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New York State

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright. Photo from Englebright's office

In 2020, state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) maintained his seat in a race against Michael Ross, a local lawyer and former Suffolk County assistant district attorney. With nearly 30 years behind him as an assemblyman, Englebright is hitting the ground running in 2021.

COVID-19

While the assemblyman has a list of priorities for 2021, the COVID-19 vaccine rollout is at the forefront of his mind. He said in a phone interview that the state’s vaccination rollout protocols need to be addressed in regard to issues such as identifying more vaccination sites, making registering easier and allowing couples to sign up together.

He added more locations should be utilized such as chain and privately owned pharmacies, local school gyms and even National Guard facilities.

“It really is held up right now by a lack of imagination and proper use of technology that’s available,” Englebright said, adding that even having people answering the state hotline would be helpful.

He noted not having enough of the COVID-19 vaccines also exacerbates the problem.

“I think there’s always little bureaucratic things that discourage people, and the object of this exercise is to vaccinate as many people as possible and achieve herd immunity and return to normal at some level,” he said. “Especially, before these new variants come in from Brazil, South Africa and London.”

Infrastructure

Englebright has been keeping his eyes on Route 347 and the Long Island Rail Road.

While roadwork on Route 347 in the Smithtown area was completed a few years ago, Englebright would like to see the road improvements continue through Port Jefferson Station. The assemblyman is making sure the completion of the roadwork is a priority.

“This is important for the operation and quality of life for the Port Jefferson Station community,” Englebright said. “If I can move it up and accelerate the improvement, I’m going to try to do that.”

Englebright is also a proponent of full electrification of the LIRR Port Jefferson line, and in 2019 was part of a press conference speaking out against the railroad purchasing more diesel engines.

He said electrification will be a “game changer,” raising the values of homes, attracting more people to use the railroad and creating less pollution.

“We’re working with late-19th century, early-20th century models for rail, and the time has long passed — we need to upgrade them,” he said.

PSEG Long Island

Englebright said a closer look is being taken at PSEGLI. Many have been disappointed with the utility company, he said. Recently, many of its top executives were pulled off of Long Island issues and sent to Puerto Rico to try to acquire big contracts for rebuilding the Caribbean island’s hurricane-ravaged electrical infrastructure.

Englebright said the Long Island Power Authority board is moving toward full municipalization of the utility company, something he has been pushing for since 1983 when he was a Suffolk County legislator.

“I’m still of the opinion that moving to full municipal ownership would give more accountability and more stability in terms of our ratepayers obligations,” he said.

Recycling

Englebright along with state Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) is co-sponsoring legislation regarding recycling and creation of waste related to packaging which will extend producers’ responsibility. The goal is to boost recycling, curb waste and save tax dollars. Englebright said the responsibility of recycling packaging and paper products will shift from local governments to corporations.

Locally, it could mean that the Town of Brookhaven could extend the life of its landfill, which is slated to close in 2024 and was negatively affected when China stopped taking America’s plastic waste in 2018. The request to reduce landfill waste is one that comes from towns all over the state, according to the assemblyman.

“One-third of the waste going into the landfill is for packaging,” Englebright said. “So, if we can help extend the life, the useful life of our landfill, it will save our taxpayers millions.”

The assemblyman added that “we’ll just be more responsible if we put the responsibility for packaging onto the manufacturers.”

“If we create an incentive for the manufacturers to reduce the amount of waste and standardize the type of plastics that they use to use recyclable plastics, such as polyethylene instead of polyvinyl chloride, the work of the town becomes much, much less stressful,” he said.

Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act

Englebright said implementing New York State’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which was passed in 2019, is a priority. The act sets to legally binding emissions reductions’ standards with the goal of eliminating dependence on fossil fuels by 2050. The act sets a goal to reduce emissions by 85% below 1990 levels by 2050. An interim target is at a 40 percent reduction by 2030. The remaining percentage of emissions will be offset by actions such as planting trees, which removes carbon dioxide out of the air, to reach net zero emissions.

An original sponsor of the legislation, Englebright is encouraged by President Joe Biden’s (D) commitment to do the same and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) also being a proponent. Englebright is further encouraged by Biden moving toward incentivizing electric automobiles which was followed by General Motors announcing it’s going to phase out internal combustion engines by 2035 and move into the electric vehicle arena.

“All of that is within the framework of what we went through at the state legislative level,” Englebright said. “We had a debate basically for four years before Todd Kaminsky became the chair in the Senate and was able to move the bill.”

Restore Mother Nature Bond Act

The state’s $3 billion Restore Mother Nature Bond Act was announced in the state budget in 2020 but was pulled from the November ballots due to the pandemic’s impact on New York’s finances. Englebright said it’s important to get back to implementing the legislation which will fund critical environmental restoration projects in the state — including restoring fish and wildlife habitats, preserving open spaces and enhancing recreational opportunities and prepare New York for the impact of climate change and more.

The bond act would help advance the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.

Photo from Jodi Giglio

After serving on the Riverhead Town Board for 11 years, it’s time for something new.

Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio (R-Riverhead) started her term this month, by replacing now-state Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) in his former Assembly district. When state Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) chose not to run again for the Senate in Albany, Palumbo took his seat after battling it out against Democrat Laura Ahearn.

The Long Island delegation is featuring seven new faces out of 16 Republican representatives — four new State Assembly members and three new senators — and Giglio, a woman with more than a decade-long political history on the East End, is thrilled to take on a new challenge. 

“It’s very exciting being in Albany,” she said. “I’m honored by the fact that the voters elected me to represent them, I am working hard every day, learning the system and trying to represent them to the best of my ability.”

Apart from being a former Riverhead board member, Giglio owns her own construction management company. Now she’s ready to tackle whatever 2021 will bring. 

“It’s very important in this political and economic climate that we all come together and do what’s best for not only the people of New York state, but for the country,” she said. “I always try to listen to what other people have to say whether I agree with them or disagree with them.

The new assemblywoman said that she will “never be condescending, even if I have a different viewpoint.” Her goal is to find solutions to the problems New York state is currently facing. 

Property taxes

Giglio said one of the bills she is currently working on is to waive penalties and interest for late payments of property taxes for homeowners impacted by the pandemic and those on a fixed income. 

“By adding penalties and interest every single month that they don’t pay is a strain on the people that are trying to pay their taxes,” she said. 

The assemblywoman wants to waive penalties in 60 days from Dec. 31. If a person cannot pay in those two months, there would be no penalties or interest from 60 days to the 90 days, making it a smaller percentage. 

Waste management

“We need to figure out our garbage situation with recyclables because we live on an island and clean water and clean air is very important to us,” Giglio said. 

With the Brookhaven Landfill expected to close in 2024, the assemblywoman wonders how will waste be removed from the Island.   

“What’s the plan? How are we going to get garbage off of Long Island?” she asked. “The costs of getting garbage off of Long Island is really going to have a tremendous tax impact on the residents.”

COVID-19 vaccines

Giglio is hoping to combat the vaccine distribution issues Long Islanders are facing. By rolling out a coherent vaccine plan, she said, then COVID recovery can begin. 

“You have to get people vaccinated where they feel comfortable going out and they feel secure,” she said. “That will recreate the businesses opening up, opening up the catering halls, opening up everything at full capacity.”

Giglio said she is unhappy that New York has been at “such a disadvantage compared to other states.”

“I think we should be getting the vaccinations sooner than later,” she said. “It should have been a collaborative effort, whereas the Legislature decided who was the most vulnerable and when the vaccines came in who would be the people to be vaccinated first. It’s based on us as elected officials hearing from our constituents as to who the most vulnerable are.”

METRO photo

Scammers are using a variety of methods tied to COVID-19 economic impact payments to target consumers

The New York State Division of Consumer Protection (DCP) is alerting consumers on Jan. 6 about scammers taking advantage of COVID-19 economic stimulus payments. With another round of economic stimulus payments approved by Congress, scammers will be sending phishing emails, texts and phone calls and using social media to try to steal economic impact payments and your personal information. Consumers are reminded that it’s important to stay vigilant and aware of unsolicited communications asking for your personal or private information.

“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, scammers have been hard at work trying to steal money from unsuspecting New Yorkers,” said Secretary of State Rossana Rosado. “With this latest round of stimulus funding on its way, I urge all New Yorkers to be extra diligent and follow simple steps to keep your money and personal identity safe.”

New York State Commissioner of Taxation and Finance Michael Schmidt said, “We all must remain especially vigilant against scam artists trying to steal this latest round of stimulus funding from New Yorkers. We’re sharing valuable information so you can learn how to spot red flags and where to find reliable information so you won’t be caught off guard by con artists.”

New York State Office of Information Technology Services Chief Information Officer Angelo “Tony” Riddick said, “New Yorkers are being challenged like never before by a global pandemic, and to make matters worse, we’ve seen unscrupulous individuals use technology in a desperate and dishonest attempt to scam them out of their own money. Fortunately, New Yorkers can protect themselves against these COVID-related scams if they are armed with the right information. Always be wary of unsolicited phone calls, texts, emails, links or attachments, even if the sender appears to be known. And, never send your personal information via email or text.”

What You Need to Know about Economic Impact Payments
On December 27, 2020, the federal government passed a pandemic relief package. An important component of individual relief, Economic Impact Payments, will be issued to New Yorkers from the IRS.

You don’t need to take any action to automatically receive your stimulus payment if you:

  • filed a 2018 or 2019 tax return and are eligible; or
  • received one of these benefits (unless claiming a qualifying child under age 17):
      • – Social Security retirement benefits and survivor benefits
      • – Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits and survivor benefits
      • – Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits
      • – Railroad Retirement and survivor benefits
      – Veterans Administration compensation (disability, death benefits etc.) or retirement benefits

While most people will receive their payment automatically, if you otherwise have not filed taxes recently, you may need to submit a simple Federal tax return to get your check. For more information on the Economic Impact Payments, New Yorkers should visit the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance at Economic Impact Payment information: what you need to know or the IRS at Economic Impact Payments.

Below are tips to help keep your economic impact payment and personal information safe from scammers:

  • Rely on trusted sites for information. Visit legitimate, government websites—for up-to-date, fact-based information about COVID-19. Visit the IRS website directly for the latest information on the economic impact payments. Remember, the government will never call to ask for your Social Security number, bank account, or credit card number.
  • Delete emails asking you for personal information to receive an economic stimulus check. Government agencies are not sending unsolicited emails seeking your private information in order to send you money.
  • Avoid clicking on links in unsolicited emails and be wary of email attachments. See Using Caution with Email Attachments and Avoiding Social Engineering and Phishing Scams for more information.
  • Don’t provide personal or banking information. Scammers may ask by phone, email, text or social media for verification of personal and/or banking information saying that the information is needed to receive or speed up your economic impact payment.
  • Do not agree to sign over your economic impact payment check. Scammers may ask you to sign over your stimulus payment check to them.
  • Be wary of bogus checks. Scammers may mail you a bogus check, perhaps in an odd amount, then tell the taxpayer to call a number or verify information online in order to cash it.
  • Do not cash unsolicited checks. Scammers use this tactic to get your bank account information, and you will incur fees when the check is found to be insufficient.
  • Be aware that scammers are also able to replicate a government agency’s name and phone number on caller ID. It’s important to remember that the IRS will never ask you for your personal information or threaten your benefits by phone call, email, text or social media.
  • Hang up on illegal robocallers. If you receive a call about economic impact payment scams, hang up. Don’t press any numbers. The recording might say that pressing a number will let you speak to a live operator or remove you from their call list, but it might lead to more robocalls, instead.
  • Notify the IRS if you are contacted by a potential scammer. If you receive an unsolicited email, text or social media attempt that appears to be from the IRS or an organization associated with the IRS, like the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System, notify the IRS at [email protected].
  • Verify a charity’s authenticity before making donations. Review the Federal Trade Commission’s page on Charity Scams for more information.
  • Review CISA Insights on Risk Management for COVID-19 for more information.

With assistance from ITS, the Department of Health continues to maintain up-to-date “Stay Cyber Safe” tips and active warnings at https://coronavirus.health.ny.gov/stay-cyber-safe.

The New York State Division of Consumer Protection serves to educate, assist and empower the State’s consumers. For more consumer protection information, call the DCP Helpline at 800-697-1220, Monday through Friday, 8:30am-4:30pm or visit the DCP website at www.dos.ny.gov/consumerprotection. The Division can also be reached via Twitter at @NYSConsumer or Facebook at www.facebook.com/nysconsumer.

-Information provided by the New York State Division of Consumer Protection

Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

The office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo issued a press release Tuesday, Dec. 29 announcing that unemployed New Yorkers will begin receiving extended and expanded federal unemployment benefits next week — the first week these benefits can be paid under federal law. New York is able to provide these benefits immediately due to proactive work by the State Department of Labor to prepare for the federal government finally enacting a bill to extend unemployment programs originally included in the CARES Act that were set to expire at the end of 2020.

The programs extended include Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which provides benefits for those not covered by traditional state unemployment insurance; Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, which provides additional weeks of benefits after an individual exhausts the 26 weeks of state unemployment insurance; and Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, which provides all New Yorkers receiving unemployment benefits an additional $300 weekly payment.

“This pandemic has created an unprecedented economic crisis, and New Yorkers have waited in uncertainty for far too long. I have repeatedly called on the federal government to do the right thing by renewing critical benefits to support millions of unemployed families through to the end of this pandemic – and now that Washington has finally acted, New York is immediately delivering those funds,” Governor Cuomo said. “In the spring, New York led the nation in implementing federal unemployment programs, and this winter we will once again act swiftly to get money in the hands of New Yorkers who need it most.”

The federal government has extended federal unemployment benefits for an additional eleven weeks through March 14, 2021. New Yorkers currently receiving benefits do not need to call the Department of Labor to receive these extended benefits — they should continue to certify for unemployment benefits in their usual manner and will automatically receive extended benefits. Those whose unemployment benefit year has ended should reapply online. Details of how New York will implement these extensions follows:

  • Pandemic Unemployment Assistance – New Yorkers can now receive up to 57 weeks of PUA benefits, with the program extended from the week ending January 3, 2021 through March 14, 2021. New Yorkers currently receiving PUA should continue to certify as usual and will continue to receive their benefits. According to the Federal government, additional eligibility documentation will be required beginning January 31, 2021. The Department of Labor will directly contact claimants who need to provide additional documentation.
  • Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation – New Yorkers can now receive up to 24 weeks of PEUC (up from the 13 weeks originally authorized in the spring) with the program extended through March 14, 2021. New Yorkers who have exhausted the 26 weeks of state unemployment insurance should continue to certify as normal and will automatically receive up to 24 weeks of PEUC. Individuals who previously exhausted the original 13 weeks of PEUC and transitioned to the Extended Benefits program will begin receiving extended PEUC benefits after they exhaust their EB benefits. The Department of Labor will automatically handle these program transfers.
  • Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation – New Yorkers’ FPUC benefits will resume the week ending January 3, 2021 and will last for eleven weeks. During that time, all New Yorkers who are receiving unemployment benefits — including traditional state UI, Shared Work Benefits, PEUC, EB, or PUA — will receive an additional $300 payment per week. Per federal guidelines, FPUC benefits will not be backdated, and can only be provided starting the week ending January 3, 2021.

New York State Department of Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon said, “The extension of these federal unemployment benefits is a lifeline for many New Yorkers, and we will continue to do everything we can to bring relief to those who remain unemployed due to this unprecedented pandemic. We have paid out more than $59 billion in benefits to over 3.9 million unemployed New Yorkers during this crisis — nearly 28 typical years’ worth of benefits paid in ten months — and we will continue to move heaven and earth to serve our neighbors.”

New Yorkers may be eligible for an additional $100 per week through the Mixed Earner Unemployment Compensation program. MEUC benefits are provided for individuals who earned at least $5,000 a year in self-employment income but are disqualified from receiving more substantial PUA benefits because they may be eligible for traditional state UI. New York has signed an agreement with the US DOL to offer MEUC benefits and is currently awaiting additional guidance from the Federal government on implementing the program. The Department of Labor will provide more details as they become available.

Additional updates, including answers to Frequently Asked Questions, will be posted to the NYS Department of Labor website at www.labor.ny.gov.

New Yorkers who are unemployed are also encouraged to take advantage of the State’s Career Services resource page, view more than 112,000 jobs postings from all regions in the state and across all industries on New York’s Jobs Express website at labor.ny.gov/jobs, increase their skills through the State’s online learning platform in partnership with Coursera, and utilize the State University of New York’s SUNY FOR ALL free Online Training Center.

— content provided by press office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo

For the first time, people could choose to complete the U.S. Census online, by phone, or by mail. Stock photo

By Iryna Shkurhan

The 2020 Census couldn’t have come at a more inconvenient time. 

I was one of the half million people employed by the U.S. Census Bureau this year enlisted in the follow-up operation for non-respondents. When I applied to be an enumerator in Suffolk county in January, I couldn’t imagine that I would be going door to door in the midst of a pandemic. 

Iryna Shkurhan

When Census Day came April 1, enumerators were set to start visiting the homes of millions of non-respondents, but in person operations were postponed indefinitely as many states entered lockdowns. Around the same, the bureau formed an outreach and ad campaign to encourage Americans to respond online for the first time, or by phone or mail.

When drafting the Constitution, the nation’s founders mandated a count of the populace to be held every decade, starting in the 1790s, with the main goal of getting a count of every single person living in the United States. Included was questions on age, sex, race, relationship in the household and home ownership form data that paints a picture of who makes up the country. 

This information is crucial to determine congressional representation and allocating hundreds of billions in federal funding, for education, hospitals, roads and healthcare. The data that will directly affect the resources that communities across the country will receive for the next decade. For a government to represent people and fairly fund its programs, it has to know how many people there are and where they live, making the census initiative crucial for democracy. 

Enumerators typically work in their communities because their familiarity with the area helps in locating homes and also establishes trust and mutual understanding with respondents. Still, the questions are personal, and not everyone wants to share that information with a stranger. 

I always let people know that they had the option to refuse a question, if they were not comfortable answering. The question that mattered most was how many people lived in a household, which was used for the population count. The other questions had their own importance, but less so. 

I was issued a badge, a preprogrammed iPhone 8 and a messenger bag filled with various information sheets and a clipboard. In past decades the clipboard would’ve gotten more use. 

But this is the first year that the Census Bureau was collecting data digitally, allowing people to respond online, and enumerators to use mobile apps to record data. Enumerators no longer had to just record information with a pen and paper on their clipboards.

With the unpredictability of the pandemic, no one knew when and if in-person operations would continue, but in August I received a phone call asking if I would be willing to work for 4-8 weeks depending on when the count would be completed. I began working in the Stony Brook area less than ten minutes from my home. The number of cases I was assigned ranged from 20 to 70, depending on how many hours of availability I entered. Some days when I would work eight hours, I was assigned up to 80 nonresponse follow up cases. 

While on duty I imagined how different it must have been to be an enumerator ten years ago, before technology made the role much simpler. Now all I had to do was click on an assigned case and the GPS would direct me there. If a resident was home and willing to respond, the questions and answer options would pop up in the correct order on my screen. I never had to write anything more than a case number on paper. The apps on the issued iPhone were used to report for work, view assignments, track hours and mileage, and navigate to households.

The biggest challenge I ran into was a reluctance to answer. In the 20 hours of virtual training, I was taught the appropriate response for almost every type of reason a person is hesitant to share information, whether it’s privacy concerns, or distrust of the government. But many people were set in their decision and refused to cooperate, with many disputing my attempts at easing their fears and persuading them to cooperate. 

Enumerators also had a list of addresses to stay away from, which were marked as dangerous. These cases were marked with a caution sign on the map and signified that the resident was hostile, or violent in some way to an enumerator. In some cases, people were physically threatened and yelled at, and we were discouraged from attempting these homes alone. 

I witnessed a polar difference between the people who were happy to answer any questions and viewed it as a civic duty and those who avoided us at all costs and slammed the door in my face. I understood that people’s attitudes to their personal data was shifting, but living in a polarized county where the census became politicized didn’t help. With disinformation about the census floating around, explaining the purpose of the census, and the importance of each question, became a main part of my job. 

Another challenge was the technical difficulties that came with digital collection being implemented for the first time. Issues were bound to come up during the transition, but there were times where mid interview, the phone would crash, and I would have to restart all over. Other times my cases wouldn’t load, or I was sent to homes that were already visited by a dozen enumerators, with residents not hiding their annoyance. 

The sense of urgency was made apparent by higher ups as they offered incentives to work overtime and on weekends, when people were more likely to be home. Several bonuses were offered for working more than forty hours a week, and working Sundays and nights came with a higher pay rate. Initially, we had to request permission for overtime, but within a week that was scrapped. We were encouraged to work as much as possible to ensure everyone was counted. 

Once Setauket and neighboring regions were fully completed, I was sent out farther east to Riverhead, then farther to Orient and Mattituck. After the entirety of Suffolk County was counted, enumerators were offered to drive to other states, as far as Alabama to help complete the counting efforts there. 

One overnight shift was set aside to count the homeless population, which the pandemic made harder to account for. The Census was also forced to come up with new ways to count college students, who many towns depend on to get the adequate funding. 

In the few weeks I worked as an enumerator, there were difficult days but also rewarding ones. A certain satisfaction came with finally getting to interview a household that kept reappearing on my case list. With each case I closed, we came closer to reaching the goal. Little acts of kindness like some people offering to put their masks on, or a chair to sit on and a drink on a hot day, went a long way. 

Iryna Shkurhan is a junior at Stony Brook University majoring in political science, with a minor in journalism. She is an incoming editorial intern for TBR News Media.

The state just announced they will be cancelling the Jan. Regents exams. File photo

State officials said the January 2021 Regents exams will be canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

Announced last week, state Interim Commissioner of Education Betty A. Rosa, along with her administration, said they were canceling the exams at the start of next year. The decision will apply to all Regents exams that had been scheduled for Jan. 26 through Jan. 29.

Over the summer, the New York State Education Department canceled the June and August exams due to the COVID-19 crisis. 

Roger Tilles, of Manhasset, who represents Long Island on the state’s Board of Regents, said the decision is only fair. 

“A lot of schools started at different times this year,” he said. “We started teaching all-remote, sometimes hybrid, Zoom classes, some in-person. How could you have one uniform test for all students?” 

According to Tilles, it is always difficult to have equity in a state uniform test. 

“Even without the pandemic, it’s inequitable because some schools have better resources and can attract certain types of teachers who have specialties that other schools don’t have,” he said. “So, the kids who are in high-needs districts are getting the same tests as students in the lowest-need schools in the state and compare those students to the other.”

Since there has been disparity in the way students have learned the last eight months, the board began thinking about how to handle the state testing early on in the year. It was officially announced on Nov. 5 that the tests would be canceled. 

“Throughout the pandemic, our priority has been the health and well-being of our students and educators,” Rosa said in a statement. “We determined the January Regents exams could not be safely, equitably and fairly administered across the state given where the pandemic currently stands. We will continue to monitor applicable data and make a decision on other state assessment programs as the school year progresses, being mindful of the evolving situation.”

And due to the cancellation, NYSED will propose modifications to the assessment requirements that students must meet in order to earn high school diplomas, credentials and endorsements at the upcoming December Board of Regents meeting. 

Dr. Jennifer Quinn, superintendent of the Comsewogue School District, said she also believes this was the right decision. 

“There are inequalities in different school districts and it wasnt creating a level playing field,” she said. 

One problem Quinn said she sees in the future is because of the January cancellation, students who planned on taking the English exam will be unable to. 

“A lot of our students take the English Regents in January,” she said. “If they end up giving it in June because they canceled in January, it’ll put the students at a disadvantage and will have to take it on top of their other exams.”

A representative from Three Village Central School District said the only Regents typically taken in January is the English exam, but now the students will have to take the exam in June.

“In the past, we have had a few students re-take a Regents examination in January to improve their score, but the number of students re-taking a Regents in January has been small,” the district said in a statement. “The impact is anticipated to be minimal.”

According to the statement sent out by NYSED, the modifications apply to all students who are completing a secondary-level course of study or makeup program in January and are scheduled to participate in one or more of the January 2021 Regents exams. 

“To ensure students are not adversely impacted by the cancellation of the exams, the department will ask the Board of Regents to adopt emergency regulations pertaining to the assessment requirements that students must meet in order to earn diplomas, credentials and endorsements,” the statement said. “Under the proposed emergency regulations, students who are planning to take one or more Regents examinations during the January 2021 examination period at the conclusion of a course of study or makeup program shall be exempt from the requirements pertaining to passing such Regents examination to be issued a diploma.”

Other local districts said that due to the population size within their districts, the cancellation of the exam would not impact them. Port Jefferson, Miller Place and Rocky Point school representatives all said the decision does not affect their districts.

“There is little impact on our students in Port Jefferson, as we have very few students who take Regents exams in January during a non-COVID year,” Christine Austen, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction at Port Jefferson School District, said. “Any student who was enrolled in a Regents-level course last year was exempted from taking the assessment and received Regents credit towards graduation as long as they passed the course for the year. Due to the low number of students who usually take the January Regents exams, it isn’t a concern at this time.”

No decisions have been made yet by the Board of Regents regarding the June and August 2021 exams or any other state assessment programs. 

This article has been amended to better clarify the Three Village School District’s statement on the Regents cancellation. 

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. Photo by Julianne Mosher

After weeks of warnings and missives about an upcoming budget shortfall, Suffolk officials finally published this upcoming year’s budget, one that has to take into consideration an apparent $437 million deficit over the next two years. Cuts won’t be instituted until the middle of 2021.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) revealed a 2021 recommended operating budget of $3.197 billion, representing $33 million less than the current year’s budget. It is a reaction to a total revenue shortfall of $325 million in 2020.

In a proposed budget released Oct. 9, the county would be letting go 500 full-time employees. The county exec said it would also mean a reduction in health care and mental health services, the loss of two full classes of trainees at the police academy and the elimination of 19 bus routes. 

Most cuts will be implemented July 1, 2021. County officials said this gives time in case some federal aid is received in the future.

“We have submitted a COVID-19 budget with cuts that would have been unimaginable just a short time ago,” Bellone said on a call with reporters Oct. 13. “These cuts should not happen, these are cuts that are devastating in many ways and would in effect undermine our recovery.”

The budget accounts for a sales tax loss from 2019 to 2020 of an estimated $131.7 million. The anticipated sales tax for 2021 is still $102.5 million less than 2019’s figures.

Among other losses across the board, the one increase seems to be property taxes from a real estate boom on Long Island. Suffolk County received $4 million more than last year, and anticipates $18.6 million more in 2021 than this current year.

In expenditures, contractual expenses and employee benefits are also set to marginally increase.

The county expects a negative fund balance for 2021 of about $176.98 million. Overall, Bellone said Suffolk could be looking at a cumulative $460 million deficit within the next year.

This year’s budget was originally set to roll in back in September, but it has since been delayed until the start of this month. The projected budget also may be another general cry for help to the federal government. Suffolk officials also decry the withholding of state aid to the tune of $1.9 billion to local municipalities.

Cutting employees would save about $25 million next year. The bus route cuts, along with reductions to the Suffolk County Accessible Transportation bus service affecting a total of 2,500 riders of both systems, will save $18 million. The police class cuts will save approximately $20 million, while a 50% cut across the board for contract agencies, which include substance abuse clinics, mental health providers, domestic violence shelters and gang prevention programs, would save another $8 million in 2021 and annualized savings of $16 million.

The budget also shows an overall 1.9% increase in taxes for the police district, though that remains under the New York State tax cap.

Bellone has constantly reiterated Suffolk’s need for federal funds over the past few months, holding press conference after press conference to reiterate loss of services because of COVID-19-induced budget shortfalls. Republicans in the Legislature, however, have consistently attacked the executive for what they have called fiscal mismanagement over the past few years, citing Suffolk’s bond downgrades and a report from Tom DiNapoli (D), the New York State comptroller, saying Suffolk was the most fiscally stressed county in the state in 2019.

Bellone, on the other hand, claimed he inherited in 2012 a $500 million deficit but that the County finished 2019 with a surplus. He added the county would have been on track for $50 million surplus in 2020 that would have wiped out the accumulated deficit prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Suffolk did receive $257 million in CARES Act funding in April, as well as an additional $26.6 million for public transportation. Officials have said most or all that funding has been spent or earmarked, and it does not help cover overall losses.

File photo by Julianne Mosher

Schools are staring down the barrel of funding cuts because of the COVID-19 crisis.

While students have been returning to their new normal of hybrid classes, remote learning and plastic barriers between desks, school districts across New York state are concerned about the news surrounding a potential 20% state funding cut.

Elwood Super Ken Bossert, pictured above before the pandemic, said every single school will need to make painful cuts if things don’t go their way. Photo from Heather Mammolito

According to New York State Education Department, the State Division of the Budget has begun withholding 20% of most local aid payments, forcing reductions in some payments to school districts across the state. The reductions in aid, combined with increased costs during pandemic times, could affect not only students, but community members too.  

“All public schools throughout New York state will have to make deep and painful cuts if federal assistance in the form of school aid is not secured,” said Ken Bossert, superintendent of Elwood school district. “The governor’s proposal of reducing aid by 20% will impact districts that rely heavily on aid in a devastating way. Not only will programs and staffing be redacted, the gap between the ‘haves and the have-nots’ will widen.”

Mark Secaur, superintendent of Smithtown school district, noted that during the height of the pandemic in New York last spring, the state adopted a budget that contained three review periods, in which local aid distributions might be reduced on a rolling basis, based on the revenues the state received. 

“On August 18, districts throughout New York state received a state aid payment for the 2019-2020 school year that withheld 20% of the expected payment,” he said. “Also included was a note that all future payments would be reduced by 20% in the absence of federal relief.”

Secaur added that for Smithtown, this equates to a potential loss of upward of $9 million in state aid. 

“When developing our 2020-2021 school budget, the district took into consideration the potential loss of state aid and made adjustments,” he said. “However, these losses, coupled with the unfunded expenditures required for the safe return of students, will likely force the district to significantly utilize the fund balance and reserves to balance the budget.”

In addition, the budget doesn’t cover the costs that are protecting children returning to their classrooms. 

“Cleaning supplies, dividers for rooms … the cost is close to $4 million,” said Roberta Gerold, superintendent of Middle Country school district.

That sum didn’t include the cost to keeping the schools operational — even when students weren’t in them when the pandemic hit. 

“There was still a cost to keep the schools running,” Gerold added. “It was a rough couple of months.”

Gerard Poole, superintendent of Shoreham-Wading River school district, agreed.

“In a time when students need more, we won’t be able to provide that,” he said. 

While Poole and his peers are trying to stay optimistic, and are pleased to have students back, he wonders if it will be sustainable. “It’s an uncertain time — it won’t be the easiest thing for districts to put a budget together this year,” he said. “We just have to take it day by day.”

“We’re trying to plan for a budget without knowing what’s going to happen.”

— Roberta Gerold

While each district is different on the Island, they can all agree that continuing to plan during an uncertain time is very difficult. 

“We’re trying to plan for a budget without knowing what’s going to happen,” Gerold said. “If we have the info, we can figure that out. … It’s a scary time for sure.”

Miller Place school district declined to comment but did release a letter Sept. 3 penned to elected officials, asking for their support.

“As our elected officials we implore you act quickly to stop any and all federal and state reductions regarding payments to New York state school districts,” the letter said. “As district leaders we remain focused on the mission of returning students to our classrooms, and providing them with the social, emotional and academic supports they need in order to achieve their 2020-21 instructional goals.”

The letter continued, “Please recognize any reductions in federal or state aid payments would dramatically reduce our ability to sustain our district’s fiscal health, as well as maintain the support needed to ensure our students and staff physical health.”

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PJ Lobster House is just one of several local businesses whose owners say inspectors have repeatedly shown up to the restaurant around dinner time in a small, two-week period. Photo by Kyle Barr

Local restaurant owners have reached out to regional officials saying the New York State Liquor Authority inspections meant to determine if they’re complying with state mandates have become more than excessive, but actually damaging to their businesses.

‘I think they were making some restaurants sort of the poster children for: if you don’t comply, you face some significant penalties.’

—Kevin Law

A letter dated Aug. 24 saying just that was signed by Port Jefferson Village, Port Jeff chamber of commerce and BID leaders and sent to Kevin Law, president of the Long Island Association. It was also copied to County Executive Steve Bellone (D) and Cara Longworth, regional director of Empire State Development. Letter writers argued that the SLA inspections have put too much onus on restaurants when they’re barely struggling to get by.

“Please realize we totally agree that inspections need to take place and strive to have our

business owners here operate in full compliance,” the letter reads. “However, we are concerned that overemphasis is being put on our restaurants — rather than the bars that remain open after the kitchens are closed and continue to serve alcohol until 4 a.m.”

The letter further states that restaurant owners have seen groups of four come in at a time, usually around dinnertime, sometimes not showing ID, with one armed with a pistol and wearing a bulletproof vest.

James Luciano, the owner of PJ Lobster House, said he has personally seen SLA inspections come through five times within a 14-day period at about 7 p.m. each time. The agents, though courteous, informed him that they were not from the SLA but from a New York State Police task force. A group of men, one armed, strolling into an eating area when people are sitting down for dinner does not make a good impression on diners, he argued.

“I am not certain that is the perception that we want the general public to see,” Luciano said. “I stressed to them that this was borderline harassment.”

PJ Lobster House is not the only local bar or restaurant that’s experienced a heavy hand with inspections. One Junior’s Spycoast employee related seeing a massive number of inspections in just two weeks. Danfords Hotel & Marina has been previously cited for SLA violations July 4 as well, according to state documents.

Though he said he has not heard from the inspectors since just before the letter was sent, he and other business owners have experienced the stress of constant inspections.

New York State has, according to the latest numbers as of Aug. 28, suspended the liquor licenses for 168 businesses for not complying with COVID regulations, though the vast majority were businesses centered in the five New York City boroughs. Later, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced Sept. 7 that seven bars and restaurants in New York state had their licenses revoked. Five of those were from Suffolk County.

The number of inspections, however, has yet to slow down. The governor’s office announced SLA and New York State Police task force members visited 1,064 establishments just on Sept. 6. Per the governor’s near-daily reports, inspectors conduct at least several hundred inspections daily.

In order to carry out reopening and COVID guidelines enforcement, New York has been broken up into regional economic development councils. The local task force, or “control room” contains members of the LIA, Bellone, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran (D), among others. It is captained by Longworth.

It’s a balancing act, trying to keep businesses healthy while avoiding a resurgence of the virus that would surely shut these businesses down for good. LIA’s Law said he received Port Jeff Village’s letter and has brought it up to members of the control room, whom he said were entirely sympathetic to the issues restaurants were having. Law, who has been at the forefront of Long Island’s reopening plan from the start, said hearing that armed and armored individuals have helped conduct inspections concerned everyone sitting at their daily video control center meetings.

“It’s impossible for them to inspect every restaurant and bar, because there’s just so many of them, so I think they were making some restaurants sort of the poster children for: if you don’t comply, you face some significant penalties,” Law said. “I think it was important that word did get out there so some businesses would comply. We all know with every type of category with every business, you have good guys and you have a couple knuckleheads who don’t obey by the rules and they ruin it for others.”

He said he and others did appreciate the village officials’ idea of focusing more on inspections of bars open in the early morning hours instead of weekday dinner time.

Though at the same time, Law said he and the local control room are only really in advisory positions, and it would require change on the state level to truly impact the rate of current inspections.

Either way, restaurants still remain in a tough spot, and Luciano said he and so many others continue to struggle.

“Our landlords and vendors don’t take IOUs,” the PJ Lobster House owner said. “We’ve done everything that has been asked. The numbers are way lower than they were. It’s been over six months. We can’t hang on that much longer, we are on a sinking ship.”

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PJ officials said soon all streetlights in the village will be replaced with energy effecient versions. Photo by Kyle Barr

The faces of Port Jeff officials are practically glowing with the news.

The New York Power Authority announced they are finally getting underway with it’s partnership with the Village of Port Jefferson to install energy efficient LED streetlights throughout the village. 

The nearly $2.4 million upgrade, implemented and financed by the power authority, includes the replacement of more than 1,100 decorative and cobra head style streetlights throughout the village with energy-saving LED fixtures. NYPA is providing upfront financing for the project, with payments to the power made in the years following from the cost-savings created by the reduced energy use.

“This project is a win-win for the environment and the village, with the expected reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as well as the significant savings the village will realize in terms of energy costs and maintenance once the energy-efficient LED lights are installed,” Mayor Margot Garant said in a release.

As part of the project, NYPA will also be replacing more than 700 additional interior and exterior lighting fixtures at village buildings and parks. NYPA is providing Port Jefferson with $225,000 in SMART city funding grants to support the project.

The project is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 500 metric tons a year, or the equivalent of taking more than 100 cars off the road. 

In a release, the power authority said installation will begin this month and comply with all COVID-19 precautions.

“The replacement of more than 1,100 streetlights in Port Jefferson is a demonstration of the state’s steadfast commitment to fighting climate change and saving taxpayer money through innovative energy programs,” said NYPA president and CEO Gil Quiniones.

The new initiative is part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) Smart Street Lighting NY program, which calls for at least 500,000 streetlights throughout the state to be replaced with LED technology by 2025. NYPA has, or is in the process of installing more than 90,000 LED streetlights at municipalities across the state.