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Lawsuit

The Northport power plant. File photo

Huntington town elected officials refused to entertain a request to hire additional legal help in its lawsuit against Long Island PowerAuthority, despite calls from Northport residents for help.

Huntington Councilman Gene Cook (R) offered a resolution at the June 5 town board meeting to hire Manhattan-based law firm Boies Schiller & Flexner LLP as additional legal counsel in the town’s pending tax certiorari case with LIPA and National Grid over the Northport Power Station as the case heads to trial in July.

“I believe this is a very needed law firm to hire at this point,” Cook said. “For the money that this law firm would [cost], it’s a whole lot less than the hundreds of millions we stand to lose.”

For the money that this law firm would [cost], it’s a whole lot less than the hundreds of millions we stand to lose.”
– Gene Cook

A request to hear and vote on a measure was shot down by a 3-2 vote, by Supervisor Chad Lupinacci (R), Councilman Mark Cuthbertson (D) and Councilwoman Joan Cergol (D).

“There are hundreds of thousands — millions of dollars at stake now in this case,” Lupinacci said. “Huntington has been fighting hard on behalf of the taxpayers. We will continue to use all legal options at our [disposal] to make sure LIPA and National Grid honor their contractual promises.”

LIPA filed a tax certiorari lawsuit against the town assessor’s office in 2010 seeking a 90 percent reduction in the tax assessed valuation of its Northport Power Station, and seeking repayment of all taxes it claims to have overpaid since 2010 — currently amounting to more than $550 million and growing.

Cook said the Manhattan-based law firm is one of the top litigation firms in the nation, although admittedly not specialized in cases related to power plants.

“We are losing a huge opportunity and it will hurt everyone out there by not doing this,” he said.

Several prominent Northport residents had pleaded with the town officials to support Cook’s resolution Tuesday afternoon including Northport school board trustee David Stein, who spoke as a private resident in support of the measure.

The army of attorneys, lobbyists and PR titans that we are against now requires an outsized army of our own.”
– David Stein

“LIPA and National Grid have brought in a veritable army of lawyers, lobbyists and [public relations] attack dogs,” Stein said, painting an image of a David-versus-Goliath fight. “The army of attorneys, lobbyists and PR titans that we are against now requires an outsized army of our own. And so, I urge you to engage the services of the biggest, best, brightest and most well-known in all of these areas now.”

Under Cook’s proposed contract, attorneys from Boies Schiller & Flexner would have been paid an hourly rate of not more than $1,650 an hour to assist the town’s current legal representatives from Lewis & Greer P.C. in determining a strategy and arguments for the upcoming trial. These accumulated attorney fees could not be bonded under state law, according to the town supervisor, but would have required dipping into the town’s capital reserves.

“If spending $1,650 were a silver bullet that would achieve something here, I would do it,” Cuthbertson said. “The law firm Cook would like to hire has absolutely no experience in tax certiorari cases that involve power plants.”

Lupinacci said he was willing to consider looking into other prominent litigation law firms which might be able to serve the town at a lower cost.

“Sometimes when [law firms] look at a municipality, they believe they are looking at deep pockets,” the supervisor said. “We have to do some outside the box thinking and leave no stone unturned.”

If spending $1,650 were a silver bullet that would achieve something here, I would do it.”
– Mark Cuthbertson

Northport Village Deputy Mayor Thomas Kehoe and Northport resident Tammy Topel both urged the Huntington town officials to take more aggressive action in light of additional information that has become public — spoken widely about by Cook — calling the Northport Power Station a hub through which natural gas lines and fiber optic networks for internet pass through.

“I believe these are misguided attempts to incorporate other aspects into the valuation process that just aren’t there,” Cuthbertson said. “It’s a red herring and unfair to the public.”

Cook vehemently disagreed with his fellow councilman in open debate.

The town is moving forward by pursuing help from its state elected officials, according to the supervisor, including scheduling a meeting with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to garner his support for a resolution to the case. Lupinacci said the town still remains open to negotiations.

“We are always speaking with the other side to see if there is some kind of resolution, but we are probably not going to achieve a resolution that is going to be beneficial to the taxpayers of Huntington and to our students,” Lupinacci said. “We are prepared to take this case to trial.”

Judge rules to adjourn June 11 trial date for LIPA versus Town of Huntington

The Northport power plant. File photo

Northport school officials are inviting all district residents to a community meeting May 30 to address the potential impact of its lawsuit against Long Island Power Authority.

Northport school district will host a “call to action” community forum Wednesday at 8 p.m. in the auditorium of Northport High School. Superintendent Robert Banzer will provide residents with a brief update on the status of the district’s lawsuit against LIPA, legislation and what steps it can take to make sure resident’s concerns are being heard. The high school is located at 154 Laurel Hill Road in Northport.

This is the second meeting the school district will hold this month to address concerns over the LIPA lawsuit. School officials held a May 1 meeting where attorney John Gross presented his argument on why the utility company should be forced to uphold a 1997 promise not to attempt to lower the taxes on the Northport power plant.

LIPA has filed a lawsuit that is currently pending against the Town of Huntington to lower the Northport Power Station’s assessed tax valuation by 90 percent along with a reimbursement of all overpaid taxes since 2010. The Town of Huntington and LIPA appeared in court May 29 after which the judge adjourned the previously scheduled June 11 trial date, according to town spokeswoman Lauren Lembo at 1:10 p.m. Tuesday.

No additional information was immediately available on why the June 11 court date was adjourned.

Councilman Eugene Cook calls for residents to launch letter-writing campaign to Huntington Town officials

The Northport power plant. File photo

Town of Huntington officials are moving toward making a power play against Long Island Power Authority and National Grid to take over control of the Northport power plant.

Councilman Gene Cook (R) has called for town residents to participate in a letter-writing campaign asking Huntington’s elected officials to consider utilizing eminent domain to take control of Northport power plant.

His proposal comes days after LIPA allegedly submitted documents to Suffolk County Supreme Court for its pending lawsuit against the town, in which it disputes the tax value of the plant, claiming the structure only has a fair market value of $193 million, according to Cook.

“Their estimate is so far out of wack on it, they are almost like giving us the plant,” the councilman said. “If they want to give it to us, I want to take it.”

Cook said he thinks the Northport facility is one of the biggest power plants in the Northeast, which will become more valuable with future improvements. He estimated the power station could produce $5 billion in revenue per year for the town if it took over operation of the facility. He suggested the name “Huntington Power Service Company.”

“We want to serve our residents, not be an authority over them like LIPA has done,” Cook said. “They have taken LI Power Authority as ‘we have authority over everyone.’” 

Their estimate is so far out of wack on it, they are almost like giving us the plant.”

— Eugene Cook

The councilman drafted a resolution he said he plans to present at the May 17 town board meeting for Huntington to hold a public hearing. If approved, a hearing will be held June 5 at 2 p.m. for residents to voice their thoughts and concerns on the acquisition of the plant from National Grid, which is the owner of the power station.

“The basis of this acquisition will be for the purpose of delivery to the public of electrical power in a safe and cost-efficient manner,” reads the draft resolution.

Under New York State law, the town must publish its findings and determinations on the proposed acquisition from the public hearing within 90 days. The Town of Huntington is due in court to face LIPA less than a week later June 11.

“We are looking at every facet of possibility here when looking at the LIPA situation because it’s a very serious situation,” Supervisor Chad Lupinacci (R) said. “Any possibility that comes up we will review with our attorney — we will review it with experts to see if it’s feasible.”

Even if the town initiated the process of obtaining the power plan via eminent domain, it would not resolve the town’s lawsuit with LIPA. In addition to seeking a 90 percent reduction of taxes on the power plant, LIPA is asking for the town to reimburse it for alleged overpayment of taxes each year since it filed the claim in 2010 — totaling more than $500 million.

“Let’s save the consulting and legal expenses of evaluating this idea, which would be fiscally disastrous to the town, its taxpayers and wouldn’t resolve the pending tax certiorari litigation,” LIPA spokesman Sid Nathan said in a statement.

Let’s save the consulting and legal expenses of evaluating this idea, which would be fiscally disastrous to the town, its taxpayers and wouldn’t resolve the pending tax certiorari litigation.”

– Sid Nathan

LIPA disputes that the Town of Huntington could turn a profit operating the station, claiming Northport power plant is operated at a loss. The power company said its contract with National Grid requires it to pay all costs to run the plant — including $80 million in annual property taxes leveraged by the Town of Huntington — which exceeds its revenue. LIPA also stressed that if Huntington took control of the plant, all beneficial tax revenue would cease, leaving residents to pay more for their government services.

“We hope the town will join with other local communities on Long Island that are working with LIPA to reach a fair settlement offer that puts an unsustainable property tax situation at the Northport plant back on a sustainable path,” Nathan said.

The Town of Brookhaven and Village of Port Jefferson both announced they had reached settlements over the tax assessed value of the Port Jeff plant with LIPA in early April.

If the lawsuit is decided in LIPA’s favor, the utility company estimates that Town of Huntington residents would see their taxes increase by $62 a month, with Northport-East Northport school district residents responsible for an additional $210 to $220 per month.

Lupinacci has said the town remains open to bargaining with LIPA, while Cook said the only negotiation he is for is LIPA agreeing to withdraw its lawsuit.

“I will fight to the death on this one,” Cook said. “Either they want to be good neighbors or they don’t. If they don’t, they can hit the road.”

Northport school district attorney John Gross explains the LIPA lawsuit to residents at a May 1 presentation. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

By Sara-Megan Walsh

Northport residents are gearing up for a David-versus-Goliath showdown as school district officials will call on Long Island Power Authority to uphold its promise in Suffolk Supreme Court next week.

Northport-East Northport school district attorney John Gross will present his argument May 9 on why the utility company should be forced to uphold a 1997 promise not to attempt to lower the taxes on the Northport power plant.

As both the district and LIPA’s attorneys have asked for summary judgments, or immediate decision in their favor, Gross explained at a May 1 presentation at Northport High School to the public there could be a decision made that significantly impacts district taxpayers days before the 2018-19 budget vote.

“If there is a substantial reduction in taxes, the impact shifts to the individual taxpayers,” Gross said at the May 1 presentation. “That is the threat. That is the concern of which the school district has spent a lot of time and effort combating.”

If there is a substantial reduction in taxes, the impact shifts to the individual taxpayers.”
– John Gross

LIPA currently pays more than $81 million annually in taxes on the Northport power plant, according to a statement from the utility company. The school district receives approximately $53 million per year in tax revenue from the power plant’s taxes, which would pay for less than 40 percent of the district’s proposed $146 million tax levy for the 2018-19 school year.

“The $81 million tax burden on the Northport plant is not sustainable, especially as the output of the Northport plan is forecast to continue to decline, as more solar and wind energy is added to the electric grid,” LIPA said in a press release.

In 2010, LIPA filed a tax certiorari lawsuit against the Town of Huntington’s Assessor’s Office seeking a 90 percent reduction in the power plant’s taxes. The trial is scheduled to begin June 11.

Gross explained to residents in his May 1 presentation that Northport school district doesn’t have any standing in that lawsuit, but is a mere bystander because the Huntington Town assessor determines the assessed value of the plant, which is currently set at $30,255,550.

“The plant we believe is worth well over $3 billion,” Gross said, speaking to its fair market value.

In 2011, the district’s attorney filed a lawsuit against LIPA claiming it is the third-party beneficiary of a “promise” made in the 1997 Power Supply Agreement between LIPA and National Grid.

Gross pointed to Article 21.16 of the contract that reads the utility company, “may challenge any property tax assessment on its generating facilities or generating facility sites only if the assessment on any such challenged facility is increased not in an appropriate proportion to the increase in value related to taxable capital additions.”

The district’s attorney said he believes LIPA illegally broke contract when it filed the lawsuit against the Town of Huntington to lower taxes on the plant in 2010.

“From 1997 to today, [their taxes] have not been moved one dollar,” Gross said. “It has not been increased.”


Tax Impact of LIPA lawsuit
Assuming 2 percent school tax increase per year and average home assessed value of $3,700

If LIPA wins 90 percent reduction:
– 57.86 percent increase after 2 years
– 67.53 percent increase after 5 years
-81.33 percent increase after 9 years

LIPA settlement offer of 60 percent reduction over 9 years:
– 9.57 percent increase after 2 years
– 26.37 percent increase after 5 years
– 54.66 percent increase after 9 years

LIPA settlement offer of 9-year reduction to $28 million in taxes:
– 12.46 percent increase after 2 years
– 32.11 percent increase after 5 years
– 60.18 percent increase after 9 years

LIPA has refuted this claim for the last seven years. It stated that, “The alleged promises to the school district are not enshrined in the Power Supply Agreement between LIPA and National Grid or any other contract documents.”

Gross said his legal team has deposed 17 individuals on the 1997 Power Supply Agreement and what it contains, and filed more than 60,000 pages of documents with the courts. These documents point to the several 1997 events where former LIPA chairman Richard Kessel spoke with Northport school administrators and Huntington Town officials. Among them is correspondence sent between LIPA, federal agencies and elected officials including documents submitted to the Internal Revenue Service.

“They put the promise in black and white in submissions to the IRS that taxes would not be affected for the host communities — us,” Gross said.

The utility company’s defense is that the original PSA expired May 28, 2013, which was replaced by a new agreement that runs through April 2028. Therefore, the promise claimed by the school district expired nearly five years ago.

Gross claimed LIPA and National Grid said they renewed their original contract in 2013 through 2028, which should extend their promise to the school district for another 15 years.

The alleged promise contained in the 1997 Power Supply Agreement will take front and center stage in the court arguments May 9.

Gross warned residents they’re facing three potential outcomes next week. First, that the judge agrees with Northport’s position, keeping tax rates steady and LIPA will likely appeal. Second, the judge finds for LIPA that there was never a promise made to the schools.

“If it’s decided for LIPA, we are in deep trouble,” Gross said.

Third, if the judge decides both parties have raised significant issues then she can schedule the case to go to trial.

“I feel like we’re on our own in this,” said Michael Marcantonio, of Eaton’s Neck. “If we lose this case it will devastate our community.”

State Sens. 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, and the other
municipalities and school districts battling similar disputes with the utility. 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.

They put the promise in black and white in submissions to the IRS that taxes would not be affected for the host communities — us.”
– John Gross

Northport Superintendent Robert Banzer encouraged residents to reach out to their state
assemblyman and encourage them to push the legislation forward before this year’s session ends June 30.

“We are strenuously working on this from multiple arenas in both the court of law but also the legislation that’s been proposed,” Banzer said. “I want to thank those of you that are advocating for this legislation, as again, we want to cover this on as many fronts as possible.”

A spokesperson for state Assemblyman Andrew Raia (R-East Northport) said Raia had reached out to his fellow Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) to see if he would review the legislation and introduce it as a member of the house’s majority party. If not, Raia would sponsor it.

If LIPA were to win its lawsuit for a 90 percent reduction of taxes against the Town of Huntington, Gross said Northport homeowners whose homes have an assessed value of $3,700 could see their school taxes jump by as much as 81 percent over the next nine years.

Banzer said the district still remains open to negotiation of a settlement.

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.”

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.”

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