05/03/13 8:00am
FILE PHOTOS | A Times/Review analysis has found spending in most North Fork districts has increased at a higher percentage than before the 2 percent tax cap was implemented.

FILE PHOTOS | A Times/Review analysis has found spending in most North Fork districts has increased at a higher percentage than before the 2 percent tax cap was implemented.

When state lawmakers approved a 2 percent cap on annual tax levy increases in 2011, they said the legislation was designed to control school district spending and ease the burden on taxpayers.

Since then, a Times/Review Newsgroup analysis has found, spending in most North Fork districts has increased at a higher rate than during the two years before the law was passed — and the majority of school budgets have proposed tax levy hikes greater than 2 percent.

School administrators and elected leaders blame the increases on mandated pension expenses tied to the downturn in the economy, fluctuations in state aid and facility upgrades.

While state law caps the increased in the tax levy — the total amount school districts can collect from taxpayers — at 2 percent, school districts are allowed to exceed that maximum mandate because the law exempts some expenses, such as pension and capital costs. By factoring in those exemptions, school districts are allowed to raise the tax levy by more than 2 percent without needing to obtain 60 percent voter approval.

Ten of the 14 budgets proposed in local school districts in the past two years raised the tax levy by more than 2 percent. In the two years prior to that, nine spending plans led to tax hikes above 2 percent. Five years ago, only three of seven budgets featured tax hikes in excess of 2 percent.

Former assemblyman Dan Losquadro (R-Shoreham), whose district covered the North Fork and who worked on the tax cap legislation and pension reform during his two years in office, said he believes the mandate has been successful at controlling spending.

“In the absence of that law, even with the caveats and the carve-outs and the exemptions that do exist within it, I think that the rates would be much higher,” Mr. Losquadro said. “This is the case when something is far better than nothing. It still is keeping every level of government in check, even though it may not necessarily be directly at that 2 percent number.”

This year’s average proposed tax levy increase in school districts across New York State is 4.6 percent, up from about 3 percent a year ago, according to the Empire Center for New York State Policy. No North Fork school district has proposed a tax levy hike above the state average this year.

The average tax levy increase in Suffolk County this year is 3.5 percent, according to the nonprofit’s report, seventh lowest among the 57 counties in the New York State public schools system. Four North Fork districts — Greenport, New Suffolk, Riverhead and Southold — have proposed tax levy hikes above the county average.

Asked if he believed it is misleading to call the law a 2 percent cap, state Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) said school officials sought even more exceptions to the law and the current cap is a “good compromise” to what was debated.

In Southold, Superintendent David Gamberg proposed a $28 million budget for 2013-14 that carries a 3.82 percent spending increase over this year’s plan. The district’s proposed tax levy increase is 4.01 percent, the maximum allowable under the law. He said Southold was able to avoid layoffs and present a budget without piercing the percent allowable increase because it received additional state aid near the final hour of the budget process. The district has been mindful of balancing a budget that taxpayers can afford while preserving student programs, he said.

“I think our average tax levy rate increase over the past six years has been below 2.5 percent and that includes the 4.01 percent for next year,” Mr. Gamberg said. “What that tells us, I believe, when you average it over time, we have been very responsible.”

Mr. Gamberg and other local superintendents have described attempting to pierce the cap as a gamble since most budgets fail to pass with a supermajority.

In order to come in under the allowable cap, many school districts are using more reserves than in prior years to offset the tax levy. School officials have described the cap as having a domino effect, diminishing reserves because less money is available to carry over to their fund balances at year’s end.

Mr. LaValle, who also supported the cap, said he’s noticed some schools in his district have increased spending while staying under the allowable tax cap because they are applying more reserves instead of curtailing expenditures. He’s concerned about districts relying on the one-shot solutions and believes more needs to be done to reduce spending, such as creating shared service agreements between neighboring districts, he said.

“The 2 percent cap now proves that all along they were squirreling money away and putting it in these various reserve accounts,” Mr. LaValle said. “When the music stops, they aren’t going to have chairs anymore … I don’t know what they’re hoping for. Maybe they think the tooth fairy will come into the district and give them money in year four and year five of the 2 percent cap. I just don’t know, but you cannot keep spending at the level that you’re spending — depleting your reserve funds — and when your reserves are gone, then you’re in deep trouble.”

Spending has increased a combined $19.21 million in the seven North Fork school districts since the tax levy cap was passed in 2011. In the two years before the law took effect, spending had increased $10.22 million in those same seven districts.

Senator Ken LaValle

With a budget of just $5.53 million, the Oysterponds district, serving pre-K through sixth-grade students from Orient and East Marion, is the only North Fork district that has not exceeded the 2 percent tax levy cap in either of the last two years. The district has actually reduced spending by $250,000 in that time.

Mattituck-Cutchogue is the only local district to increase spending over the last two years at a lower rate than during the preceding two years.

The remaining five local districts have increased spending at higher rates since 2011.

Shoreham-Wading River Superintendent Steven Cohen, whose $66.1 million proposed budget for 2013-14 carries a 5.5 percent spending increase over this year’s plan, said services will be preserved through a $1.65 million reduction in costs that don’t affect students’ education, thanks in part to budget adjustments that involved planning for federal grant money.

As for next year’s expenditures, Mr. Cohen said a large chunk of the spending is the result of hikes in state-regulated pension contribution rates.

The district’s contribution to the teacher retirement system jumped 38 percent from last year, he said, while employee retirement contributions rose about 13 percent from 2012-13.

Mr. Cohen said he believes pension costs should be removed from property taxes because school districts and local municipalities don’t have a seat at the table in developing the state’s pension system.

“It’s true that all municipalities and all schools in New York State have to contribute to something they’re told they have to contribute to, so why put that on the property owners?” he said. “We could negotiate contracts. We could negotiate medical expenses. But nobody can touch pensions.”

Former assemblyman Dan Losquadro.

Mr. Losquadro said he disagrees because he believes school districts and local municipalities indirectly play a part in developing the amounts.

“I think the pension costs as a driver of their overall operation expenses become part of their incentive to negotiate more sustainable contracts,” he said. “You may not control the formula, but you control the numeral that gets plugged into that formula.”

Mr. Losquadro said pension reform passed last year, known as Tier VI, will provide a long-term solution because it puts in place a “sliding scale of people paying in at a higher rate for higher salaries and they pay in for the life of their employment.” He described the legislation as a milestone and said it also places “strict limitations on the pension calculation for overtime, sick and vacation time payouts.”

Under the state constitution, the pension formula that’s in force on the day an employee joins the public retirement system cannot be reduced for the rest of that worker’s public career, according to online records. Since the public pensions are guaranteed, if pension fund investments under-perform in stock markets, it falls on the given taxing entity to make up the difference.

For example, Mattituck-Cutchogue Superintendent James McKenna said his district’s employee pension payment is increasing to 16.25 percent of payroll for 2013-14 , up from this fiscal year’s 11.5 percent of payroll — a one-year jump of $850,000.

Contribution rates are calculated using a five-year average of stock performances, school officials said. The current bracket began in 2008, officials explained, so in the coming years, more recent stock market gains should result in lower contribution costs.

As districts struggled to prepare their spending plans this year, most were able to avoid layoffs, maintain current student programs or offset their tax levies with the addition of unanticipated state aid secured in February.

Although Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed budget released in January cut state aid to each school district in Southold Town, the state Legislature was successful in restoring those funds and even secured additional aid for Riverhead and Shoreham-Wading River.

During the early stages of the budget planning process, the Riverhead school board was able to reach a retirement incentive agreement with its teachers union in order to save enough money to permit a budget under the district’s allowable tax levy rate of 5.14 percent. The school board then agreed to apply $1.16 million of the extra $1.7 million in state aid to cut the proposed tax levy increase down to 3.82 percent.

A significant portion of spending increases in Riverhead and Greenport — where the proposed budget hike is more than $1 million, raising the tax levy by 3.93 percent — has been attributed to recently approved capital improvement projects. Both districts have committed to proposing budgets carrying tax levy increases under the state’s allowable limit, officials have said.

Riverhead school board president Ann Cotten-DeGrasse said she’s hopeful that pension contributions will be reduced in coming years and more state aid will be restored now that the economy is experiencing an uptick.

“We were so appreciative that the community supported the bond to take care of all the things that were in such ill repair that we did not want to appear greedy and say ‘Well, we need more,’ ” she said. “That’s why, when we found out we got additional state aid, we applied the lion’s share to bringing down the tax levy.”

Mr. McKenna of Mattituck-Cutchogue agreed the state aid restoration avoided a “crippling” situation for next year and believes the state needs to maintain its share of funding for schools in order for districts to remain solvent.

Once the Legislature restored state aid, Mr. McKenna said the district was able to close its deficit and propose a 3.28 percent tax levy increase, which is under the district’s 3.65 percent allowable rate. Due to declining enrollment, the district also plans to provide scaled-down versions of some programs and won’t replace five retirees in order to maintain current student services.

As for reducing expenditures, Mr. McKenna, whose proposed $38.85 million budget carries a 2.24 percent spending increase, said he believes the district has been successful at controlling spending even though mandated expenses have gone up.

“After we had our bond [in 2004], I think we’ve worked very, very hard to control our spending,” he said. “I feel we were on a self-imposed tax cap for a while. I think all of us are very conscious of that balancing act of meeting the needs of kids, providing a well-balanced program and trying to make it affordable to taxpayers.”

jennifer@timesreview.com

04/22/13 8:00am
04/22/2013 8:00 AM

PAUL SQUIRE FILE PHOTO | Local political leaders say its unlikely Governor Andrew Cuomo will set the special election for the North Fork Assembly seat for a date sooner than Election Day in November.

There have already been two special elections this year involving the North Fork, but apparently a third isn’t on the horizon.

Political leaders on both sides of the aisle believe Gov. Andrew Cuomo will not call for a pre-November vote to fill the Assembly seat that opened up when Republican Assemblyman Dan Losquadro won the Brookhaven highway superintendent’s office in a March special election.

In January, former Southold councilman Al Krupski beat Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter to win the county Legislature post previously held by Ed Romaine, who was elected Brookhaven supervisor in November.

The most likely date for a special Assembly election seemed to be May 21, when local school board and budget elections take place statewide, but with those votes little more than a month away, that’s no longer possible.

“No one knows what the governor is thinking,” said state Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson). “It’s really a shame. I can’t tell you how many people are calling here. As the clock ticks, what is he going to do? People are going without representation.”

Scott Martella, Mr. Cuomo’s representative in Suffolk, directed a reporter’s inquiry to the governor’s press office, which did not return a call for comment this week.

Although he favors a special election, Mr. LaValle did not support holding it at the same time as the school votes.

“That’s not really viable and I can’t remember it ever happening,” said Mr. LaValle, a senator since 1977. “You’d be mixing educational and non-educational issues.”

County Democratic leader Rich Schaffer said there’s no compelling reason to hold an election before November.

“Even if there were a special election, the person elected would not participate in this year’s legislative session, which ends June 19,” he said.

Southold GOP leader Peter McGreevy disagreed.

“Obviously, securing representation for the citizens of the 2nd Assembly District is simply not a priority for the governor,” he said. “As a result, our district and our voters go unrepresented in Albany.

The 2nd Assembly District covers all of Southold, Riverhead and a broad swath of northeastern Brookhaven.

With a special election apparently off the table, both parties continue the search for candidates to run in the fall.

The Democrats have interviewed a number of potential candidates. They include Jim Waters of Waters Crest Winery in Cutchogue; Riverhead attorney John McManmon; Jennifer Maertz of Rocky Point, a former state Senate candidate; Aquebogue businessman Ron Hariri; and Thomas Schiliro of Manorville, a county parks police sergeant.

Southold Democratic leader Art Tillman favors Mr. Waters, and while Brookhaven party chairman Anthony Parlatore described him as “a very strong candidate,” he said no one has a lock on the nomination and the party is still screening potential candidates.

The Democratic county convention will take place May 18.

The GOP is also still talking to Assembly hopefuls, said Riverhead leader John Galla. The party previously screened Raymond Negron, a Mount Sinai attorney and Purple Heart recipient; John Kreutz, deputy receiver of taxes in Brookhaven Town; Mattituck attorney Stephen Kiely; Southold Town Trustee Bob Ghosio; attorney Anthony Palumbo of New Suffolk; Bill Faulk of Manorville, a former Ed Romaine aide; and Southold Town Board member Chris Talbot.

tkelly@timesreview.com

04/01/13 8:35am
04/01/2013 8:35 AM
COURTESY PHOTO | Assemblyman Dan Losquadro in November 2011.

COURTESY PHOTO | Assemblyman Dan Losquadro in November 2011.

To the editor:

The absence of a state assemblyman representing our district is a very poor reflection on the state of New York government.

Former assemblyman Dan Losquadro, who was elected in good faith to represent us in Albany, abdicated his post after only 2 1/2 years to run for a totally unrelated position, that of Brookhaven Town highway superintendent, leaving a vacancy that may be filled by a special election.

I find it disturbing that Mr. Losquadro did not even serve out his term, a reflection of either lack of interest in his constituents, or personal ambitions fulfilled by becoming highway chief for an adjoining town that is, for the most part, out of the Assembly district in which he served. At the very least, one has to be cynical about his motives.

Now Phil Cardinale, a former Democratic supervisor in Riverhead, says he has to assess whether or not he has “enough interest” to run for the position vacated by Mr. Losquadro, balancing his desire to maintain an enjoyable retirement with the responsibility of being a public servant.

While his candor is commendable, this isn’t a position approached with wishy-washy indecision.

The North Fork needs an assemblyman with the passion and commitment of Fred Thiele of Sag Harbor or Senator John Flanagan of Smithtown, a person who will represent his constituency with all the energy he or she can muster.

In particular, someone has to step to the plate and be a voice for our senior citizens, business people, property owners and taxpayers who are underrepresented in state government. After all, those already in the public sector have strong unions and the government behind them. But the rest of us out here have no voice or authority, especially with the abdication of our assemblyman.

Harry Katz, Southold

03/05/13 10:41pm
03/05/2013 10:41 PM

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON FILE PHOTO | Assemblyman Dan Losquadro at his former office in Calverton in 2011.

Get ready for another election.

If preliminary results from the Suffolk County Board of Elections hold up, North Fork State Assemblyman Dan Losquadro will be the next Brookhaven Town Highway Superintendent. The likely victory means a special election will be held in late spring to serve out the remaining 18 months of his current term in Albany.

BOE results show Mr. Losquadro (R-Shoreham) defeating Kathleen Walsh (D-Centereach) by nearly 800 votes, with more than 51 percent of the nearly 23,500 votes. Just one election district had not reported as of 10:40 p.m.

The post opened up in November after previous Highway Superintendent John Rouse won a county judge’s seat. Mr. Rouse, a Democrat, had held the job since 2004.

Ms. Walsh is a Brookhaven Town Councilwoman, first elected in 2005, who also served as deputy supervisor under Democrat Mark Lesko. Endorsed by Democrats in her two most recent elections, she is a registered Republican. She is the wife of  Brookhaven blue collar union president Bill Walsh.

Mr. Losquadro, 40, had won re-election to his Assembly post in November after first being elected to the job in 2010, when he defeated incumbent Marc Alessi. A County Legislature from 2004 to 2010, Mr. Losquadro has never lost an election.

Tuesday’s special election was already the second of the year on the North Fork. Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) won a special election for County Legislature over Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter in January.

A race for the 1st District Assembly seat — which spans west from Southold Town, through Riverhead and into part of Northeastern Brookhaven Town — could muddy the picture for the November local elections in which town and county seats are up across the North Fork.

Mr. Losquadro is a native of Wading River and a 1990 graduate of Shoreham-Wading River High School. He lives in Shoreham with his wife, Lynn, a teacher in the SWR district, and their son, Joseph.

01/18/13 5:00pm
01/18/2013 5:00 PM

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON FILE PHOTO | Assemblyman Dan Losquadro in 2011.

Members of a pro-gun Long Island web forum have been bombarding state Assemblyman Dan Losquadro’s Facebook page with comments critical of his vote in favor of stricter gun control measures in New York State.

They’re also complaining that their comments are getting deleted.

And at least one member has started a Facebook page called ”Dan Losquadro is Dishonest,” calling on people to protest the second-term assemblyman’s campaign events as he runs for Brookhaven Town highway superintendent.

“Dan has told everyone he is an avid shooter, supporter of the Second Amendment, and is against the rifle ban that was recently passed in New York and then only hours later he voted for it,” the “Dan Losquadro is Dishonest” page states.

The 6,000-member Long Island Firearms website reports comments members posted on the Brookhaven Town Republican Committee Facebook page have also been removed.

“What would we expect?” one poster wrote. “They don’t support the 2nd Amendement, why would they support the 1st?”

“Nothing worse than a politician who isn’t man enough to face the music for a vote he cast,” another stated.

Mr. Losquadro, a Republican from Shoreham and self-described pro-Second Amendment advocate, says he voted for the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement (SAFE) Act because there were sections the Republicans were able to negotiate into it which he feels will have more of an effect on gun crime that gun restrictions.

These include requirements that mental health care providers report threats made by patients, increased penalties for gun offenses, a section making gun ownership records no longer public, and measures streamlining the steps needed to get mental health care for people who need it.

He says he’s been taking phone calls about his vote and is happy to explain his position to anyone who calls.

As for the Facebook comments, he said “it’s a political page and I actually don’t manage that page.”

“I think, ultimately, there were comments that were inappropriate, there were comments that had nothing to do with the post they were attached to, and I think, ultimately, it was decided that instead of getting into a back and forth with individuals, the page was taken down for a period of time,” he said.

He said the people he’s spoken to about his vote have come to understand the process that went into it.

“The way this process was forced on the legislature by the governor, there were a lot of things negotiated into the bill by the Republicans that the Democrats did not want to give up,” he said. “Voting against those things we tried so hard to get in this bill that would have had a real effect on public safety, wasn’t something I wanted to do.”

“I have tried to call everybody back and speak about it,” Mr. Losquadro said.

Mr. Losquadro says there are things in the bill he disagrees with, such as the seven-round limit on magazine size,  but he believes the good parts of the bill were more important.

He’s also heard from a lot of people concerned about gun violence in the wake of the recents shootings at a Connecticut elementary school, he said, adding that he’s spoke at a lot of local school forums on the subject.

“There are a lot of people who are very nervous about [gun violence],” he said.

In a press release on his vote on the SAFE bill, issued earlier this week, Mr. Losquadro said:

“This is not a perfect world and at the end of the day I voted for the act because I do believe it will make a positive difference in making our communities and schools safer. As the husband of a teacher and the father of a 3 year old son, that is my top priority.”

And what about state Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), who also voted for the SAFE act?

He seems to have gotten off easier than Mr. Losquadro. There’s just a few mentions of him on the Long Island Firearms site, and some comments about the SAFE act posted on his Facebook page.

The senator, however, also had previously set up a strict policy for posting to his Facebook page, which says the page’s managers have the right to remove comments that are, among other things, derogatory, inappropriate, personal attacks, or not related to the original post or discussion.

tgannon@timesreview.com

12/27/12 4:09pm
12/27/2012 4:09 PM

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON FILE PHOTO | Assemblyman Dan Losquadro at his former office in Calverton in 2011.

Well, that was fast.

Less than two months after he won re-election to the state Assembly, Dan Losquadro is hitting the highway. It was announced Thursday, one week before Mr. Losquadro (R-Shoreham) is scheduled to be sworn in for a second term in Albany, that he has received the recommendation of town GOP chairman Jesse Garcia for the Republican nomination for Brookhaven Town Highway Superintendent.

“I am extremely honored to be selected as the nominee for Highway Superintendent in the Town of Brookhaven,” Mr. Losquadro said in a prepared statement. “It has been my privilege to represent residents of this town for the past nine years and know my experience will allow me to provide a better product at a lower cost to the taxpayers.”

The post opened up in November after previous Highway Superintendent John Rouse won a county judge’s seat. Mr. Rouse, a Democrat, had held the post since 2004.

Brookhaven Town Republican Chairman Jesse Garcia said in his announcement that he believes Mr. Losquadro, a former insurance salesman and County Legislator, is the right man for the job.

“He has demonstrated the experience and leadership both in the private sector and as a successful elected official to lead the Brookhaven Highway Department well into the future,” he said. “Dan’s vast experience in fleet management, managing budgets and protecting families against insurance fraud is exactly what’s needed to reform, restructure and improve the Brookhaven Highway Department.”

Mr. Losquadro knocked off incumbent Marc Alessi in 2010 to earn his seat in the Assembly. He had served in the Legislature since 2004.

No date has been set for the special election. Democrats have not yet announced their nominee.

The special election will be held after the Jan. 15 vote to elect a new county legislator in Suffolk’s first district, which is located within Mr. Losquadro’s Assembly district. Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter and Southold Councilman Al Krupski are facing each other in that race.

gparpan@timesreview.com

12/03/12 7:00am
12/03/2012 7:00 AM

COURTESY PHOTO | Dan Losquadro in January 2011, during his first session in the Assembly.

Last week, we learned that January 15 will be the date of the special election to fill the vacant 1st District seat for Suffolk County Legislature.

Now it appears that might not be the only special election on the North Fork this year.

Newsday reported this week that Assemblyman Dan Losquadro has expressed an interest in running for the vacant Brookhaven Highway Superintendent post and a town political source told the News-Review he’s a “good bet to get the nomination” to replace John Rouse, who was recently elected to a judge post.

County Legislator Tom Muratore has also expressed interest in the GOP highway nod and has even scheduled a fundraiser, according to the Newsday report.

The highway superintendent special election is expected to be held in February, which could set up a spring special election for assembly.

Mr. Losquadro, a former County Legislator from Shoreham, just won his first re-election bid in November. He could be announced as the highway nominee before he ever begins his second term next month.

• In case you missed the announcement last week, we’ll be hosting a public debate between Legislature candidates Sean Walter and Al Krupski Jan. 7 at Martha Clara Vineyards in Riverhead.

We were pleased with how the Congressional debates we sponsored went and are happy to be doing it again.

• Of course it’s pretty early to speculate, but who do you think will emerge to fill seats if Walter or Krupski, or Losquadro, wins a new post? Share a comment on who you’d like to see as the next Riverhead Town Supervisor, Southold Town Councilman or Assemblyman.

gparpan@timesreview.com

11/08/12 12:00pm

JOHN GRIFFIN PHOTO | The crowd goes wild at Suffolk County Democratic Committee Headquarters as they hear Obama won Tuesday night.

Times/Review contributing photographers John Griffin and Robert O’Rourk documented election night with their cameras Tuesday.

Griffin shot the Democratic gala at the Islandia Marriott. O’Rourk was with the GOP at its gala at Emporium in Patchogue.

Below are some photos from the events they covered:

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