Politics

The second attempt passes House, will head to Senate for further scrutiny

U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi and U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin weigh in on the AHCA, which passed the house last week. File photos

The battle to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare, was left in the hands of the House of Representatives for a vote last week, and two representatives for the North Shore had differing opinions on the bill. The American Health Care Act passed in the House by a slim 217 to 213 margin, though before it becomes law it must also pass the Senate and ultimately be signed by President Donald Trump (R).

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) for New York’s 1st Congressional District was among those in favor of the bill, fulfilling a campaign promise of his own and the vast majority of Republican lawmakers across the country since Obamacare was enacted in 2010.

“Almost everyone agrees that our current system is deeply flawed,” Zeldin said in a statement. “The American Health Care Act provides relief from billions of dollars of crushing taxes and mandates enacted under the ACA. Additionally, the bill repeals the individual and employer mandates, taxes on prescription and over-the-counter medications, health insurance premiums and medical devices.”

“The revised version of the AHCA passed by the House is not sound health reform. … Access to insurance is meaningless if premiums are unaffordable and the coverage is not comprehensive.”

— Kevin Dahill

Zeldin also sought to dispel “outright lies” being perpetrated on social media and elsewhere about the new bill, the first incarnation of which he was slow to support unless important amendments were added, he said in March. One thing he specified as a misconception is the idea that people with pre-existing conditions might lose coverage, or that millions will be left uninsured.

“The bill protects people with pre-existing conditions, and gives states greater flexibility to lower premiums and stabilize the insurance market,” he said.

Critics of the bill have noted it was not subject to scrutiny by the Congressional Budget Office prior to the vote, and in the first version that nearly reached a vote in March, the CBO suggested about 24 million people were in danger of losing their coverage.

An amendment to the bill the second time around introduced by U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Michigan), would establish funds for a “high risk” pool, which would be used to provide coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.

“The high-risk pool plan is an attempt to cover up for another provision in the bill, via an amendment by New Jersey Rep. Tom MacArthur (R), that would allow states to easily waive protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions in the individual market if they experienced a gap in coverage,” according to the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan policy institute.

U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), of New York’s 3rd Congressional District, was among those critics. He voted against the bill.

“I’m disappointed that House Republicans chose not to work with Democrats to create a common-sense bill,” Suozzi said in a statement. He also called on the Senate to disregard the legislation and focus on working toward a bipartisan solution.

“It will result in skyrocketing premiums, higher out-of-pocket costs, a discriminatory age tax and will steal from Medicare,” he said. “And all of this was done without an updated Congressional Budget Office score to determine how much the new amendment to the bill will cost taxpayers.”

Suozzi also addressed what it might mean for New Yorkers.

“For New Yorkers, this legislation leaves 2.7 million people without proper access to health insurance,” he said. “$4.7 billion will be cut from our state’s Medicaid budget, putting seven million people who rely on Medicaid services and other important programs at risk. This is a bad bill for New Yorkers, plain and simple.”

The bill establishes limits on federal funding for state Medicaid programs beginning in 2020. States that exceed the cap would be subjected to reduced federal funding in the following fiscal year, according to the summary of the bill.

The most notable changes in the new health care plan compared to the existing one include an elimination of the individual mandate, which required all Americans to purchase health insurance or be subject to a fine — a sticking point for many Republicans on Obamacare; a cut of federal Medicaid funding for Planned Parenthood for one year; adjusting tax credits based on age instead of income; and shifting Medicaid expansion set forth by Obamacare to the discretion of states instead of the federal government, among many others.

According to a map on the website of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization established to deliver health policy analysis to the public, issuing tax credits based on age instead of income will result in some lower income Americans paying more for coverage.

“Generally, people who are older, lower income or live in high-premium areas receive less financial assistance under the AHCA,” analysis of the bill by the foundation said. “Additionally, older people would have higher starting premiums under the AHCA and would therefore pay higher premiums. Because younger people with higher incomes and living in lower-cost areas would receive more financial assistance and would have lower starting premiums on average, they would pay lower premiums on average.”

Kevin Dahill, president and CEO of Suburban Hospital Alliance of New York State, an organization that represents the advocacy interests of Long Island health systems including St. Catherine of Siena in Smithtown, and John T. Mather Memorial and St. Charles hospitals in Port Jefferson, issued a statement regarding the House bill.

“The revised version of the AHCA passed by the House is not sound health reform,” he said. “About 70 percent of Medicaid spending in our state covers care for the elderly and disabled, including children. These people will still need care. And even more disheartening is the amendment to cut $2.3 billion in Medicaid funding by shifting the cost burden from the counties to the state. This amendment was advanced by [Republican] New York  Congressmen [John] Faso and [Chris] Collins and it leaves a huge hole in New York’s budget. … Access to insurance is meaningless if premiums are unaffordable and the coverage is not comprehensive.”

Dr. Gerard Brogan Jr., executive director at Huntington Hospital, said he would put the ACA and AHCA in the same category as flawed legislation during a phone interview. He also reiterated Dahill’s concerns that the changes put a large number of people at risk of losing their access to adequate care because of changes to Medicaid.

“There are portions that are either not derived from sound assumptions or won’t accomplish what are the issue that we need to deal with,” he said.

Suffolk County Republican Committee Chairman John Jay LaValle at his Holtsville office. Photo by Alex Petroski

A Republican hadn’t won Suffolk County in 24 years. The 2016 presidential election was out of the ordinary on dozens of levels, a fact that propelled Donald Trump to the presidency and helped him to become the first Republican candidate to win Suffolk County since George H.W. Bush in 1992. Trump received just 36.5 percent of the vote in New York state, though 52.5 percent of Suffolk voters selected the first-time political candidate. John Jay LaValle — arguably the most influential Republican in Suffolk politics — played a massive role in securing that victory.

During an exclusive interview at his Holtsville office April 18, the Suffolk County Republican Committee Chairman shed light on Trump’s surprising victory locally and nationally, his life in politics, serving as a Trump surrogate and the future of the party.

The state of the party

LaValle, 49, who has been in his current position since 2009, endorsed Trump about a year ago during a campaign event in Bethpage, calling him the most important presidential candidate in modern history.

“I wasn’t happy over the last several years on how the Republican Party — let’s say over the past decade — how the party dealt with the Obama Administration,” LaValle, an attorney by trade, said, sitting at his desk, his eyes glancing up intermittently at a muted television fixed on Fox News throughout the conversation. He said the GOP’s singular purpose, to its detriment, had become opposing former President Barack Obama (D). “We’d become a party without a compass. We didn’t have a purpose.”

John Jay LaValle speaks during an election night party for Lee Zeldin in Patchogue. File photo by Alex Petroski

He added he thought it was a mistake for the party to be so focused on social issues, especially because public sentiment was heading in the opposite direction from the traditional Republican ideologies on most.

By the time of his formal endorsement April 9 at that Bethpage rally, only Trump, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) were still alive in the Republican primary process, though LaValle said he made his decision to endorse Trump when he was still in a field of 17 candidates.

“I’m from…what someone would consider to be the establishment of the Republican Party,” LaValle said. “So when I came out and endorsed Donald Trump everyone was like, ‘what?’ And even people, my own cousin, was like ‘what are you doing?’ Everyone thought I was crazy. But one of the things that very much attracted me to Donald Trump was that I really thought that he would be someone that would perform a radical change to the Republican Party.”

LaValle’s cousin is New York State Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), a mainstay in the state senate since 1976. Both are residents of Port Jefferson.

The chairman bought what Trump was selling, and encouraged Suffolk voters to do the same. He said Trump’s position that the government was “broken” and needed an outsider to fix it resonated for him, and believes it’s what voters liked about him locally.

“When I became a councilman in Brookhaven Town in 1996, the dominant issue was illegal immigration, and its effect on the housing,” he said. LaValle would later go on to be the youngest supervisor in Brookhaven’s history. In 2001 he took control at just 33 years old. “So here I was now in 2016, 20 years later and the dominant issue is still illegal immigration.”

LaValle said both Republicans and Democrats had squandered opportunities to make meaningful changes to immigration legislation, which is evidence of an inability in traditional politicians to get things done for their constituents in other areas, like creating jobs and jump-starting the economy.

Trump’s win has put a strain on the Republican Party and clouded its future, especially in light of record low approval ratings so early in his tenure. “Transformation” and “splintering” were two words LaValle didn’t deny were appropriate descriptors of the status of the party at the moment, though he said a polarization of politics is wreaking havoc on both parties.

He likened what’s going on now in the party to his days as Brookhaven Supervisor. He said he accomplished things that were atypical of Republican beliefs at the time, like enacting a $100 million Environmental Bond Act. He also said he was proud of actions he took like appointing women and African-Americans to leadership roles in the town — he named Cecile Forte, an African-American woman, the chair of the zoning board; and Marvin Colson, an African-American man the chair of the planning board — and consolidating town operations to a centralized location in Farmingville, where Brookhaven headquarters still stands.

“There’s…four different parties in this country right now instead of two, and while the liberals are trying to move the Democratic Party left, the conservatives are trying to pull the Republican Party right — it’s a very messy situation in the country,” he said. “You may look back 20 years from now and look at this particular time period in American history as a time period that actually created four major political parties in America. You can’t be a moderate on either side and be with the wings. It’s been too polarized.”

Although he said his job doesn’t entail influencing legislators about policy, the possibility of a splintering of the Republican Party could raise difficult questions for “establishment” Republican lawmakers who don’t join LaValle in subscribing to the book of Trump.

LaValle suggested Trump’s Supreme Court nomination, efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and some other early signs bear this out — Trump campaigned to the right but is governing from a more moderate platform.

“Everyone thought I was crazy…I really thought that he would be someone that would perform a radical change to the Republican Party.”

— John Jay LaValle

“He doesn’t give a [expletive] about Republicans and Democrats and all that,” LaValle said of the president. “In fact, he was a Democrat. Then he became a Republican, but he was a moderate Republican. Then when he was running he became a very conservative Republican. From day one, I recollect him saying to me, ‘there’s only two things I want to do — I want to fix the economy and I want to get rid of this terrorism.’ He goes, ‘the rest of it, I could care less about.’”

The Trump presidency

Despite the missteps and uneasiness that have been hallmarks of Trump’s first 100 days in office, LaValle seemingly has no inclination to reverse course and distance himself from the president.

“I don’t criticize the boss in public,” he said.

After he endorsed Trump he went on to do about 160 television appearances as a surrogate for his candidate during 2016.

The chairman said he first met Trump several years ago when the businessman was considering a run for governor of New York, though little came of that meeting. The two met for the second time during the rally in Bethpage in 2016. Since, the two have spoken regularly by phone, and LaValle said he’d sat in on meetings at Trump Tower in the past, and even weighed in on policy when called upon by the man who currently occupies the highest office in the land.

“He runs his meetings like a game show — it’s phenomenal,” LaValle said. He told a story of the first time Trump called him on his cellphone and asked him to come to Manhattan for a meeting. LaValle said his friends instructed him to keep quiet, prepare to listen and limit his contribution to the meeting to “hello, Mr. Trump” and “goodbye, Mr. Trump.” Instead, LaValle said Trump repeatedly pressed him and others in the room for input on policy and issues, and he felt Trump genuinely listened to others’ opinions. LaValle said he once asked Trump why he valued his opinion so much.

“I trust you, and until you fail me that’s it, I’m going to rely on you,’” the chairman said Trump told him. That trust can be traced to a promise LaValle made to Trump in April 2016 after a campaign event at The Emporium in Patchogue, when he pledged to deliver Suffolk County for Trump during the Republican primary.

“When he was leaving he was telling me ‘oh you know what it cost me to come here? You know what I had to give up?’ I said ‘no, I appreciate that Mr. Trump, and I’m going to tell you right now — Suffolk County will be the number one county for you in the state of New York next Tuesday,’” LaValle said. “He said ‘well I’m going to hold you to that.’ I said ‘good, and I’m going to deliver.’ And we did. And he appreciated that.”

More than 72,000 Suffolk County residents chose Trump on primary day, to just 18,000 and 9,000 respectively for Kasich and Cruz.

Suffolk County Republican Committee Chairman John Jay LaValle at his Holtsville office. Photo by Alex Petroski

On another occasion, LaValle was forced to justify comments he made on CNN when he was asked to defend two “diametrically opposed” statements Trump had previously made.

“So my phone rings and he says, ‘what’s this about me evolving?’ And this is classic Donald Trump, by the way,” LaValle said. “So I said, ‘uh, excuse me?’ He goes ‘evolving, John — what’s this about me evolving? I’m watching TV and I hear you say that I’m evolving.’”

LaValle, laughing, said he thought he’d handled the situation beautifully.

“‘John, John, John — I’m not evolving. I’m running for president of the United States of America. I’m not evolving,’” he said Trump told him. “I said ‘well I understand sir, but what would you like me to say?’ He says ‘what would I like you to say? You say Donald Trump is the greatest candidate ever to run for president in the history of the United States.’”

LaValle said he later heard Kellyanne Conway, a key player in Trump’s campaign, use the word “evolving” on television, so he knew Trump was just blowing off steam at the time.

According to LaValle, another byproduct of the Trump presidency has been a head-on confrontation with debilitating political correctness, an aspect of Trump’s persona and platform that the chairman has found invaluable.

The chairman blamed gang violence on Long Island and heroin abuse to political correctness brought about by the Democrats.

“He’s made it okay to kind of tell it like it is — or at least like you see it,” LaValle said. “That was a big problem. In our country, we had gotten so bad at being politically correct that we weren’t allowed to like, even say certain things that were true.”

Attributing the rise of heroin abuse on Long Island to political correctness because of a lack of adequate border security addresses illegal drugs entering the country, but not a growing demand at home, which can be traced back to overprescribing of powerful pain medications, which then leads to heroin when prescriptions dry up.

The chairman offered strong defenses for Trump on issues that few have felt inclined to rush to justify — like supposed ties between the Russian government and Trump’s campaign, transition team and administration. He said the president hasn’t deviated from anything he’s said publicly about Russia. His desire has always been to improve relations, and contacts between his team and Russia make sense in striving to achieve that goal. When asked why the knee-jerk reaction from several associates is to deny said communications, LaValle said the media is granted no prior assumption that sources will respond to questions truthfully, though he said anyone who didn’t given honest answers is “destroying their credibility.”

Although LaValle insisted he didn’t criticize the boss in public, it’s not hard to take that concept and juxtapose it with the fact Trump has had issues as a result of publicly making false statements. The president said he won the most Electoral College votes (306) since President Ronald Reagan — in fact Obama won 332 four years ago and 365 in 2008, and going back to a Republican president Bush senior received more than Trump as well.

He walked the line on the comments Trump was caught on tape making to Billy Bush for Access Hollywood during a candid conversation neither party knew was being recorded.

“I mean I do feel bad that he got, kind of like set up, caught on tape with that whole grabbing thing,” he said. “I mean, I know so many guys that have said stupid things in their lifetime. We always just have the benefit of no one’s paying attention. And I’m not saying it’s right to do, don’t get me wrong, but that sucked for him to be caught on tape saying that.”

Even though he sympathized with Trump, he said earlier he understands why Trump’s own words could create a negative perception.

“It’s America, I guess they can do it. But it doesn’t make them any less sleazy and sleaze balls that they are. That’s what they’re doing. To me it’s a disgrace.”

— John Jay LaValle

“Saying Rosie O’Donnell is a fat slob, the stuff with Megyn Kelly, no, I could understand why there’s a perception that he’s a sexist, because he said things that are not appropriate,” he said.

In the beginning of the interview, LaValle described Trump as a brilliant businessman who understood he could say “something stupid just for the hell of it…he knew that’s the price he had to pay to get all of that free media,” and lauded him for “telling it like it is.”

Suffolk County

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) has taken small steps to distance himself from the president of late, though unless something drastically changes, the race for his seat in the House as representative for New York’s 1st Congressional District in 2018 will serve as a referendum on the party of Trump in Suffolk County.

After upsetting U.S. Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), who held the seat from 2003 to 2014, Zeldin defeated Anna Throne-Holst (D-Southampton) by 18 points to retain his seat in 2016. Zeldin’s big win was seen as an indicator of Trump’s success in the county because he was a strong supporter of Trump in 2016. Zeldin even proclaimed from the podium after the race was called on election night that he was excited to have the chance to “make America great again.”

Zeldin’s proximity to Trump has caused an uprising of some 1st District constituents since the election, with protests occurring throughout the past few months and demands for more access to the congressman. Still, LaValle isn’t concerned about Zeldin’s chances for reelection in 2018.

“Lee Zeldin is going to win big time in 2018,” he said. “I think the Democrat Party has shown itself to be frauds, crybabies, snowflakes and sore losers… It’s all a fraud. It’s not about — this isn’t a grassroots effort. These people are professionals. They’re being paid to be there and to organize individuals to disrupt town hall meetings of our duly elected representatives.”

Politico, an American political-journalism company has maintained there is zero evidence of protestors being paid. This rhetoric may seem familiar to some, as powerful Democratic leaders once made the same claim a few years back. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in 2009 Tea Party protestors disrupting town halls were funded by “the high end,” calling it “Astroturf,” meaning not an authentic grassroots movement, but something supported by benefactors.

“These people are a disgrace,” LaValle continued about the protestors. “It’s America, I guess they can do it. But it doesn’t make them any less sleazy and sleaze balls that they are. That’s what they’re doing. To me it’s a disgrace.”

In a phone interview, Zeldin said LaValle has been a strong ally during his political career. He also praised the job LaValle has done since taking over, noting a large shift in town and county seats in elected positions from blue to red during LaValle’s tenure, which he said the chairman played a role in.

“John is someone who can easily motivate a packed room of volunteers to want to campaign just a little harder and dig down a little bit deeper to help get across the finish line,” he said.

LaValle has been rumored to be a candidate to oppose Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) when he seeks reelection. He criticized the job Bellone has done in the position, saying the county’s finances have been “horribly mismanaged,” and said he doesn’t think Bellone is right for the job, though he didn’t offer any insight on his future aspirations.

“I don’t know what the future holds, but I’ll know it when it happens,” LaValle said. “The one thing I learned is I would have never expected to have done what I did last year in a million years. It was just something that I probably never would even have fathomed. So one thing that I learned is don’t ever try to make your plans too specific. Keep it loose, keep it fluid and be ready for something exciting. I know one thing, it’s going to be something exciting and it’s going to be something big.”

An aerial view of the area designated for sidewalk replacement. Image from Google Maps

What’s old will soon be new again as U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) announced this week $1.58 million in federal funding would be designated to go towards the construction of new sidewalks and curbs on Old Town Road in Port Jefferson Station and Coram. The funding will cover 80 percent of the total cost of the project. The new sidewalks will span from Route 347 in Port Jefferson Station to Route 112 in Coram along Old Town Road, and some of the improvements included fixes to become compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Congressman Lee Zeldin. File photo by Victoria Espinoza

“This is key funding to improve walkability and bicycle access in the Town of Brookhaven,” Zeldin said in a statement. He said the sidewalks in question are in desperate need of repairs. “Last Congress, I proudly helped lead the bipartisan effort to pass the highway bill, which secured funding for the Surface Transportation Block Grant. Our transportation and infrastructure are essential to the Long Island economy, way of life and safety, and I will continue working to ensure that states and local governments have the flexibility and resources necessary to strengthen our infrastructure and improve transportation safety, job creation, and our overall economy and quality of life.”

Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) praised Zeldin for securing the funds because of what it could mean for the environment, as the new paths will create carbon-free transportation alternatives to driving cars, he said.

“Old Town Road connects the communities of Port Jefferson Station and Coram and both hamlets will soon become more pedestrian and bike friendly with the construction of new sidewalks as well as bicycle access along this route,” he said in a statement.

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) also thanked Zeldin and stressed the importance of infrastructure improvements in the town.

“Infrastructure keeps the town moving forward and upgrading it improves our quality of life and creates jobs that drive the local economy,” he said. “Congressman Zeldin has always been a strong advocate for the people of the 1st District, and I look forward to working with him to help find more ways to make Brookhaven a better place to live and work.”

Brookhaven Town  Superintendent of Highways Dan Losquadro (R) expressed similar excitement for the impending improvements.

“As we work to improve our infrastructure, the construction of bicycle paths and ADA-compliant, accessible sidewalks is crucial in ensuring the safety of our roadways for motorists and pedestrians,” he said.

Co-CEO of East Setauket-based investment firm connected to major money behind Trump administration

 

A large group of political protesters paraded along busy Route 25A in East Setauket March 24, aiming their outcry not just at the administration in Washington, D.C., but a reclusive hedge fund billionaire by the name of Robert Mercer residing in their own backyard.

Mercer, the co-CEO of an East Setauket-based investment firm and resident of Head of the Harbor, has been under the spotlight for being the money behind President Donald Trump’s (R) administration, maintaining a major influence on the White House’s agenda, including its strict immigration policies.

Mercer, a major backer of the far-right Breitbart News, reportedly contributed nearly $13.5 million to the Trump campaign and, along with his daughter Rebekah, played a part in securing the leadership positions of chief strategist Steve Bannon and campaign manager Kellyanne Conway.

Regarding Mercer as the administration’s puppeteer-in-chief, protesters assembled to bring public attention to the local family’s power in the White House and the influence “dark money” has had in America.

“I think we’ve reached a worrisome point in our history that a single individual can have the kind of influence that Robert Mercer has, simply because he has a huge amount of money,” Setauket resident John Robinson said. “I think he’s an extremely dangerous individual with worrisome views. He just wants government to not be around so people like him and companies like his can plunder to their heart’s content.”

The short march, made up of several protest groups including the North Country Peace Group, began at the CVS shopping center and landed at the bottom of the hill where Mercer’s Renaissance Technologies sits. Leading the march were local residents wearing paper cutout masks of Trump, Bannon and U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), each strung up like puppets and controlled by a resident in a grim reaper outfit, representing Mercer.

Equipped with signs reading “Mercer $ Bought Trump We Pay the Price” and “Resist Mercer,” Long Island residents stood in front of the investment firm’s office and participated in a mock debate with the faux-political figures. The topics ranged from Mercer’s denial of climate change to Zeldin’s stance on the now-pulled American Health Care Act.

Sue McMahon, a member of the grassroots coalition Building Bridges in Brookhaven, had only recently learned about Mercer’s heavy involvement in Trump’s presidency and his close proximity and participated in the march to expose him.

“I’m very concerned we have a person like this among us who holds the power of the Republican Party,” McMahon said.

She said she’s particularly troubled by the administration’s overwhelming ignorance of environmental issues, its emphasis on money and the extreme views of Breitbart News.

“This is not the America I grew up with, this is not what I want,”she said. “I’m not normally a protester, but I believe we all have to stand up now.”

Paul Hart, a Stony Brook resident, said he was there to support democracy.

The American people have lost representative government because campaign contributions are now controlled by the rich, he said, and it’s hard to think about the needs of constituents when they don’t contribute in a way that’s beneficial to a politician’s re-election.

“The average person has absolutely no voice in politics anymore,” Hart said. “Bbefore, we had a little bit, but now, we’re being swept aside.

One protester referred to Mercer as one small part of a larger picture, and expressed concern over a growing alt-right movement throughout the country that prefers an authoritarian government that runs like a business.

“I guess that’s what Trump is all about,” said Port Jefferson resident Jordan Helin. “But we’re seeing what the country looks like when it’s being run like a business, [and it’s scary].”

Myrna Gordon, a Port Jefferson resident and member, said her organization has held previous actions against Renaissance Technologies, and was among the first grassroots groups on Long island to take notice of how entrenched in the White House Mercer and his family are. According to her, Rebekah Mercer is in many ways more powerful than her father.

“We cannot take the focus off [Rebekah Mercer] right now, because she’s become a powerful force in this whole issue of money in politics, buying candidates, everything we see in our government,” she said.

Since Robert Mercer is local and lives in our community, she added, it’s time that we showed our strength and our voice regarding what this money is doing to our country.

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.

Student representative Brandon Cea discusses Ward Melville's graduation gown controversy during a board meeting. Photo by Andrea Paldy

By Andrea Paldy

To some, tradition is at stake. To others, the issue is about inclusion and sensitivity. Yet another group wonders, why the fuss about a graduation gown?

And, that sums up the furor that continues following an announcement of a new, gender-neutral, green gown and gold stole for Ward Melville High School seniors. Proposed as a symbol of inclusion and sensitivity, the decision has instead ignited division. 

Board President William Connors weighs in on Ward Melville’s graduation gown controversy at a board meeting. Photo by Andrea Paldy

Two weeks ago, the news that female graduates would no longer march in gold and their male counterparts green, produced a flurry of activity on social media, petitions and protests.

Last week’s school board meeting offered yet another venue for people to express opposition and support about the topic, bringing out speaker after speaker.

“I could not care less what color gown my daughter wears,” said parent Christine Gacovino, whose daughter graduates in June.

The mother said she was most upset by what she saw as the underlying sentiment of those opposed to the change. The reaction indicated “that we have a serious problem with sensitivity in this district,” she said.“Sensitivity and acceptance are so important.” Senior Robert Brando said that for a decision that was meant to unite and include, he feels “anything but included.”

It is “more than just the color of the cloth,” said Brandon Cea, a senior and student representative to the board.

“The issue has come to represent tradition, the rights of the LGTBQ community and the perceived lack of communication between students and administration,” Cea said in a prepared statement.

Ward Melville High School principal Alan Baum, who was in attendance at the meeting, laid out his rationale for the change in a March 2 letter: “In addition to creating a unified senior class, it is our hope that creating a unifying color scheme will eliminate the anxiety that is caused by forcing a young adult to wear a gown that labels them differently from how they identify.”

The prevailing sentiment of parents and students speaking against the new gowns was that they were not “anti-anything.” They simply wanted to honor tradition and democracy, they said. As well, there should have been more discussion with students and the community about the change, they said.

In the wake of the protests, Cea told the school board that the student leadership had met to “establish a new tradition, a tradition where we are Patriots.” Ward Melville students, he said, are proposing the establishment of a student council and a schedule of town hall meetings, so students can express opinions and ask questions about school policy.

“Together, we need to understand the issues on both sides and not allow meaningful conversation to be lost.”

— Brandon Cea

“Together, we need to understand the issues on both sides and not allow meaningful conversation to be lost,” Cea said.

Speaking on behalf of the school board, President William Connors acknowledged that while Baum’s intentions were good, his “rollout” could have been improved through better communication and community involvement.

“The process for these types of decisions will be addressed and solidified to assure that this type of incident does not occur again,” Connors said.

Baum has arranged for female students to retake their senior pictures in the green gowns they will wear for graduation. The photography company has agreed to do the pictures without charging the students or the district.

Superintendent Cheryl Pedisich was conciliatory.

“It disheartens me to see our school district divided,” she said. “I never want to see that. Our students are precious to us. They are so incredibly valued.

“I’m sorry that the students didn’t have a voice. They should have, absolutely, but now is the time for this district to move forward. I’m imploring you to come together and move forward, because that’s what we need to do.”

This version corrects a previously inaccurate statement. Ward Melville High School Principal Alan Baum did attend the meeting.

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin. File photo by Kevin Redding

The quality of Long Island waters has been on the mind of elected officials from all levels of government recently, and a representative from the federal government has joined the fray, calling for more funding for two Environmental Protection Agency programs.

“There’s much we can do to improve water quality in the Long Island Sound and National Estuary and I’ll continue working in congress to ensure our waterways are preserved for generations to come,” U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirely) said during a press conference March 13.

Southold Town Council members and residents from the 1st Congressional District gathered at Veterans Memorial Park in Mattituck as Zeldin called on the federal government to fully fund at least $10 million to the Long Island Sound Study and $26.5 million to the National Estuary Program in its upcoming appropriations process at the end of April, and also to support the passage of the Long Island Sound Restoration and Stewardship Act. He said funding for the two EPA programs is essential to address urgent and challenging issues that threaten the ecological and economic well-being of Long Island’s coastal areas, such as nitrogen, harmful algae blooms and flooding or wetland loss.

East Beach in Port Jefferson is on the Long Island Sound. File photo by Elana Glowatz

“Over the years, water quality around Long Island has suffered from pollution, overdevelopment and other negative impacts…and I’m calling on my colleagues to make sure these programs are fully supported and funded, and certainly not eliminated,” Zeldin said, highlighting the significant impacts each of the programs have had on the region.

The Long Island Sound is one of our natural treasures, the congressman said, and is a precious feature of the life, culture and economy of more than 9 million people living in the coastal communities around it. He voiced his admiration of the Long Island Sound Study for its dedication to water quality and wetlands restoration in addition to local conservation projects to restore beaches and protect wildlife.

He called the National Estuary Program “an important EPA wetlands protection program for 28 estuaries in the U.S.,” two of which being Long Island Sound and Peconic Bay. The program was established by the Clean Water Act in 1987 to provide grants to states where nationally significant estuaries are threatened.

Zeldin said he will continue to work alongside Democrats and Republicans in the region to secure the funding as he did to stop President Barack Obama’s (D) proposed 22 percent cut to the Long Island Sound Study in 20

The Long Island Sound Restoration and Stewardship Act, he said, was introduced at the last congress by himself and former 3rd District U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) and will propose tens-of-millions of dollars in funding per year through 2020 for a water quality and shore restoration program. Zeldin plans to reintroduce the bill during this congressional session.

Setauket Harbor Task Force Trustee George Hoffman voiced support for Zeldin and his call for funding to protect local waters.

“With Congressman Zeldin’s strong advocacy and leadership, the Long Island Sound Study, a consortium of federal, state and environmental organizations has turned the corner on cleaning up the water in LI Sound and its harbors and bays.”

—George Hoffman

“With Congressman Zeldin’s strong advocacy and leadership, the Long Island Sound Study, a consortium of federal, state and environmental organizations has turned the corner on cleaning up the water in LI Sound and its harbors and bays,” he said. “Federal funding is critical to survival of this important and productive estuary.”

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell spoke briefly in response to Zeldin’s longtime presence in the area.

“The people of the East End and people of the first congress have made it clear time and time again that the environment is a top priority and the congressman has been a zealous advocate on behalf of us, on behalf of the environment, and on behalf of our natural resources,” Russell said. “Time and time again, he’s disproved the myth that Republicans aren’t friends of the environment…Republicans are and he is.”

Councilman Bob Ghosio took to the podium to speak about the importance of the proposed funding.

“Talking about nitrogen in the bays and creeks and knowing the Long Island Sound and estuaries [here], particularly in Southold are what drives our economy, our tourism, our jobs and our recreation, just tells me how important this is,” Ghosio said. “Getting the funds to keep this area healthy for the future for my kids, my grandkids and generations thereafter is very important to us.”

When asked by a resident what he thinks of some of his Republican colleagues advancing toward eliminating EPA entirely, Zeldin reminded those in attendance he voted against a 17 percent cut to the EPA last year.

“There are 535 members of congress, all with very different ideologies and backgrounds and you get a whole lot of diversity on these issues and so I have a lot of colleagues who would support completely eliminating the EPA altogether,” Zeldin said. “But again, I voted against the 17 percent cut so to ask me how I feel about a 100 percent cut, there’s some precedent in it.”

Not to be outdone by the uprising of left-leaning activists who have made their displeasure known across the United States since President Donald Trump’s (R) inauguration, supporters of the president congregated March 4 to present a united front in backing Trump.

A group called Main Street Patriots organized the rallies, titled the Spirit of America Rally, which took place in 32 states and Washington D.C. The only rally held in New York took place outside of the H. Lee Dennison Suffolk County Executive office in Hauppauge and was organized and promoted in part by the Conservative Society for Action, a Patchogue-based group founded in 2008 whose website says has about 900 members.

“We need to stand united with our president who wants to do something to fix America,” a website set up to promote the Suffolk County event stated as part of its mission.

Judy Pepenella, a Patchogue resident and the national coordinator for the CSA, said she tried her best to spread the news of the rally on social media. She estimated about 350 to 400 people attended the Hauppauge rally.

“Spirit of America is the spirit of the Constitution, the spirit of the rule of law, the spirit of the goals and the directives and the original intent of the founding fathers,” Pepernella said, explaining how her group got involved. “We do stand behind our president — some people, more, some people less. But he won, we want to give him a chance.”

The rally came as the heat was being turned up on Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who multiple news outlets reported last week had meetings with a Russian Ambassador despite Session’s testimony during his confirmation hearing he had no contact with Russian officials during the campaign. Rallies, protests and contentious town hall meetings featuring activists opposing Trump’s agenda and policies have taken place across the U.S. in recent weeks.

Pepernella said the group’s mission is not to blindly defend all of Trump’s policies or words, or her congressman — U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin’s (R-Shirley) — for that matter, but she said it’s refreshing to hear a politician “call a spade a spade.” Zeldin has publicly supported Trump for months.

“Just because [Trump] said so doesn’t mean it’s right,” she said. “If it doesn’t work with the Constitution; if it infringes on a person’s rights; if it’s going to hurt somebody socially, economically and a person in need … he’s going to hear from us. It’s not a just ‘we blindly support the president’ — we support the president’s goals and his platform and mission statement to make America great again.”

Pepernella, who said she has yet to hear anything from Trump that would cause her to raise an eyebrow so far in his presidency, attributed outrage of Trump’s words and actions to people not being used to a New Yorker telling it like it is.

“We are all New Yorkers, and there’s a problem with New Yorkers, and I say that as a native New Yorker,” she said. “We have a bit of a tenacity and a bit of a brazen, ballsy-ass attitude — forgive my French — but that’s what we have. Donald Trump was born in Queens. He’s born and raised here. He’s a New Yorker and we can sometimes say things that are not perfectly correct, but that’s who we are. It doesn’t bother me. I have no problem with his rhetoric.”

Port Jefferson resident Keith Debaun shared his motivation behind attending the event.

“Clearly I’m here not to support Hillary Clinton,” he said. “I’m here to support Donald Trump because he’s facing a lot of resistance, and I’m here to oppose that resistance.”

Dix Hills resident and attorney Mike Dyckman also explained his reason for attending.

“I’m a Republican, I’m a conservative, and I’m an American,” he said. “I don’t like what’s happening whether it’s Republican or Democrat — we have to be together as a nation and I don’t like what’s going on right now on the left. They’re not listening to anybody. They’ve got all of these shout-down sessions when the representatives are going back to talk to their constituents. It looks like a lot of it is staged, whether they’re paid for it or not. If that doesn’t stop, what’s going to happen is we’re going to not get anything done in the country.”

Pepernella addressed some constituent’s complaints that Zeldin has not been available enough and hasn’t met with many local residents who have invited him to events, saying the congressman who came before him wasn’t any better.

“I know for a fact people have gotten in to see him [Zeldin],” she said. “When it was Tim Bishop’s (D-Southampton) office, you’d go in, they had a sign in sheet, you put your name… and why you’re there. If you were lucky you got a response. I didn’t get a response when I went in the office because I was asking for specific things. I [did] get one meeting with Tim Bishop. When he found out it was me, he never met with me again.”

Flyers with information about the CSA were passed out during the rally with a clear statement of the group’s mission going forward.

“The Conservative Society for Action believes it’s time for a return to fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, free markets and honest government,” it said. “We cannot afford to sit this one out. We will be silent no more. Please join us in our fight for the future of this country. Freedom isn’t free. Get involved while there’s still time.”

U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi speaks during a town hall Feb. 23. Photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding & Alex Petroski

President Donald Trump’s (R) first month in office and items on his agenda thus far have sparked an activist uprising in blue and red districts alike across the United States. Thursday, two North Shore congressmen made themselves available to concerned constituents, though the formats were different.

First congressional district U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and 3rd congressional district U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) each hosted town hall events Feb. 23 to discuss issues with the people they represent, a trend that has caught on for leaders in nearly all 50 states in the weeks since Inauguration Day. Suozzi hosted nearly 400 residents at Mid Island Y Jewish Community Center in Plainview for about two and a half hours. Zeldin spoke directly to voters in their homes in a telephone town hall.

Suozzi listens to a question during a town hall Feb. 23. Photo by Kevin Redding

According to Zeldin, more than 9,000 people sat in on the hour-long call, which featured questions and interactive polls. More than 1,000 others streamed it online. The congressman began the call with an opening statement lasting nearly five minutes, which touched on improving American safety at home and abroad; growing the local economy; supporting veterans and first responders; improving education; repairing infrastructure; repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act; and safeguarding the environment. He then answered 10 questions from a combination of callers and those streaming the conversation on the internet, submitting written questions.

Groups of constituents have lobbied the congressman to host an in-person town hall in recent weeks, but have been unsuccessful. Changes have also been made to his office hour availability, which he attributed earlier in February to the actions of “liberal obstructionists.” Zeldin justified the decision to hold a telephone town hall rather than a conventional one during the call.

“For years telephone town halls have allowed me to reach the maximum amount of constituents interested in constructive dialogue,” he said. “This is a modern way to bring a town hall directly to your home.”

He evaluated the effectiveness of the format in an email through spokeswoman Jennifer DiSiena the following day.

“These outreach efforts with the public have proven to be extremely effective and allow him to productively reach the maximum amount of constituents who are interested in constructive dialogue,” she said. “It is true that liberal obstructionists cannot disrupt the call.”

A Facebook group called “Let’s Visit Lee Zeldin,” set up by constituents attempting to speak to the congressman face-to-face, which has more than 2,000 members, followed along with the call and held a discussion regarding Zeldin’s responses on the page. Several posters said they registered to be called on Zeldin’s website, but never received it, or received it after its commencement at 7 p.m.

A screen shot of the website used to stream Zeldin’s telephone town hall Feb. 23. Image from Zeldin’s website

A post asking if any questions were not addressed during the call received more than 100 responses. One constituent asked if the congressman would put pressure on the House Oversight Committee to investigate Trump’s ties to Russia. Another asked about the shrinking middle class and growing income inequality. Someone else asked, “What will Zeldin do to assure females have safe affordable birth control/reproductive rights?”

Zeldin was asked on the call, among several other questions, about his stance on the Trump administration’s reversal of transgender bathroom guidelines set by the Obama administration — he said he supported the reversal. Another question involved Trump’s slow response to anti-Semitic violence and demonstrations across the U.S. since election day — which Zeldin condemned, though added he appreciated Trump speaking up this week. Several questions came in concerning the ACA and what will take its place once repealed — the congressman said he supported the proposed Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act, coverage for those with preexisting conditions, allowing kids to stay on parents’ plans until age 26, and would support a voucher program for veterans.

DiSiena addressed Zeldin’s plans going forward regarding a traditional town hall.

“Way too many of the people at the moment requesting town halls across the country are doing so with the purpose of disrupting the town hall without any interest at all in decorum,” she said.

Former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Arizona), who was shot during an outdoor, public meeting with constituents in 2011, called on members of Congress to “face their constituents” and hold town halls in a tweet Feb. 23.

DiSiena said Zeldin is open to small meetings, though no in-person town hall is currently planned. DiSiena disclosed results of one of the five poll questions Zeldin posed to listeners during the call, showing most constituents, 23 percent, are concerned about health care above all other issues.

Conversely, Suozzi stood and engaged a large crowd of residents and activists, answering more than 30 questions on a variety of hot topics, including the repeal of the ACA, the relationship between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Trump’s travel restriction executive order. He also voiced his disapproval of what’s happening in the White House, and called on those in attendance to “not hate Trump supporters” and instead turn their anger into something productive.

Seven-year-old Zachary Aquino asks Suozzi a question during a town hall Feb. 23. Photo by Kevin Redding

“I think this is as American as you can get … this is so inspiring and this country needs this type of engagement,” Suozzi told the crowd, saying in all his years of holding town hall meetings — both as a congressional candidate and mayor of Glen Cove — he’s never seen an attendance like what he had.

“We need to take all this energy and excitement that we’ve got and use it in a constructive fashion … to work together to win the battles,” he said. “Write letters to the editor, attend issues meetings, run for office, support people for local office. What we really need are reasonable Americans that will put their country before their party to help us to get Congressional support on [issues]. Don’t underestimate what’s working.”

A civil discourse on ideas and plenty of smiles and laughs, Suozzi’s session had a different tone than the heated ones across the country, in which angry constituents waged vocal war against Republican representatives.

Suozzi began the gathering by telling attendees — some of whom represented local activist groups like North Shore Indivisible, MoveOn.org, and Science Advocacy of Long Island — to be respectful and direct all comments to him.

Attendees raised questions about Trump’s ties to Russia, the release of the commander-in-chief’s taxes, gun violence, immigration, climate change and the state of health care.

One attendee, Jessica Meyer, who has cerebral palsy, asked the congressman if he would help those like her who fear people with disabilities might lose benefits with the potential repeal of the ACA.

“People with disabilities are getting lost in this conversation,” she said.

Suozzi responded to her concerns.

“I want you to know that I will fight tooth and nail to protect you, personally, and everybody in your situation, and I want to hear from everybody in this room who’s going to fight to protect Jessica,” Suozzi said.

Harry Arlin, a World War II and Korean War veteran from Huntington, said he lived briefly under Adolf Hitler in Germany and Joseph Stalin in Russia, though fled both countries.

“I’m too old to run again,” he said.

Seven-year-old Zachary Aquino echoed Arlin’s sentiments.

“I don’t think this is right having Trump as president, I think it’s really bad,” he said. “I don’t know how this happened — how we got stuck in this mess — but it’s good that we’re here today … this is a really valuable time. Fighting against Trump is very good. We’ve got to do this.”

A screen shot of the Let’s Visit Lee Zeldin Facebook page. Image from Facebook

When asked what he was going to do to restore one attendee’s faith in “American exceptionalism,” Suozzi pointed around the room.

“This is it — this is people who believe and should not walk out of here with anything but a stronger belief that by being involved, you can actually have an impact on things,” he said.

The White House has made claims recently to suggest some activists attending town halls are being paid to be there and rile up crowds, a sentiment which Zeldin echoed in a Feb. 18 Facebook post.

“Liberal obstructionists are disrupting, resisting and destructing public events all around America,” he wrote. “Our neighbors want to actually engage in substantive, productive, constructive dialogue, and the liberal obstructionists are spitting on them with their shameful shows for their own political theater.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. File photo by Alex Petroski

Suffolk County’s current and future financial outlook has been a topic of conversation for months, and a nonprofit founded to ensure government transparency is taking notice, following County Executive Steve Bellone’s (D-West Babylon) presentation to the state Senate and Assembly representatives in Albany Feb. 14.

Bellone visited the capital last week to discuss Suffolk’s “daunting” fiscal challenges going forward. Among his eight points addressed during the presentation was a request for authority from New York State to obtain bonds for separation pay of law enforcement officers for 2017 and 2018, a point of contention raised repeatedly by Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga). Reclaim New York, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization established to “educate New Yorkers on issues like affordability, transparency and education,” echoed a similar sentiment to Trotta’s following the presentation.

“Suffolk County has a problem: it spends too much on its police department,” a Feb. 15 post on the organization’s blog said in part. “Its 2,397 officers were paid an average of $161,463 last year, far more than any other county, or town police officers, or Nassau County’s police, for that matter. Spending reached this level after years of political action by the police, who spent in 2015 more than $600,000 influencing local elections–from one PAC alone. Now, having fallen behind on those expenses … Bellone is proposing borrowing $60 million because the county doesn’t have enough cash for payouts on unused sick and vacation time, that Suffolk cops were promised years ago.”

Doug Kellogg, the organization’s communications director, said in a phone interview Reclaim New York doesn’t currently have plans to begin a project or campaign pertaining specifically to the police contract, which the county and the Police Benevolent Association agreed on and which runs from 2011 to 2018, but they do plan on monitoring Suffolk’s budget and financial outlook going forward.

“It’s really starting to get out of control,” Kellogg said. “The path can get worse.”

Trotta has said in past interviews he feels like he’s alone in calling out the county’s financial situation relating to the police department contract.

“The county finances are in total shambles,” Trotta said during an interview in his Smithtown office Nov. 15. “[The other legislators are] sticking their head in the sand. They’re not addressing the real problems. No one wants to address the problems. You need colossal change.”

Following the meeting, Trotta said it was “typical” of Bellone to ask to borrow to pay for the retirement pay for police officers. He added he’s been in contact with Reclaim New York and plans to work with them to inform the public about the county’s finances.

“I’m going to work with them because together we could get the word out to the public on how bad it really is,” Trotta said in a phone interview. “The title says it all — we need to take back New York.”

Vanessa Baird-Streeter, a spokeswoman for Bellone, said in a phone interview the request regarding bonds for separation pay was just a small part of his presentation, but if obtained the funds would improve public safety.

“In the future we’ll be able to hire more police officers to ensure our county is safe,” she said.

Bellone’s presentation also included a justification for borrowing to close the budget gap.

“Allowing for this five-year bonding will allow Suffolk County to protect taxpayers and public safety by smoothing out the expense associated with an anticipated increase in retirements,” he said. “Bonding will allow Suffolk County to retain the resources and fiscal flexibility to continue to hire new officers, which is critical to maintain public safety and save taxpayer dollars over several years.”

A look at the county budget by the legislature’s budget review office in October resulted in a warning.

“The county’s structural deficit is increasingly driving our decisions,” the office’s director Robert Lipp said in the review. “The county sets a bad precedent when paying for operating expenses with borrowing.”