Politics

The smokestacks of the Port Jefferson power plant loom over the village and the local harbor. File photo by Erika Karp

The Long Island Power Authority must study the area’s aging power plants with an eye toward upgrading the facilities, according to a provision of the next New York State budget.

Language that Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and state legislators have agreed upon requires the utility to “perform an engineering, environmental … and cost feasibility analysis and study” of upgrading — also known as repowering — the plants in Port Jefferson, Northport and Island Park. The focus will be on using more efficient and environmentally friendly technology at the plants.

Those three sites have been on shaky ground because they are old and using outdated technology. The Port Jefferson and Northport host communities have feared losing essential property taxes from the plants, which would happen if the plants were to reach the ends of their useful lives without being repowered.

“We are extremely proud that our representatives and our lobbying efforts are working toward a repowered plant in [Port Jefferson],” village Mayor Margot Garant said in an email. “We always believed this was the best repurposing of our site, and in the best interest of the ratepayers of [Long Island].”

The utility must begin studying Port Jefferson and Island Park no later than Oct. 1, and must start working on the second study in Northport by October 2018, according to the budget language. The studies must be completed and presented to the LIPA board of trustees and the department of public service no longer than 18 months after they begin.

LIPA will repower the plants if it determines, based on the studies, “that repowering any such generating facility is in the best interests of its ratepayers and will enhance the authority’s ability to provide a more efficient, reliable and economical supply of electric energy in its service territory, consistent with the goal of improving environmental quality.”

Assemblyman Andy Raia (R-East Northport) said the studies “could change the whole tax certiorari issue.”

Huntington Town and the Northport-East Northport school district have been battling LIPA over the value of that property, with the utility arguing the plant is grossly overassessed and filing to be reimbursed for taxes overpaid as a result. Town Supervisor Frank Petrone has extended an offer to LIPA to freeze its tax assessment if it repowers Northport.

“Northport and East Northport are looking down the barrel of a gun,” Raia said Tuesday, “and if they repowered Northport that whole case would go away.”

Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) said in a statement that the study requirement will be included in the state budget “since LIPA did not follow through on their [previous] promises” to complete economic feasibility studies on the aging plants.

PSEG Long Island, the private utility that has taken over management of LIPA, was on board with the repowering studies this week.

“After careful study last year, we determined that there was no need for additional generation on Long Island until, at least, 2024,” PSEG Long Island spokesman Jeff Weir said in an email. “We wholeheartedly embrace this process because all we want is to implement the lowest cost and most reliable solutions for our customers on Long Island and in the Rockaways.”

Rohma Abbas contributed reporting.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone file photo

By Julianne Cuba

At his fourth State of the County address, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone began by ensuring the county government and public that he has never been more optimistic about the current state of the region and its future.

At the William H. Rogers Legislative Building in Hauppauge on March 26, Bellone (D) also took time commending the county legislature for successfully and efficiently reducing government by more than 10 percent — an initiative that will save Suffolk County taxpayers more than $100 million a year. The county executive announced that when he took office three years ago, the unemployment rate for Suffolk County stood at 8.2 percent. As of the end of 2014, it stands at 4.2 percent.

However, Bellone continued, “I’m not here to talk about where we are today. I am much more interested in talking about where we are going and what the future could look like.”

In order to combat what Bellone said he considers the fundamental issue of our time — a two-decade trend of losing young, qualified and educated people to other regions of the county — he pointed to the county’s economic development plan, Connect Long Island.

“We cannot reach our economic potential, we cannot build a more prosperous future, if we are not a region that can attract and retain the young, high-knowledge, high-skill workers necessary to build an innovative economy,” he said.

Connect Long Island will make progress on the five crucial issues that are driving young people away, which, according to Bellone include high costs, lack of transportation options, lack of quality affordable rental housing, lack of affordable housing in desired environments and a lack of high-paying jobs.

“We build walkable, transit-oriented downtowns that have strong, public transportation links to one another and to universities, research centers, job centers and parks and open space. Effectively, what Connect LI will do is to build a quality of life ecosystem that will be attractive to young people,” he said.

But, unfortunately, Bellone said, the lack of sewage systems in many of Suffolk County’s downtown areas — which are critical parts of the region’s future — is limiting the opportunity for growth.

Suffolk County’s sewage problem impacts not only the regions economic development but its water quality as well. The water quality issue was one of the three major problems on which Bellone focused.

“We have 360,000 unsewered homes in Suffolk County — that is more than the entire state of New Jersey. Those 360,000 homes represent, potentially, 360,000 customers. So I’m happy to report that four companies donated 19 systems, which we are putting into the ground to test under local conditions. At the same time, with the leadership of Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst and Dr. Samuel Stanley, [Stony Brook University] will begin a new program to identify the next generation of septic technology, with the goal of providing better, more cost-efficient options for Suffolk County residents,” Bellone said.

Bellone announced that with the help of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), the county’s state and federal partners, and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), he was able to secure $383 million for one of the largest investments in clean water infrastructure in more than 40 years — the Reclaim Our Water Initiative.

Legislator and Minority Leader Kevin McCaffrey (R) said that he agrees 100 percent with everything the county executive said in regard to economic development and improving drinking water. However, he added that the county’s debt must be cut and the legislature needs increased oversight.

“We must ask ourselves if we are going to control the irresponsible and reckless spending and borrowing, we must become more focused on the county’s ever-increasing debt,” McCaffrey said.  “We must ask ourselves if we want to throw debt on the backs of our children and our grandchildren. It’s time to cut up the credit cards and learn how to live within our means.”

 

Smorgasboard of suggestions at annual meeting

Tom McNally speaks at a town ethics board meeting last week. Photo by Susan Risoli

Huntington Town residents brought an assortment of suggestions to the annual public meeting of the town’s ethics board last week, where board members gathered input on improving the town’s ethics code.

The meeting room on Wednesday, March 18, was about half-full with attendees. Members of the town’s Board of Ethics & Financial Disclosure included Howard Glickstein, Louis England, Ralph Crafa and board counsel Steven Leventhal. Huntington Town Councilwoman Tracey Edwards (D) and Councilman Gene Cook (I) also attended the meeting.

Cook told board members that citizens have asked him “why the ethics board does not get back to them” when they make a complaint. He said he will send a letter to the board asking for an explanation, and he asked how long it would take the board to respond. Leventhal told Cook that “in all fairness,” ethics board members needed to see the letter before they could commit to a time frame for response. Cook pressed for details — “six months?” — and Leventhal said he “will undertake to help the board to respond to you in a reasonable amount of time.”

Many in the audience asked the board to hold public meetings quarterly, rather than once a year.

Robert Rockelein said he wanted to address “some noise in the streets” about the need for greater oversight of the ethics board. “Who’s watching the watchers?” he asked, and he called for increased scrutiny of the ethics board because “the current perception is that things are being swept under the table.”

Rather than relying on town employees to disclose their own finances, James Leonick said the ethics code should require employees submit supporting documents to back up their financial disclosure. He called for the information to be compared with documentation of previous years’ finances to show “any changes in assets, liabilities or income.” Leonick also said financial disclosure data should be kept on file for seven years. His request drew scattered applause and one listener murmured, “Excellent.”

Tom McNally said he spoke on behalf of the Huntington Republican Committee when he asked for mandatory training in ethics code for all town officials and employees. Such training “is done as standard operating procedure for most corporations,” he said.

He also said all ethics complaints filed with the town clerk should be made public, as well as all decisions of the ethics board, how they voted and whether any ethics board members recused themselves from a vote.

“Just looking for a little bit more transparency,” McNally said.

McNally asked the board to raise the penalty for ethics code violations, saying it should be much more than $5,000.

“We are now in the process of reviewing the code … we appreciate the thoroughness of your presentation,” Glickstein responded.

Marie Rendely took issue with Glickstein, calling him “good sir” and then pointing out that she used the term with sarcasm. “Our board of ethics is appointed by the town board,” she said. “Right there is a conflict of interest.”

Jim McGoldrick agreed, and said that when the ethics board is appointed by the town board, “it’s like the fox watching the chicken coop … it’s just not right.” Ethics board members should have no connection to the town, McGoldrick said.

Referring to recent Newsday reports of accusations of ethics violations by Councilman Mark Cuthbertson (D), Gerard Seitz said, “Why is Mark Cuthbertson still sitting on the town board? Why is he still voting on the downzoning of Oheka Castle for their luxury townhomes, when we already know about his questionable receiverships from [Oheka owner] Gary Melius along with Melius’ large Political donations?” Seitz said. “This isn’t an appearance of a conflict of interest, it is a conflict of interest.”

Poquott Civic Association President Carol Pesek says her group is still pursuing $23,000 they allege former President Eddie Schmidt mishandled when he was at the helm. File photo by Barbara Donlon

Missing money has the Poquott Civic Association approaching a boiling point.

An ongoing mystery regarding the $23,000 civic members alleged former President Eddie Schmidt mishandled two years ago reached a new milestone Thursday when the 21-year-old fired off a mass email to the civic. In the email, Schmidt outlined his tenure as president, explaining his silence since the accusations arose late last year and how they have affected him.

“The silence was a courtesy as I thought the present Board was genuinely working towards a mutual agreement between us to benefit the community. Unfortunately, the board was not genuine in its dealings, and has acted contrary to resolution,” Schmidt said in the letter. “I am writing this letter now to explain the situation, as I have genuine concerns regarding the presentation of the information by the Board, and by the climate of rumor that has spread throughout our village.”

Schmidt went on to detail the events he helped push as president despite a hefty workload while attending college at 19 years old. He said accusations, which he referred to as rumors, deeply hurt him.

“I did my best to work towards common ground while rumors became widespread, and incorrect information and damaging assumptions were presented.”

Schmidt, who resigned as president of the Poquott Civic Association in September, was accused of stealing more than $23,000 from the organization during his time at the helm. Civic leaders allege that while president, the 21-year-old used money raised at civic events to purchase things unrelated to civic expenses, like gasoline, Vineyard Vines clothing and dining at gourmet restaurants.

Members of the civic spoke up on the matter at Thursday’s monthly meeting for the first time in months as legal matters were ongoing. Civic President Carol Pesek brought new details on a potential settlement between her group and Schmidt as the parties try to reconcile the thousands of dollars that allegedly went missing.

“The letter opened the door for the civic board to bring more information to the community,” Pesek said in an interview the day after the meeting.

The board read a response back to the letter and then finally spoke about what members have been enduring the last few months. Peter Lavrenchik, a legal advisor who spoke on Schmidt’s behalf, said the former president and the board were exploring a potential settlement.

Pesek said the settlement offer was for $15,000 — $5,000 less than the money originally demanded late last year — and also included a controversial confidentiality clause that would forbid the board from speaking of the matter. There was also a nondisclosure clause that would forbid it from letting the community know where the money came from, and an agreement that Schmidt would not be prosecuted, the civic board said.

“It was an offer, but we couldn’t get past the confidentiality agreement,” Treasurer Felicia Chillak said.

Calling on legal advice, members of the board said they would not sign onto any settlement agreements for the time being. The response elicited a rousing response from members of the Poquott community.

“We never presented [the offer to the public] because in the beginning, we couldn’t get the confidentiality clause off the table,” Pesek said. “If we could have gotten rid of the confidentiality clause, we would have brought it to the table.”

Pesek said the board repeatedly told Lavrenchik that it would not sign a confidentiality clause, and he said there would be no offer without it.

Calls to Schmidt and Lavrenchik were not returned. Both parties were invited to the civic’s meeting, Pesek said, but did not attend.

Any future offers or potential settlements would be brought before the civic, Pesek said.

As community members went back and fourth discussing the $15,000 settlement Thursday night, Schmidt’s mom, Beth Schmidt, spoke emotionally in defense of her son, whom she said was waiting outside in her car. The legal trouble has weighed heavily on her son, who has been losing weight as a result of the emotional stress, the mother said.

“My kid did not steal $20,000 or $23,000,” his mother shouted at the meeting last week. “You practically destroyed him. I’m watching my kid suffer. He is a nice kid and feels terrible.”

Also in attendance at the meeting was Schmidt’s girlfriend, Kaitlin Sisti, who came to Schmidt’s defense and said there was no way he could have stolen the money, as it was all used for community events.

As the meeting drew closer to its conclusion, some members of the civic argued that regardless of which party was at fault, it was in the community’s best interests to move beyond this legal trouble.

“It’s tearing the village to pieces,” resident Harry Berry said after last week’s contentious meeting. “In 34 years, I have never seen anything split the village like this.”

Town takes lead on latest Suffolk County initiative saving money by reducing fossil fuel consumption

Smithtown has already shown its commitment to environmentally friendly projects since expanding its solar initiative over the last several years. File photo by Rachel Shapiro

Smithtown has flipped the switch on energy savings.

The town board voted unanimously last Thursday to make Smithtown the first town in Suffolk County to adopt a new county-developed alternative energy geothermal code for residential and commercial properties, paving the way for more energy-efficient construction practices. The motion was brought before a public hearing at last week’s town board meeting and met with praise from those close to the model code.

“There is an energy crisis on Long Island. We have some of the highest electric rates in the entire nation,” said Smithtown resident Mike Kaufman of the Suffolk County Planning Commission, who helped draft the model code. “Fossil fuel energy has high costs and we have severe environmental costs when fossil fuels are used. Town of Smithtown residents need to think globally and act locally by going green as much as possible.”

Smithtown Building Director William White said the code was drafted with help from several state and local agencies with hopes of capitalizing on geothermal technology, which draws energy from the earth to provide heating, cooling and hot water for homes. The benefits, he said, include a reduction in the use of fossil fuels, the lowering of heat consumption and costs, and nearly quadrupling the efficiency of fossil fuel systems.

“The installation of geothermal systems has been increasing statewide,” he said. “And best of all, there are no changes in building permit fees necessary.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) stood beside the Planning Commission as well as PSEG Long Island and the Long Island Geothermal Energy Organization back in November to unveil the new energy code and urged for all towns to consider its adoption. When the code was made public PSEG also announced it would provide implementation assistance of $10,000 to each township and $5,000 to the first 10 villages with a population greater than 5,000 residents across Long Island that adopted the code by March 31.

Smithtown was also one of the first of 10 towns to sign onto another model code crafted at the county Planning Commission for solar energy, which helps municipalities evaluate proposed solar energy systems for residential and commercial properties. Since its adoption, an estimated 6,000 solar installations have been finished throughout Long Island.

Kaufman praised the board for taking the lead as the first Suffolk town to sign onto the code after it was introduced back in November, with his help. Under the new code, he said the town will reduce greenhouse gases and use less electricity while expanding clean technology and making sure it is installed correctly.

“We wrote a model code, and a number of towns have begun the efforts to adopt them. But Smithtown is the first to actually get up to the plate and adopt it,” he said. “This town is one of the leaders in Suffolk with going green efforts and it is a pleasure to see my hometown leading the way and stepping up.”

Dina Stramara addresses the board. Photo by Barbara Donlon

With less than one month until the New York State testing begins in grades three to eight, parents in Kings Park are vocalizing their right to opt out and say they want the board of education to do the same.

At a meeting earlier in the month, several parents asked the board to craft a resolution on standardized testing. Then they started a petition through their group, Kings Park Advocates for Education, to establish a unified voice.

The petition highlighted three items the parents would like the board to support. It said they want support for their right to opt their child out of the high stakes testing, support for alternate activities for their child during the test, and easier options when it comes to opting out.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the board opened up as a whole for the first time, as President Tom LoCascio read a statement on the board’s behalf.

“We believe the decision of whether to participate in or to refuse to take a state assessment is a personal decision and ultimately a parent’s choice and in either case a decision that should be afforded mutual respect,” LoCascio said.

The statement went on to say the board believes in public education, that every student in the district deserves an opportunity to succeed and that they believe teachers should be evaluated using multiple forms of assessment.

It also said that as a board, they recognize Gov. Andrew Cuomo and certain interests have politicized many educational issues and that they are concerned how this will impact the district.

“We will continue to work to advance our adopted board goals, prevent the erosion of local control and fight to ensure that educators and those elected by our community have the final decision in how our schools are run,” LoCascio said.

Parents said the statement still did not impress them.

“This community is asking the board of education to step up, pick a strong stand,” parent Shala Pascucci said during the meeting’s public comment forum. “That was a step in the right direction, but if you read the resolution from other neighboring districts, you will know that resolution is not as strong as it could be.”

Pascucci went on to say the board statement is not specific enough, but did acknowledge it’s a step in the right direction. Board member Pam DeFord also acknowledged the statement and said she agreed with parents.

“You’re right, it’s a small step, and we will continue to work on it,” DeFord said.

Parents also said they were upset about the process that will take place in the classroom the morning of the assessment. Parent Dina Stramara quoted from the test refusal question-and-answer section on the board’s website, visibly upset by what her child will go through.

According to the document, children will be seated in assigned seats and a proctor will pass out the documents. They will know ahead of time which students are refusing the assessment, but children must verbally confirm it.

“In the most non-judgmental, non-confrontational, and delicate manner possible, the proctor will verbally confirm with each individual child that he/she is refusing the assessment, those exam materials will be collected, and the child will be permitted to read quietly,” the document said.

Stramara said there is nothing non-judgmental and delicate about putting a child in an awkward position. She said they are not adults and parents should make the decision for them. She also asked why the district would still put the test in front of them if they know they are refusing ahead of time.

“Asking [a young child] to verbalize this is absolutely ludicrous,” Stramara said to the board. “I implore you to please reconsider this procedure. It is not our children’s fault that the state and the district are failing them by making them pawns in this ridiculousness.”

Schools Superintendent Timothy Eagen said this was not a district procedure but one from the New York State Education Department.

“According to the state education department, an activity that is acceptable for students who finish the test early or refuse to take the test is simply to read something,” Eagen said in an interview after the meeting.

Port Jefferson Village Treasurer Don Pearce, above, worked with the board of trustees on Monday night at Village Hall to reduce the budget for 2015-16. File photo

Port Jefferson officials are whittling down the village’s budget proposal for 2015-16.

During a budget workshop at Village Hall on Monday afternoon, the board of trustees slashed almost $300,000 from department funding requests, to get the preliminary spending plan down to about $10.34 million.

One of the pricier items the trustees removed was a generator for the Department of Public Works — something that had also been an issue during last year’s budget process. On Monday, the trustees agreed that the generator, being a one-time capital expense, would better belong in the capital budget, rather than the operating budget. The board was also looking at the generator as part of a larger capital project: its proposed emergency operations center.

Due to safety concerns and power complications during storms like Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and Winter Storm Nemo in 2013, officials have set up shop at the Mount Sinai headquarters of the Port Jefferson Volunteer Ambulance Company during weather emergencies. But the village is seeking to build an emergency operations center, which would include a generator, at the village government building on North Country Road that houses both the public works and building and planning departments. That operations center could receive state aid to be built.

The draft $10.34 million budget for next year — as compared to the current $10 million budget — would increase the tax rate by a little more than $1.50 for every $100 of assessed value.

However, the trustees are still reviewing both the revenue and spending sides of the budget, including items like trustee salaries and the number of code enforcement work hours.

The board will hold a public hearing on possibly piercing through the state-imposed cap on tax levy increases in Village Hall on April 6, and then will hold a public hearing on a finalized budget proposal on April 15.

Bellone signs Anker's legislation into law

Sarah Anker introduced the legislation to require the warning signs last year. File photo by Erika Karp
Suffolk County retailers who sell liquid nicotine will now have to display a sign warning customers of the possible dangers associated with the product.

On Monday, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) signed the legislation into law, which officials say is the first of its kind in the nation. The bill was sponsored by Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) and seeks to educate consumers about liquid nicotine — an ultra-concentrated nicotine substance used in e-cigarettes. The product could be poisonous if swallowed, inhaled or if it comes in contact with skin. Anker pitched the legislation in December following the death of a Fort Plain, N.Y., one-year-old who ingested the product.

“This potent and possibly toxic product requires regulation, and without leadership from the federal Food and Drug Administration, Suffolk County must move forward to protect our residents with the required warning sign,” Anker said in a press release.

Calls to poison control centers regarding liquid nicotine poisoning have increased throughout the last few years, according to the press release. In 2012, there were fewer than 100 cases of nonlethal liquid nicotine poisoning; in 2013, the number rose to 1,300; and in 2014, the number jumped to 4,000.

The Suffolk County Department of Health Services will enforce the law and provide the downloadable warning signs. The law will take effect 90 days from filling with the Office of the Secretary of State.

Businesses in violation of the law could receive an up to $250 fine for a first offense. Fines increase to $500 for a second offense and $1,000 for a violation thereafter.

Last year, the county prohibited the sale of e-cigarettes and liquid nicotine to anyone younger than 21 years old.

Ed Maher file photo

The Smithtown Democratic Committee is gearing up for a competitive election season and setting its sights on the town board.

“It is important that we reflect on the past, but it is necessary that we plan for the future of Smithtown — 2015 will be the year that we reshape our town’s policy-making body,” said committee chairman, Ed Maher, citing the town’s recent 350th anniversary festivities. “Our screening committee will convene this spring and we are excited to hear what the potential candidates have in mind for the future of Smithtown.”

Maher also said he will consider screening potential candidates from other parties if needed, and that the Democrats will put the strongest candidates on the ballot in November.

Maher said that several notable Democrats have approached him with interest in running for town board, including former town supervisor candidate Steve Snair and Suffolk County Industrial Development Agency board member, Tony Giordano.

“I cannot deny that one of my goals is to serve our community as an elected official,” Snair said of his possible run. “The voters here in Smithtown have seen how little this all-Republican board has done for them and they will remember in November.”

Giordano also confirmed that he is considering screening for the Democratic nomination for town board positions.

“It’s something that I’m currently looking into,” he said.

Anne Shybunko-Moore, CEO of GSE Dynamics, New York Secretary of State Cesar Perales and Keith Barrett, president of Huntington Station Business Improvement District, speak last week. Photo from Laz Benitez

A state plan to raise the minimum wage made its way to Hauppauge to show how higher pay could impact close to home.

Cesar Perales, secretary of state under Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), spoke at GSE Dynamics on Oser Avenue March 18 outlining the governor’s proposal to capitalize on New York’s economic recovery by raising the minimum wage from $8.75 to $10.50.

Perales said the state has already created more than 500,000 new private sector jobs since the big recession — the second most in the country. But at the same time, wages have not grown fast enough and people are being left behind, he alleged.

“We had a bad few years after the recession in 2008, but we are out of it now and we are moving forward,” he said. “Unemployment is down and, in every region of the state, jobs are up.”

Cuomo’s plan calls for a $10.50 minimum wage across the state, except for New York City, where he suggests the minimum wage be increased to $11.50. In total, he said more than 1.35 million workers would see a wage increase throughout the state, bringing a direct economic impact of nearly $3.4 billion.

“The minimum wage should allow people who work full-time jobs to support themselves and their families – but that is just not possible today,” Cuomo said. “Our proposal will help hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers better sustain themselves and live with dignity and respect. The State Legislature must pass our proposal this year, because the sweetest success is shared success and we won’t rest until we are all rising together.”

During four of the five recent increases in the state’s minimum wage dating back to 1991, data indicated an employment uptick each time the wage went up, Perales said.

“Under this plan, nearly 150,000 workers here in Long Island will see a pay raise,” he said. “In a family with two earners, the increase from $8.75 to $10.50 translates to more than $7,000 in additional income per year.”

The proposal said Long Island currently sees 85,264 total minimum-wage workers earning $8.75 today. But under the new plan, 202,248 Long Island workers would earn the minimum wage, bringing a direct economic value of $382.3 million to the island, Cuomo said.

Perales spoke alongside Keith Barrett, president of the Huntington Station Business Improvement District as well as Anne Shybunko-Moore, CEO of Hauppauge’s GSE Dynamics, to explain how higher minimum wages could bring better business to the North Shore.

“Raising the minimum wage is not just about money, it’s about opportunity,” Perales said. “It’s about saying that everyone who works a full-time job should have the chance to live a decent life and put food on the table for themselves and their loved ones. Because at the end of the day, we are all part of the same community and the same state, and we are at our best when we all do well together.”