Government

METRO photo

By Nancy Burner, Esq.

Nancy Burner, Esq.

Each year, the Department of Health will release updated resource and income levels for the  Medicaid program. This year there has been a significant increase. Beginning January 1, 2023,  New York State will be increasing the asset limits for community and nursing home Medicaid and income limits for community Medicaid. 

For both community (home health aides) and chronic (nursing home) Medicaid, the available  asset limit for 2023 is being increased to $28,133 for an individual applicant (the former asset  limit for 2022 was $16,800) and $37,902 for a married couple (up from $24,600), allowing  Medicaid applicants to retain significantly more assets and still be eligible for Medicaid.  

The income limit for community Medicaid applicants is being increased from $934/month to  $1,563/month for individual applicants and for married couples the income limit is being  increased from $1,367/month to $2,106/month. There is an additional $20.00 disregard that  can be added to each allowance; therefore, the total of income allowance for an individual  applying for Medicaid can have $1,583/month and married couples can have $2,126.00. 

Under  this program, any excess income can be directed to a Pooled Income Trust for the benefit of  the Medicaid applicant and the monies deposited into the trust can be used to pay the  household expenses of the Medicaid applicant. In New York, all Pooled Income Trust are  managed by charitable organizations. It is important to use the monies in the Pooled Income Trust because when the applicant passes away, the balance goes to the charity.  

As for nursing home Medicaid applicants, the monthly income limit will continue to be $50, but the income limit for the non-institutionalized spouse is being increased to $3,715/month.  Additionally, federal guidelines permit community spouses to retain up to $148,620 in assets plus a primary residence with a maximum value of $1,033,000. 

Even if the community  souse has assets and income over the threshold, New York’s spousal refusal provisions provide even more protection in that a community spouse can elect to sign a document  which allows them to retain assets in any amount, including assets which were previously in the name of the spouse that requires care in a nursing facility. 

Individuals applying for Medicaid benefits after January 1, 2023, should apply based on the  asset and income limits discussed above. For those individuals who are already receiving  community Medicaid and are using a pooled trust for their excess monthly income, your  monthly budget/spend-down will remain the same until you recertify, at which time the  increased income limits will be applied. 

However, starting in January 2023 Medicaid  recipients may ask their local Medicaid office to re-budget their spend-down based on the  new income limits before their next renewal, enabling community Medicaid recipients to  keep more of their monthly income sooner. It is advisable to consult an elder law attorney  in your area to determine if a re-budget is appropriate in your case.  

While the asset allowance has been increased, keep in mind that the five-year look-back  period for nursing home Medicaid still applies, which means that any transfer of assets made  within this period for below market value will incur a penalty period and Medicaid coverage  will commence only after the penalty period has elapsed. Typically, there is always  Medicaid planning that can be accomplished even if the individual immediately needs  Medicaid coverage and has done no pre-planning. 

*Please note, the income and assets are based on the 2022 Poverty Level. This is subject to  change based on the 2023 Poverty Level. 

Nancy Burner, Esq. is the founder and managing partner at Burner Law Group, P.C with offices located in East Setauket, Westhampton Beach, New York City and East Hampton.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D), center, signed legislation Jan. 27 to provide Smithtown with an additional $5.4 million for the Kings Park Business Sewer District Project. Town Supervisor Ed Wehrheim, left, and Tony Tanzi from the Kings Park Chamber of Commerce were on hand for the signing. Photo from Steve Bellone's office

The Town of Smithtown received good news Jan. 27.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone And Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim. Photo from Bellone’s office

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) signed legislation last Friday to provide the town with an additional $5.4 million for the Kings Park Business Sewer District Project. A press conference took place in the hamlet’s Svatt Square to mark the occasion.

The funding is possible due to money the county received through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 signed by President Joe Biden (D).

Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) and Town Board members, with Kings Park Chamber of Commerce and KP Civic Association representatives, joined state and county elected officials as well as Bellone and Deputy County Executive Peter Scully, for the announcement and signing.

Scully said the project initially was made possible by a $20 million state transformative program grant in 2014. With rising construction costs, expenses have increased for the project.

With the additional $5.4 million from the county, contracts were awarded to Holbrook-based G&M Earth Moving, ALAC Contracting Corp. in West Babylon and Amityville-based L.E.B. Electric. 

Bellone called it “a great day” and thanked Wehrheim.

“This doesn’t happen without his leadership here and the Town Board,” the county executive said.

He also thanked county and state officials for working together in a bipartisan manner and the community, which he said is critical to working on projects such as this.

“A significant step forward in any community, in any way, is not possible without the work and the support of residents and the businesses in the community,” he said.

Bellone said sewers would be coming to Kings Park this year. He added construction would break ground in the coming weeks, and there would be community meetings to lay out the construction schedules and paperwork will be finalized. 

“Make no mistake, the contracts have been awarded, the project is happening now,” he said.

Pipes will connect sewers to the Kings Park treatment plant located on the property of the former psychiatric hospital.

Bellone said the project “highlights how much more we need to do” regarding improving water quality on the Island. He added about 360,000 homes in the region are operating on old septic and cesspool systems.

“We have to address this issue in a way that is affordable for homeowners,” Bellone said. “That burden cannot be placed on them.” 

He added investments in wastewater infrastructure are critical for a prosperous economic future.

With other Suffolk County areas needing sewer systems, including St. James, Bellone said, “This represents what we need to be doing all across the county.”

Wehrheim echoed Bellone’s sentiment that the project was a team effort, and he thanked the members of all levels of government and the chamber, civic and community.

“Without the cooperation and all working together, things like this will never come to fruition,” Wehrheim said.

The supervisor, who is a native of Kings Park, said he was proud “of what we’ve done here,” adding, “The future is bright for the Town of Smithtown as far as economic development goes, economic success and, especially just as important, environmental issues to clean up waters.” 

Tony Tanzi, president of KP Chamber of Commerce, said, “Some would say we’re at the end of the road. Personally, I think this is the beginning of the road.”

He added he believes Kings Park will soon resemble the robust downtown it was decades ago.

“When you take politics out of it, we can all work together — and that’s the beautiful thing,” Tanzi said.

 

Head of the Harbor resident Lisa Davidson is in the process of gathering signatures to run for village trustee. Photo from Lisa Davidson

Rallying against a proposed private dock has given one Head of the Harbor resident inspiration to run for village trustee.

Head of the Harbor resident Lisa Davidson is in the process of gathering signatures to run for village trustee. Photo from Lisa Davidson

Last year, Lisa Davidson and her neighbors were busy fighting the proposed construction of an 186-foot private dock on Swan Place in Nissequogue, which, if approved, would have been right next to Cordwood Park and Head of the Harbor.

Now, Davidson aims to collect 51 signatures by Feb. 14 to run for trustee in March. Two trustee seats will be open during the March 21 election as Daniel White and Jeff Fischer are up for reelection.

Not one to sit on the sidelines, Davidson said, “Just complaining accomplishes nothing.”

A village resident for more than two years, she immediately fell in love with Head of the Harbor. During her short time living on Long Island, Davidson said she has been a representative on the village’s Joint Village Coastal Management Commission, a Suffolk County polling inspector and a volunteer with Island Harvest food bank.

The wife and mother, who recently became a grandmother, was born in Los Angeles, and raised her two sons in New York City. An alum of UCLA, her professional career includes working as a business reporter with the Los Angeles Times and a field producer with Fox News. She has also worked for the National Geographic Society. Currently she is a consultant for those looking to produce their own television projects.

She said in addition to living in places such as California and New York City, her work as a print journalist, news and television producer took her around the world, which Davidson said has given her even more appreciation for her current hometown. She added Stony Brook Harbor, the village’s “tree-lined streets, and the views from Cordwood Park rival them all.”

The trustee-hopeful explained her run all comes down to preserving the rustic charm of Head of the Harbor. 

“It’s human nature when you’re exposed to something of beauty, you take it for granted instead of realizing, ‘Wow, this is so special,’” she said.

Last year her love for the village inspired her to help gather signatures for a petition, organize a rally at Cordwood Park and attend Nissequogue Village Planning Board meetings multiple times to speak out when the private dock on Swan Place was proposed. The board denied the owner’s request at the beginning of this year.

She and others collected 787 signatures on the petition to oppose the structure.

“It was really clear that the community did not want that dock,” she said.

An Aug. 27 rally at Cordwood Park, organized by Davidson, drew environmentalists such as former state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket); Kevin McAllister, founder and president of Defend H2O; and John Turner, conservation chair of Four Harbors Audubon Society. 

Ralliers listed issues with private docks in the area, such as the shallowness of the water in the area. The Department of Environmental Conservation requires docks stand in 3 1/2 feet of water even at low tide. The length of the proposed Swan Place dock would have obstructed residents’ view of Stony Brook Harbor and restrict access to those walking along the beach or using their kayaks and canoes in the water. A dock would also adversely affect birds, turtles, flora and fauna as well as the water quality.

Another concern of Davidson and others was that if the village allowed one to be built, others would follow. 

“If that one dock would have been allowed, he’d be representing every single person on this harbor, who wanted a dock demanding that, ‘Well, you let that one in, you have to let this other one,’” she said.

According to Davidson, another issue is that while an owner may own their land, they do not own the water. If a dock were allowed, she said, it would be the private taking of public land.

“If it was somewhere else on the harbor, it wouldn’t have been so catastrophic to the community,” she said. “That dock was going to take public land that was used all the time and make it private.”

“Let’s figure out how this can work for everybody, and that’s what I would like to do in general.”

— Lisa Davidson

Davidson said it’s vital for the villages to follow the Local Water Revitalization Program when making decisions regarding coastal management, something she said some seem to have forgotten.

She added that another one of her concerns is the budget as the village has started to spend its reserve, and she would like to see more transparency in the village, as she believes many residents don’t know the trustees’ decisions before they finalize them. Davidson said updating the village’s website and the return of the newsletter would help the trustees communicate better.

Many residents have also asked for the Hitherbrook Road extension, where kayaks were once launched, to be restored for use. Currently there are boulders there, because in the past a few drivers were known to have driven down the dirt road and wind upin the harbor at low tide and thenbe stuck. She said there has to be a solution to allow people to use their kayaks there once again but also be safe.

“There’s no listening,” she said. “Let’s figure out how this can work for everybody, and that’s what I would like to do in general.”

Like many in the village, Davidson has also been keeping an eye on the Gyrodyne property on Route 25A, right outside of the village, and its possible development in the future. In the past, the owners have talked about the possibility of developers constructing a hotel and assisted living facility. She said, “The village and its residents have made it really clear — they want to preserve our historic corridor and open spaces because once we allow development we’ve lost those assets forever.”

Davidson added she supports Head of the Harbor Mayor Douglas Dahlgard’s plea to preserve the entire property as a park.

“Short of that, the compromise plan, whereby half remains as open space and half is developed, is acceptable to the community,” she said. “Unfortunately, we now have another threat to that area as Albany is seeking land on which to build affordable housing. Whether it’s housing or a hotel, the streets cannot handle the additional traffic those would bring so we have a real challenge ahead of us.”

The Suffolk County School Bus Safety Program has drawn criticism from Republicans within the county government. Stock photo

The Suffolk County School Bus Safety Program has drawn scrutiny from Republican county officials targeting the program for alleged mismanagement.

Enacted unanimously by the county Legislature in 2021, this traffic safety program uses cameras attached near the stop arm of school buses to enforce the New York Vehicle and Traffic Law. The county has partnered with Virginia-based BusPatrol to operate the program.

Under state law, offenders caught passing buses while the stop arm is extended receive a $250 fine. The county code states, “net proceeds of any penalty … shall be expended for programs related to improving traffic safety and/or school district safety in Suffolk County.”

County Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. (R) recently announced his office is conducting an audit of the School Bus Safety program. He stated the program had captured his attention when numerous residents complained about receiving potentially erroneous violations.

“My interest in any program is always that a program is being operated as the laws that adopted it … sought to have it operate,” Kennedy said. “How is the revenue that’s being collected from the program being allocated? Is it being done under the terms of the contract? Is the vendor fulfilling all of their requirements?” 

He added, “That’s the audit function, and it is universal across the board.”

Legislative purpose

Marykate Guilfoyle, a spokesperson for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D), summarized the motive for developing the program in the first place.

“The goal of the School Bus Safety program is to protect children as they get on and off the bus and to reduce the number of drivers illegally passing stopped school buses, which endangers the lives of students,” Guilfoyle said in an email. “The program is completely violator funded, and county proceeds are used to support public safety, traffic safety and school safety initiatives.”

County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) defended the School Bus Safety program. She said her office’s most frequent complaints are related to roadway safety and other traffic concerns.

“Red light cameras and school bus cameras are a way to prevent death and injuries without needing a paid police officer at every intersection and following every bus,” she said. “It’s a very efficient way for providing the consequence for breaking the rules of the road.”

Before the program took effect, Hahn added, few violators ever got caught. Today, they receive a fine, incentivizing better roadway behavior and creating a safer traffic environment.

“Now people have to change their behavior to no longer do the illegal action that puts people’s lives at risk,” the county legislator said. 

Questions over potential misapplication

County Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said the School Bus Safety program is one of the few measures for which he wishes he could rescind his “yes” vote. He said the Legislature was misled when the program was pitched.

Figures obtained by Trotta indicate the program grossed $23 million last year, with $13 million retained by the county and the outstanding $10 million collected by the vendor. Kennedy estimated the county government netted approximately $11 million.

“We don’t have all the net revenue,” Kennedy said. “That’s been another consequence of the hack” against the county government in September. For more on this ransomware event, see story, “Suffolk County cyberattack offers a window into the dangers of the digital age,” Nov. 17, also TBR News Media website.

By statute, the net proceeds generated by the School Bus Safety program must support various educational programs related to school bus and traffic safety. Asked how the revenue is being spent, an administration official said the 2022 revenue figures are still being finalized.

Guilfoyle, however, cited specific examples of how the revenue supports countywide traffic education initiatives: “Examples of the county’s efforts include dedicating more than $1 million to school districts and $125,000 in [public service announcements] during the back-to-school months to educate drivers on the state law surrounding stopping for buses.”

Trotta viewed the school bus program as a lucrative moneymaker for the county and vendor rather than a measure promoting bus safety. He said the law is applied unfairly, ticketing busy multilane corridors in the same manner as residential neighborhoods.

“I’ve checked with all the school districts, and kids aren’t crossing major thoroughfares,” Trotta said. “I’m all for giving a ticket to someone who passes a school bus on a residential avenue because it’s dangerous. I’m not at all for 1,000 people on Jericho Turnpike getting tickets.”

While the county code imposes rigid reporting requirements regarding expenditures of revenues generated from the program, Kennedy said he has yet to see any reports to date.

Competing perspectives

Following an initial spike when programs such as this are first instituted, Hahn said offenses start to wane “because people begin to change their behaviors — they stop at red lights because they’re afraid of getting a ticket.” 

In time, the legislator added, drivers throughout Suffolk “will no longer go around stopped school buses,” but “if they choose to break the law, they will get tickets.”

Trotta said he is pushing to repeal the School Bus Safety program altogether. “The reality is it’s a sham, and it’s not what we were told it was going to be,” he said.

While Kennedy acknowledged the importance of traffic safety, he held that the audit is to determine whether the program is administered correctly.

“I never want to see somebody blowing a stopped school bus sign — it’s just heinous,” the county comptroller said. “But if [the program] is not being operated in a fair and proper and consistent manner by the school bus drivers and the vendor … then it’s a problem.”

Kennedy expects the audit to be finalized by the second quarter of 2023.

Graphic from CSD website

The New York State Education Department is cracking down on Native American mascots in schools, and Comsewogue School District is now in its sights.

In a Nov. 17 letter sent out to districts across the state, NYSED senior deputy commissioner James Baldwin alerted school administrators that using Native American mascots, team names or imagery is prohibited “without current approval from a recognized tribe.” 

Districts failing to meet these standards, Baldwin wrote, “may be in willful violation of the Dignity [for All Students] Act.” The penalty for violators could “include the removal of school officers and the withdrawal of state aid.”

Facing the threat of losing state aid, CSD officials will have to work against the clock. NYSED is placing a deadline on school districts, ordering them to retire these mascots before the end of the 2022-23 school year.

The Education Department is developing new regulations to clarify its policy, with a release date anticipated sometime in April. Until then, New York school districts remain in limbo.

Jennifer Quinn, superintendent of schools at Comsewogue School District, said the district would not make any policy determinations until NYSED releases its detailed guidelines. 

“There are so many question marks,” she said. “Until we see the actual regulations, we’re kind of playing a guessing game.”

While school districts statewide undergo significant changes in the coming months, certain characteristics may set Comsewogue apart from the pack.

Emblazoned at the center of the high school’s turf field is a district logo containing Native American imagery. Photo from Google Maps

Historical background

Before Europeans had ever stepped foot on Long Island, from present day St. James to Wading River and as far south as Gordon Heights, the Setalcott Nation once inhabited the lands. Within that territory lies Port Jefferson Station/Terryville, an area known to the Setalcotts as Comsewogue, meaning “place where paths come together.” 

The Terryville-Comsewogue School District was formed in 1874, and the senior high school opened nearly a century later in 1971. The school district has prominently showcased its precolonial heritage along with its name. 

One district emblem contains the initials “CSD” with a feather draped over its side. Another logo displays a visually striking profile depicting a Setalcott. This logo is etched ubiquitously throughout the district’s website, school walls and at the center of the high school’s turf athletic field. Sports teams are called “the Warriors.”

Setalcott reaction

Helen Sells is president of the Setalcott Native American Council. In an interview, she said she is personally not offended by the use of Setalcott images and references in Comsewogue schools. Sells referred to the term “warrior” as a distinction among her ancestors. 

“It was an honor for our men, and some of the women, to serve for our country and for the freedoms of all,” she said. “The men were considered warriors because they had to go out and hunt for food and hold the community together.”

Asked whether Comsewogue School District should continue using Setalcott mascots, team names and imagery, Sells responded affirmatively. “To me, it’s important as a family to try to keep that history going,” she said.

Whether this response constitutes “current approval from a recognized tribe” is still to be determined. NYSED declined to comment for this story.

Debating mascots, logos and team names

‘The state takes the approach that one size fits all. They’re not looking into every local district.’ ­

— Ed Flood

New York State Assemblyman Ed Flood (R-Port Jefferson), whose 4th Assembly District encompasses CSD, said the state has more pressing educational concerns than deciding mascots and team names.

“There’s so much wrong in education right now,” he said. “I think our kids — I see it in my own children being out of the classroom for so long — are kind of behind,” adding, “We have bigger problems to fix.”

A Comsewogue alum, Flood held that the logos and team name were not intended to deride Native Americans. “It’s not used in any way to be offensive,” he said. “Comsewogue is a pretty diverse district with people of all races and ethnicities. We were all proud to put on that jersey, and we understood what it represented.”

Flood’s predecessor in the state Assembly, Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), offered that ethical dilemmas often require moderation and restraint by decision-makers. He cited the example of the U.S. Army renaming bases that had honored former Confederates.

“I believe the model for what should be done is probably the way that the U.S. Army has approached the question of renaming military bases,” Englebright said. “The approach was to set up — two, I believe — study commissions and to give thoughtful consideration if there is a controversy.” He added, “I’m not sure there is a controversy here.”

State aid conundrum

Debates surrounding state contributions to public education have been ongoing for over a century and a half, said Campbell Scribner, assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland College of Education in College Park. 

In an interview, he traced the historical trends of public education in the United States, highlighting the complexities surrounding state aid.

“One of the ambiguities or tensions in American education is that, constitutionally, there has never been a federal right to education, but there is a state right,” he said. “Since at least the Civil War, all state constitutions make provisions for public education.” 

However, until the early to mid-20th century, state funding lagged behind local contributions. “Although states have a constitutional obligation to provide education, they didn’t fund it very well,” Scribner said.

Without organized state bureaucracies or state income tax, school districts generated revenue primarily through local property taxes. This model offered considerable local autonomy in setting curricula and other districtwide standards.

‘States have taken a much more robust posture. They’ve taken more interest in what’s happening locally.’ ­

— Campbell Scribner

Invoking social reforms

The dynamic between states and school boards changed as state aid began to comprise a heftier chunk of school districts’ overall budgets. With the injection of state funds, Scribner suggests power has shifted away from local school officials and into the hands of state bureaucrats. 

“States have taken a much more robust posture,” Scribner said, adding, “They’ve taken more interest in what’s happening locally.”

With more say over budgeting, states have found leverage in setting curricula and social standards within school districts. Moreover, the threat of revoking state aid can be an effective instrument.

Despite the state’s newfound power, this approach has limits: “The state certainly does not want to come across as coercive,” Scribner said. “I don’t think it’s going to help state legislators to look like they’re bullying local school boards or denying children education.”

“But on the other hand,” he added, “I don’t think, legally, the school boards have the sort of rights they might assume they do or the same prerogative against the states.”

Native American imagery

‘There’s a long history of European settlers appropriating Native American imagery.’ ­

— Andrew Newman

Within the scope of national and statewide politics, CSD is caught in a much broader web over the role of Native American imagery.

Andrew Newman is a professor and chair in the English Department at Stony Brook University whose research focuses on the intersection of early American, indigenous and media studies. 

Newman shared that Native American imagery within popular culture is a centuries-old practice dating back to the 18th century.

“There’s a long history of European settlers appropriating Native American imagery,” he said. “There was an idea of Native Americans as being sort of tied to the land, athletic, representing this kind of uncivilized masculinity that was very attractive to the mainstream white culture.”

He added, “This phenomenon was referred to by the scholar Philip Deloria, in a book [of the same title] from 1998, as ‘Playing Indian.’”

Newman maintained that these portrayals often negatively affect self-perceptions within Native American communities, adding that such caricatures can minimize historical injustices.

The movement away from Native American mascots and team names has gradually developed within public education and professional sports. After years of resistance, the former Washington Redskins football and Cleveland Indians baseball franchises have finally changed their team names to more neutral identifiers, respectively the Commanders and Guardians.

Newman said mascots, team names and imagery can be hard to do away with because of the strong emotional ties these symbols can produce. This effect is especially prevalent within schools. 

“The students and families and communities that are associated with these schools are kind of attached to the school’s traditions,” the SBU professor said. “They’re hard to give up.”

Veneration vs. denigration

The debate over the use of Native American mascots surrounds two main arguments, according to Newman. On the one hand, proponents say these images glorify indigenous heritage and tradition. On the other, detractors view them as derogatory and offensive to Native Americans. 

Reflecting upon the function of public education, Newman noted the apparent contradiction between the mission to educate about local history while potentially alienating a segment of the local population.

“Especially in educational institutions, where presumably part of the mission is to educate the students about the local history, I don’t think that educational mission is compatible with the use of a Native American-themed mascot,” the SBU professor said.

‘When we do make our plan, we are very mindful of including every stakeholder.’ ­

— Jennifer Quinn

An opportunity for dialogue

Assessing NYSED’s approach, Flood suggested Albany is applying a blanket policy to a multifaceted issue. He contended the state government is neither informed of Comsewogue’s historical circumstances nor sensitive to the variations between tribes across Long Island.

“The state takes the approach that one size fits all,” the assemblyman said. “They’re not looking into every local district.”

While pressure comes down from Albany, Scribner said schools are uniquely suited to answer these moral questions through their abundant channels for local input.

“School politics remain one of the strongest and most accessible democratic spaces we have in this country,” the UM professor said. “They are, of course, hemmed in certain ways by state regulations. But again, I still think that if local voters really want something, they do have levers to pull.”

Quinn affirmed CSD’s commitment to working as a community through this sensitive local matter. “Nobody wants to do anything to make a child feel uncomfortable,” she said. “Ultimately, we have to see what [NYSED is] going to tell us we have to do, and then we can make a plan.”

The district superintendent concluded, “When we do make our plan, we are very mindful of including every stakeholder. Our community is going to be very involved.”

Englebright noted that CSD likely did not intend to disparage Native Americans when it created its logo and team name. 

Nonetheless, the former assemblyman reiterated that study commissions and community forums could be fruitful in working out competing ethical considerations. 

“History is complicated,” Englebright said. “That’s why I think this deserves some introspection.”

Stock photo

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has announced that the County will host a free test kit and KN95 mask distribution event on January 24 between noon and 6 p.m. in the lobby of the H. Lee Dennison Building, located at 100 Veterans Memorial Highway in Hauppauge.  Approximately 1,000 test kits and nearly 1,000 KN95 mask will be available for residents to pick up.

All Suffolk County residents are encouraged to attend to obtain kits for their household. Each resident is eligible to pick up two test kits per household member. Test kits will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

“While many of us have resumed daily life, living with COVID-19, it is still important that everyone has access to the tools available to prevent exposure and spread,” said Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. “As we continue to see new variants, it is clear that availability to test kits is imperative as we work to keep this virus under control.”

“Testing is still crucial to slowing the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. When we test positive early in the course of illness, we have the opportunity to seek treatment to prevent the worst outcomes from COVID infection, and can limit the spread of the virus to others,” added Dr. Gregson Pigott, Suffolk County Health Commissioner.

Together, with local municipalities, County legislators, the Suffolk County Police Department, community groups, not-for-profits and more, the County has distributed approximately 660,680 test kits to residents, including seniors, first responders and other vulnerable populations.

Suffolk Health is also offering COVID-19 vaccines and boosters to all Suffolk County residents who are eligible to receive them. Childhood vaccinations are also offered for children who are uninsured. Walk-ins are welcome.

County clinic dates and times are available as follows:

January 24 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Sachem Library, 150 Holbrook Road, Holbrook

January 25 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Riverhead Library, 330 Court St., Riverhead

January 31 from 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. at West Babylon Library, 211 Route 109, West Babylon

For more information, call 631-853-4000.

Owl Hill estate is located south of Sunken Meadow State Park in Fort Salonga. Photo from Douglas Elliman Real Estate

A county legislator continues his commitment to saving a historic property in Fort Salonga from developers.

Suffolk Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said the county earlier this month made an offer to the owners of Owl Hill Estates & Preserve to acquire its Fort Salonga property for $6.3 million. The owners have yet to accept the offer.

Trotta said the goal is to keep the property as open space for walking and hiking trails and “making Long Island stay Long Island and not making it look like Queens.”

“We really don’t need to tear down every forest and build,” he added.

Owl Hill is located at 99 Sunken Meadow Road, bordering Sunken Meadow Park and wetlands. The property spans nearly 27.7 acres. In 2017, the property was up for sale for the first time in more than six decades at a price tag of $6.45 million. The current owners bought the property with plans to subdivide and build up to 17 homes.

According to Trotta, the property is a critical watershed and conservation area with mature woodlands and wildlife habitat. One of the largest continuous tracts of open space in the Town of Smithtown, it may have significant archaeological resources.

Trotta said that a nonprofit or possibly the state would maintain the 6,500-square-foot mansion that sits on the property if the county acquires the land. The developers have also presented a plan to the Town of Smithtown where the home would remain untouched.

Earlier this year, Suffolk County Legislature passed a resolution to authorize an appraisal of the land under the county’s Drinking Water Protection Program.

Keith Macartney, president of the Fort Salonga Association, said civic members are concerned about the possibility of development on the property and hope the owners will accept the county’s offer.

“It’s a beautiful piece of property, and it’s among properties that have been left alone that people can enjoy and the wildlife can enjoy,” Macartney said.

Among the civic members’ concerns is increased traffic in the area, especially with the future development of the Preserves at Indian Hills, which falls in the Huntington portion of Fort Salonga. Macartney said building more homes would be “a travesty.”

In a 2020 The Times of Smithtown article, Corey Geske, Smithtown resident and scholar, said the property’s historical importance is on par with Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay. The first patent lawyer in the U.S., Edmund Wetmore, commissioned architect Henry Killam Murphy to design the estate home. One of Murphy’s notable works includes designing the campus of the University of Shanghai.

Attorney Vincent Trimarco Sr., who represents Owl Hill Estates & Preserve, confirmed the owners received the county offer but he said he didn’t have knowledge as far as whether they were considering it. The owners still need to appear before the Town of Smithtown Town Board regarding final approval of the subdivision. The attorney said that if the owners are approved, the houses will be part of a clustered development and several acres of the property would be left as open space. 

Photo from Pixabay

The New York State Department of Labor (NYSDOL) announced on Jan. 18 that it was awarded a $9.1 million grant from the U.S Department of Labor (USDOL) to promote equitable access to New York’s Unemployment Insurance (UI) program. The equity grant, part of the American Rescue Plan Act, will fund projects designed to break down barriers to UI services. Potential barriers to be addressed specifically include those related to race, ethnicity, language proficiency, literacy, disability status, socioeconomic status, geographic location, or other systemic barriers. The funding will help NYSDOL continue its ongoing effort to make sure all New Yorkers, especially those in underserved communities, are able to tap into critical support and have access to UI benefits.

“I thank the Biden Administration for providing this equity grant to help us ensure that every New Yorker is able to access the services they need during tough economic times,” said New York State Department of Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon. “This grant will provide critical funding to advance our ongoing efforts to modernize our Unemployment Insurance system and enhance the customer experience to ensure we break down potential barriers to benefits.”

NYSDOL will use the funding to build on its ongoing equity and accessibility projects to make it easier for New Yorkers to discover, learn about, and access UI services. NYSDOL will also review application instructions and simplify language to reduce confusion and prevent improper payments. There will also be a focus on improving access for those who are hearing and visually impaired. NYSDOL continuously strives to be inclusive and accessible for all New Yorkers.

This grant was administered by USDOL’s  Employment and Training Administration and corresponds with USDOL’s August 2021 announcement of the availability of up to $260 million in grants for states to promote equitable access to unemployment insurance benefits. To date, USDOL has announced $166 million in funds awarded to 32 states and the District of Columbia.

For more information, visit USDOL’s Employment and Training Administration webpage.

Mayor Margot Garant analyzes coastal engineering drawings during a public meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 17, at Port Jefferson Village Hall. Photo by Raymond Janis

The Village of Port Jefferson Board of Trustees convened Tuesday, Jan. 17. The board tackled a range of subjects from upcoming coastal engineering projects to a rideshare service and school district facilities.

A proposed westerly wall

Mayor Margot Garant reported a development to the coastal engineering plans at the East Beach bluff, where erosion threatens the village-owned Port Jefferson Country Club’s clubhouse facility.

With $3.75 million in federal funds secured for an upland wall to protect the building [See story, “Schumer secures funds for upper wall at PJCC …” The Port Times Record, Jan. 12], the mayor announced her team is exploring ways to finalize its upland plans.

A proposed “westerly wall,” originally pitched as an add-on extension to the upper wall to accommodate racket sports, is now recommended as a possible erosion mitigation strategy. Huntington Station-based engineering firm GEI Consultants “did confirm that they definitely feel we need to do both the main wall and the extension wall,” Garant said.

The village board put the upper wall projects to bid in October, announcing the cost projections the following month. The upper wall bid came back at approximately $3.3 million, with the combined upper wall and westerly wall project costing roughly $4.5 million.

Considering which option is most suitable for the village, Garant outlined why she favors constructing the westerly wall: “I believe that putting that second wall in there, now unequivocally, if somebody else is paying 75% of that cost, I think the westerly wall should go in,” she said.

Forecasting how to organize the racket sports facilities once the westerly wall is complete, Garant suggested it will be a problematic decision-making calculus regarding which racket sports to prioritize.

“We may be wanting to install more than three pickleball courts because the demand is so high and trying to get maybe an instructional court, and maybe just have the two [tennis] courts in the back,” she said. “We have to figure out when, how, where, timing, materials, cost. It’s complicated.”

She added, “The good news is we’re going to be building a wall. I think that saves a major resource for this community. I think it allows us to reinstate a racket ball campus. And I think it gives us a reasonable timeline to come up with an alternate plan, god forbid in 20 years, we need to have something different in place.”

Ridesharing service

Deputy Mayor Kathianne Snaden and Kevin Wood, director of economic development, parking administrator and communications committee head, jointly presented on a rideshare project. 

The benefits of the plan, as Snaden explained, are threefold: to offer residents easy access to downtown Port Jefferson, provide a safe means of return travel to their homes and ease traffic congestion.

“I think we have something that’s really going to work for the residents of Port Jefferson,” the deputy mayor said, adding that the goal is “to get them downtown, to save parking for the tourists and others, and to come down, have a nice evening and get home safely.”

Wood worked out how the village would implement such a rideshare program. “The plan that you have in front of you would be to combine world-class, Uber-like software with a black car service to be exclusively used and designed for Port Jefferson residents,” he said.

Offering a rough sketch of his vision, Wood said the service would operate Fridays and Saturdays from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. The village government would administer the software, which would be geofenced for Port Jefferson, meaning requests outside the 11777 zip code could not be possible. “If somebody wanted to go to Smith Haven Mall, they can’t,” Wood said. 

He proposed that rides could start at $5 per person and $12.50 for groups of three to seven people. These figures could be subject to change as the village would adjust the software and set its rates based on the community’s needs.

“The beautiful part about this is that if we find that $5 is literally not enough money or too much money, I think we have some leeway there and could change this stuff on a dime,” Wood said. “We can change things on demand. We can make new group rates. We could do special event rates.”

Village attorney Brian Egan inquired whether this program could create centralized drop-off locations for riders, preventing clutter of village roads and safety hazards from stopped vehicles. Responding, Wood said the village could train drivers to drop off and pick up riders to minimize these risks.

Garant put her support behind the effort, saying this will benefit residents who wish to access their downtown amid its busy season. “We all, I’ll speak for myself, feel we’re getting snowed out in the middle of the summertime,” the mayor said. “You can’t get down here, so I think this is going to be something that I’m really excited about.”

Reports

Egan updated the board on the ongoing negotiations with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. The village is attempting to reclassify the Port Jefferson Clean Solid Waste Landfill as a transfer station, enabling the continued procedure of branch and leaf pickup services. [See story, “Garbage grief: PJ Village and DEC clash over landfill permit,” The Port Times Record, Dec. 1].

“I do think we have — at least with the DEC senior administrative staff — a very receptive ear,” he said. Referring to the permit dispute with DEC, he added, “I think we’ll have a cooperative resolution to it, and I am cautiously optimistic.”

Trustee Lauren Sheprow used her report to discuss a forthcoming capital bond at Port Jefferson School District. “The school district is looking at floating another bond in May,” she said.

Citing an article in Newsday, Sheprow said approximately 80% of federal COVID-19 relief funds have yet to be spent by public schools statewide. “$14 billion has not been used yet,” she said. “There’s $14 billion issued to New York State in COVID relief,” adding that the heating and ventilation systems proposed by PJSD may qualify under COVID relief conditions.

Sheprow added she might pitch her ideas to the school board during its upcoming meeting Tuesday, Jan. 24. She encouraged her fellow board members to attend.

Snaden reported on a meeting with the Port Jefferson Business Improvement District and the Greater Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce. This year’s iteration of the Port Jefferson Ice Festival, hosted by the BID on Jan. 28 and 29, will feature 27 ice sculptures at various storefronts and other locations throughout Port Jeff.

Trustee Stan Loucks reported on winter projects at PJCC. He said 188 members have already signed up for this year as of the time of this meeting. Trustee Rebecca Kassay was absent and did not deliver a report by proxy.

The board of trustees will meet again Monday, Feb. 6, with a scheduled public hearing to amend the village code concerning dogs and other animals.

Kevin LaValle, above. File photo by Raymond Janis

In a special election held Tuesday, Jan. 17, Town of Brookhaven Councilman Kevin LaValle (R-Selden) was elected as Brookhaven town clerk.

Former Town Clerk Donna Lent (I) retired in November, prompting a special election to complete her unexpired term ending in 2025. An unofficial tally from the Suffolk County Board of Elections indicates LaValle secured victory handily, defeating the Democratic candidate, Lisa Di Santo of East Patchogue. So far, he has received 6,396 votes to Di Santo’s 4,940.

In an exclusive phone interview, LaValle reacted to the election outcome. 

“I’m really excited that the residents of the Town of Brookhaven put their faith in me to run a very critical department,” he said. “I’m excited about the opportunity ahead of me. Once I get sworn in, I look forward to taking on that challenge.” To his opponent, he added, “It was a great race. I wish her the best.”

Upon assuming this townwide position, LaValle will oversee a more than 25-person staff. In the meantime, he said he intends to speak with staff members, get an idea of the day-to-day operations and “start to see the office as a whole and see what we can improve.”

“I think that that’s going to be a little bit of a process to get that all together, but I’m excited to sit down with everybody,” the town clerk-elect said, adding, “It’s going to be a bit of a challenge, but I’m excited for it.”

New state election laws require at least a week for the election results to be certified. LaValle will vacate his seat on the Town Board when he is sworn in as clerk, triggering another special election — this time for his Brookhaven 3rd Council District.

The outgoing councilman pledged to remain active in the eventual transition process. “I think there are some people out there,” he said, referring to prospective candidates. “The leadership of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, they’re going to have to make the decisions on that.”

He added, “The 3rd District has been my home my whole life. It’s been a great honor to be able to represent it over the last nine years, so I’m certainly going to take a keen interest in who’s going to take over after me and certainly be a helping hand in that transition.”

LaValle could be sworn into office as Brookhaven town clerk as early as Wednesday, Jan. 25. Under town code, the board must set a special election between 60 and 90 days from the opening of the vacancy.