03/07/14 6:00am
03/07/2014 6:00 AM
(Credit: Jim Colligan, file)

(Credit: Jim Colligan, file)

TOWNS OUT IN FRONT

Over the last six months, a plan to hire federal sharpshooters to thin the white-tailed deer herd across the East End has divided many in our communities — and has unexpectedly united hunters with those who hope to protect the deer.

The letters in this newspaper probably illustrate those divisions better than anything else.  (more…)

01/31/14 7:00am
01/31/2014 7:00 AM
CYNDI MURRAY PHOTO  |  An indoor farmers market will start Feb. 1 in downtown Riverhead.

CYNDI MURRAY PHOTO | An indoor farmers market will start Feb. 1 in downtown Riverhead.

Typically, these pages don’t include a lot of farming coverage in January and February. But over the past four weeks, with a little can-do attitude from some hard-working individuals, a winter farmers market was organized to touch down on East Main Street this winter. (more…)

08/01/13 8:00am
08/01/2013 8:00 AM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Town supervisor hopeful Ann Cotten-Degrasse at a Riverhead Board of Education meeting in May.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Town supervisor hopeful Ann Cotten-Degrasse at a Riverhead Board of Education meeting in May.

Looking at the July campaign finance disclosure report filed by town supervisor hopeful Ann Cotten-DeGrasse, we couldn’t help but feel a little uneasy.

You all know Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse as a retired Riverhead teacher, former union president and current president of the Riverhead Board of Education. And even if you didn’t know her in those roles, you would probably get a sense of her involvement with education from seeing who’s donated to her town campaign. The list is a who’s who of school officials: the teachers union, its recent past president and even the current superintendent have all supported Ms. Cotten-Degrasse’s candidacy.

To be clear, nobody has broken any laws. It’s just a little awkward to see these donations, especially since a town supervisor can do very little, if anything at all, to help advance local education issues. If she were anyone other than president of the school board, what benefit could school officials expect to receive from helping elect her town supervisor?

Sure, educators are free to donate to whatever political cause they see fit, just as any other individuals are, but we’re not sure it’s a great reflection on Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse to accept their donations. Consider whether it’s appropriate for a volunteer school board member to accept a donation from district employees, who serve at her pleasure, to run for a political office that has nothing to do with education. Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse has even used the union’s office on Roanoke Avenue for campaign meeting purposes.

It’s all bit icky.

It’s also a little curious that the teachers union would donate money and offer in-kind support in a town election, considering that many of its members might not agree with their dues being designated for such a cause. It’s hard to imagine the actions of a town supervisor having positive effects on the professional lives of most Riverhead teachers.

We recognize that many local political contributions are probably intended to curry favor, but we’d like to think our school board members would keep their friends in education at a distance when seeking town office.

05/20/13 4:01pm
Carney of Riverhead

FILE PHOTO | Superintendent Nancy Carney and board president Anne Cotten-DeGrasse.

The Riverhead and Shoreham-Wading River 2013-14 school budget proposals that go to voters next Tuesday contain year-to-year tax levy increases that, while above 2 percent, fall below the individualized state-mandated tax increase caps for each of the districts.

Officials in these districts took different approaches to staying under their respective caps.

In Riverhead, the district offered a $20,000 incentive package that led to the retirement of some 20 long-tenured teachers (along with 11 other staffers), saving the district, which can replace them with entry-level educators, about $1 million. This is the first year since the 2009-10 budget — the first crafted after the bottom fell out of the U.S. economy — in which the district hasn’t proposed eliminating several positions through layoffs or attrition. While trimming what was likely a bloated staff was a positive side-effect of the economic downturn, the continued shedding of teachers and support staff risked adversely affecting student performance, and it’s good to see it fi nally halted.

Riverhead’s $117.6 million budget carries a 5.12 percent spending increase over this year and a proposed 3.82 percent tax levy hike over the current year. If approved, the budget will maintain staffing levels and programs.

Ditto in Shoreham-Wading River, where the proposed budget will also preserve classroom and extracurricular programs. This would be accomplished by pulling extra funds, to the tune of $4 million, from the district’s state aid reserves and applying other one-shot revenues amounting to another $1.7 million. Shoreham-Wading River residents will be voting on a $66.1 million budget that carries a 5.5 percent spending increase with a 2.29 percent tax levy bump. The reserves — plus some budgeting adjustments involving planning for federal grant funds — allowed for a tax levy increase proposal much lower than the spending increase.

The Shoreham-Wading River district is borrowing heavily from its reserves for the second year that it’s been forced to operate under a tax cap. The thinking may be that the economy, and thus aid packages, will become more robust as the years progress and the district would have weathered the storm without having to shed staff and programs. These are rainy day funds, after all, and it’s raining, officials could argue. But should the economy remain sluggish —— or worse, contract — Shoreham-Wading River could be forced to make the same tough decisions Riverhead school officials have been making since 2009-10, but at the expense of future students over current students. It’s too early to sound any alarms in Shoreham-Wading River, but moving forward, officials and taxpayers should keep an eye on the state of the district’s reserves.

As for the main factor driving spending increases, districts across Long Island have been slammed in recent years not only with steady staff salary increases but also with huge spikes in pension fund contributions. Under state law, when public worker pension fund investments underperform, it’s up to local districts to make up the difference because the pension’s guaranteed. Contribution rates are calculated using a fi ve-year average of stock performance. The current five-year calculation bracket began in 2008, so recent stock market gains should ease the pain in coming years.

Given the challenges, the area’s two districts are presenting manageable plans that fall within the realm of what’s being offered elsewhere in the state, where the average proposed tax levy increase is 4.6 percent, and county, where the average proposed increase is 3.5 percent.

Voters should approve these budgets, but school officials should take care to keep spending increases below 5 percent moving forward, lest they harm the communities they seek to serve.

The economy is still sluggish, and taxpayers’ salaries are not keeping pace.

Two propositions on the Riverhead School District ballot involve replacing the district’s dilapidated bus barn, which houses the transportation and maintenance departments.

Proposition No. 1 asks to establish a Transportation, Maintenance and Athletic Fields Capital Reserve Fund that can reach $10 million over 10 years. Ballot Proposition No. 2 will ask permission to use part of the proceeds from a farmland preservation sale involving district-owned property on Tuthills Lane to buy two Riverside properties near the proposed site of the new bus facility.

These propositions should both be rejected, mainly because they were just announced in March without school officials actively seeking input from the residents in Riverside and elsewhere.

If the district is looking to replace what it describes as a crumbling bus barn, and expand its athletic fields, it must involve the public in figuring out how to do so.

05/03/13 7:59am
05/03/2013 7:59 AM

MIKE GROLL/AP PHOTO | Gov. Andrew Cuomo (center) leaves a 2011 news conference after announcing passage of the 2 percent tax cap with Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (left) and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

The biggest disservice New York State lawmakers did to themselves — and to local school districts — when they passed the tax levy increase cap in 2011 was to call it a 2 percent cap.

It is not a 2 percent cap.

Exclusions, mainly related to pension costs, give schools the flexibility to increase the district tax levy by upwards of 4 percent in a given year. This year, only one of the seven school districts on the North Fork is increasing taxes by less than 2 percent — that would be Oysterponds, which has actually proposed a tax levy decrease. The other six districts are all raising the tax levy between 2.29 and 4.1 percent.

This is in line with districts across Suffolk County, where the Empire Center for New York State Policy says the average proposed tax levy increase is 3.5 percent for the 2013-14 school year. The average proposed increase across New York state is 4.6 percent, the nonprofit reports.

A June 2011 press release issued by state Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) said the “tax levy cap would shift the focus from total spending to the actual property taxes levied to support school district and local government expenses.”

But one unintended consequence might be that while districts are focused on making sure they stay within the cap, many are actually spending more.

In the two years since the cap was passed, the North Fork’s seven school districts have increased spending by a combined $19.21 million, while spending increased by just $10.22 million in the two previous years.

That’s not to place the blame for this gimmicky legislation on school administrators, who, given the choice, would prefer not to have a tax cap.

The problem with the law is that 2 percent means very little, it’s just a number that looks nice in a headline. The reality is you’ll not be voting on budgets that will raise your taxes by less than 2 percent this year.

The cap was the easy thing to do, but it might just lead to bigger headaches down the road.

For lawmakers to truly curb government spending across New York State they need to get public school teacher and administrator salaries, as well as the five- and six-figure payouts many of them receive upon retiring, back into the realm of what’s normal for middle-income earners.

Lawmakers should never even have considered passing this 2 percent tax increase cap without an accompanying public workers’ compensation overhaul.

04/05/13 7:59am
04/05/2013 7:59 AM
PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO  |  Volunteer firemen fighting the wildfires in Manorville last year.

PAUL SQUIRE FILE PHOTO | Volunteer firemen fighting the wildfires in Manorville last year.

April showers bring May flowers, the saying goes.

But not last year. April 2012 brought raging wildfires to the region, including a blaze that blackened over 1,100 acres from eastern Brookhaven into Riverhead Town, destroying homes and property and injuring volunteer firefighters along the way.

Already this year, on Wednesday, the National Weather Service warned of an enhanced threat of wildfires due to dry air and wind.

Related: Pine Barrens, fire victims see life returning to normal

Although local fire departments have taken the necessary steps to improve what was already a lauded response to the Wildfire of 2012, state officials in Albany should step up their response and get serious about preventing such disasters from ever happening.

Controlled burns, also known as hazard reduction burning, in forested areas are still rarely used in Suffolk County as a way to prevent these windswept and uncontrolled fires from sparking in the first place. Although last year’s wildfire was deemed intentionally set, such fires are natural occurrences and necessary for regeneration within the Pine Barrens. Controlled burns, performed in small areas when conditions are right, should be undertaken regularly as they are in other states with more wildfire experience.

Government officials and residents in the Midwest know from experience that if they don’t act first, Mother Nature will find a way to take care of her forests. And she doesn’t take lives or property into account. Richard Amper of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, who favors controlled burns, reports this week that state and local officials are looking into conducting more controlled burns, also known as prescribed fires.

But why is everyone still looking, when so many months have already passed?

Since last year, local firefighters have been taking important steps toward better equipping themselves for forest fires and more training. But controlled burns are a much less expensive way to ensure public safety — and it’s good for the environment. Though somewhat unfamiliar here, residents who live near forested areas must understand and refrain from issuing complaints with the government during such burns, something that has led to the cessation of burn programs in other states, ultimately resulting in disastrous results.

New York State Central Pine Barrens Commission executive director John Pavacic said that, while the commission has acted in trying to educate the public and fire departments on how to prevent and tackle accidental fires, it’s also “taking a fresh look” at updating its fire management plan. But it’s a year later and time is of the essence.

A plan that includes a sophisticated controlled burn program should be presented to the public sooner rather than later.