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Port Jefferson Village Hall. File photo by Heidi Sutton

The Town of Brookhaven is looking to save money by consolidating property tax collections with other municipalities in the town, starting with Port Jefferson Village.

At the Brookhaven Town Board meeting Feb. 14, councilmembers voted unanimously to use approximately $478,000 of New York State grant funds to consolidate tax receiving methods with the village. 

“So, the tax collection will be on the front end and the back end.”

— Louis Maroccia

“I am grateful that some our discussions with the village have resulted in actual shared services,” Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) said. “We are always happy when we are able to work collaboratively with other municipalities to streamline services to our residents and reduce costs.”

Brookhaven Town Receiver of Taxes Louis Marcoccia said the first phase of the program, which he expects to be implemented by June, will include printing out tax bills and sending them to village residents. Under the agreement, the village will reimburse the town for postage costs, which are estimated to be $2,000.

The second phase of the new program will introduce third-party software into the village, so it may integrate the entire financial system, though Marcoccia added the town still has to sign a contract with the company concerned and didn’t wish to name the software. He said the new program is expected to start being implemented in the third quarter 2019 and be finished before the end of next tax season in April 2020.

“So, the tax collection will be on the front end and the back end,” the tax receiver said.

Port Jefferson Village Mayor Margot Garant said the village will still be doing property assessments and creating the warrants, but instead of creating bills internally will send all the info over to Brookhaven. She added the new system will also enable village residents to pay bills online, but people will still be allowed to file taxes in person at Village Hall.

“If it creates efficiency, after all they say time is money,” Garant said. “I’d say it’s different than how it was years ago, more than 50 percent of us are paying our bills online.”

“If it creates efficiency, after all they say time is money.”

— Margot Garant

The funding of the new program comes from Municipal Consolidation and Efficiency Competition Award, which granted Brookhaven $20 million in June 2018 to use in municipal consolidation. The intent behind the award was to reduce property taxes through the consolidation of government services, and the town has outlined a total of 16 projects it hopes to tackle in the next few years. 

Brookhaven’s tax receiver said the new system is expected to save the town more than $50,000 in the first year through cutting down on labor and reducing redundancy in the tax collection system. While Port Jeff is the first village to receive this new system, Marcoccia said in upcoming years it will be expanded to encompass all eight of the town’s villages.

“You take the $50,000 and multiply it if we’re able to do all eight, that’s not chump change,” he said.

Along with the consolidation of tax services, Brookhaven Town is also looking to reduce government bloat by consolidating public works operations within the villages, consolidate billing in ambulance districts, establishing shared information technology for cloud-based services and cybersecurity, and create townwide records storage and archive management.

A view of the main page of a piece of Reclaim NY’s Transparency Project. Image from ReclaimNY website

Transparency and honesty play a major role in healthy democracies, and now New York State municipalities will have a watchdog tracking their effectiveness, providing feedback publicly to concerned citizens, by concerned citizens.

Last week, Reclaim New York, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization established to “educate New Yorkers on issues like affordability, transparency and education,” launched a website designed to rate government accessibility and transparency based on an index of recommendations.

The site is part of the group’s New York Transparency Project, an initiative launched in 2016, which kicked off with 2,500 Freedom of Information Law requests for basic expenditure information to county, town and village governments, as well as school districts across Long Island and the state.

“This is an accountability tool,” Reclaim New York Communications Director Doug Kellogg said. “Anybody who wants to help do something to make government more accessible and accountable, go spend 30 minutes and input ratings.”

The new system allows citizens to grade local governments based on 29 indicators, including whether contracts are posted on the internet, there’s access to expenditure records, notices of meetings and the minutes to the meetings are available and contact information is listed for elected officials. The municipalities will receive an overall, objective grade. The grade will indicate which are transparent and law-abiding, as budget information and records access officers need to be publicly available.

“Anybody who wants to help do something to make government more accessible and accountable, go spend 30 minutes and input ratings.”

— Doug Kellogg

“Citizens can hold their governments accountable at every level if they have the right tools for the job,” executive director for the organization Brandon Muir said in a statement. “This is a truly unprecedented moment for New Yorkers who want to reclaim ownership of their government. Working with this new site they can make proactive transparency a reality.”

To input data, users must register with an email address. When data is put into the system, it is vetted and sited prior to going live to avoid a “wild west” feel, according to Kellogg. The process of imputing data to extract a rating for municipalities has only just begun. Kellogg said it will take time to have an all-encompassing collection of information.

In May 2016, Port Jefferson Village and Commack school district failed to comply with FOIL requests as part of the organization’s Transparency Project.

New York’s FOIL requires governments and school districts respond to records requests within five business days, whether with the information requested, a denial or an acknowledgement of the request. The response needs to include an estimated date when one of the latter two will occur. Denials can be appealed but  not allowed “on the basis that the request is voluminous or that locating or reviewing the requested records or providing the requested copies is burdensome, because the agency lacks sufficient staffing.”

As part of a project it dubbed the New York Transparency Project, Reclaim New York sent 253 Freedom of Information requests to school districts and municipalities on Long Island. It reported on its findings, saying that while many entities complied with state guidelines on processing such public records requests, and after the findings were released, Port Jefferson Village and Commack school district eventually complied with the requests.

Entities that it said complied included Suffolk County; Brookhaven, Smithtown and Huntington towns; Belle Terre and Lake Grove villages; and the Port Jefferson, Kings Park, Huntington, Smithtown, Mount Sinai, Miller Place and Rocky Point school districts, among others.

To become an evaluator for the website or to view data, visit www.reclaimnewyork.org and click on the Transparency tab.

Supervisor Ed Romaine takes his oath of office at the 2016 inauguration ceremony at the Town of Brookhaven headquarters. Photo by Giselle Barkley

Brookhaven is back in business.

Elected officials, their family members and other residents packed into the Town of Brookhaven auditorium in Farmingville on Jan. 7 to witness Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) being sworn into his second full term in office alongside fellow recently elected and re-elected board members, including board newcomer Councilman Michael Loguercio (R-Middle Island) and other town officials.

Loguercio said he was also in good spirits. He said the ceremony was a good way to begin “the long journey to continue helping the community.”

Back in November, Loguercio won the race for the 4th District — a position previously held by former Councilwoman Connie Kepert, a Democrat.

Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) said Thursday’s ceremony was a day of celebration that helped validate how residents voted during the 2015 elections. Bonner added “they like to make it open to the public so they could see the whole process and take part in it.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone speaks during the 2016 inauguration ceremony at the Town of Brookhaven headquarters. Photo by Giselle Barkley
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone speaks during the 2016 inauguration ceremony at the Town of Brookhaven headquarters. Photo by Giselle Barkley

In light of the board’s past work, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) highlighted Romaine’s performance as the supervisor saying that Romaine has always been one of the fiercest and most passionate advocates for what he believes in.

“That’s what leadership is about really,” Bellone said. “Putting aside the things that will at the end of the day do not really matter to people’s lives but what will make our communities and our town and our country a better place.”

Although residents saw the supervisor and Highway Superintendent Dan Losquadro (R) officially sworn into their terms for the first time on Thursday, other elected officials recently elected to the board were officially sworn in at a previous event held on Tuesday Jan. 5. While several councilmembers were no strangers to the ceremony, the swearing in process still never gets boring, one North Shore lawmaker said.

Highway Superintendent Dan Losquadro takes his oath of office for the first time at the 2016 inauguration ceremony at the Town of Brookhaven headquarters. Photo by Giselle Barkley
Highway Superintendent Dan Losquadro takes his oath of office at the 2016 inauguration ceremony at the Town of Brookhaven headquarters. Photo by Giselle Barkley

“I’m really excited to get started again,” said Councilman Kevin LaValle (R-Selden) before the ceremony. “It was a great first two years — we accomplished a great deal. I’m really looking forward to the next two years.”

Romaine was sworn in last by Judge Judith Pascale, who also spoke highly of the supervisor and his leadership before he took his oath of office. Despite the praise, Romaine admitted that addressing challenges in the town is a group effort.

“Working in concert with our colleagues at Suffolk County and New York State will determine in large part the future we face,” Romaine said in his speech following his oath. “I pledge to work with my town board to find common purpose. To address these challenges head on and to make decisions necessary for a prosperous future and one that serves all the residents of this town.”

Group criticizes amendment aimed at two-family homes

Huntington Town Councilwoman Tracey Edwards. File photo by Rohma Abbas

A representative of the Huntington Township Housing Coalition blasted a proposal from Councilwoman Tracy Edwards (D) at a public hearing last week that would add requirements to creating two-family homes.

The law, if approved, would transform the process to create a two-family home in the R-5 Residence District from one that’s as-of-right — not requiring any planning or zoning board review — to one that requires a special-use permit from the Huntington Town Zoning Board of Appeals.

The ZBA would then review the application on a number of criteria and would also consider community input. Those criteria include aesthetics, like ensuring the house looks like a single-family home of no more than two stories, and restricting features, like exposed cellars, large attics, tall roofs, multiple driveways and decks, and prominent secondary entrances, according to the proposed law.

The owner would also have to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the board that he or she would sustain “severe hardship” if the application was denied and that the hardship wasn’t self-created.

Roger Weaving, who spoke on behalf of the coalition, said, on Sept. 16, that the group was strongly opposed to the legislation. In a statement opining on the law, the coalition criticized the current requirements governing two-family home creation as well, calling them “so restrictive as to virtually exclude two-family homes from being created in Huntington.”

“Not only is the resolution arbitrary, it perpetuates racial and class segregation in Huntington, without purpose other than to exclude new people,” Weaving said.

Weaving also said that the proposed amendment includes arbitrary and vague language. It claims two-family homes should look like single family homes, but there’s no specificity on what a single family home should look like.

The proposal said the dwelling should be at least five years of age, but the coalition called this requirement “arbitrary and without purpose other than to exclude two-family homes in Huntington.” Also, the amendment doesn’t describe what constitutes a severe hardship.

The coalition and Weaving claimed the law doesn’t jive with the overall mission to create affordable housing in town for the community’s young people. Two-family homes offer lower rents, and the lower cost of living “allows young people to create a work/life balance, save some hard-earned dollars, and eventually & hopefully set down roots here in Huntington.”

Edwards couldn’t immediately be reached for comment on Wednesday — her aide said she was traveling. But in prior interviews, the councilwoman has said her main thrust in introducing the law was to give neighbors the chance to comment on such projects, as current town code doesn’t require it. She was inspired to create this law after speaking with a Greenlawn resident who came home one day surprised to find a two-family home in the community.

“You shouldn’t be able to go to work one day thinking that the house being built next to you is a single family and come home from work and find it’s a two-family house,” Edwards said. “Intuitively, that just doesn’t sound like something we want to do.”

Creating sound regulations and requirements for non-single family homes is “appropriate and necessary,” the coalition stated in the letter, and requiring notification of neighbors “makes sense.” But “requiring a five-year wait period and demonstration of a ‘severe hardship’ make no sense.”

The public hearing was closed.