 school year. 

Nachman said with the implementation of the new requirements, she and her colleagues have seen an increase in both questions about vaccinations, about the numbers of children who are getting their initial vaccines as well as those who are getting up to date with their vaccines. 

“Community protection is a real event,” Nachman said. “As we have seen with the recent measles outbreaks, the only way to combat these outbreaks is by protecting all the children in our community.”

Nachman said the Pediatric Infectious Diseases division at Stony Brook often discusses the scientific data with families who have questions, but those who come in with their minds made up about the risks and benefits of vaccines, especially those who are against them, will rarely agree with the need to vaccinate.

Will Ferraro, a Selden resident, is running against Ed Romaine for town supervisor. Photo from Ferraro’s campaign

For Will Ferraro, a Selden resident running for Town of Brookhaven supervisor in elections this fall, his campaign is about making solutions. 

“I’m running for working class and working poor people who feel like this current administration isn’t listening to them,” he said.    

Ferraro said he is campaigning on a platform of fixing and repairing town roads as well as addressing issues with the town’s recycling system and the Brookhaven landfill. 

“There have been roads that haven’t been paved in years. People are sick of a supervisor who just points the finger to the highway superintendent,” he said. “On the recycling issue, he points to China and says there is nothing wrong with the landfill. My campaign is about solutions.”

“People are sick of a supervisor who just points the finger to the highway superintendent.”

— Will Ferraro

Ferraro and Ed Romaine (R), who is finishing his third term as supervisor, will look to secure a four-year term in the upcoming elections, a result of Brookhaven residents voting last year to add term limits to three per seat, but also double the term length for the town supervisor and other positions like the highway superintendent. 

The challenger was against the increase in term length and co-funded Brookhaven Action Network, which helped organize and lead the “Vote No on Prop 1” campaign against the terms extensions. Despite being ultimately unsuccessful, it proved to be a motivating factor for Ferraro’s decision to run. 

This will be Ferraro’s first time running for elected office, though he says his experience working in Albany as a legislative analyst for the New York State Assembly has helped in the transition.  

“You don’t really know what to expect until you’ve actually done it,” he said. “You’re out there on your own.”

If elected, Ferraro said he would restore curbside pickup of recyclable glass on a monthly basis, make road infrastructure the top budget priority and create a task force that would expand air quality and toxicology tests in areas surrounding the landfill. 

“People feel like their concerns are not being heard,” he said. “This town and administration is run by one party.”

Ferraro, who grew up in Port Jefferson Station, works for the New York City administration for children’s services, has a bachelor’s degree in government and politics from St. John’s University and a master’s degree in public policy from Stony Brook University.   

So far, the Selden resident acknowledged he has raised far less than Romaine in political donations, but said he hopes to raise more than  $100,000 for his campaign. Ferraro acknowledges that Romaine has more campaign contributions but hopes that residents will take to his message. 

“You have to go out there and connect with them. I want to show them how passionate I am about this community,” the Selden resident said. “This administration has not been challenged — I’m not afraid to go after his [Romaine’s] record.”  

Ferraro said the feedback and responses he and staffers have gotten from residents have been positive. 

“Knocking on doors in neighborhoods you see the level of frustration residents have toward the current administration,” he said. “We have people that really believe in our message and want to see change and believe that time is now.”

Ferraro believes Romaine can be beaten. 

“I will provide leadership and a new beginning for the town — I want people to understand that I will be a candidate that answers to residents,” he said. “And I will call out what needs to be called out.”