Port Times Record

File photo by Erika Karp

Just a few hours before the New York State Legislature approved the state’s 2015-16 budget, which includes a number of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education reform initiatives, school districts across the North Shore finally got to know how much aid they’ll receive next year.

The state aid runs showed districts getting more than they expected, since many budgeted around a 1.7 percent increase. Earlier this year, Cuomo (D) announced state aid would only increase by $377 million — a 1.7 percent increase from this year — if his state education reforms didn’t pass the Legislature.

And while not all of the initiatives passed, a few did, so the aid increased by about $1.4 billion statewide.

“This is a plan that keeps spending under 2 percent, reforms New York’s education bureaucracy, implements the nation’s strongest and most comprehensive disclosure laws for public officials and makes the largest investment in the upstate economy in a generation,” Cuomo said in a statement.

But not all were convinced the education initiatives would reform public schools.

The Education Transformation Act of 2015 amends the teacher evaluation system, changes the time to gain tenure from three to four years and creates two designations for failing schools. The hot-button item, though, was the teacher evaluation system.

Under the act, the State Education Department will develop a new teacher evaluation system by June 30, which school districts will then have to locally negotiate and enact by Nov. 15 in order to receive their allotted aid. The system also includes a component based on students’ performance on the state’s common core-aligned tests. The evaluation system was last changed in 2013.

In a phone interview on Wednesday morning, Middle Country Central School District Superintendent Roberta Gerold, who is also president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, said she believed the change to the system was misguided, and wished elected officials would have learned that “rushing into a system that doesn’t have details attached” — as was the case in 2013 — doesn’t work.

Some Assembly members said they shared Gerold’s concerns.

Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) voted against the Education, Labor and Family Assistance State budget bill, which Cuomo issued on Tuesday with a message of necessity. When asked about the reforms, Englebright immediately interjected, “they are not reforms,” he said.

He said he voted against the measure because it was unclear as to how it would impact students.

“[It] doesn’t mean we can’t make improvements, but those improvements need to make sense,” he said.

Englebright strayed from his fellow party members by voting against the bill, which he said was a difficult decision.

“The people who sent me [to Albany] are the ones who I finally had to vote in accordance with,” he said.

Assemblyman Andy Raia (R-East Northport) said in a press release the education measure “takes away local control and is downright insulting to principals, administrators and teachers.”

While most North Shore Assembly officials voted down the education component, Mike Fitzpatrick (R- St. James) voted yes. In a phone interview Wednesday, Fitzpatrick said he stood by his decision.

He said he believed the reforms would bring more accountability to the system, which needed to be reformed. Fitzpatrick also said the amendments take away some of the New York State United Teachers union’s power. The union referred to the changes as a disgrace and the evaluation system as a sham.

“Good teachers, and they know who they are, they don’t have anything to worry about,” Fitzpatrick said.

Rohma Abbas contributed reporting.

The smokestacks of the Port Jefferson power plant loom over the village and the local harbor. File photo by Erika Karp

The Long Island Power Authority must study the area’s aging power plants with an eye toward upgrading the facilities, according to a provision of the next New York State budget.

Language that Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and state legislators have agreed upon requires the utility to “perform an engineering, environmental … and cost feasibility analysis and study” of upgrading — also known as repowering — the plants in Port Jefferson, Northport and Island Park. The focus will be on using more efficient and environmentally friendly technology at the plants.

Those three sites have been on shaky ground because they are old and using outdated technology. The Port Jefferson and Northport host communities have feared losing essential property taxes from the plants, which would happen if the plants were to reach the ends of their useful lives without being repowered.

“We are extremely proud that our representatives and our lobbying efforts are working toward a repowered plant in [Port Jefferson],” village Mayor Margot Garant said in an email. “We always believed this was the best repurposing of our site, and in the best interest of the ratepayers of [Long Island].”

The utility must begin studying Port Jefferson and Island Park no later than Oct. 1, and must start working on the second study in Northport by October 2018, according to the budget language. The studies must be completed and presented to the LIPA board of trustees and the department of public service no longer than 18 months after they begin.

LIPA will repower the plants if it determines, based on the studies, “that repowering any such generating facility is in the best interests of its ratepayers and will enhance the authority’s ability to provide a more efficient, reliable and economical supply of electric energy in its service territory, consistent with the goal of improving environmental quality.”

Assemblyman Andy Raia (R-East Northport) said the studies “could change the whole tax certiorari issue.”

Huntington Town and the Northport-East Northport school district have been battling LIPA over the value of that property, with the utility arguing the plant is grossly overassessed and filing to be reimbursed for taxes overpaid as a result. Town Supervisor Frank Petrone has extended an offer to LIPA to freeze its tax assessment if it repowers Northport.

“Northport and East Northport are looking down the barrel of a gun,” Raia said Tuesday, “and if they repowered Northport that whole case would go away.”

Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) said in a statement that the study requirement will be included in the state budget “since LIPA did not follow through on their [previous] promises” to complete economic feasibility studies on the aging plants.

PSEG Long Island, the private utility that has taken over management of LIPA, was on board with the repowering studies this week.

“After careful study last year, we determined that there was no need for additional generation on Long Island until, at least, 2024,” PSEG Long Island spokesman Jeff Weir said in an email. “We wholeheartedly embrace this process because all we want is to implement the lowest cost and most reliable solutions for our customers on Long Island and in the Rockaways.”

Rohma Abbas contributed reporting.

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Assistant Superintendent for Business Susan Casali explained the district’s budget proposal last week. Photo by Barbara Donlon

Comsewogue School District hopes to adopt a budget that increases staff while staying within the state-imposed limit on its tax increase.

Assistant Superintendent for Business Susan Casali explained during a school board workshop on March 26 that the budget proposal would also reduce the district’s dependency on its reserves and make security improvements.

The budget was originally proposed at that workshop to be $85.6 million, or a 2.7 percent increase over the current year’s budget, funded in part through an expected increase in state aid.

But after preliminary state aid numbers were released on Tuesday, showing Comsewogue receiving less than the $2 million bump it expected, the district is changing its budget proposal — Casali said in an email that the plan is to slash the budget by $400,000.

“Our overall goal is to stay under the property tax cap,” Casali said last week, referring to New York State’s cap on how much municipalities and school districts can increase their tax levy each year.

Comsewogue may raise its by 2.2 percent next year, and the budget proposal meets that cap.

Under the budget plan, the district would add a librarian, so that each school in the district would have one, and Comsewogue would replace its deans, who also have teaching responsibilities, with assistant principals to create more flexibility.

At John F. Kennedy Middle School, where there is already one assistant principal, the plan is to replace the part-time dean with a full-time assistant principal. At Comsewogue High School, the dean will become two assistant principals.

The district is also hoping to add assistant athletic coaches into the mix, for student safety and to help develop a stronger athletic program. In the past, those roles were cut for financial reasons.

Other improvements are proposed for the district’s facilities — according to Casali, Comsewogue’s wireless infrastructure hasn’t been updated in more than 10 years, and some classrooms need to be refurbished. Officials also hope to add cameras and other upgrades to the security system, based on recommendations from a security study that was completed last year.

While the budget has not been finalized, Superintendent Joe Rella said, “Whatever budget is put up [for a public vote] in May will be under the tax cap.”

Also on the ballot will be a proposition on transportation, to add bus service for 38 JFK Middle School students who currently walk to school. The students live within a half-mile of the building, which keeps them off the buses, but the heavy snow covering sidewalks this winter led the kids to walk in the street and spurred the transportation proposal.

The extra bus riders will not add cost to the taxpayer, as the district would reconfigure current bus routes to accommodate the kids.

The school board will adopt a budget at its meeting on April 13.

The Greenway Trail runs between Port Jefferson Station and Setauket. File photo

Days after human skeletal remains were discovered near the Greenway Trail, a Suffolk County police officer assured local residents that he would be patrolling the hiking and biking path in the warmer weather.

Officer William Gibaldi said at the March 25 meeting of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association that he had just driven the trail, which runs between Setauket and Port Jefferson Station, the day before in a police car with another officer.

“When it warms up a little, we’re going to be riding our bikes through there, at least two or three times a week,” he said. “We’re gonna be in there.”

On March 22, around 4 p.m., skeletal remains were spotted close to the 3.5-mile trail at its stretch off of Gnarled Hollow Road. Police are investigating the human remains, and officials have not yet released the sex of the deceased or the person’s cause of death.

It was also unclear when the person died and how long the body had been in the place it was found.

The Greenway Trail, which opened in 2009 and originally ran from Gnarled Hollow Road to Sheep Pasture Road, was recently extended by two miles — one mile on each end — to bring it all the way to Limroy Lane in Setauket and close to Route 112 in Port Jefferson Station. While construction was largely completed in late 2013, the community officially opened the trail with a ceremony in early 2014.

“The inspector of the precinct, he wants us on that trail all the time anyway, so we’re gonna be on that trail a lot,” Gibaldi said. “You’ll see us in there, hanging out, riding around or … driving a car.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone file photo

By Julianne Cuba

At his fourth State of the County address, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone began by ensuring the county government and public that he has never been more optimistic about the current state of the region and its future.

At the William H. Rogers Legislative Building in Hauppauge on March 26, Bellone (D) also took time commending the county legislature for successfully and efficiently reducing government by more than 10 percent — an initiative that will save Suffolk County taxpayers more than $100 million a year. The county executive announced that when he took office three years ago, the unemployment rate for Suffolk County stood at 8.2 percent. As of the end of 2014, it stands at 4.2 percent.

However, Bellone continued, “I’m not here to talk about where we are today. I am much more interested in talking about where we are going and what the future could look like.”

In order to combat what Bellone said he considers the fundamental issue of our time — a two-decade trend of losing young, qualified and educated people to other regions of the county — he pointed to the county’s economic development plan, Connect Long Island.

“We cannot reach our economic potential, we cannot build a more prosperous future, if we are not a region that can attract and retain the young, high-knowledge, high-skill workers necessary to build an innovative economy,” he said.

Connect Long Island will make progress on the five crucial issues that are driving young people away, which, according to Bellone include high costs, lack of transportation options, lack of quality affordable rental housing, lack of affordable housing in desired environments and a lack of high-paying jobs.

“We build walkable, transit-oriented downtowns that have strong, public transportation links to one another and to universities, research centers, job centers and parks and open space. Effectively, what Connect LI will do is to build a quality of life ecosystem that will be attractive to young people,” he said.

But, unfortunately, Bellone said, the lack of sewage systems in many of Suffolk County’s downtown areas — which are critical parts of the region’s future — is limiting the opportunity for growth.

Suffolk County’s sewage problem impacts not only the regions economic development but its water quality as well. The water quality issue was one of the three major problems on which Bellone focused.

“We have 360,000 unsewered homes in Suffolk County — that is more than the entire state of New Jersey. Those 360,000 homes represent, potentially, 360,000 customers. So I’m happy to report that four companies donated 19 systems, which we are putting into the ground to test under local conditions. At the same time, with the leadership of Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst and Dr. Samuel Stanley, [Stony Brook University] will begin a new program to identify the next generation of septic technology, with the goal of providing better, more cost-efficient options for Suffolk County residents,” Bellone said.

Bellone announced that with the help of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), the county’s state and federal partners, and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), he was able to secure $383 million for one of the largest investments in clean water infrastructure in more than 40 years — the Reclaim Our Water Initiative.

Legislator and Minority Leader Kevin McCaffrey (R) said that he agrees 100 percent with everything the county executive said in regard to economic development and improving drinking water. However, he added that the county’s debt must be cut and the legislature needs increased oversight.

“We must ask ourselves if we are going to control the irresponsible and reckless spending and borrowing, we must become more focused on the county’s ever-increasing debt,” McCaffrey said.  “We must ask ourselves if we want to throw debt on the backs of our children and our grandchildren. It’s time to cut up the credit cards and learn how to live within our means.”

 

Many Suffolk County residents oppose a proposed gambling facility in the Town of Brookhaven. File photo

Local civic members are going all-in to fight a proposed gambling facility in Brookhaven Town.

After New York voters passed a referendum in 2013 that allowed for seven casinos in the state, the Suffolk Regional Off-Track Betting Corporation proposed putting a 1,000-machine casino at the former Brookhaven Multiplex Cinemas in Medford. But town residents, particularly those living in the Medford area, have railed against the project, citing concerns about it causing traffic congestion and promoting crime, drug use and prostitution.

The proposal, for a nearly 32-acre site off of the Long Island Expressway near Exit 64, is awaiting approval from the Suffolk County Planning Commission.

Delaware North, the company that runs the Finger Lakes Gaming & Racetrack and Hamburg Gaming in upstate New York, would operate the Medford facility.

The local residents who oppose the 1,000 lottery machines, known as video lottery terminals, have found allies in the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association. At the group’s March 25 meeting, the members voted to take an official stand against the gambling facility, upon a suggestion from executive board member Frank Gibbons.

The Terryville resident said residents must push their elected officials to derail the casino.

“If all of us get united across this entire township and say, ‘You do this and we’re going to vote you all out of office,’ I bet they’ll find a way.”

Town officials have said that their hands are tied, and they have no role in choosing where the gambling facility will be built. The town board has hired global law firm Nixon Peabody LLP to issue its own legal opinion on the matter.
The town board also approved an anti-casino statement in late January, introduced by Councilman Neil Foley (R-Blue Point).

“These are blights in a community and serve no purpose in the suburbs,” Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) said at the time.

The Port Jefferson Station/Terryville civic members voted against a gambling facility being built at the proposed site in Medford or anywhere else in Brookhaven Town.

“Because if it’s not Medford, it could be Bicycle Path,” President Ed Garboski said. “It could be Centereach.”

Jeff Napoleon, a Port Jefferson Station resident, said members should authorize the executive board to “to make our feelings known that we’re against this and to take whatever steps … in any way they deem appropriate. That way as they uncover things, they can take action.”

The civic supported that measure, adding it to their vote of opposition to the gambling facility.

“This is obviously a complicated issue,” Napoleon said. “A lot of angles to it.”

Joe Rella is planning to continue as Comsewogue’s superintendent for the immediate future, though he says he’s retiring in 2019. Photo by Barbara Donlon

Comsewogue officials have sealed their lips on a proposal not to give state exams to students next month.

Both Facebook and the Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association website were buzzing this week, as school board members and residents discussed a proposed resolution saying the board would “seriously consider not administering the New York State standardized [English language arts] and math exams in grades 3-8, and the science exam in grades 4 and 8.” The board of education had encouraged parents to attend its workshop on Thursday night and speak about the state’s testing system.

But just hours before the meeting, the district went silent, and Superintendent Joe Rella and board members said legal counsel had advised them not to discuss the issue.

It is unclear whether the board will bring the resolution to a vote at its next business meeting, on Monday.

According to the resolution, the board takes issue with the state’s current education aid levels and teacher evaluation policies, and with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed education reforms, one of which would base half of a teacher’s evaluation on student test scores.

The resolution says that the Comsewogue school board would consider not administering the state tests unless Cuomo (D) and state legislators “establish a fair and equitable state aid funding formula … so [schools] can provide for the educational needs of every child” and stop weighing student test scores so heavily in teacher and administrator evaluations.

At the workshop Thursday, a community member said the announcement before the meeting that officials would no longer discuss the matter had surprised her.

“I really can’t tell you why right now,” Rella responded. “We’ve been advised not to comment about it.”

According to state education department spokeswoman Jeanne Beattie, the federal government requires the standardized tests.

“If a member of a board of education or school superintendent takes official action by refusing to administer a required state assessment, the responsible party would be at risk of removal from office by the commissioner of education pursuant to Education Law,” Beattie said in an email.

According to Article 7 of the state Education Law, the commissioner may, following a hearing, remove a school officer, including a school board member or a district administrator, if it has been “proved to his satisfaction” that the person willfully disobeyed “any decision, order, rule or regulation of the regents or of the commissioner of education.” The commissioner may also withhold state aid from any district for such actions.

The upcoming budget vote is at the library on Thompson Street. File photo

The average Port Jefferson resident will pay $10.80 more in library taxes next year, if members approve a proposed $4.33 million budget for 2015-16.

Most of the Port Jefferson Free Library’s expense lines would increase or decrease modestly under the spending plan, according to a budget breakdown from the library. One of the larger changes would be in materials and programs — the library would spend $42,500 less on books next year, for a total of $178,000. Spending on programs, meanwhile, would increase almost $15,000.

In personnel expenditures, salary and retirement costs would both decrease next year, while insurance costs would increase.

Library Director Robert Goykin explained that the decrease in the book budget “is largely the result of many of the expensive print items moving to less expensive electronic versions or publications going out of business,” such as encyclopedias.

While Goykin called it “sad” that those publications are no longer being printed, he said that many of them work well in a digital format because “people don’t read them cover to cover as much as consult them for facts.”

Library Director Robert Goykin says a decrease in spending on books can be partially attributed to reference publications going digital. File photo
Library Director Robert Goykin says a decrease in spending on books can be partially attributed to reference publications going digital. File photo

The director said, “In this case the economics work in our favor despite the fact of losing some ‘old friends’ on the shelf.”

The proposed increase in funding for library programs reflects a higher demand, Goykin said, and more programming in science and technology, which can be more expensive than other areas.

In addition to those budget lines, the library would transfer $107,000 into its capital fund for facility improvements.

The library board of trustees has been working on a strategic plan for how the establishment will serve residents in the future, which includes improving the facilities and deciding what to do with a recently purchased residential property that is located next door on Thompson Street.

“With the plan almost concluded,” Goykin said, “the board wanted to set aside some funding to make improvements in the facility.”

All together, the budget would increase less than 0.6 percent next year, and would carry a roughly $3 million tax levy.

If the proposal is approved, for every $100 of assessed value, residents would have to pay an extra quarter to the library next year. The average house in the community is assessed at $4,500.

“The board and the staff have been very mindful of the difficult economic circumstances of the last number of years,” Goykin said. “This is our fifth straight year of minimal budget increases.”

Voting is at the library on Tuesday, April 14, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright is putting pressure on the knocking down of Pine Barrens forrest in favor of a solar farm. File photo

A new bill protecting children from toxic chemicals is making its way through the state Assembly as elected officials work to keep chemicals out of children’s products.

The bill — commonly known as the Child Safe Products Act — would empower New York State to identify and phase out dangerous chemicals in products marketed to kids, lawmakers said. State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) helped craft the legislation and has been pushing it forward with hopes of keeping young people safe from what they cannot see.

If the legislation is passed, the state would compile a list of high-concern chemicals made up of those known to cause health problems such as cancer, learning and developmental disorders, asthma and more, officials said.

Then, a list of priority chemicals used in children’s products will be drafted for disclosure, lawmakers said.

“This bill addresses issues of poisonous products for children,” Englebright said. “It’s very important to protect the children. And that’s what I intend to do.”

The makers of children’s products would also be required to report their use of priority chemicals in their merchandise after a year, and phase out their use of such chemicals three years later.

Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) said legislation like this is important because there is always a need to prevent innocent children from being exposed to such harmful chemicals like arsenic, mercury, cadmium, formaldehyde and more.

“Kids are more vulnerable and more likely to put things in their mouth,” Spencer said. “Almost any toy could potentially have toxic chemicals.”

Spencer also said toxic chemicals are found in many children’s products such as clothes, dolls, toys and more. He said they can be in found things such as paint on a button or a bracelet a child wears.

According to Englebright, there are some 84,000 chemicals on the market today. The federal law that was supposed to protect against them — the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 —  “is a very weak law and has never been updated,” the lawmaker said.

The assemblyman also said he feels a bill like this is important for everyone in the state as it sets the standards manufacturers would be held to.

“We all benefit when children are protected from poorly regulated toxic chemicals that have the potential to harm development, cause illness and impair learning,” Englebright said. “I think it’s very important to get this bill to the governor’s desk.”

Spencer also said while he does support the bill, there should be guidelines and parameters set as there is the ability to detect parts per million, billion and even trillion. He said it is unnecessary to be overly restrictive as something at a certain parts per billion or trillion, may not be harmful.

Late last year, a press conference was held in Hauppauge to show parents the toxins present in certain items geared toward kids. While many of the toys at the conference had toxic chemicals in them, such a Hot Wheels cars or dresses bought in Long Island stores, there are toys on the market that are manufactured without them.

“A lot of times the effects of these toxic substances aren’t seen right away. But the impact lasts for a lifetime,” Spencer said at the December conference.

When asked why certain toys have chemicals and others don’t, Spencer said some manufacturers may be unaware of the chemicals present and others could possibly use the chemicals to maximize profit.

Family is the most important thing in Mario's life. She celebrated her 108th birthday in February. Photo from Elaine Campanella

Much has changed since Anna Mario lived in her first-floor Brooklyn apartment back in the 1920s.

In those days, people were friendlier, they said hello to each other, and they were more attached to their friends and neighbors, according to the 108-year-old, who now lives in St. James Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.

“People are more independent now. They don’t help each other, they think they are better than you,” Mario said. “I don’t want to be better than anyone, I want to be what I am and I’m happy,” she said.

A positive outlook has always played a part in her life, according to Mario’s daughter Elaine Campanella of Hauppauge.

“She’s got a good attitude,” Campanella said. “She believes that anything you do, you do with happiness. She says if you smile, the world smiles back at you.”

One of seven children, Mario was born in New York City in 1907. She worked in the garment industry as a machine operator in a factory that made pajamas.

“I worked most of my life and I loved every minute of it,” she said. “We made the most beautiful nightgowns.”

Mario’s husband passed away in 1975, but she stayed in Brooklyn until 1990 when she moved out to Port Jefferson Station. Campanella said her mother remained active after the move, taking bus trips to Atlantic City and participating in senior clubs, even becoming president of one.

According to Campanella, no one in Mario’s family has lived past 100 years old, let alone 108. Mario’s father died when he was 80 and her mother at 62.

Campanella doesn’t think there is a secret to her mother’s longevity, but she did say she always cooked well and she rarely took medication except for the occasional dose of Tums. Her faith always remained important to her.

“If anyone was in trouble or sick she would say a prayer and say it was in God’s hands,” Campanella said.

She said her mother always lived a simple life, never shying away from crises but always handling it as best she could.

“She always tells everyone that if you have a problem, you deal with it. If there is nothing you can do, then you move on.”

Mario lived on her own until she was 106 years old, doing all of her own cooking and cleaning. Heart problems that year put her in the nursing home, where she has been ever since.

“I have a nice life here,” Mario said of the nursing home. “Everyone is friendly and I have a nice time. If I can’t be home, this is the place to be. They make me feel at home.”

She occasionally leaves the nursing home to join her family for holidays and special events, she said.

According to Lori Sorrentino, recreational therapist at St. James, Mario keeps busy practicing tai chi, socializing with friends, dancing in her wheelchair at facility dance events and playing Bingo, one of her favorite pastimes.

Sorrentino called Mario “very spunky,” adding that she has had a great attitude since coming to the facility over a year ago.

“She is very funny and very inspirational. She is just full of life and age does not stop her,” Sorrentino said. “She always says that its good friends and family that keep her going.”

Mario’s family includes four grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren and many nieces and nephews. Campanella said her mother hates to see the younger generation glued to iPods and cell phones.

“It’s just not social — she sees it as detachment,” Campanella said. “It hurts her.”

At her 108th birthday celebration last month, Mario made a toast to her family, urging them to avoid that detachment.

“She made everyone cry when she said how much she wanted the family to stay together,” Campanella said. “Family is what she loves about life. That is her philosophy.”