Government

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone speaks during SepticSmart Week earlier this year. File photo by Victoria Espinoza

Suffolk County is getting more serious about a smelly situation.

Sixteen months ago, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) bumped water quality issues to the top of his to-do list. Now, the Suffolk County Health Department is reviewing existing sewage treatment plant sites, its enforcement and possible means to strengthen current regulatory programs.

Suffolk County Health Commissioner Dr. James Tomarken said the program could be more effective despite the efforts of wastewater management staff members.

“As a part of a comprehensive approach to improve water quality, it makes sense to review our existing regulatory programs in consultation with governmental agencies and other stakeholders to identify areas where those programs can be improved,” Tomarken said in a press release.

According to Peter Scully, deputy county executive, there aren’t any specific steps to improve the programs yet.

Earlier last month the health department met with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Suffolk County Water Authority, on Nov. 5 and Nov. 16, respectively. Scully said the department addressed regulation efforts and compliance issues with the DEC while they tackled water quality concerns and siting requirements for the sewage treatment plants.

According to the county executive’s website, there’s an excess of 200,000 on-site residential wastewater disposal systems in environmentally compromised areas in the county as of last year. Reviewing the existing programs is an extension of Bellone’s Reclaim Our Waters Initiative. He announced the initiative in March of 2014 to address the county’s poor water quality.

Nitrogen pollution is rampant in the water, which not only affects the water quality but also the organisms living in these waters. The Town of Brookhaven took on similar efforts to address Brookhaven’s declining water quality. In October, the town issued its own study about Long Island’s water, starting with the Setauket Harbor. While that study will take up to a year, conducting the review on the county’s regulatory programs may take several months, according to Scully.

The sewage plant application process will also be evaluated. The health department receives around three applications annually. The review will examine whether the department has adequate penalties for those who don’t comply with sewage plant siting regulations. The regulation process of new facilities or those under order is also up for examination. Scully said this is to help make the facilities better for the environment.

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright speaks about history at the Three Village Community Trust’s 11th annual celebration. Photo by Maria Hoffman

There used to be more to North Country Road than meets the eye.

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) discussed the history and importance of Long Island’s Main streets like North Country Road during the Three Village Community Trust’s 11th annual celebration Nov. 18. Around 80 residents attended the event, which helps raise awareness of various conservation or preservation topics.

Cynthia Barnes, president of the group, said the event also helps residents understand the community better. This year, highway and street preservation was the topic of the evening.

According to guest speaker Englebright, in the early 1600s the king of England ordered the construction of North Country Road otherwise known as Route 25A or Main Street. Christian Avenue was once part of Main Street before North Country Road was developed further. Englebright said North Country Road is the oldest road in the community and it is one of many structures that help define the area.

Speaking about the streets in the neighborhood, Englebright said, “They are also fragile and can be lost and in doing so we can lose part of who we are.”

While change is inevitable as time progresses, the goal is to remember and preserve the history of the locale. Englebright added that many roads residents use are some of the oldest roads in the area. He didn’t specify which roads in particular but said that those living in the community don’t always realize the small changes made to the area over time.

With development pressures and gentrification it’s easy for a community to lose its history. With the trust’s annual celebration, Englebright hoped to bring awareness to the history of local roadways, and help continue preservation efforts.

“We have a tradition in this community of preserving our heritage and trying to maintain that quality of our overall community through preservation and adaptive rescue of repurposed historic buildings,” Englebright said. “[Preservation efforts have] happened here more than almost anywhere else I could think of.”

For his past 32 years as an elected official, Englebright fought and continues to fight to preserve historic neighborhoodsincluding the roadways. In light of his preservation efforts over the years the trust not only invited Englebright to make a presentation at the event, but also honored him for his service and his support of the trust and its work.

The assemblyman has helped preserve many historic sites including the Davis Town Meeting House in Coram. The exterior of the house was renovated but the interior was left in shambles. Unused buildings are typically targeted. In order to preserve the 1750s-built house, Englebright supported a grant to help the Davis Town Meeting House Society cater to the building’s interior. The grant is one of many the assemblyman has advocated during his time in public office.

“We’re very lucky to have an assemblyman or an elected official with not just a vision for this community, but he’s actually able to implement [these visions] in various ways and inspire other people to help him,” Barnes said in a phone interview.

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine listens to residents’ concerns before adopting the 2016 operating budget. Photo by Giselle Barkley

Town of Brookhaven officials and residents have one less thing to worry about next year, now that the 2016 budget has been finalized.

On Nov. 19, the town board approved Supervisor Ed Romaine’s nearly $281 million proposed operating budget, which complies with the New York State cap on tax levy increases — in fact holding it, and thus residents’ property taxes, steady next year.

According to a previous interview with Finance Commissioner Tamara Wright, who helped Romaine (R) craft the budget, the town accomplished this by properly managing its capital projects and by satisfying debts.

Earlier this year, the town finished paying off an $8.4 million debt connected to the New York State employees’ retirement system, allowing the town to save about $1 million annually. But its efforts to reduce debt will not end there — going forward, Romaine said, the town will continue addressing that issue and prioritizing expenditures.

“You should not spend money you do not have,” he said. “We’re very much aware of that, and we’re monitoring all of our expenses very carefully.”

Some funds that would have gone toward the completed debt payments will instead be used to fund other parts of the budget in 2016.

The budget also allocates $5.2 million for the highway department’s snow removal budget, a number that has been incrementally increasing since Long Island communities had to dig out of dense snow in the February 2013 blizzard commonly dubbed Winter Storm Nemo, which shut down some roads for days. Brookhaven’s snow removal funding has doubled in the last few years.

If there is leftover money in that account after the winter, the goal is to deposit it into a reserve account that would be used in an emergency winter weather situation.

While roadway upkeep is important, Romaine said designating money to fund all maintenance issues is difficult, because spending is limited.

“It’s hard to do that when you have a tax cap,” Romaine said. “I believe the budget is as good as it’s going to get, considering the constraints we live under.”

In addition to raising the snow removal budget, the town is putting money toward traffic safety, park improvements, open space preservation and land acquisition. The spending plan also increases funding for public safety staff, code enforcement and internal auditors, among others.

Romaine touted the budget’s relying less on fund balance to get by, which adds to financial stability. Without including its debt reserves, Brookhaven’s 2016 budget will only use $2.35 million in reserves, a substantial decrease from the 2015 spending plan, which used about $8 million.

Huntington Town Councilwoman Susan Berland, Huntington Town Supervisor Frank Petrone, John Ross, Senator Carl Marcellino, Asharoken Mayor Greg Letica, Congressman Steve Israel and Asharoken Deputy Mayor Pamela Pierce cut the ribbon at the new Asharoken Village Hall. Photo by Steve Silverman

The new Asharoken Village Hall officially opened its doors with a dedication ceremony on Nov. 24, ending a 10-year journey of replacing a battered building at the center of the village.

“So many people came to join in on the festivities,” Asharoken Trustee and Police Commissioner Mel Ettinger said, referring to the more than 100 residents who gathered with Mayor Greg Letica, the board of trustees, Congressman Steve Israel (D-Huntington) and New York State Senator Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset). “It made it a fantastic event and a phenomenal success in every way possible.”

The new village hall opened for business last month and is a large expansion from the previous building — the ground floor alone is about 3,000 square feet. There is a larger, improved space for the police station, and the whole thing was built to be more environmentally friendly and energy efficient, with LED lighting and spray-foam insulation.

According to a statement, Letica said at the dedication that the process to get to the finish line has been long, and that Ettinger was a key player from the start.

“The project to build a new village hall was actually started almost 10 years ago … initially as an expansion to our old village hall,” Letica said. But funding either an expansion or a construction of a new building was always a major concern.

Ettinger said he started organizing the renovation project when he first became police commissioner, and was told he could go ahead with it as long as it didn’t increase taxes. That was when Ettinger decided to raise the money through donations.

Asharoken Mayor Greg Letica and Trustee and Police Commissioner Mel Ettinger at the front entrance of the new village hall. Photo by Victoria Espinoza
Asharoken Mayor Greg Letica and Trustee and Police Commissioner Mel Ettinger at the front entrance of the new village hall. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

“Within the first 10 days of announcing that, I received a check for $10,000 from a resident,” Ettinger said. “Before you knew it, people were sending in checks and pledges left and right. And within the next year and half, we already had $175,000.”

But when Hurricane Sandy hit three years ago, irreparably damaging the structure, the village ditched all plans of renovating it. Letica said the storm forced everyone in village hall to abandon the building and start an “urgent project” to erect a new one.

Joan Ettinger, Mel’s wife, formed the Asharoken Fundraising Committee, which according to Letica, ended up raising $360,000 from more than 200 residents and “has enabled the village to fund the cost of this beautiful building.”

Letica said funding was also made possible with help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which reimburses municipalities for repair work following natural disasters.

“Congressman Israel was extremely helpful with … processing our claim with FEMA and I am certain that if not for his personal support and efforts we would have not be able to receive the grant of $538,855,” Letica said.

He also said Marcellino helped the village obtain an additional $50,000 grant.

The total project cost about $950,000.

The new village trustee meeting room on the building’s first floor will soon have a donor board, where the names of people who have donated will be showcased.

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Port Jefferson is fighting to keep property tax revenue flowing from the power plant and to prevent restrictions from being lifted on peaker unit output. File photo by Lee Lutz

The Port Jefferson school district has climbed aboard a lawsuit against the Long Island Power Authority that challenges the utility’s efforts to reduce its property taxes at North Shore power plants.

LIPA has been working for the last several years to significantly reduce taxes at the aging Port Jefferson and Northport plants, saying the facilities are grossly over-assessed and force the utility to pay more in property taxes than it should. But the school board voted on Nov. 24 to join a lawsuit filed by the Town of Huntington and the Northport-East Northport school district that disputes LIPA’s legal right to file its tax challenges, claiming they are a breach of contract.

That argument stems from a 1997 letter from former LIPA Chairman Richard Kessel, in which Kessel said the utility would not file property tax challenges in the future “on any of their respective properties at any time in the future unless a municipality abusively increases its assessment rate.”

The “respective properties” referenced include the Port Jefferson and Northport power plants, which are owned and operated by energy company National Grid. That company sells the energy it produces to the Long Island utility.

In Port Jefferson, the power plant’s property taxes provide much support to the school district, accounting for almost half of its budget, making the potential loss of that revenue a serious issue for the district.

The Port Jefferson Village government is in a similar position, funding about one-third of its budget with power plant taxes. Smaller stakeholders include the Port Jefferson fire and library districts and the Town of Brookhaven.

In an announcement posted on its website last week, the Port Jefferson school district said, “Our decision to join this lawsuit is a necessary step to protect the resources of our school district and the financial stability of our taxpayers.”

Before the Port Jefferson school district joined the lawsuit, LIPA had filed a motion to dismiss it, but New York State’s highest court denied that motion earlier this year and allowed the case to move forward.

At that time, a LIPA spokesperson said the utility does not comment on ongoing litigation.

After the utility’s motion to dismiss was denied — representing a small victory for those fighting LIPA’s tax challenges — Port Jefferson Village filed a separate lawsuit in September that alleges the same breach of contract as the schools’ lawsuit. Village Attorney Brian Egan requested that court action on LIPA’s tax challenges, which are still pending in the court system, be delayed until the new lawsuits are resolved.

If the plaintiffs win their arguments, the pending tax challenges would be thrown out.

According to Egan, however, the lawsuits are now facing a new motion to dismiss, this time from National Grid.

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Marlene Wolke ready to leave her post serving town after decades of working in Supervisor Vecchio’s office

Marlene Wolke retired this week after working alongside Smithtown Supervisor Pat Vecchio for nearly three decades. Photo by Phil Corso

Anyone looking to get to Smithtown Supervisor Pat Vecchio (R) had to get through Smithtown’s Marlene Wolke first.

Wolke’s desk literally sat outside Vecchio’s office door and she spent the past three decades welcoming the town’s movers and shakers in and out of the supervisor’s headquarters. Wolke announced she would be retiring this year, and her last day on the job was pegged for Wednesday, Nov. 25.

It’s been a long road for Wolke, across two different political parties, but she remained beside the town’s longest-serving supervisor in its 350-year history.

“He’s still here because people didn’t want to lose him,” Wolke said of her boss’s successful 38-plus years at the helm of Smithtown. “I think he’s done a great job and been a wonderful steward of the town.”

Vecchio described Wolke as loyal, competent and trustworthy as she held in confidence some of the most sensitive discussions relating to the town.

“Marlene was more than a secretary,” Vecchio said. “She really was an assistant. She was invaluable on so many occasions and I don’t know how I would have done what I do without her.”

Her office was located directly outside Vecchio’s door, where she sat in front of a big window overlooking the town. Framed photos of loved ones decorated the interior alongside stacks of various Smithtown newspapers. But even in her last week as secretary, Wolke kept it professional during an interview with Times Beacon Record Newspapers, often stopping herself to act as gatekeeper to those entering the Supervisor’s room.

Wolke’s first day on the job was July 3, 1978. When she took the job, she said she thought she’d be there for only two years.

She recollected her beginnings working alongside Vecchio fondly. She met him through her husband at the time, who worked as a detective with the New York Police Department.

“I met Pat at a meet the candidates night. He was a Democrat at the time,” Wolke said. “I worked with the party and helped get out the vote. I was even there on election night when he won.”

The next thing Wolke knew, Vecchio was knocking on her front door in Smithtown.

“He asked if I was looking for a job,” she said. “I was so nervous.”

From there, it was history.

Wolke remained Vecchio’s secretary ever since, and even switched with him from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party several years into his run as supervisor.

The now-retired secretary described her role as Vecchio’s “complaint department,” handling quality-of-life issues alongside several others outside Vecchio’s office in the heart of town. She and her colleagues have been the front lines for all things Smithtown for decades, and looking back now, Wolke said she had a lot to be proud of.

Her retirement has opened up a new opportunity for Wolke, who said she looks forward to spending time with her four kids and eight grandkids. She also said she has plans to travel down to Florida, in a camper with her husband and dog, to enjoy retirement in style.

“It’s not easy to retire,” she said. “But I knew it was my time. It just felt right.”

Suffolk County Legislator Steve Stern joins Congressman Steve Israel at the site of a zombie home in Dix Hills. Photo from Amanda Lindner.

One North Shore lawmaker’s proposal to provide housing to homeless veterans is now being used as a model for a federal bill.

U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) introduced the Housing Our Heroes Act this month, which creates a three-year federal pilot program that provides grants to purchase and renovate zombie homes for veterans use. That proposal reflects similar sentiments expressed in legislation Suffolk County Legislator Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills) drafted last year.

The Housing Our Homeless Heroes Act, signed by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) in December 2014, allows for “zombie homes,” or tax-defaulted properties, in Suffolk County to be distributed to veterans.

“No soldier who has ever worn the uniform of our great nation and gone off to protect the ground we stand on should ever have to come home to sleep on it,” Stern said in a statement.

Israel’s legislation is an expansion on an act from Stern, who serves as chairman of the Veterans and Seniors Committee.

“My legislation will not only put a roof over our heroes’ heads, it will also transform unsightly zombie homes into renovated properties that will revitalize housing markets in many of our Long Island communities,” Israel said in a statement. “Whenever we get the opportunity to eliminate two problems with one sustainable solution, we should act on it.”

Israel’s proposal would make grants available to veteran service organizations, non-governmental organizations and homeless organizations. It is intended not only to house homeless veterans but also eliminate blight from neighborhoods, the lawmaker said.

Stern praised Israel’s legislation for helping to ensure “that our military heroes have a place to call home while turning blighted properties into houses fit for heroes.”

According to Stern, he and Israel always saw his act as a model to use at the federal level.

“I’m proud to say we implemented it at a local level,” Stern said in a phone interview. “What we started here is serving as a national model.”

One of the big differences between Stern and Israel’s acts is the funding.

Stern said at the local level, they are utilizing properties the government already owns because of foreclosure. Israel’s legislation doesn’t need to rely on those types of homes because of the funding they receive from grants, so “there is real opportunity for innovation with the spectrum of properties.”

He also said these two bills will complement each other going forward.

Approximately 50,000 homeless veterans are on the streets of the United States every day, including more than 2,500 in New York, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Blighted properties have been an ongoing issue in Huntington Town.

“Huntington residents have been dealing with the zombie home epidemic in our neighborhoods for far too long,” Huntington Councilwoman Tracey Edwards (D) said in a statement.

Edwards said Israel’s legislation would improve both the lives of veterans and the worth of Huntington resident’s homes.

At a press conference announcing Israel’s proposal on Nov. 9, Gina Raio Bitsimis, a Dix Hills resident and zombie home neighbor, thanked Israel for his commitment to tackle this problem.

“Zombie homes aren’t only eyesores in our neighborhood, they are actively reducing the value of our homes that we have worked so hard to maintain,” Bitsimis said in a statement. “My family and I will welcome these brave men and women into our neighborhood with open arms and look forward to the increase of both our quality of life and the value of our property.”

Huntington Councilwoman Susan Berland (D) previously drafted legislation to crack down on blighted properties, and said in a phone interview that the zombie house in Dix Hills, where the press conference was held was the exact house that inspired her to draft an anti-blight act.

“I saw the condition of the house and how it affected the neighbors,” she said. Her legislation includes a point system that determines if a property should be added to the town blight list and enters a restoration agreement with the town.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also said in 2009 that the homeless veteran population was more than 74,000 in a single night and last year more than one in ten of every homeless adult were a veteran.

At the press conference in Dix Hills, members of veteran organizations from Long Island spoke about the necessity of the bill.

“Placing homeless veterans in these homes will give them the opportunity and foundation they need to become independent successful members of our community,” said Frank Amalfitano, director of United Veterans Beacon House.

Beth Gabellini, regional director of Long Island Supportive Services for Veteran Families echoed the sentiment.

“After fighting for our country, veterans deserve every opportunity possible to help get back on their feet and on track,” she said.

File photo

The issue of drug abuse will be brought to the forefront in a few weeks, as the Port Jefferson Village Board of Trustees dedicates its next meeting to a community discussion on the topic.

That meeting on Dec. 7 is being moved to Earl L. Vandermeulen High School, where school, village and police officials will meet for a forum called The Ugly Truth.

“Although we have all read and heard the headlines about heroin in our neighborhoods and the dangers of easy access to powerful prescription medication, we rarely hear The Ugly Truth behind these headlines,” according to a flyer advertising the joint event.

Suffolk County Police Department officials, including the chief medical examiner and a school resource officer, will tell parents the signs of heroin and prescription drug abuse among teenagers and what can be done about it.

The village trustees will hold their work session meeting at 6 p.m. that day at the high school on Old Post Road, then attend the forum at 7 p.m. in lieu of holding a public comment period at Village Hall as usual. The public comment period will instead be held at the board’s following meeting, on Dec. 21.

Drug addiction and abuse is a topic that hits home in all Long Island communities, but it has been a particular point of friction in Port Jefferson and Port Jefferson Station because of a visible homeless population and the presence of various community services catering to that group, such as a soup kitchen network and a homeless shelter.

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Brookhaven is implementing a new method of paving streets. Photo from Dan Losquadro

December is approaching, but things are heating up on the streets of Setauket.

Brookhaven became the first municipality across Long Island to use a product known as warm mix asphalt during repaving projects, and with three paving seasons already under his belt, Brookhaven Highway Superintendent Dan Losquadro (R) said its implementation could not be smoother — literally.

“As the third largest Highway Department in all of New York state I felt it was important for Brookhaven to be both an innovator and a leader in introducing new technologies,” he said in a statement. “As we enter the latter part of the paving season, warm mix asphalt allows us to achieve proper compaction, especially during night work in cooler temperatures. I want to show other departments that not only is this product viable, it’s actually preferable in many instances.”

Warm mix asphalt production uses temperatures 30 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit lower than the traditional hot mix asphalt used in paving projects. The Highway Department said that greater temperature differences between asphalt mixes and the outside temperature makes for faster cooling for the mixes, which affects durability. With warm mix asphalt’s slower cooling time, it is most effective when used in lower temperatures, typically at night, Losquadro said.

The Highway Department entered into a new contract last year, which included new bid specifications calling for the technology, which Losquadro said provided more accountability and streamlined the paving process.

The technology has been used for more than a decade across the country, but did not hit the pavements of Suffolk County until last week in Setauket.

“Since it was first demonstrated in the US in 1996, warm mix asphalt has sparked the interest of transportation agencies and the private sector,” said Tom Harman, director of the Federal Highway Administration Center for Accelerating Innovation. “Warm mix asphalt technologies allow a reduction in asphalt production, flexibility when it comes to the temperatures needed for applying it and reduced production fuel consumption and emissions.”

It also extends the paving season and enables the use of higher recycled products, Harman said. In 2014, a third of all asphalt produced in the U.S. was warm mix asphalt, and “we expect use of the material to continue to grow in use.”

Over a two-night span last week, the department traveled the streets of Hulse Road to Comsewogue Road, and Comsewogue Road from the train tracks to Sheep Pasture Road to Old Town Road, Losquadro said.

By the end of the week, Losquadro said the streets of Setauket saw new life. The highway superintendent said it delivered a handful of benefits to the town right off the bat, including better working conditions for air quality and also reducing fuel emissions, fumes and odors.

“We achieved a very uniform surface with almost no roller marks or imperfections,” he said. “I wanted to pick the right time to test this out and have that proof of concept to use it in cooler temperatures. Now having done that, I see no reason why this can’t become our new standard for Brookhaven. I see a lot of benefits to us, both environmentally and from a work perspective.”

The cost, Losquadro said, is fairly minimal in difference from typical hot mix asphalt usage. The Setauket job saw a roughly 88-cent difference per ton of asphalt used, which amounted to about $4,400 more than what hot mix asphalt would have achieved.

“That’s pretty minimal in the grand scheme of the size of the jobs we’re talking about here,” Losquadro said. “The cost should be at least offset by the reduction in fuel that the manufacturer is going to save by not having to heat the material up as much.”

And with his proof of concept, Losquadro said he would be bringing his warm mix story to future meetings of various county highway departments with hopes of spreading the success.

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Study could help officials push along revitalization

One blighted uptown property, the old diner on Main Street, was demolished earlier this year. File photo by Elana Glowatz

An upcoming study of blight along Main Street in uptown Port Jefferson could help the village revitalize the area, according to the officials who set it into motion.

The board of trustees approved the study at a recent meeting, in part to identify properties that potentially could be seized through a process called eminent domain, in which a municipality takes control of land to perform a public benefit and compensates the owner. Although eminent domain is classically used for public works projects like building new roadways or widening existing ones, Village Attorney Brian Egan explained that the Port Jefferson government could use the coming analysis of blight uptown as ammunition to make a case for applying eminent domain to less common purposes.

Seizing blighted properties along Main Street in the village’s troubled uptown area could help officials push along their revitalization efforts there.

Although cleaning up upper Port and creating a more pedestrian-friendly district with both business and residential space has been a priority for some years, progress has been slow. Residents and some local business owners have been calling for improvements as well, citing safety concerns stemming from a roaming homeless population and drug-related crime. One of the more recent and most visible changes to Main Street occurred when the decrepit, crumbling diner — previously known as the Station Diner and the Old Port Diner — was demolished in January, after months of discussion between officials and the property owner. However, a new building has still not been erected in its place.

East Coast-based engineering firm VHB is conducting the blight study. That firm is no stranger to Port Jefferson: In addition to various work around the village, the engineers have completed other projects specifically for the uptown area in the past, including a traffic study that was included in the upper Port revitalization section of the village’s new comprehensive plan.

When the trustees approved the new study on Nov. 2, they specified that it should not take more than 12 weeks to complete.