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Lawsuit

District to hold May 1 community forum to discuss status of lawsuit over power plant’s tax assessment

Northport High School. File photo

Northport school officials are calling for Long Island Power Authority to uphold a decades-old promise over taxes on its power plant as a June trial date looms.

Superintendent Robert Banzer has called for LIPA to stand by a 1997 agreement made between the district, the utility company and former New York State Gov. George Pataki (R) in an April 16 letter to community residents. Banzer alleged the power company had agreed not to seek to lower the assessed tax value of the Northport power plant as long as local authorities did not abusively increase it over time.

“While it is a very complex issue that goes back to the 1990s, it boils down to one simple premise: LIPA made a promise to our school district and we are fighting hard to make sure they, and others, continue to fulfill their promise,” Banzer wrote in the letter.

LIPA made a promise to our school district and we are fighting hard to make sure they, and others, continue to fulfill their promise.”
– Robert Banzer

In 2010, LIPA and National Grid filed a lawsuit against the district challenging the assessment of the power plant and demanding a 90 percent reduction in taxes, also seeking the difference in tax refunds retroactively.

“Obviously, a 90 percent reduction to the power plant’s assessment would be devastating to the school district, its residents and most importantly, our students,” Banzer wrote.

The district currently receives about 38 percent of its overall revenue from the taxes paid on the Northport power plant, or the equivalent of nearly $53 million per year.

The superintendent said the district has been involved in settlement discussions with LIPA “which at this point, has not yielded a reasonable resolution.” The utility company’s latest proposed settlement would be a 50 percent reduction in taxes over a nine-year period, according to the
superintendent, which would increase the tax burden on district residents by millions per year. Banzer said if this proposal took effect, the schools would be forced to “make additional modifications, including cutting programs and staff significantly.”

In his letter to residents the superintendent stated that the district remains open to negotiating a settlement with LIPA. He did not respond to requests for further interviews.

The two parties have limited time to reach an agreement as a state supreme court trial is slated to begin in June.

Obviously, a 90 percent reduction to the power plant’s assessment would be devastating to the school district… ”
– Robert Banzer

State senators John Flanagan (R-East Northport) and Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) introduced legislation April 20 that could help mitigate any potential impact of the lawsuit on Northport taxpayers. The bill seeks to lengthen the time frame over which LIPA’s taxes would be gradually reduced from nine years to a proposed 15 years. In addition, it would grant the municipal governments and school districts who lose a tax assessment challenge to LIPA after April 1, 2018, access to the state’s electric generating facility cessation mitigation program. This way, town government and schools could create reserve funds to mitigate the burden on their taxpayers.

Other municipalities, villages and school districts have had better success in bargaining with the utility company to varying degrees. Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) announced April 3 that the town government had reached a settlement with LIPA on its assessment lawsuit over the Port Jefferson power plant. Port Jefferson School District officials called this news “deeply troubling.”

“This decision will … place the school district in harm’s way,” the district’s statement said.

A community forum will be held May 1 at 7 p.m. in Northport High School’s auditorium where district taxpayers can learn about the potential impacts of the LIPA lawsuit on their school taxes and their children’s education as it moves forward.

 

An entrance ramp onto the Southern State Parkway which shows signs warning of no commercial vehicles allowed and the overheight vehicle detector system. Photo from Gov. Cuomo's Office

By Sara-Megan Walsh

The parents of two Huntington teens seriously injured when a coach bus slammed into a Southern State Parkway overpass are suing the driver and transportation company.

Frank and Allison Sgrizzi filed the first lawsuit April 11 seeking $5 million for the traumatic injuries suffered by their 17-year-old daughter, Samantha, in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

Samantha Sgrizzi was one of dozens of Huntington High School students coming home April 9 from a spring break trip to Eastern Europe on a coach bus traveling from John F. Kennedy International Airport headed to Walt Whitman Mall in Huntington via the Belt and Southern State parkways. The coach bus slammed into the Exit 18 Eagle Avenue overpass — which has a 7-foot, 7-inch clearance — sheering off the vehicle’s roof and sending debris raining down on students.

The teenager was impaled by a piece of debris and fractured her right femur in the crash, according to court documents. She was brought to a nearby hospital for immediate surgery.


Lawsuit #1
Filed by: The Sgrizzi family, of Huntington
Injured:  Samantha Sgrizzi, 17
Injuries: fractured femur, impaled
Seeking: $5 million

The lawsuit accuses the tour company; the driver, Troy Gaston of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; and the transportation company, Journey Bus Lines, of being “negligent and careless in failing to take proper and suitable precautions to avoid the crash herein, not limited to, failing to provide, obtain and/or utilize a global position system suitable and certified for use by commercial vehicles.”

Attorney John Giuffré, who is representing the Sgrizzi family, has requested the case be heard by a jury. Giuffré did not respond to requests for an interview on the case.

On April 13, Huntington father Richard Bonitz also filed a lawsuit against the driver and bus company seeking monetary compensation for the injuries suffered by his daughter in Nassau County Supreme Court.

Erin Bonitz, 17, received a traumatic brain injury, facial fractures and several lacerations as result of the bus crash, according to attorney Robert Sullivan of Garden City. Sullivan said she was treated immediately at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens and has since been released home where she is continuing her recovery.

The lawsuit accuses Gaston of ignoring clearly posted signs warning of Eagle Avenue overpass clearance height and “negligently using a noncommercial vehicle GPS device” which directed him to take a route utilizing the Belt and Southern State parkways, according to court documents. New York state law prohibits buses and commercial vehicles from traveling on these limited-access parkways.


Lawsuit #2
Filed by: The Bonitz family, of Huntington
Injured:  Erin Bonitz, 17
Injuries: head injury, facial lacerations
Seeking: trial by jury for monetary damages

They also seek to hold Journey Bus Lines responsible for the accident for its failure to equip the coach bus with a commercial GPS system. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration advised transportation companies to install these systems in 2013, as it has the capability to warn truck and bus drivers about the clearance heights of bridges along their planned route.Sullivan said that the Bonitz family will not make a specific demand for compensation.

Journey Bus Lines did not respond to requests for comment on these lawsuits. Gaston could not be reached for comment.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced last December a $4.3 million project to install overheight vehicle detectors at 13 locations in Nassau and Suffolk counties, including Southern State Parkway. These detectors are installed at the top of on-ramps and relay an invisible beam set at the specific height needed to clear the parkway’s bridges. If a vehicle breaks the beam, the device triggers a colored LED message sign to flash a warning to the driver, alerting the truck or bus will not clear the bridge.

Joe Morrissey, spokesman for the New York State Department of Transportation, confirmed these detectors have been installed at the Eagle Avenue overpass but said they are not yet active due to calibration and testing. Morrissey admitted even if the detectors had been functioning, they would not have prevented the accident. They are not set up to scan for overheight vehicles entering from the Belt Parkway, as the coach bus did.

The National Transportation Safety Board was also notified of the accident, according to police, but it did not meet its response criteria. It will be monitoring the investigation.

The crash remains under open investigation by New York State police. Anyone who may have witnessed the crash is asked to contact the state police at 631-756-3300.

Cedar Beach waters in Mount Sinai run into the Long Island Sound. File photo by Elana Glowatz

Suffolk County has signed off on joining New York State in suing the Environmental Protection Agency for dumping dredged materials in Long Island Sound.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D) announced last summer the state would be taking legal action against the EPA after in 2016 the agency moved to increase the number of open water dumping sites in the Sound from two to three, despite a call from state government leaders of both New York and Connecticut in 2005 to reduce and eventually eliminate the practice of dumping in the Sound.

The Eastern Long Island Sound Disposal Site, now a permanent open water site for the disposal of dredged materials, is midway between Connecticut and New York, and less than 1.5 nautical miles from Fishers Island, which is part of Southold Town and Suffolk County, despite technically being in Connecticut’s waters. The disposal site is in an area that had never before been used for open water disposal.

Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), who represents Southold, Riverhead and communities in eastern Brookhaven, initiated the legislation directing Suffolk County to join the action against the EPA.

“This is another step in a decades-long fight to try and get the EPA to play by the rules,” Krupski said. “The Long Island Sound is threatened by pollution, warming waters and acidification, and the last thing that should be done is to dump potentially toxic substances into the estuary.”

Legislators Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) and Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) joined Krupski in sponsoring the legislation authorizing the county to join the lawsuit.

“For more than the 30 years, leaders from both shores of the Long Island Sound have invested heavily on a cooperative effort to restore its life and majesty,” said Hahn, the chairwoman of the Legislature’s Environment, Planning & Agriculture Committee. “As such, the decision by our neighbor to the north to dump potentially toxic pesticides, heavy metals and industrial by-products into the Sound is nearly as dumbfounding as the Environmental Protection Agency’s willingness to allow it.”

Cuomo made the case against expanded dumping when the lawsuit was announced.

“We will continue to do everything in our power to protect New York’s environment, and with the EPA’s unfathomable and destructive decision to turn the eastern Long Island Sound into a dumping ground — now is the time for action,” Cuomo said in 2016. “We will establish that this designation not only poses a major threat to a significant commercial and recreational resource, but that it also undermines New York’s long-standing efforts to end dumping in our treasured waters.”

Last year, Brookhaven and Southold towns joined the lawsuit, which contends the EPA failed to adequately investigate alternatives to open water disposal and overestimated the need for the new site. It also alleges the Long Island Sound Dredged Material Management Plan, which was approved by the EPA, violates the Ocean Dumping Act and Coastal Zone Management Act, and cited a “failure to address environmental impacts on the Long Island Sound.” The body of water was designated an Estuary of National Significance by the EPA in 1988 and is recognized as an important economic engine for Suffolk County and all of Long Island, supporting both recreational and commercial businesses and contributing billions of dollars to the regional economy.

“We’re here to send a very strong message — that we are opposed to dumping in the Sound,” Romaine said during a press conference Aug. 28 at Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai. “The State of New York and this governor, Andrew Cuomo, has done a great service to this state and to the residents of Long Island by working to enjoin, in the court, the EPA from allowing continued dumping in the Sound.”

District hoping for details on Brookhaven, LIPA settlement before finalizing 2018-19 spending plan

Superintendent Paul Casciano and board president, Kathleen Brennan, listen to members of the public during an April 10 board of education meeting. Photos by Alex Petroski

An announcement by Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) April 3 was supposed to provide clarity, but it has done anything but.

Romaine announced during his State of the Town address Brookhaven had reached a settlement with the Long Island Power Authority, which would end the legal battle being waged since 2010 regarding the assessed valuation and property tax bill the public utility has been paying on its Port Jefferson power plant. While in the midst of preparing its 2018-19 budget, Port Jefferson School District officials said in a statement they were caught off guard by the announcement and, as a result, the board of education moved to delay
adopting its proposed budget during a meeting April 10. The board will hold a special meeting April 18, when the budget will be presented before a vote to adopt. School budgets must be submitted to New York State no later than April 20.

“We don’t know what the terms of that agreement are — as a matter of fact, there is no agreement.”

— Paul Casciano

“When you plan to make reductions, you need to know how much to reduce,” Superintendent Paul Casciano said during the meeting. “That is the problem with what the town announced, because essentially what the town announced was that they reached a tentative deal. We don’t know what the terms of that agreement are — as a matter of fact, there is no agreement. That’s what we have learned. There are a lot of things that have been talked about at the town level. We have been spending a lot of time trying to find out what the details are.”

Town spokesman Kevin Molloy refuted Casciano’s claim that a deal is not in place.

“We have an agreement in principle, it has not been finalized or signed,” he said in a phone interview. “The town has sought state aid as part of this agreement. This state aid was not included in the recently adopted budget. We are continuing to work with LIPA for a settlement to this case that is fair for our residents and uses any funds from this settlement to reduce electrical charges to ratepayers.”

The town has not shared details about the agreement in principle publicly.

Casciano was asked by resident Rene Tidwell during the April 10 meeting if the district had long-range plans to address the likelihood it will be losing a chunk of the annual revenue the district receives as a result of the power plant’s presence within the district.

“I’m deeply concerned that this potentially devastating issue has not been more proactively addressed in the years since it was first initiated,” Tidwell said during the public comment period of the meeting.

Casciano strongly pushed back against the idea the issue hasn’t been a top priority for the board and administration.

“We have an agreement in principle, it has not been finalized or signed.”

— Kevin Molloy

“The plan is very simple — you cut staff, which results in cutting programs,” he said, though he also put the onus on residents to prepare for possible future tax increases. “There comes a time where it’s not all going to be the school district
cutting programs and cutting staff. At some point, taxpayers — and it may be this year — are going to see an increase in their taxes. We don’t assess. The town assesses. The village assesses.”

Board president, Kathleen Brennan, also disagreed with the idea the board has not been prepared to deal with the LIPA situation.

“I’ve been a board member for eight years,” she said. “Going back those eight years on that board and every subsequent board, this board has addressed the issue head on and has done things that you haven’t read about on our website.”

Board member Vincent Ruggiero first motioned to remove budget adoption from the BOE agenda.

“Given the uncertainty and the fact we don’t have a clear answer from Brookhaven, we have a week that we can adopt this budget, I’m just proposing that we wait as long as we can for some type of response, although we probably won’t get one, and hold the vote next week,” he said.

The public portion of the special April 18 meeting of the BOE will begin at 6:30 p.m.

Port Jeff includes $107K in 2018-19 budget for anticipated “glide path”

Port Jefferson Village Mayor Margot Garant. File Photo

The potential ramifications of the looming LIPA lawsuit specter may finally be coming into focus.

Port Jefferson Village Mayor Margot Garant announced during a public hearing April 2 on the 2018-19 budget the village is “on the cusp of a settlement” with the Long Island Power Authority, which would end the legal battle being waged since 2010 regarding the assessed valuation and property tax bill the public utility has been paying on its Port Jefferson power plant. LIPA has argued the estimate is too high based on decreased energy demand, and the village accused LIPA of breaching its contract, which was supposed to run until 2028. The village and Port Jefferson School District receive substantial revenue from LIPA’s tax dollars and have had the prospect of lost revenue hanging over future financial planning. Port Jefferson is among other municipalities, like Northport, which host plants that have lawsuits against LIPA and believe the contract has been breached.

Garant said the board came to the decision to write $107,000 into the upcoming budget to create a reserve fund to prepare in anticipation for a “glide path” agreement, in which the village’s LIPA revenue will be scaled down gradually over time. The figure was chosen to bring the total budget’s tax levy increase to exactly 2 percent, thus avoiding asking residents to pierce the cap. The 2018-19 adopted budget is $10,642,146, about $233,000 up from to the current year, with the largest driver of the increase being the money set aside to deal with LIPA.

“The appropriations of reserves that we have accumulated over the last six to seven years aside, once we know what the glide path looks like, we will be putting our fund balance, monies that we’ve built, into that reserve account, which kind of locks it away so that future boards, if there should be future boards, can’t take that money and do something else with it,” Garant said. “It’ll preserve that money and entrust it to contributing toward the glide path.”

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) announced during his State of the Town address April 3 it had reached a settlement with LIPA on its version of the assessment suit. Village Attorney Brian Egan said Brookhaven’s settlement would have no impact on Port Jeff’s discussions, and that negotiations were ongoing.

“This year it’s basically another rollover budget like we’ve had in the past with very minimal changes,” village treasurer, Denise Mordente, said during the presentation. Other factors contributing to the budget increase included contractual raises for village employees, the increasing minimum wage, increased costs for medical benefits, and some additional funds for code enforcement that were used for installing security cameras and maintenance throughout the village, among a few others.

The board also passed a resolution that would give it the option to pierce the tax levy increase cap — as it does every year — should it need to do so, though that is not in the village’s plans for the upcoming year.

Port Jefferson School District offered a scathing statement in response to the news about Brookhaven’s settlement, saying it is “deeply troubled,” to hear of the settlement.

“This decision will imminently place the School District in harm’s way,” the statement said.

This story was updated April 4 to remove information mistakenly included about a public budget vote, and to include a statement from Port Jefferson School District.

The St. James firehouse on Route 25A/Lake Avenue. Photo from Google Maps

A second lawsuit has been filed against the St. James Fire Dept. and its leadership as a third volunteer has stepped forward alleging unfair treatment over social media.

St. James resident John Tyson filed a federal lawsuit against St. James Fire Department and St. James Fire District Jan. 31 seeking $700,000 in damages for being first suspended, then dismissed as a volunteer allegedly over a series of Facebook posts. He claims the firehouse’s actions violated his First Amendment right to free speech and due process rights under New York State law.

“These acts were taken purely in retaliation for [Tyson] exercising his rights to free speech by expressing views which were contrary to the views of the majority of the Fire Department’s governing body,” the lawsuit reads.

“These acts were taken purely in retaliation for [Tyson] exercising his rights to free speech by expressing views which were contrary to the views of the majority of the Fire Department’s governing body.”

— John Tyson lawsuit

Tyson was a longtime volunteer of the fire department and admitted he was an administrator of the St. James Fire Department Engine Company #1 Facebook group, along with siblings Richard and Tricia Weisse. After the Sept. 19, 2017, bond vote failed 775-459, Tricia Weisse posted a photograph of the historic Lake Avenue firehouse to the Facebook group. An unidentified person posted as a comment, “It is tough, unless you are looking for a new place to party, to see these pics and remain absolutely unemotional about tearing it down. Nice pics,” according to the court documents.

The St. James volunteer alleges in the lawsuit he received a phone call Sept. 29 from Second Assistant Chief David Mills saying that until one of the three administrators of the Facebook group admitted to posting the offensive comment, he was suspended from attending all social activities. He received a letter dated Sept. 28 signed by Chief Edward Springer confirming his suspension through Dec. 31 for allegedly violating the district’s social media policy.

“The letter did not accuse [Tyson] of posting the comment, but rather, held him responsible for the post because he was one of the three administrators of the Facebook group,” the lawsuit reads. “However, the post did not violate the social media policy, and the claimant had not violated the social media policy merely by being an administrator of the Facebook group on which the post was made.”

On Dec. 12, Tyson posted a comment on the Facebook group Citizens for a Safer St. James in response to a video made by Joe Kuethen who was running for fire commissioner. In Tyson’s comments, he wrote, “Unification of the firefighters? Difficult. That responsibility rests with the chiefs who are centered on exploiting differences and punishing those of opposing opinion.”

Tyson said he received a phone call from fire district officers Jan. 2 advising him that he was suspended from the fire department due to his post and “cannot go to the firehouse at all.” The decision, Tyson alleges, was made without any notice of the charges against him and he wasn’t provided with a hearing as required for volunteers under New York general municipal law.

Jessica Novins, a spokeswoman for the fire district, said the fire commissioners “cannot comment on matters of litigation.”

On Jan. 3, St. James Fire Department held its monthly meeting — which Tyson understood he was prohibited from attending — where its approximately 100 members voted to terminate him as a volunteer. Tyson said he was embarrassed and humiliated to learn of this, having only heard about the vote afterwards.

Kevin Barattini, a spokesman for St. James Fire Department, said the organization has no comment at this time.

This is the second lawsuit filed against St. James Fire Department and the fire district in the last three months. The Weisses, third-generation volunteers with Engine Company #1, filed a lawsuit Dec. 19 in federal court alleging the fire department, fire district and its officers illegally prevented them from attending any social events due to the Facebook post made after the bond vote in September. The pair is also seeking money for their “emotional distress, mental anguish, embarrassment and humiliation.”

A fearless Long Island deer forages for food. Photo by Rohma Abbas

An East Quogue-based hunting group is taking aim at Smithtown town code that regulates the use of firearms, including longbows.

Hunters for Deer filed a lawsuit against the Town of Smithtown in New York State Supreme Court last month, claiming the town’s required firearms code is illegal and inconsistent with state regulations set by the Department of Environmental Conservation.

“The town is stepping on the DEC’s toes,” said Michael Tessitore, president of Hunters for Deer. “We are saying that we already have laws being regulated by the DEC, the town is muddying the waters.”

Tessitore said he and his fellow hunters take issue with the town’s definition of a firearm because it differs from the DEC’s definition and increases the required setback, or distance hunters can be from a dwelling.

Under Section 160 of town code, Smithtown defines a firearm as “a weapon which acts by force of gunpowder or from which a shot is discharged by force of an explosion, as well as an air rifle, an air gun, a BB gun, a slingshot and a bow and arrow.” It was last updated in January 1990.

By comparison, the DEC’s regulations recognize rifles, pistols, shotguns and specific types of airguns as firearms, but doesn’t include longbows which are used for deer hunting.

Due to this difference, Hunters for Deer is suing saying the Town of Smithtown’s required 500-foot setback from the nearest dwelling to discharge a firearm is illegal, citing that New York State reduced the setback for longbows from 500 to 150 feet in 2014.

The difference in the laws illegally restrains hunters from shooting deer within Smithtown or face possible prosecution, according to the lawsuit filed Dec. 7, and denies them their civil right to participate in hunting activity.

“I have a lot of property owners from Smithtown who call me and ask me to hunt their property, but when they find out the setback they don’t want to do it,” Tessitore said. “It causes the property owners to not want to cause any conflict with their community and get tickets for an otherwise legal activity.”

Christian Killoran, a Westhampton Beach attorney representing Hunters for Deer, sent a letter to the Town of Smithtown advising it of the issues with its code, according to Tessitore, but no action was taken.

Nicole Garguilo, newly appointed town spokeswoman, said that town attorney Matthew Jakubowski was unable to comment on pending litigation.

The town’s response to the lawsuit filed Dec. 18 stated the town was advised of the hunting organization’s position, but its “actions were lawful and within statutory constitutional authority.”

Tessitore said his group previously filed a lawsuit against the Village of Sag Harbor when it attempted to make a law that would have banned hunting within its borders, getting village officials to revisit and later change it. Tessitore said he hopes this lawsuit will have similar effect on the Town of Smithtown, causing town offices to amend town code to be more inline with the state DEC’s regulations.

“The only way to get a municipality’s attention is through a lawsuit and let a court decide who is right and who is wrong,” he said.

Lawsuit alleges FaceBook post made after September 2017 vote led to unfair suspension, harassment

The St. James firehouse on Route 25A/Lake Avenue. Photo from Google Maps

Two volunteers are suing the St. James firehouse and its leadership for violating their constitutional rights in the aftermath of the September bond vote.

Siblings Richard Weisse and Tricia Weisse, third-generation volunteers with St. James Engine Company #1, allege the St. James Fire Department, St. James Fire District, Chief Edward Springer Jr. and First Assistant Chief Ryan Davis illegally prevented them from attending any social events due to a Facebook post made after the bond vote in September. The pair is seeking money for their “emotional distress, mental anguish, embarrassment and humiliation.”

“We believe that the plaintiffs here were wronged, it’s a clear violation of their First Amendment and Fourth Amendment due process rights,” said David Erhlich, a Garden City-based attorney representing the Weisses. “We believe a jury will be sympathetic and side with our clients.”

The [firefighters] actions against [Richard and Tricia Weisse] amount to sore losers who are taking revenge on the ‘winners”
— Lawsuit

The Weisse family has a long history with the fire department, with their father, the late Richard Weisse Sr. having been a 42-year member and prior captain who was given the title of honorary chief upon his death, Erhlich said.

Tricia Weisse posted a picture of the historic St. James firehouse, located on Route 25A/Lake Avenue, on Facebook Sept. 24, after a $12.25 million capital bond vote failed Sept. 19, according to the lawsuit. Erlich said both siblings were vocal advocates against the bond.

Another person, who was not identified in the lawsuit, wrote a comment under the Facebook post reading, “St. James Fire Dept. Engine Company #1. It is tough, unless you are looking for a new place to party, to see these pics and remain absolutely unemotional about tearing it down. Nice pics,” according to the court documents.

Based on this comment, Richard Weisse and Tricia Weisse claim they received a letter signed by Springer that suspended them and another volunteer, John Tyson, from attending all social events and functions for three months as the comment violated the district’s social media policy. The Weisses said they requested a hearing to have their suspension reviewed, but the district refused.

“The [firefighters] actions against [Richard and Tricia Weisse] amount to sore losers who are taking revenge on the ‘winners,’” reads the lawsuit. “Springer and Davis used and abused their power in the department to punish the plaintiffs for their political decision on the bond issue.”

During this three-month suspension, the fire department hosted several events including its Veterans Day parade, Christmas parade, and Breakfast with Santa where the siblings had traditionally dressed up as Santa and Mrs. Claus. Instead, the siblings were forced to sit out.

We made an attempt to reach out to the fire department and fire district via letter and via phone, to resolve the matter”
— David Erhlich

Richard Weisse also alleged in November 2017 that Davis directed that he and other members of Engine Company No. 1 not be transported to a mandatory training, for which he took time off work to attend, and was not able to make it up within the required time frame. As such, Richard Weisse was suspended as a volunteer, according to court documents, and harassed by other firefighters.

“Springer, Davis and the department encouraged and condoned the harassment of Richard,” reads the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that the Weisse siblings’ “expression and advocacy against the bond issue — including the comment which was wrongly attributed to [them] — are an expression on the issue of public importance and is protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution from government interference or restriction.”

The siblings’ attorney also makes case for a violation of the Weisses’ Fourth Amendment due process right, claiming New York General Municipal Law Section 209-1 requires firefighters receive procedural due process before being discharged or suspended.

“We made an attempt to reach out to the fire department and fire district via letter and via phone, to resolve the matter,” Erlich said. “All we received back was a letter saying they we are supporting the fire district.”

Jessica Novins, a spokeswoman for St. James fire department and district, commented only, “Should there ever be any litigation against the fire district, the district would not be at liberty to comment.”

Suffolk residents are suing the county, overseen by Executive Steve Bellone, for what they deem to be illegal fees. File photo

By Kevin Redding

An upstate New York legal group that helps residents stand up against improper actions by their government recently set its sights on Suffolk County, whose hike in illegal fees in the past two years is the focus of a class-action lawsuit.

On Oct. 24, the Government Justice Center, an Albany-based nonprofit that offers pro bono representation to New York residents seeking to “fight city hall,” filed a lawsuit in state Supreme Court on behalf of five Suffolk County residents against the county, saying its abundance of assessment fees are “unauthorized taxes.”

The plaintiffs — homeowners living in Melville, Kings Park, Commack, Calverton and Shirley — face increasingly expensive fees for filing real estate documents, namely tax map verifications, which raked in $66 million this year, that far surpass the county’s operating budget of $1.2 million to perform the transactions through its Real Property Tax Service Agency, the suit alleges.

Between 2015 and 2017, mortgage recording fees and tax map verification fees imposed by the county jumped from $60 to $200 per land parcel, with an additional $300 slapped on for every mortgage recording instrument used. The revenue from the fees contributes to the county’s general fund.

According to the complaint, the county passed legislation to enforce these “backdoor taxes” on a certain subset of residents — in this case, homeowners — to bear the county’s burden as it was “unwilling to rein in its spending or face the political consequences of raising taxes to pay for general fund expenses.”

But, under state law, local fees are not allowed to exceed the cost of service or be used
to offset the revenue of government functions.

The homeowners are now calling on the county to stop imposing the illegal fees or at least reduce them to more closely match the $1.2 million service cost, and to refund them a portion of the real estate document fees. The county is currently being subpoenaed.

“It’s important that residents get the opportunity to have their voices heard,” said Cameron MacDonald, the executive director of the GJC. “The county is not supposed to be raising revenue through unauthorized taxes in the form of excessive fees. They need to either pass a tax that affects everyone or cut its spending.”

Ahead of the Suffolk County Legislature’s budget vote for 2018, which passed Nov. 8, MacDonald said he and his group called on legislators, to no avail, to eliminate a total $102 million in fees that generate revenue above the cost of the departments that collect them.

Mike Armstrong, the director of field operations for Reclaim New York Initiative, a nonpartisan group with representation on the GJC’s board which launched the Fight the Fees campaign to end illegal fees across the state, has been active in gaining public support of the lawsuit.

Armstrong compared the gradual increase of fees on taxpayers to “the difference between getting small cuts on your arm to having it chopped off entirely.

“The county talks about wanting to keep people here while they’re pushing them out the door with fees and taxes,” Armstrong said, adding that while tax increases are never popular, it’s at least honest compared to these fees. “I feel bad for young couples who want to buy a house that are now paying that mortgage fee. I feel bad for senior citizens who are closing out their mortgages and then are faced with an  exorbitant fee. It’s an issue that’s impacting people in a really dramatic way.”

During a vote last December to adopt the 2017 county budget,  Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) defended the fee increases, saying residents will not leave Suffolk County because of a few additional hundreds of dollars.

“I don’t think anyone is going to move to Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Arizona or anywhere else because of $300,” Gregory said regarding the verification fee. “I think it’s going to cost more to relocate than the
increase in this fee.”

Among few voices of opposition on the Legislature is Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), who, during the meeting to adopt the 2017 county budget, called it “death by a thousand knives.” He warned of an inevitable deficit in the county’s budget.

“The mismanagement of Suffolk County is heading us down the path of bankruptcy,” Trotta said. “They’re going to lose the lawsuits and they’re going to have to refund the fees and stop spending money. There’s going to be a huge hole in the budget no matter what.”

Jason Elan, a spokesman for County Executive Steve Bellone (D), addressed the lawsuit in an emailed statement.

“This is a politically motivated lawsuit filed by Albany insiders who lack any understanding on how government costs are apportioned, yet have no problem saddling taxpayers with the cost of fighting this completely frivolous complaint,” Elan’s statement read.

The state supreme court has since ruled similar fees in Nassau unconstitutional.

“This is a major victory for taxpayers, homeowners, businesses and any New Yorker who has been forced to pay an illegal fee,” Reclaim New York said in an email. “Every government around the state should get the message loud and clear. Nassau and Suffolk legislators have knowingly been stealing from residents with illegal fees ­— it’s theft. It is time to end illegal fees across New York.”

File photo by Elana Glowatz

By Sara-Megan Walsh

Two parents are suing the Kings Park Central School District over a 2015 sexting incident, claiming handling of the matter humiliated their sons and violated their freedom of speech.

Andrew J. Fenton, of Fort Salonga, and Thomas Phelan, of Kings Park, filed a lawsuit after their sons were among more than 25 students suspended for having received a sexual video via text message.

The lawsuit, filed Sept. 19, 2017, in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, alleges the “suspension of [the students] for receiving a video, unsolicited, which they did not show or send to anyone else, and which bore no nexus to an ensuing school disruption was arbitrary and capricious.” Both Fenton and Phelan seek damages for “humiliation and anguish” of their sons and their records expunged of the suspension.

On Nov. 4, 2015, dozens of Kings Park High School students received a video on their cellphones of two 14-year-olds having sex while at home, according to court documents.

When an assistant principal saw a ninth-grader playing the video in the high school’s cafeteria Nov. 6, school officials began an extensive investigation. The phones of all students who still had the video were temporarily confiscated, according to court documents. School district officials allege both Fenton’s and Phelon’s sons still had the video.

Under Kings Park’s Guidelines for Implementation of School Discipline Policy, “inappropriate texting and use of social media” and “selling, using, transmitting or possessing obscene material” are considered Level IV infractions punishable by up to five days suspension and parental contact.

On Nov. 9 and 10, Kings Park High School Principal Lino Bracco sent certified mail to Fenton and Phelan notifying them that their sons, sophomores at the time, would be suspended for one day for “inappropriate use of an electronic device.” The letter warned that the students were “prohibited from entering upon school grounds for any reason and should remain home under supervision.”

Fenton said he did not receive the Nov. 9 letter in time, and his son was escorted out of the high school on Nov. 10 by two uniformed police officers, according to court documents.

By letter dated Nov. 18, Superintendent Timothy Eagen made an offer to parents that they could submit a request for their child’s disciplinary record to be reviewed, and barring any similar incidents, the suspension would be expunged.

Both parents retained Middletown-based attorneys, partners Robert Isseks and Andrew Smith, who sent letters dated Dec. 9, 2015, requesting the suspensions be immediately removed from the students’ records alleging “they never possessed the message in school or on school property.”

Both parents said Kings Park school district’s cellphone policy also infringed on their sons’ right to free speech. “The only way that [he] or any other student could possibly make sure that he did not find himself in an ‘incident similar in nature’ during the coming year is if he stopped receiving text messages all together,” reads the Dec. 9 letter.

An appeal was made to New York State Department of Education, whose Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia ruled Nov. 10, 2016, that the district’s “suspension of [the students] for receiving a video, unsolicited, which they did not show or send to anyone else, and which bore no nexus to an ensuring school disruption, was arbitrary and capricious.” Elia ordered Kings Park school district to annul and expunge the suspension.

Eagen said that as at press time, Kings Park school district had yet to be served with the lawsuit.

“Parents will sometimes address a particular issue through a media solution rather than an administrative or due process solution,” Eagen said. “However, in choosing this path, sometimes parents will share certain personal and/or confidential information that then becomes a part of public record.”

The superintendent said the district’s policy and practice is to not comment on specific student disciplinary matters and/or pending lawsuits.

Attorney Smith could not be reached for comment by press time. Principal Bracco did not return phone calls requesting an interview or comment.

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