Government

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Smithtown Supervisor Pat Vecchio, right, hears Alan Schneider of Suffolk County Personnel discuss a proposal that would reorganize the town's government. Photo by Phil Corso

When it comes to government efficiency, Smithtown’s supervisor says it is not broken, and doesn’t need to be fixed.

Making good on his promise, Smithtown Town Councilman Bob Creighton (R) invited Suffolk County Personnel Director Alan Schneider to Tuesday morning’s work session to rap over a Creighton-backed proposal that would give the Town Board authority to appoint commissioners, which he argued would streamline workflow within the town. Supervisor Pat Vecchio (R), however, was not swayed in his previous position against changing the way the government operates, welcoming Schneider to the meeting by referring to it as “the lion’s den.”

Earlier this year, Creighton floated the proposal to restructure Smithtown’s government, similar to actions taken in other nearby municipalities like Babylon, Brookhaven, Huntington and Islip, taking 24 departments within the town and condensing them underneath four Town Board-appointed commissioners, including planning and development, human services, public works and public safety. The Town Board and Supervisor would remain the same, as would the offices of the town attorney, clerk, comptroller, assessor and tax receiver.

The plan would replace the current structure, which appoints Town Board members as liaisons to various different departments.

“We refined the plan, to some degree, and Alan indicated it was a workable plan,” Creighton said. “It has been utilized in other towns as well.”

Schneider told the board that local laws needed to be written and be brought before the state’s Civil Service Department for approval in order for such a plan to move forward, although he added it would likely make it through if it followed suit of neighboring municipalities that have already taken that route. He gave Creighton’s proposal his personal stamp of approval, nevertheless.

“What you have put before me is doable,” Schneider said. “It would give you four additional commissioners, or directors, depending on what you want to call them, and you can fill these positions with whomever you choose to fill them with.”

Councilman Tom McCarthy (R) suggested that if the town were to go in this direction, the board implement some sort of criteria or standards for commissioner positions in the future to prevent political pandering, or appointments borne out of government deals made behind closed doors.

When he initially brought the discussion to the table, Creighton asked his fellow councilmembers about inviting Schneider from the county level to come in and move the discussion forward. The proposal also received support from Councilman Ed Wehrheim (R), but the others remained reserved.

Vecchio, who had been against the proposal from the beginning, said he did not gain any additional insight into the debate after sitting down with the personnel director.

“It wasn’t helpful to me, I already knew about it” Vecchio said to Schneider. “What we have has worked well, having councilmembers supervise various departments.” Vecchio argued that neighboring towns that underwent government restructuring opened themselves up to political corruption and mishandlings that could have been avoided otherwise. Creighton, however, argued the town should keep the focus on its own municipality.

“We are doing this to correct the span of control,” he said. “In any business, having 23 different people in charge is out of control.”

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File photo

Calling upon previous instructions to be careful with Smithtown’s cash, two town board members voted against promoting two town employees at a public meeting Tuesday, though it was not enough to stop the raises.

Town Comptroller Donald Musgnug told the board in a special meeting last month that it must “tighten its belt” to protect its bond rating as the town goes out for bonding later this year to fund certain capital projects. Tuesday’s meeting agenda included two promotions that were ultimately approved by a vote of 3-2, but they were met with concern from Councilman Bob Creighton (R), who called upon Musgnug’s previous warning.

“We had Mr. Musgnug in here recently, and now I have a little bit of a problem,” said Creighton, who voted against the promotions along with Councilman Ed Wehrheim (R). “He tells us we shouldn’t be doing more promotions, and here it is, we have two more on here.”

The promotions ultimately went to Traffic Safety Department employees Dyanne Musmacker, to the position of senior clerk typist at $20.45 per hour, and Anthony R. Cannone, to the provisional position of traffic engineer at $54.07 per hour — both effective July 20. The two promotions were the only items Creighton and Wehrheim voted against in a list of 10 other personnel matters before the Smithtown Town Board on Tuesday.

Town Supervisor Pat Vecchio (R) defended the promotions, saying money was already allocated at the beginning of budget season for such raises.

“When the department asked for those promotions in September of 2014, I told them we would consider those promotions and that I would put the money in the budget effective July 1,” Vecchio said. “So there’s money already accounted for.”

Vecchio also said such a practice, allocating money in the budget for future raises, was not out of character for the town.

Creighton, however, was against the practice on the grounds of Musgnug’s presentation before the Town Board in which he expressed concern over the town’s financial future.

“My recommendation is that we fill only essential positions, promote from within where possible and leave non-essential positions vacant,” Musgnug said in his June 23 presentation on the status of the 2015 Smithtown budget. “The message is that we must continue to contain what we can control — expenditures.”

Musgnug said the town’s financial standing was ultimately on the line come the end of the year as it considers bonding for projects, and potentially faces a lowered rating.

“The rating agencies would like to see a structurally balanced budget,” he said at the June special meeting. “As we approach the 2016 budget cycle, the closer we are to breakeven in 2015 means less adjustments for 2016.”

Suffolk Republicans select candidate with experience serving as town councilman, building commissioner

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone file photo

The Suffolk County executive race is on.

Jim O'Connor is stepping up to challenge Steve Bellone for Suffolk County Executive. Photo from Jim O'Connor
Jim O’Connor is stepping up to challenge Steve Bellone for Suffolk County Executive. Photo from Jim O’Connor

County Republicans have selected Jim O’Connor to challenge Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) in November. And in his words, O’Connor said he could not be more honored to represent his party in the pivotal race.

“John Jay LaValle [chairman of the Suffolk County Republican Committee] called me up and asked me if I would be interested in the position, and I said of course,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you be interested in that position?”

O’Connor, now a resident of Great River, is a partner in the Manhattan law firm of Maroney O’Connor LLP. He has a long resume of working in local government, starting in the Town of North Hempstead in 1998 as an elected councilman, where he served until 2001. From 2006-08, O’Connor was appointed building commissioner for North Hempstead.

He had a very brief run at the Nassau county executive spot in 2001 — for approximately 48 hours, to be exact — before the Nassau Republicans chose to back candidate Bruce Bent instead.

O’Connor’s opponent, Bellone, also garnered similar public service accolades before assuming office at the county level in 2011. Bellone served on the Babylon Town Board for four years, starting in 1997, and was then elected supervisor of Babylon Township in 2001.

Since being voted into office, Bellone said he was proud of passing three consecutive balanced budgets under the tax cap, securing a $383 million investment in clean water infrastructure — the largest of the county in 40 years — and negotiating labor contracts that make new employees more affordable and requires new employees to contribute to health care costs.

“We must continue to move Suffolk County forward,” Bellone said in an email through a spokesperson. “While we have made a lot of progress there is so much work left to do.”

Specifics of moving Suffolk County forward, Bellone said, include continuing to hold the line on taxes, creating new jobs, growing the economy and keeping young people on Long Island.

Bellone also said he is interested in utilizing better the many assets that Suffolk County has, including Stony Brook University, Brookhaven National Laboratory and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. If re-elected, he said he wants to make sure the county is leveraging those assets to create innovation jobs.

But O’Connor said he found flaws in the way that Bellone has handled the financial aspects of the county.

“The attitude is, ‘Let’s put off tomorrow what we could do today,’ and that is hurting my children and my children’s children, in terms of the amount of debt that will fall on their shoulders,” O’Connor said in a phone interview.

Under an O’Connor administration, there would be an implementation of a Suffolk County debt management plan, which would start the process of a debt ceiling, much like what has been done in Washington D.C., O’Connor told Times Beacon Record Newspapers in an exclusive interview.

“It’s a simple concept,” he said. “Let’s look at the county’s existing revenue streams and compare it to the county’s maturing debt in an effort to retire, or reduce, the interest payments that will burden future generations of Suffolk residents.”

Suffolk County has $180 million of structural deficit and more than $1.5 billion in cumulative debt, according to O’Connor, who said these factors have led the New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, a Democrat, to say that the county is in fiscal distress. O’Connor said he wants to stand up for the taxpayers of the county.

According to Bellone, when he first entered office, Suffolk County’s finances were in free fall, with a deficit of more than $400 million. He has since cut the deficit significantly by shrinking the government by more than 10 percent.

“I know that Suffolk County taxpayers are overburdened,” Bellone said. “That’s why I am committed to staying under the property tax cap at the same time as I cut my own salary and volunteered to be the first employee in the history of Suffolk County to directly contribute to their health care.”

Keith Davies, campaign manager for Bellone, said his candidate was the right choice for residents to continue moving Suffolk County forward: “Steve Bellone has a proven record of protecting our tax dollars and our quality of life. He’s balanced three consecutive budgets, kept taxes under the tax cap and protected our drinking water by investing in our clean water infrastructure.”

The Suffolk County Republicans, however, said they believed O’Connor would lead the county in a better direction.

In a statement, LaValle said O’Connor’s reputation from both Democrats and Republicans from North Hempstead is what drew him to asking him to fight for the position.

“He’s a guy that is very well respected of course by Republicans in the area, but also by many Democrats,” LaValle said. “In this day and age of almost political hate, here is a guy where not only Republicans but prominent Democrats were speaking very highly of him. That stuck with me.”

Port Jefferson Village Board denies use of floating docks to extreme water sport

FlyboardLI, a company behind an extreme water sport, wants to operate out of Port Jefferson Harbor. Photo from Jimmy Bissett

FlyboardLI, a company behind a fairly new extreme water sport, has been denied approval to operate out of Port Jefferson Harbor any longer.

It had been previously working out of the harbor without approval of the Port Jefferson Village Board or a proper permit since May this year.

The board decided at a meeting on Monday evening that there were too many liabilities attached to the activity. Trustees said the harborfront park has always been a passive park, and they want it to remain that way.

In a phone interview on Tuesday, Bissett was disappointed to hear that the village would not be approving his proposal.

“I bring people into the town, it’s a very popular activity,” Jimmy Bissett, owner of FlyboardLI said. “I had more than 500 customers last season, and I am doing very well this season.”

Invented by Franky Zapata, a competitive jet skier, the sport offers a fusion between wakeboarding, surfing, kite surfing, and Jet Skis. It involves strapping into a pair of boots, which are connected to a long hose. The rider can control the hose to float on the water, submerge underneath it or soar above it.

The sport gained popularity after a 2012 YouTube video of the first flight ever went viral. The video now has more than 15 million views.

The Village Board was unanimous in its decision to deny a trial period for FlyboardLI in the harbor. Bissett had also requested three parking spaces and the use of the floating docks in the harbor as part of his application.

Members including Trustee Larry LaPointe said he felt that there were more liabilities at stake to comprehend. He questioned if someone on a Flyboard struck a resident who was paddle-boarding, or damaged a boat in the harbor, whether the village would be held accountable.

Mayor Margot Garant said she had mixed feelings on the application.

“I think it’s a great attraction, but I feel that the harbor is a passive place, for activities like paddle-boarding and fishing.”

The board noted that FlyboardLI had participated in the village’s last two maritime festivals and at both, the activity seemed to be a big success. Board members also noted that the floating docks in the harbor Bissett wants to use for the business currently have no activity on them.

But the board felt that the potential cons would outweigh the pros for the village.

Bissett started the company last summer in Riverhead, but he first became involved with the sport in 2012, when he was in Arizona. He wanted to bring the activity back to his native Long Island to share it with residents here.

Last summer, while operating out of Peconic River in Riverhead, Bissett ran into some problems with the Town of Riverhead. He decided in the next season to bring FlyboardLI to his hometown of Port Jefferson.

Bisset explained that every participant has to be sign a liability waiver, and that the company is fully insured. The company offers several session options. The 15-minute session starts at $99.

Employee attendance to be tracked electronically

File photo by Rohma Abbas

Huntington Town employees may soon have their work time and attendance tracked by a new electronic system.

The board voted unanimously by resolution earlier this month to authorize the implementation of an electronic time and attendance system. The resolution was sponsored by Huntington Town Councilwoman Susan Berland (D) and seconded by Councilman Gene Cook (I). The new electronic system will replace an old paper sign-in system.

“There has to be a system in place to track employees’ times,” Berland said in a phone interview this week.
The resolution was adopted for two reasons, Berland said.

In 2013, an audit of the town’s payroll costs by New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office found the town had issues monitoring its overtime and leave benefits that could have entailed higher payroll costs.

The audit findings resulted in a recommendation to upgrade the town’s outdated time and attendance system.

Issues with overtime and leave are expected to be alleviated by the updated electronic system, which was a major finding of the 2013 audit. The audit looked at records from January 2011 through May 2012, and found that Huntington Town allowed employees to accrue more leave than bargaining agreements permit.

Implementing the electronic system also fulfills a requirement to qualify for tax relief for New York State taxpayers as part of the Government Efficiency Plan program. The plan, which is outlined on the state Division of the Budget page on the New York State government website, states that local governments and school districts can generate relief for taxpayers and qualify for the program by reducing costs through the consolidation of services.

The new automated system would be a step in the right direction to qualifying Huntington Town for the program and fulfilling the state requirements, Berland said. The new system was available on the New York State contract and procured with the New Jersey-based company SHI International Corp., according to the resolution. The total cost, which includes service contracts, computers, software and printers, will be $255,000.

“It helps lower payroll costs in the end,” Berland said, which she said is a key deciding factor in gaining approval on the town’s Government Efficiency Plan.

The new system will also serve to provide the town with “a more uniform sign in policy,” town spokesman A.J. Carter said during a phone interview.

Berland said there is not yet a timetable in regards to when the new system will be up and running, and that she did not want to speculate on a date.

“We have to develop a plan about how and when to institute this,” Berland said.

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Unanimous vote paves way for $17 million proposal, improving animal shelter, streetlights over four years

File photo

Smithtown’s shovels are primed for the pavement.

The Town Board green-lighted nearly $17 million in capital projects over the next four years at its last meeting, including things like an animal shelter renovation, LED streetlight retrofittings and marina bulkhead improvements.

Town Comptroller Donald Musgnug pitched the 2015-2019 capital budget proposal earlier this year, which the town approved at the June 18 meeting, setting aside $5.6 million in projects this year alone. The comptroller said now was the time to consider such projects and the board responded with a unanimous 4-0 vote.

“Interest rates are at historically low rates and the town is fiscally strong,” Musgnug said when he pitched the plan in his first capital budget discussion since taking the job in February. “Now is the time to borrow, when rates are low, and thankfully we are in a position to do so.”

Musgnug said he expects replacing aging and otherwise deteriorating town equipment would reduce the amount of money set aside in future budgets for repairs and maintenance. In reference to an upcoming $3.1 million streetlight project this year that would bring LED lighting to Smithtown’s streets, Musgnug said the town would offset the costs of future projects in the form of savings.

“Taking advantage of new technology, such as in the case of LED bulbs for streetlights and the municipal solid waste facility, will reduce utility costs [and] repair costs and improve safety,” Musgnug said in his report in May. “Because the town’s finances have been conservatively managed over the years, there is little room to cut operating budgets, making the goal of staying within the New York State tax cap increasingly difficult in light of rising compensation, health care and pension costs.”

Musgnug said the town expected to reduce utility costs and repairs by $350,000 as a result of the streetlight LED retrofit, which will offset the cost of borrowing, which is $270,000 per year. The comptroller also said the town should anticipate equipment purchases and construction in 2016, mostly because of the first phase of Smithtown Animal Shelter renovations as well as upgrades at the town marina, which collectively require about $3.1 million in financing.

“Overall, I think it’s excellent,” Councilman Ed Wehrheim (R) said when the proposals were introduced in May. “In past years, we borrowed money and put up capital projects, but they never got done. Let’s make sure someone oversees these.”

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The Incorporated Village of Poquott. File photo

The Village of Poquott is ready to move forward after a year of infighting and accusations involving an investigation of former village trustee Eddie Schmidt and a missing $23,000, its newly elected officials said in the wake of last week’s vote.

Poquott villagers elected three new trustees and a justice last week. Harold Berry and Jeff Koppelson won the two trustee positions carrying two-year terms, while Sandra Nicoletti secured a trustee position carrying a one-year term. Paul Edelson won the race for justice as a write-in candidate.

Berry and Koppelson were elected with 105 votes and 131 votes, respectively, beating out Gary Garofano, the third candidate vying for one of the spots.

Nicoletti received 113 votes over Karen Sartain, who garnered 69 votes, the village clerk said.

The village did not have any names on the ballot for the justice position, so the spot went to Edelson, who received 96 votes, over Alexander Melbartis — another write-in — who received 87 votes.

“The previous board for the past year has done nothing but fight,” Berry said in a phone interview this week. “I think very little [has] gotten done.”

Berry has lived in the village for over 30 years, he said, and has served as a trustee before. Most recently, he filled the position of maintenance commissioner. The Village of Poquott government website lists his responsibilities as “roadways, lights, signs and drains.”

He said his experiences put him in the position to do some good for the Village of Poquott. Berry said that he campaigned on the platform of “truth, fairness for all and to do good things for the village.” His election has not clouded that view, he said.

“There’s a lot that can be done for the village, and I’m already in the process of doing that,” Berry said. “The board has to come together and work as one unit.”

Koppelson was a health care administrator and has a degree in administration, so he said he is ready to start putting that knowledge to use to help Poquott, he said.

“I’m looking forward to getting started. I ran to see if we could resolve some of the bad feelings and gridlock and start to reduce that,” Koppelson said during a phone interview this week. “Once we get started I’m confident that we can make that happen.”

Koppelson moved to Poquott in 1972, he said.

“People tend to have allegiances based on how long they’ve lived in the village,” Koppelson said, and he expressed his desire to eliminate that.

Koppelson acknowledged that his new position doesn’t make him responsible for “defense of the nation, or anything serious like that,” he said with a chuckle, but he does hope to impact the village positively during his two-year term.

Nicoletti served as a trustee from 2002 to 2014, according to village clerk Joe Newfield. She lost her seat in the 2014 election, then filled in on an interim basis after Schmidt resigned while she waited for the 2015 election. Nicoletti did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Edelson is an attorney at law and a mediator according to his email signature. He declined a request for further comment for this story.

Legislator Kara Hahn, center, speaks about her domestic violence bill as officials look on. Photo by Phil Corso

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) celebrated another milestone victory this week as her most recent efforts to curb domestic violence led to the rehiring of three outreach precinct project caseworkers months after being laid off.

The Long Island Against Domestic Violence non-for-profit organization, which provides domestic violence caseworkers in Suffolk County, did not receive a federal grant to fully staff their outreach project in March, and as a result, was forced to lay off four workers. And while LIADV secured private funding, allowing the rehire of one of the four caseworkers in May, Hahn’s recently passed budget amendment will now provide the organization with $79,000 to rehire the remaining three caseworkers this year.

Although the organization received the federal grant last year, according to Colleen Merlo, executive director of LIADV, its application the following year was denied. Its advocacy department includes seven precinct advocates, two of whom are also full-time court advocates. Victims in need still had the option of calling the organization’s 24-hour hotline at (631) 666-8833 during this time period, however, in the caseworkers’ absence.

Merlo also said the organization reapplied for this same federal grant, since the applications were available under the new funding cycle. The organization will not know if it received the federal grant until October.

Meanwhile, the $79,000 will last the non-for-profit organization until December of this year, Merlo said.

Hahn, alongside Legislators Kate Browning (WF-Shirley), Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood), Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) and Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) sponsored this bill amendment, which County Executive Steve Bellone (D) has until July 16 to sign. For Hahn, who said she is a domestic violence survivor herself, this budget amendment will not only help the non-for-profit organization, but also the individuals who benefit from its services.

“I want to help victims get themselves out of violent situations,” Hahn said during a phone interview. While she said she doubts that domestic violence will disappear completely, Hahn said she wants to help these victims know their risks and find advocacy in their times of need.

This was Hahn’s fourth piece of domestic violence legislation to see validation through the county Legislature. Although she would not disclose what is next on her domestic violence agenda, Hahn said Suffolk County is “on the cutting edge” of protecting domestic violence victims. She also said the county will continue to support organizations at the frontline of this issue.

Merlo said non-for-profit organizations like LIADV need funding from multiple levels to successfully provide their services.

“I’m appreciative of the budget amendment,” Merlo said during a phone interview. “But the truth of the matter is that we need to provide our services and we rely on not just the government but private donors as well.”

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Town Councilman Tom McCarthy, Supervisor Pat Vecchio and Comptroller Donald Musgnug discuss Smithtown’s financial standing going into the 2016 budget year. Photo by Phil Corso

Smithtown is tightening its belt, town Comptroller Donald Musgnug said at a town board meeting on Tuesday.

As per Supervisor Pat Vecchio’s (R) request, Musgnug provided the town with his overview on the town’s current financial performance through May 31, and said Smithtown needed to be selective with expenditures in order to remain sustainable going into 2016.

“The town board has done well to keep certain positions vacant or to delay appointments,” Musgnug said in his report to the board on Tuesday. “My recommendation is that we fill only essential positions, promote from within where possible and leave non-essential positions vacant. The message is that we must continue to contain what we can control — expenditures.”

The comptroller said it was still too early in the year to predict “with any kind of accuracy” the final results of town operations, but said Smithtown still needs to budget  conservatively to ensure a stable financial ground next year.

Musgnug said the town was performing better than what was expected in this year’s budget, with one exception — the highway snow fund. A brutal winter was the only hindrance on the town’s otherwise on-track year in regards to the budget.

“Most departments are spending below what was anticipated, however certain revenues are out of our control, such as the mortgage recording tax, which is coming in less than anticipated,” Musgnug said. “Because of this and other factors, we will need to continue to tighten our belts so that we can bring the town’s operating results closer to breakeven in 2015.”

The comptroller also discussed the usage of Smithtown’s leftover fund balance to help balance budgets each year. He said the option was on the table, but not preferred, which Vecchio and Councilman Bob Creighton (R) agreed to.

Creighton said the town had been criticized in the past for doing such a practice, and Vecchio warned against it.

“Fund balances are a [double-edged] sword,” Vecchio said. “When you use it to balance the budget, you get accused by bonding companies.”

According to the comptroller, it was doubly important that Smithtown eyes its finances closely in the coming months because he anticipated the town would be going out for bonding later this year to fund certain projects.

The comptroller said he was not ruling out the possibility that rating agencies might lower the town’s bond rating in the coming year, but if it does happen, it would not be a significant drop.

“The rating agencies would like to see a structurally balanced budget,” he said. “As we approach the 2016 budget cycle, the closer we are to breakeven in 2015 means less adjustments for 2016.”

Town Councilwoman Lynne Nowick (R) asked Musgnug how significantly a lowered rating in September might affect interest for the town, to which the comptroller said it was difficult to call.

“It will impact interest, but it won’t be overwhelming,” he said. “If we do, it’ll be one score. But I don’t anticipate that happening.”

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Parking spots in the Brookhaven Town Marina lot were given to Port Jeff Village as part of a 2015 agreement, but the deal alienated parkland, according to the AG's office. Screen capture

Port Jefferson Village could add 50 more spaces to its metered parking arsenal, drawing them on asphalt in the town’s marina lot.

The village is leasing the spots as part of an agreement with Brookhaven Town regarding the historic First National Bank of Port Jefferson building at the corner of Main and East Main streets.

Town officials are selling the former bank — and the attached building on East Main Street that used to house the Brookhaven tax receiver’s office — to local developer Agrino Holdings LLC, which has approval from the Port Jefferson Planning Board to put retail space on the first floors and apartments above. The developer plans to renovate the tax receiver’s office and restore the bank building, a historic landmark.

But downtown Port Jefferson has a perennial parking problem, with a constant space shortage that can make it difficult for new developments to meet requirements in the village code. To offset the lack of spaces at the site of the mixed-use project, the town has been working with the village for more than a year on a parking space swap — leasing to the village some spots at the town-owned marina lot two blocks away.

The original plan involved the roughly 30 existing spaces that wrap around the old Suffolk County Water Authority building across West Broadway from McDonald’s. But Trustee Larry LaPointe explained at Monday’s board of trustees meeting that it would have involved “a spaghetti of easements and curb cuts.”

Instead the village will get land on the western end of the marina lot, near Beach Street, that it will restripe and meter. LaPointe said the size of that section will allow the village to create 50 new parking spaces, whereas the previous arrangement would have merely transferred ownership of 30 spots.

Revenue from the village’s other parking meters will cover the costs of restriping and adding the new meter.

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