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Outcoming and incoming supers speak on LIPA glide path, enrollment numbers and community

Jessica Schmettan is taking over as the incoming superintendent for the Port Jeff school district. Photo by Kyle Barr

Walking into the Port Jefferson School District administrative offices, it’s apparent changes are on the way. Jessica Schmettan, the incoming superintendent, has moved into the office where outgoing superintendent Paul Casciano once sat. Schmettan’s desk is like a blank slate, mostly bare save for a few files and pencil holder. Casciano, on the other hand, has moved into a back room and works off a laptop.

Just on the other side of a wall is Casciano’s temporary desk. As the man who was only meant to be an “interim superintendent” finishes up his third and final year as super, he is anticipating the coming of Oct. 31, his last day before retirement. He said he expects to take some much-needed vacation time and perhaps get down to writing a book or two.

The incoming super is a nine-year Port Jeff resident, and Casciano said she was one of the best first decisions he made when he came into the district.

“She’s bright, she’s a problem solver, and she’s younger than me, so she is likely to be around for a long time,” he said.

It’s the start of something new, but the continuation of the old, both exiting and incoming superintendents said, and there are many challenges the district will face in the years to come.

Impact of LIPA glide path

Closing on a year since Port Jefferson village and the Town of Brookhaven settled with LIPA over the Port Jefferson Power Station’s tax assessments, school officials said the decision is going to be a heavy deciding factor in every ongoing budget for the next eight years of the glide path. Later years will see even more challenges as the glide path increasingly reduces the tax dollars paid to the school.

Though the district expects it will maintain a tax rate that’s less than all other surrounding school districts, it also means local residents are going to make up a larger portion of revenues.

“This is not only a financial issue, but that issue impacts our core mission, which is teaching and learning,” Casciano said. “It has a lot of pieces — our position is the burden is going to need to be shared, that’s our take on it all along.”

Paul Casciano is leaving the Port Jeff school district after three years as its superintendent. TBR News Media file photo

Schmettan expects things will need to be cut, including potentially some certain classes with low enrollment.

An increase of taxes always brings the thought that some residents would be pressured to leave.

“It’s going to depend on how the community reacts — we don’t want to trim so much we have nothing left, we also don’t want people feeling they can’t live here anymore,” Schmettan said. “We’ll still maintain a low tax rate after those eight years, lower than other surrounding districts, but I think that as people start to see what may or may not happen, you’re going to get community support.”

Both superintendents emphasized the need for support from the community as the district moves forward in the glide path. Casciano said his belief is parents who may have had their kids graduate from school already have the responsibility to at the very least be active with the district, giving the same opportunity to those families who are just beginning their path in grade school. The outgoing super likened it to a balance, adding a school district’s strength will also show itself on home values.

“There are two schools of thought, there are people who look at it as, ‘Hey, I don’t have anything vested now,’” he said. “I don’t agree with that — the quality of the schools says a lot about your property values, whether you’re intending to sell or leave it to someone else when you go.” 

Because of these changes, the district announced it would be hosting School-Community Partnership meetings in a roundtable setting, looking to give local residents the chance to offer their opinions on where things could go during the next eight years.

Community involvement

The School-Community Partnership is the way the district hopes to gather interest in moving forward, both from people who have kids in the district, have seen their kids graduate, or for those who don’t have any children in Port Jeff.

“It’s really an open forum for community members, to express our concerns over the glide path,” Schmettan said. “It will really be like an open forum for people to share their concerns in smaller groups — not livestreamed — more open for discussion, and not as structured as a board meeting.”

The difficulty will be coming to a consensus. While some parents may look at a class with low enrollment and look to take the ax to it, another parent with a student in that class may think differently.

People are being encouraged to provide input on programs, facilities and financial challenges being reviewed by the board of education and administration. The first meeting is slated for Tuesday, Oct. 29, at 7 p.m. in the Earl L. Vandermeulen High School/Middle School library, at 350 Old Post Road, in Port Jefferson.

Future enrollment

This school year, the district dropped a kindergarten class because of generally low enrollment at the youngest level. Its total student population of 1,077 students is one of the smallest on Long Island. Last year’s graduating class was 97, but regularly fluctuates between the high 80s and 90s.

But thinking down the road, the new superintendent has to consider what it will mean when the smaller classes finally make their way to the high school senior level in 12 years.

And considering the LIPA glide path, she will also have to consider what will happen should lower grade enrollment continue to shrink. Schmettan herself has two children in the district, both in this current kindergarten class.

“We have to engage the community more, we have to show everybody, especially for people who don’t have kids what is the value of the school district and how does it impact your home value,” the incoming super said.

She added the recent homecoming events were a great way to get people more active in the district’s goings-ons.

The outgoing super said the important thing is keeping the district attractive to new homebuyers looking to settle down and raise children in the district.

“Right now, you have the best of both worlds, low taxes and a great school system,” he said. “We want to maintain a good school system, so it might come up some families might say I was staying here because taxes were way low, people with multiple homes will say I’ll own one, not three. The families that purchase may in fact have children, and that’s because of the quality of the schools.”

What makes Port Jeff special

Though Casciano is leaving Port Jeff after three years, he said he came to learn more individuals in the district than he had when he worked for years at William Floyd. Schmettan said the same for her time as assistant superintendent at the Sachem school district.

That small size means there are very few ways to keep a secret, but, as the outgoing and incoming supers agreed, it also means students are more accepting of each other. They referenced the recent shooting at the Port Jeff Liquors, as when they got the notification of the incident the buses had just left from the middle school. District officials went to the scene to make sure students weren’t going to walk through, and elementary principal Tom Meehan even walked some students home.

“I feel fortunate I’ve had the opportunity to work in Port Jeff, know the people who work in the community,” Casciano said. “There’s a real warmth, there’s a real caring for how the kids do, not only on the part of the parents but on the part of the teachers.”

Schmettan said the district is representative of the larger community.

“Our students are so diverse in what they approach,” she said. “Our kids are so diverse, and they mix and mingle so well, and they’re really open to each other. They’re so accepting of one another. That’s definitely something I see in our community as a whole. The school district is a microcosm of the entire community.”

Northport power plant. File photo

At the Long Island Power Authority’s July 24 board meeting, Larry Kelly, a trial attorney, described at a public comment session how LIPA in 2006 and 2007 instituted what he called “the largest tax fraud” he’s seen in his 35 years as a lawyer, according to Huntington Town councilman, Eugene Cook (R).

Cook has independently asked New York State’s Public Service Commission Chairman John Rhodes in a letter dated Aug. 6 to review and “forcibly address” the issues. 

According to Cook, Kelly alleged that LIPA used the tax system to extend tax exemptions and reductions to Caithness power plant, which was awarded a contract to build a new 350-megawatt power plant in Yaphank, and then used those low taxes to argue in court that National Grid’s four aging power plants on Long Island were overassessed.

“I also request the PSC review LIPA’s ‘unclean hands’ in the Northport filings, and the impact that should have on LIPA’s continued operations,” Cook’s four-page letter concluded. The letter was sent on a town letterhead, but was not signed by other town board members, the supervisor or the town attorney.  

Councilman Eugene Cook

The term “unclean hands” is a legal defense which essentially references a legal doctrine that states a plaintiff is unable to pursue tax equity through the courts if the plaintiff has acted unethically in relation to the subject of its complaint. 

The allegations are surfacing just weeks after closing arguments were presented July 30 in LIPA’s tax certiorari case with the Town of Huntington for the year 2014. It is unclear how the allegation could potentially impact the outcome of the case as post-trial deliberations continue. The unclean hands defense was not part of the town’s defense, according to the Town Attorney Nick Ciappetta, who offered no public comment on the allegations.  

Kelly, a Bayport resident who ran for a New York State Supreme Court judgeship in the 2018 election, is unaffiliated with Huntington’s case, but said his obligation as a trial lawyer is to act as a steward of the law. 

LIPA did not respond to email requests for comment on the public allegations. 

A LIPA press release dated Jan. 25, 2006, stated that the Caithness plant in Yaphank would include a $139 million payment in lieu of taxes agreement with $100 million over 20 years going to Bellport’s South Country school district. 

LIPA’s 2019 Property Tax Reduction pamphlet, which is publicly available and published on its website, highlights the value of Caithness plant in contrast to the Port Jefferson, Northport and three other plants. On page 14 of the report, LIPA stated that in 2016 Caithness paid $9.7 million annually in taxes, while the Northport plant paid “eight times” as much in taxes, or $81 million, and Port Jefferson paid “three times” as much in taxes, or $33 million.  

The report also stated on page 14 that LIPA reimburses National Grid under its contract more than it earns in power revenue, a sum that factors in property taxes. 

“Those losses, the amount by which costs exceed the value of power, are paid by all 1.1 million electric customers,” the report said. It indicated that LIPA’s goal for filing tax challenges in 2010 against Nassau County, the Town of Huntington, the Town of Brookhaven and the Village of Port Jefferson “in an attempt to obtain a fair tax assessment on the four legacy plants.” 

In a telephone interview, Kelly referred to a Feb. 15, 2012 meeting with the Town of Brookhaven Industrial Development Agency, which recorded a Caithness representative explaining that “LIPA pays the PILOT to Caithness who then makes the PILOT payment to the IDA, and then they get a check back from New York State which is then returned to LIPA.” 

The minutes further stated, “This is the only power plant on Long Island that the ratepayers are not paying any real property taxes net out of pocket for the first 10 years, resulting in a saving of $80 million.” 

Kelly and Cook, in presenting the allegations publicly and to the commission, claimed that Bellport’s school district, South Country, which Cook said in his letter is comprised of 40 percent minority populations, were shortchanged tax revenue that could have funded school programs. Representatives from the South Country school district did not respond to email and telephone inquiries about their tax revenue from Caithness. 

The Public Service Commission has said that it has received and is reviewing the letter from Cook. It offered no other response to questions related to its potential response.

Northport power plant. File photo

The Town of Huntington presented closing arguments July 30 in LIPA’s tax certiorari case, but the post-trial proceedings are expected to continue into early 2020.

“Even as trial comes to an end, LIPA continues to offer the Town of Huntington the fair settlement accepted by the Town of Brookhaven last year,” LIPA spokesman Michael Deering said in an email. “The offer keeps school tax rates low for the Northport community while lowering energy costs for LIPA’s 1.1 million customers.”

Huntington Town Attorney Nick Ciappetta said in a telephone interview after leaving the Riverhead courtroom that the town had a good day in court.

“LIPA has the burden of proof,” he said. “I think we did a good job showing that their valuation estimates are unjustifiable and off base.”

Unlike jury trials that render a decision after closing arguments, the LIPA case is a bench trial. Decisions are rendered by a judge after post-trial deliberations.

Both LIPA and the Town of Huntington are expected to continue to file post-trial briefs to state Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Hazlitt Emerson, which can take months, Ciappetta said. After that phase concludes, the judge can also take months to render a verdict.

LIPA states that National Grid’s taxes, which are passed along to Long Island ratepayers, should be 90 percent less than the $84 million that it currently pays to the Town of Huntington for the Northport power plant. LIPA estimates the plant’s tax valuation at $200 to $500 million, while Huntington’s assessed value on the tax code for the site is $3.4 billion.

“I think we did a good job showing that their valuation estimates are unjustifiable and off base.”

— Nick Chiappetta

As a general rule, the presumption is that the town’s tax assessment is accurate, according to the town’s outside attorney Patrick Seely, as stated in the July 30 court transcript.

LIPA’s public campaign on the Northport plant’s assessment relies largely on
comparisons.

“The trial is proceeding as expected, demonstrating that the aging Northport power plant is the highest taxed property in America, more than Disneyland and the Empire State Building combined and is significantly overassessed,” Deering said.

The Disneyland comparison, Ciappetta said, is comparing apples to oranges, since school taxation is calculated differently in different places. 

The case was originally filed in 2011 and the trial pertains only to 2014. Each other year from 2011 to the present is heard separately, Ciappetta said.

If the town loses, it could owe hundreds of millions in tax refunds to LIPA and
National Grid.

LIPA’s legal expenses to challenge the taxes on the Northport plant have cost, from December 2018 to June 2019, a total of $1.2 million. 

The Town of Huntington has so far paid more than $3.4 million, mainly in legal fees, defending the tax certiorari cases and pursuing a third-party beneficiary case against National Grid and LIPA, as reported by town Supervisor Chad Lupinacci (R) in April.

National Grid is a for-profit, shareholder-owned entity based in the United Kingdom. LIPA is a nonprofit state entity.

Ali Mohammed, a financial industry executive, has been appointed to Long Island Power Authority as a trustee. Photo from Ali Mohammed

Ali Mohammed, a financial industry executive, has been appointed to Long Island Power Authority as one of nine unpaid board members charged with overseeing the quasi-governmental agency.

The appointment comes at a pivotal time and in the wake of controversy. The agency has come under public attack after it filed tax lawsuits against Long Island communities in an effort to save money. And as the state transitions to a clean-energy economy, state leaders are looking toward Mohammed and the board for new direction.

“One of my first priorities as a LIPA trustee will be to end LIPA’s practice of reckless tax certiorari lawsuits against communities and school districts,” Mohammed said in a statement. “LIPA must immediately cease all litigation.”, n

Mohammed’s background includes 20 years of experience working in senior leadership roles for major financial organizations, such as JPMorgan Chase & Co., Goldman Sachs and TD Ameritrade.

He’s been involved in restructuring Fortune 500 companies to become more efficient, while lowering costs, according to press releases. The technology sector is also one of his areas of expertise. In June, Mohammed joined Broadridge, a global financial industry analytics company, which has 33 U.S. offices, including one in Lake Success.

“I will work to modernize a board so desperately in need of good governance reforms to ensure LIPA finally starts serving ratepayers best interests,” Mohammed said. “The time has come and gone for LIPA to behave as a responsible corporate neighbor, and I look forward to bring an unequivocally ethical and honest voice to the board.”

Mohammed’s position aligns with many local elected state officials, who have written and/or sponsored bills that aim to counter the potential financial blow to communities and school districts if LIPA’s tax strategies prevail through courts.

“One of my top priorities as a state senator has been to hold LIPA accountable and protect taxpayers,” said state Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport). “For too long LIPA has been a runaway authority, accountable to no one but themselves.”

He thanks Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) for prioritizing Long Island taxpayers through Mohammed’s appointment and applauds her choice.

“I am proud to appoint Ali Mohammed to the Long Island Power Authority board,” Stewart-Cousins said. “Mr. Mohammed’s expertise in transforming organizations will help usher in a new ‘green era’ for LIPA, while at the same time fighting to support ratepayers.”

Mohammed becomes the first Muslim-American to serve on the all-male LIPA board.

LIPA was created in 1986 by the New York State Legislature. In 1998, it acquired the electric transmission and distribution system of the privately owned Long Island Lighting Company, known as LILCO, through a public bailout after the failed Shoreham nuclear project incurred $7 billion in debt.

The nonprofit entity employs 51 full-time staff members, according to LIPA spokesperson Sid Nathan, and manages a budget of $3.6 billion. LIPA holds contracts with National Grid and PSEG Long Island, two shareholder-owned businesses that generate electricity and operate electric services for Long Islanders.

Mohammed was due to attend his first LIPA board meeting July 24.

Aerial shot of the new solar array. Photo from anonymous

After the Izzo family leased their 26-acre Kings Park property to the Town of Smithtown for a landfill during the 1970s, the place was declared uninhabitable. Today, the site is revered as one of Long Island’s largest solar farms.

Izzo family leads Long Island into New York’s green energy future. Photo by Donna Deedy

The 4-megawatt project was showcased on June 20 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, an event that unexpectedly coincided with New York State’s sweeping new clean energy legislation promising to become carbon neutral by 2050.

“It’s almost like we knew what we were doing,” said Tom Falcone, Long Island Power Authority CEO, who attended the event along with county and town elected officials. The achievement, he said, entailed a cooperative effort. “It took a village, a town, a state and the Izzo family.”

The state’s ambitious new energy plan renders the privately owned Kings Park solar farm a shining new example of what the future may look like with private landowners and non-developable property transformed to serve a public utilitarian purpose.

“It takes a lot of gambling but, wow, was this a good project,” said Paul Curran, founder of Wappinger Falls-based BQ Energy, a company committed to the sustainable redevelopment of environmentally contaminated sites known as brownfields. “Once you see it, people say it makes so much sense.” He expects the site to inspire additional projects. 

Curran first approached the Izzo family with the idea of using their property for a solar site in 2013. RECOM Solar leased the development rights from the family to construct the project. NextEra Energy Resources, which claims to be the world’s largest supplier of renewable energy took over in December 2018, when the site became operational. 

The solar project, which consists of 18,000 solar panels, created 50 jobs, mainly in the construction sector, according to Bryan Garner, NextEra’s director of communications. NextEra signed a 20-year power purchase agreement with LIPA, which will ultimately result in nearly $800,000 in revenue for Smithtown. That’s $33,000 per year for the first 15 years in payments in lieu of taxes and $296,000 in tax revenue for the final five years. 

The project will offset more than 4,500 metric tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of removing 800 cars off the road. 

Unlike fossil fuel plants, the facility operates silently and requires very little maintenance. “We check it about four times a year, so it’s maintenance free,” said Aaron Benedict, who monitors the project for NextEra. His cellphone includes an application that remotely monitors the operation 24/7. 

Suffolk County and Smithtown government officials attended the event with Town Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) arriving in one of the town’s two all-electric vehicles. 

“We are all in with renewable and clean energy,” he said. The town, he said, expects to systematically transform the Old Northport Road corridor. The roof on its recycling center, which is located near the solar farm, is fitted with 50-kilowatt solar system and has a 10-kW wind turbine. The town is also discussing the development of a solar farm on the closed landfills, which could eliminate the town’s need to purchase electricity, according to Russell Barnett, Smithtown’s Environmental Protection director. Additional town projects are also under discussion and will be considered during the town’s 2020 budget process.

The financial terms of the arrangements between NextEra and the Izzo family remain confidential. 

“This is all about what good this site can do for years to come,” said Robert Izzo Jr, whose family has owned the property for decades.

PSEG reports that 161 MW of its energy supply is generated from renewable projects, mainly solar panels. 

Northport power plant. File photo

One year ago, the Town of Huntington’s board members considered eminent domain proceedings for the Northport power plant as a potential outcome to LIPA’s tax lawsuit against the Town of Huntington.  

A newly released report on the topic, prepared by the town attorney and several other town departments, now suggests the legal obstacles just may be too great for the town to overcome.

“Let’s take it, let’s take it now.”

— Eugene Cook

The report notes that eminent domain proceedings would render the power  plant property exempt from taxes, a situation that would result in the loss of $55 million in taxes to the Northport-East Northport school district.

Town Supervisor Chad Lupinacci (R) found this aspect of the situation to be unacceptable.

“After reading the thorough report prepared by the town attorney, it is my position that eminent domain of the Northport power plant would not be feasible and would actually harm the Northport-East Northport school district, as well as taxpayers in the Town of Huntington, by making the property tax-exempt,” he said. 

Some board members, however, still support the idea of establishing a municipal utility through eminent domain proceedings.

“Let’s take it, let’s take it now,” Councilman Eugene Cook (I) said in a telephone interview. “We can lower taxes; we can reduce energy costs.” 

Cook estimates that the plant will likely be used for another 20 to 30 years, and he said that it may become a more important part of the state’s energy plan when Indian Point nuclear power plant closes next year. He’s undeterred by the report.

The detailed legal and financial challenges outlined in the report cite a range of laws, legal opinions and case law to support its findings.

“There is no doubt that General Municipal Law Section 360 authorizes municipalities to own and operate a power-generating facility,” the report states. “However, the grant of authority in Section 360 is limited.”

A main sticking point: The town can generate electricity for itself and its residents. But using only a fraction of the energy that it generates — and selling the rest to a public utility — is legally questionable. The report based this conclusion on a 1989 legal opinion of New York State’s attorney general, which reportedly states that a municipality cannot own and operate a power plant for the sole purpose of selling power to a public utility.

Using the current situation as an example, the report indicates the Town of Huntington would use approximately 15 percent of the energy generated by the Northport power plant, leaving a surplus of 85 percent. The courts would need to determine whether or not the arrangement would be legally acceptable, as stated in the report. 

Power of the LIPA statute

Town attorney Nick Ciappetta said the town does not need permission to file eminent domain proceedings to acquire the Northport plant, but he added it’s unclear in LIPA’s Power Supply Agreement with National Grid if the town can step into National Grid’s shoes.

Additionally, the LIPA agreement may also prohibit a local municipality from owning, condemning and operating a power plant in any part of the former LILCO’s service area.  

“My focus is on passing legislation that would protect taxpayers across Long Island from LIPA’s nonsensical attempts to destroy communities.”

— Jim Gaughran

“A municipality located within LILCO’s former service area may not establish a public utility service to provide gas or electric power without LIPA’s agreement,” the report states, citing a 1999 attorney general legal opinion.

LIPA spokesman Sid Nathan did not respond to phone calls or questions submitted via email regarding the Northport power plant, but in a May 9, 2018, Times of Huntington-Northport report on the eminent domain proposal, the utility’s spokesperson said that LIPA’s annual $80 million in property taxes for the Northport power plant exceeds its revenue, potentially rendering the decision not in the public’s interest.

If the town board majority remains interested in pursuing the eminent domain option, the next step, as described in the report, would be for the town to hire an accounting firm to analyze the public benefit of operating the power station.  

Financial challenges

The Northport board of education weighed in on the loss and determined that it would have to dramatically reduce staff at all levels, eliminate proposed capital improvements, eliminate extra-curricular and academic offerings and significantly increase class size, among other measures.

“Assuming that the town’s operation of the power plant results in a net profit, there does not appear to be a legal mechanism to make the school district whole,” the report states.

This past spring NY State Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport) introduced legislation (§4452a)that aims to supplement school districts and government entities impacted by LIPA’s tax suit with additional state funds. The bills, though, still require support from the state legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).

“I stand fully behind the Town of Huntington in their lawsuit with LIPA and I have led the fight in Albany to protect taxpayers threatened by LIPA’s wreckless lawsuits, introducing and passing bills that would do just that,” Gaughran said. “My focus is on passing legislation that would protect taxpayers across Long Island from LIPA’s nonsensical attempts to destroy communities.”

If Gaughran’s bills pass and the board votes to move forward, the report also notes a majority of town voters would still need to approve a public referendum to acquire the power plant. 

“This would be a tall order as the power plant lies exclusively within the confines of the Northport-East Northport school district and voters outside of that school district might deem such an acquisition too provincial and/or not in their best interests,” the report states.

Paul Darrigo, a Northport resident who has garnered more than 4,500 supporters through a Facebook campaign Concerned Taxpayers Against LIPA, said he is not yet prepared to comment on the complex idea of taking over the power plant through eminent domain. 

The deal, if it gets the green light from board members, the courts and the community, would also be dependent upon the town’s ability to borrow money or issue bonds to finance a municipal utility. If it all worked out, the project would “at a minimum,” reportedly double the town’s outstanding debt.  

The Northport power plant, the largest power generating station on Long Island, is owned by National Grid, a multinational business located in the United Kingdom. The plant and its four generating units and support facilities sit on 275 acres along Long Island’s North Shore. The town estimates the value of the property at $3.4 billion and receives $84 million in taxes. The plant burns both oil and gas and is regarded as a major air polluter. Both the American Lung Association and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation have found its ozone emissions, a powerful respiratory irritant, to be a serious public health concern.

Northport residents protest LIPA's ongoing lawsuit with the Town of Huntington. Photo by Donna Deedy

By Donna Deedy

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, more than 100 residents of all ages, including many families with young children and pets, attended another public rally against Long Island Power Authority. At one point, their chant filled Cow Harbor Park in Northport village where they gathered April 7. 

“Stop LIPA now,” they repeated in protest.  

The power authority, a quasi-governmental state agency, is suing the Town of Huntington to reduce its $82 million property tax burden by 90 percent. LIPA, since the state’s public bailout of LILCO, and its failed Shoreham nuclear power plant project, has been paying the property taxes for power stations now owned by National Grid.  

Northport power plant. File photo

Protest organizer Paul Darrigo formed a Facebook advocacy group called Concerned Taxpayers Against LIPA in mid-March, whose membership now totals more than 3,000 people. His group is concerned that if LIPA is successful it would devastate the Northport-East Northport school district, which currently receives $54 million annually from LIPA.

Northport village residents Kathleen and James Wansor have two very young children and attended the rally to learn more about the situation. Funding for education is important to the young family.

“It doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t seem fair for us to all of a sudden see increases in our taxes,” Wansor said. 

Darrigo’s group is also reaching out to people across Long Island. 

“I want to coordinate our efforts with the residents of Island Park, whose school district is also under assault due to LIPA’s tax certiorari filed in Nassau County,” he said. “The objective is to communicate with LIPA and our elected officials with a consistent message and reiterate a ‘strength in numbers’ mantra.” 

New York State Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport) was among the elected officials who addressed the Northport crowd. He’s currently calling for LIPA reforms. 

“LIPA is a runaway authority that is not serving the public’s interest with their frivolous lawsuit. As I’ve said to LIPA, LIPA should uphold the promise that was made to my constituents and that the tax certiorari challenge should be dropped. Anything short of that would be detrimental to the vitality of the communities that I serve and would have a direct impact on their ability to provide indispensable programs and services.”

“The objective is to communicate with LIPA and our elected officials with a consistent message and reiterate a ‘strength in numbers’ mantra.”

— Paul Darrigo

But elected officials on different levels of government lack a firm position on the issue. Both County Executive Steve Bellone (D) and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) offered similar public comments on the LIPA tax lawsuit against Huntington.

“While we do not comment on pending litigation, we are monitoring the situation closely,” said Jordan Levine, deputy communications director for energy and the environment with the office of the governor. “It is our hope that LIPA and the Town of Huntington can reach a mutually beneficial agreement that is fair and beneficial to all parties.” 

Northport Village Deputy Mayor Tom Kehoe is particularly critical of the state’s position. 

“The governor better wake up and jump in on this,” he said. “People are mad.” 

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Denise Mordente during a budget presentation at Port Jefferson Village Hall April 1. Photo by Kyle Barr

The LIPA settlement has weighed heavily on this year’s Village of Port Jefferson budget, leading to a budget that pierces the 2 percent tax cap while at the same time cutting several thousand in expenditures.

The new total budget is $10,310,869, $331,277 less than 2018-19. The budget will leave $6,451,427 needed to be raised in taxes, a 3.33 percent increase from last year, piercing the tax cap.

For homeowners, this change could mean a $21 annual increase to property taxes on the low end, and up to $130 on the high end for more modern homes. For businesses, older buildings might see a $130 annual increase, while modern structures could see an increase of $256, according to the village board.

The village board voted unanimously to adopt the budget at its April 1 board meeting. 

This includes a loss of $208,622 in annual revenues from taxes on the Long Island Power Authority-owned power plant. 

In the agreement signed by Brookhaven Town and the Long Island Power Authority, the $32.6 million tax assessment on the power plant is going to be reduced by around 50 percent incrementally over the next nine years to $16.8 million, starting with the 2017-18 tax year. Denise Mordente, the village treasurer, said since the date of that agreement overlapped with the existing budget, they had to make up for two years of LIPA’s glide path, rather than one.

“Next year we can budget for [a single year of the glide path] … this is double the amount,” Mordente said. “That’s why we have to cut this year.”

Personal services increased among multiple departments due to collective bargaining agreements and an increase in minimum wage, the treasurer said, though the treasury department’s total expenses decreased by $29,287 due to letting go of a staff member.

Village officials have cut $331,280 in total from the expenses of numerous departments, including $41,326 from code enforcement through cut salaries, though Mordente said code enforcement often doesn’t use the total of its budget. Other cuts included $18,117 from the Village Center, mostly from materials expenses. Meanwhile, the parks department saw a near 10 percent increase from both employee services and contractual expenses. 

The village is also looking at a $271,019 decrease in expenditures due to the ambulance services now being handled fully by Brookhaven Town in what was formerly the Mount Sinai Ambulance District as of January 1.

The village continues to pay down on several bonds, including the 2013 $2 million public improvement bond, the 2011 $5.5 million public improvement bond and the 2016 $1.48 million bond anticipation note. As of Feb. 28, the village has $5.74 million left to pay off.

The village board is still considering what it will do with the Port Jefferson Power Station in the future. Deputy Mayor Larry LaPointe said he has been in talks with LIPA, and the quasi-governmental agency has responded positively to suggestions that it be turned into a battery storage facility or a site for renewable energy, but talks are still ongoing.

Danielle DeSimone

By Donna Deedy

When Samantha Marill stepped up to the microphone at a town hall meeting March 16 in the Northport High School auditorium, the crowd of more than 500 local residents fell silent as she spoke.

“Four of my classmates have been diagnosed with leukemia,” she said. “I attended this high school and I’d like to know if emissions from the Northport power plant are a factor.”

Marill said that she and her classmates graduated Northport High School in 2016.

“This is an alarmingly high number,” she said.  “Most schools do not even have one student diagnosed.”

The situation Marill describes is statistically abnormal. Leukemia, a cancer of the blood cells, strikes mostly older adults. Suffolk County, overall, does have a higher leukemia incidence rate for 2011-15 than state averages, according to New York State Department of Health spokesperson Jill Montag. But more than half of the people diagnosed with the disease are in excess of 65 years old. 

“None of my classmates should be fighting for their lives so soon after graduating.”

— Samantha Marill

The statewide annual average for leukemia diagnoses for ages 20 to 24 totals 18, as reported in New York’s most recent cancer registry, which excludes New York City.

It would be expected that two people between the ages of 20 and 24 would be diagnosed with leukemia, according to the state’s statistics, in a population of 100,000. In the Northport-East Northport School district, where an estimated 36,000 people live, one case would be rare. 

“None of my classmates should be fighting for their lives so soon after graduating,” Marill said. A fifth high school friend, she said, was diagnosed with sarcoma, another rare type of cancer that affects connective tissues.

It’s difficult to know whether or not a specific environmental toxin will cause a particular individual to develop cancer, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2003 report titled “Cancer and the Environment.” 

But Marill was one of two people to raise health concerns about the Northport power plant at that meeting. Christine Ballow said that she drives past the plant’s stacks daily, coming and going from her home on Eaton’s Neck. Her two neighbors, she said, suffer from another rare blood disease called Wegener’s granulomatosis. The disease effects the lungs, throat, sinuses, kidneys and blood vessels. The Mayo Clinic, a nonprofit academic health center, reports on its website that the disease is not contagious or hereditary. Its causes are unknown.

The Times of Huntington has dug into some of the issues and contacted state officials to learn how the public’s health concerns, past and present, are addressed. 

Here’s what we found:

• New York State Department of Health and the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services investigated complaints about the Northport power plant in 2009. 

  The 2009 report’s conclusion: “It is unlikely that people who live and utilize facilities around the Northport power plant will come in contact with chemicals originating at the Northport power plant site while touching soil or breathing dust at the [soccer fields], or by drinking groundwater that is outside of the Northport power plant property, and that in these ways operations at the Northport power plant are not expected to harm people’s health.”

• The only public health action recommended in 2009 was that the grass surface on the plant’s public soccer fields be maintained to ensure that the potential for exposure to arsenic and cadmium are minimized.

• That same report stated that contamination concerns date back to the late 1970s, saying: “There have also been many complaints about oil and soot emissions from the plant’s four smokestacks; some exceedances of air guidelines may have occurred, although no data on air emissions was reviewed that could confirm this.”

• Leukemia risk factors, which are listed on the state health department website, include exposures to ionizing radiation, smoking, rare viruses and blood disorders. Long-term exposure to benzene and ethylene oxide, typically in the workplace, are also a known cause of the disease.

• Suffolk County Water Authority reports by email that it tests its wells for benzene, but has never in 25 years identified the chemical’s presence in county waters.

• The Northport power plant is considered a Major Oil Storage Facility, an official term.  The 2009 report confirmed that the facility’s groundwater is subject to regular monitoring and reports that no significant petroleum products and material have contaminated the area. The water authority has confirmed by email that it has no record of significant contamination since 2009.

To address residents’ cancer concerns, New York State created in 1981 the Cancer Surveillance Program. It currently indicates no cancer cluster for leukemia near the Northport power plant, according to Montag. The program data, she said, shows one case of leukemia diagnosed between 2011-15 in the area that contains the plant.

“While the community has not requested an investigation for this area, interested community members are welcome to contact the Department of Health at 518-473-7817 or canmap@health.state.ny.us to discuss their concerns and provide detailed information,” she said.

The American Lung Association doesn’t track cancer or Wegener’s disease, but it does monitor air quality. It reports Suffolk County is repeatedly one of the most polluted counties in the state, and is assigned an “F” rating for its ozone emissions.

“Basically, the plant is required to meet modified emission standards from those applied to plants that are newly built,” said Jennifer Solomon, media person with the American Lung Association. “The power plant can emit thousands of tons of nitrogen oxides, a pollutant that is an essential contributor to ozone smog. Ozone is a powerful respiratory irritant and causes breathing problems for children, seniors and for those with chronic lung diseases, sometimes sending people to their doctors or even the emergency room.”

Graph from New York State DEC.

LIPA’s tax lawsuit against the Town of Huntington has pushed the community to a tipping point. 

LIPA spokesperson Sid Nathan directed questions about Northport power plant health concerns to National Grid, which owns the Northport power plant.

National Grid has not responded to phone and email requests for comment.   

“In response to constituents very serious concerns raised during my town hall meeting on LIPA, I am requesting that the state immediately look into these community health concerns,” Gaughran said. “I am requesting a meeting with the relevant state agencies to ensure that the health of our residents is of the utmost concern.”

As for Marill, a junior at SUNY Potsdam, she’s declared a major in environmental science. She wants to study environmental law.

“It’s wild to think that we could shut the plant down but, ideally, I would like to see it closed,” Marill said.  “We need clean sources of energy.”

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Residents file into Northport High School to speak out over LIPA's power plant. Photo by Donna Deedy

By Donna Deedy

More than 500 residents joined forces in the Northport High School auditorium March 16 to challenge the Long Island Power Authority. The quasi-governmental agency is seeking through the courts a 90 percent reduction in the approximately $82 million in annual property taxes it pays to the Town of Huntington for the Northport power plant. 

A number of Northport residents were galvanized to take action. Paul Darrigo, a local commercial banker with Capital One, launched a new Facebook page, Concerned Taxpayers Against LIPA.

“We now have 1,200 members and are still growing at a rate of 15 members per hour,” Darrigo said. 

LIPA states in its report, “2019 Fair Property Taxes for Electric Customers,” that New York charges more of the cost of government on utilities than other states. As a result, the not-for-profit entity alleges that it’s overassessed for its aging assets. 

“I am advocating for the governor to support my two initiatives to provide Long Island residents with $139 million in state aid to communities impacted by tax certiorari issues.”

— Jim Gaughran

“The plant’s units were built in 1967 and 1976 and its technology is outdated,” LIPA spokesman Sid Nathan said. The plant operates at 12 percent capacity today compared to 54 percent capacity in 1999, a 78 percent decline. 

The tax reductions LIPA seeks will reportedly be used to reduce customers’ electric bills.

Gordian Raacke, executive director of nonprofit advocacy group Renewable Energy Long Island, stated by email that he agreed. 

“All LIPA customers pay more than would be the case if the properties were assessed at fair value,” he said. 

But many Town of Huntington residents aren’t buying into what they call more empty promises. 

If LIPA’s case is successful, as the agency has been in previous cases, critics say it could inflict a major economic blow to the community. Northport schools would annually loose an estimated $49 million out of some $54 million it receives from LIPA, according to district’s attorney John Gross.

To compensate for the loss, the Town of Huntington states on its website that residents would be forced to pay higher property taxes.

New York State Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport) organized the town hall meeting to answer questions and to let the community know that he aims to seek funding to soften the blow if LIPA’s case prevails. His legislative bills, however, would require the approval of state lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D). The state senator said he’s working to build consensus in Albany, but urges citizens to contact elected officials at all levels of government to encourage cooperation in the battle. 

“I am advocating for the governor to support my two initiatives to provide Long Island residents with $139 million in state aid to communities impacted by tax certiorari issues,” he said. “I am fully supportive of the town and school district in continuing their fight against LIPA.” 

The situation raises questions about how education is funded in New York state. However, many community members question why National Grid and PSEG aren’t bearing tax liabilities when shareholders are earning dividends. National Grid, a business based in the United Kingdom, owns the Northport plant and operates under contract to LIPA; PSEG Long Island manages transmission and distribution for LIPA. 

Gaughran said that he’s looking into reforms that ensure the public’s interest is properly represented.

“Local communities should not be bankrupt by runaway authorities like LIPA,” he said.

“I love this place, but if I can’t afford to pay my bills what good is it.”

— Joseph Sabia

Northport resident Michael Marcantonio was among people who spoke during the meeting. Now a lawyer specializing in mergers and acquisitions, corporate governance and hostile takeovers, the Northport High School graduate blames the problem on the government’s practice of using public funds to bail out shareholder-owned businesses. LIPA, he explained to the crowd, was formed when officials used the public’s money to buy all the debt and some of the assets of the Long Island Lighting Company after it mismanaged the Shoreham nuclear project, which
ultimately failed. 

“This is what corruption looks like,” Marcantonio said. “Do not trust LIPA, they are robbing us, and we need to fight this.” The Northport resident ran for the state’s 12th Assembly District in 2018, largely on the LIPA issue, but he was forced to drop out due to a court decision over him voting locally in 2012 and 2014 while a student at Duke University Law School in North Carolina.

Newspaper reports from 1998 show that the now defunct Bear Stearns, the investment firm involved in the subprime mortgage crisis, served as the state’s financial adviser for the LILCO bailout, before quitting to successfully bid and broker the deal’s bond offering. At $7 billion, it became the largest public offering for municipal bonds in U.S. history.  

The LILCO deal was originally promoted publicly as a 20 percent rate reduction plan, as reported in the May 28, 1998 New York Times article titled “The End of LILCO, as Long Island has come to know it.” Long Island ratepayers reportedly paid the highest electricity bills in the nation at the time. As details began to surface, critics found the scheme entailed delaying interest payments on the debt and permanently saddled ratepayers with 33 years of liability.

Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the think-tank Manhattan Institute wrote a 2013 op-ed piece in Newsday titled “Long Islanders are still paying for three bailouts.” The policy analyst explained that Long Islanders need to understand the past mistakes related to the bailouts to prevent similar situations in the future. 

LIPA restructured part of its debt in 2013. That plan, as reported in Newsday, aimed to reduce the cost of debt, instead of paying it down.  

LIPA reports today that customers pay 10 percent in debt reduction and another 10 percent goes in interest. An additional 15 percent of a LIPA bill pays taxes and other fees. LIPA’s report does not specify what those other fees are. 

“Do not trust LIPA, they are robbing us, and we need to fight this.”

— Michael Marcantonio

Business leaders, who also spoke at the meeting, urged others to join the Northport Chamber of Commerce. School board members passed out red business cards instructing residents to visit STOP LIPA NOW on Facebook and get involved.  

LIPA states in its report that it ensures it’s working on all customers behalf to lower tax bills on its power plants and other equipment to reflect their fair value. It estimates the plant tax valuation at $200 to $500 million. Huntington assessed the value on the tax code at $3.4 billion.

The plant sits on some 244 waterfront acres near Asharoken, which LIPA estimates is worth “roughly $50 million.”

“We are confident that the court will agree that the Northport power plant is accurately assessed,” said Nick Ciappetta, Town of Huntington attorney. 

For people like Northport resident Joseph Sabia, the situation has become unbearable. 

“I love this place, but if I can’t afford to pay my bills what good is it,” he said.

The original article had the wrong first name for Sen. James Gaughran. We regret the error.