11/10/11 4:00am
11/10/2011 4:00 AM

It was, admittedly, a clever play on words.

“Occupy Wall Street animals go wild …ZOO-COTTI!” trumpeted the cover headline of last Friday’s New York Post. The headline referenced a story inside about a brawl between two men — “wackos” the paper called them — encamped at their lower Manhattan protest site.

“This is the new face of Zuccotti Park!” the story began before recounting the details of the fight and enumerating the (totally justified) complaints of nearby residents about the megaphones, incessant drumming, graffiti and public urination that have accompanied the seven-week-old protest.

But if there was anything good about this display of direct democracy — which has been emulated around the world — the Post wasn’t telling you.

What a shame.

I visited the park last week and circulated for three hours among the dozens of tents crowding the site, which covers a city block and is about three-fifths the size of a football field. There, amid the occasional whiff of human waste and the occasional sophomoric sign (“Prosecute Ben Bernanke for TREASON”), the protesters I met spoke impressively on some of the most pressing issues of our time.

Not surprisingly, at the top of the protesters’ list was the widening income inequality between the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans and the rest of us. “We are the 99 percent” was the message I kept hearing and seeing, and it couldn’t have been timelier.

Just last month, the Congressional Budget Office released a report showing that between 1979 and 2007, the after-tax income of the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans grew by 275 percent. In the same period, according to the report, the income of the three-fifths of Americans in the middle of the income scale increased by just under 40 percent.

This kind of news resonated with a 26-year-old protester named Dustin, who declined to give his last name. Dressed in a suit and tie, he displayed a poster with compelling charts on the country’s increasing concentration of wealth at the top.

“Now,” he told me, “people are actually discussing the way we’ve been robbed blind.”

“Middle America is feeling it and slowly waking up,” said Xiomara Hayes, a middle-aged teacher in the city and a daily protester.

Then she imparted this gem: “We are being forced to realize we are all one, but the 1 percent doesn’t know it yet,” because they’re still “locked in by power and money.”

Hmm. Locked in by power and money? Could this explain why the Post’s owner, Rupert Murdoch — whose net worth of $7.4 billion makes him the 37th wealthiest person in America, according to Forbes magazine — uses that paper and other properties like The Wall Street Journal and Fox News to disparage the protesters?

Indeed, dissatisfaction with press coverage of Occupy Wall Street inspired David Ippolito, 55, a self-described singer/songwriter, actor/playwright, to wield a homemade placard saying, “MEDIA please be honest about the spirit of the movement.”

News organizations, he told me, were focusing too much on “the fringes” of OWS, like a sole holder of anti-Semitic signs at Zuccotti Park, and not enough on “the thoughtful, kind, committed, informed people” who participate in the protests.

“Informed” would fit Joe, a 70-year-old New Jersey man. He sat beside his homemade sign, which asserted, “The Heart of the Problem: Corporate Financing of Political Campaigns Leads to Corporate Control of the Country.”

Alluding to last year’s disastrous 5-4 Supreme Court decision allowing corporations the same First Amendment rights as people when it comes to spending directly on political campaigns, Joe, who also declined to give his last name, joked to me, “They’ve got to get rid of personhood” for corporations “unless they want to be drafted or executed.” (He supports mandatory public campaign financing.)

Jenny Heinz, a protester sporting a tunic emblazoned with the message “Granny Peace Brigade,” said she thought Occupy Wall Street had changed the nature of the national discourse.

“It’s added words like inequality and democracy and injustice that the corporate media weren’t mentioning,” she said. “They can’t ignore it.”

And sometimes direct democracy really does make a difference. As the aforementioned David Ippolito reminded me, “Without protests, Richard Nixon would never have ended the Vietnam War.”

Yes, there are good and thoughtful people protesting with Occupy Wall Street. They deserve respect, not ridicule.

Mr. Henry is a former Times/Review copy editor and a resident of Orient.

05/05/11 6:33am
05/05/2011 6:33 AM

The Riverhead school board last month adopted its proposed budget for the 2011-12 school year. As in many other districts, we were told this is the lowest budget-to-budget increase in years. At 1.26 percent (a 4.93 percent tax levy increase), this may be the lowest total budget increase in years, but the budget contains skyrocketing increases that cannot be sustained by the Riverhead taxpayer who, according to an article in the April 21 News-Review, lives in one of the 10 poorest school districts in Suffolk County. Perusing the budget that was given out at the adoption meeting, a few items caught my eye.

This year’s total employee benefits are increasing 11.98 percent, which includes a whopping 44 percent increase in employee retirement benefits; a 34.51 percent increase in teachers’ retirement benefits; an 11.3 percent increase in “contract benefits,” which apparently does not include the increase in health insurance benefits — that’s a separate item increasing 3.9 percent. Ironically, given the fact that the taxpayers  here will likely be asked to fund an $80 million bond for maintenance of our buildings in the fall, the current budget allows for an “operation of plant” increase of only $29,856 and the “maintenance of plant” item has been cut $14,890. More on that later.

Looking at retirement benefits alone, the funds allocated increased exactly $1,635,416 for 2010-11 over the previous school year and will increase another $2,060,268 for 2011-12. Imagine what the cost will be in 15-20 years! With retirees often collecting benefits for a longer period of time than they were employed (and in many cases moving from the area because our taxes are too high), this scale of increase year over year means that your child or grandchild born today — should they buy a home in the Riverhead district — will still be paying for the benefits of today’s retirees, in addition to benefits for the many more who will continue to retire and in addition to the contracted step increases and raises. Think of this: Children not yet born will be saddled with taxes required to support the insatiable maw that is our school district. As I said, this is unsustainable.

The people of Riverhead cannot afford another increase in their taxes. We need a tax decrease. The median family income in the Riverhead district is $63,291, according to the data reported by the News-Review, which is from the U.S. Census American Community Survey. I have been told by a district official that our taxes are “in line” with other towns in Suffolk County, but Riverhead school district is not Half Hollow Hills and Riverhead is not Dix Hills. The residents of Riverhead do not have the salaries of those in many towns in western Suffolk.

When taxes go up, the value (selling price) of a home must be adjusted to compensate the full cost of carrying the home. Here are some sample taxes taken from recent sales: A four-bedroom home on one acre in Riverhead’s Rolling Woods neighborhood near the Sound sold for $296,000 with a tax bill of $9,825; a two-bedroom ranch on Ackerly Street in Riverhead sold for $235,000 with taxes amounting $6,336, while a similarly sized two-bedroom ranch in Southold recently sold for $299,000 with taxes of just $3,243. Here are some recent sales from the South Fork to contrast: A three-bedroom house in Water Mill sold for $1.31 million with taxes of $5,668; a Southampton four-bedroom that sold for $2 million carried a tax bill of $5,148. The new owners of a three-bedroom in Quogue that sold for $1.48 million are paying just $5,000 in taxes. It is not unusual for a home in the Riverhead school district listed in the $400,000 to $500,000 range to have taxes of $11,000 to $13,000. I could go on, but do the research on your own to verify these figures.

Last, in a classic example of kicking the can down the road, this fall we could be asked to vote on an $80 million infrastructure improvement bond, which we would pay off for the next 20 years or so, in addition to our taxes, because our schools desperately need repairs. Why? Because over the past 30 years maintenance has been consistently cut from the budgets in order to get them passed. The huge taxes we have been paying in good faith to the schools, assuming that the money would be spent at least in part for our children’s well being, have not been used to maintain the buildings at all but have been spent instead to secure comfortable lives and retirements. That’s what makes this especially unpalatable.

Ms. Bidwell is a real estate agent who lives in Aquebogue and a member of the Community Partnership for Revitalization, which has met monthly to discuss the district’s infrastructure improvements bond. She is also a former a textbook designer and editor.

11/22/10 5:49pm
11/22/2010 5:49 PM

There were statements that appeared in a News-Review article last week, “Cost to shift on big parties,” that invite scrutiny. It would be too much to comment on all of them. So let’s examine a few.
In the article, Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter is quoted as saying, “…because you’ve got too many vineyards and too many farmers abusing the situation.”
There are only four wineries that actually produce wine on their premises in the Town of Riverhead. There are also perhaps six tasting facilities, most of which also own a vineyard, for a total of 10 establishments. If Mr. Walter’s number of $50,000 worth of “excessive cost” to town taxpayers is correct, that is an average of $5000 per winery.
We at Paumanok Vineyards have seen the fire marshal once in the last two years,  to inspect a tent that had been erected, making sure there were fire extinguishers in the tent, an exit sign — for a tent with no walls — and that the extension cords used were commercial grade. That inspection, including driving time, took less than one hour. My guess is that this was worth $25 in overtime costs, if he was paid a $50 per-hour base pay, in two years.
At $1,000 per event, Mr. Walter would have to permit 125 events to gross $125,000. If currently the town is inspecting 125 events, the $50,000 excessive cost would amount to $400 per event. That translates into a rate of $800 per hour for the fire marshal, since the overtime portion is half an hour of extra pay  per hour worked on Saturday. I do not know the salary of the fire marshal but clearly this does not add up if the extra time is an hour per event.
If enacted, such a measure will essentially eliminate small events and foster the advent of big events with hundreds if not thousands of people. Because at 100 people, $10 per person is a large penalty, but at 1,000 people $1 per person is a rounding error. If that is what the Town Board wants then it is on the right track.
Now what about the vineyards. Are they in fact the nuisance the town seems to make them? Are the residents getting the short end of the stick? Would the town rather get rid of the vineyards and get those of us who are fed up with the creeping taxation decide to pull out our vines and extend Queens to the North Fork?
Wineries have been credited, by many who remember, to have revitalized the North Fork. They have created hundreds of good-paying jobs in this town. They pay already very high taxes as they require extensive facilities to operate. The bed & breakfast business has taken off largely thanks to the wineries. The restaurants are busier thanks to winery visitors, so are retail stores, gas stations, hotels, delis, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, mechanics etc. There is little question that vineyards have had a large positive impact on the local economy. Those who benefit from our industry should make their views known to Mr. Walter as he is embarking on a plan to raise taxes on small businesses.
Vineyards have kept hundreds of acres as agriculture, whereas it would be far more profitable to develop this acreage. For that alone, Mr. Walter should think instead about how to help vineyards stay in business, for his costs would go out of sight if a single vineyard is developed into housing.
Now let us discuss the real issues and what can be done about large parties — defined as parties with 100 guests or more — as Mr. Walter should have done.
• The money generated from the fees. At 125 events per season, it means that every winery and tasting room in the town of Riverhead will be having an event every weekend during the 12-week peak season. There is a single tasting facility where that actually happens; that will count for 12 events. The rest will hold one or two large events per season, each. That is a total of less than 30 events. Where are the remaining 95 events coming from? Is this a fee to recover costs or just an old fashioned tax? Or is the Town Board misinformed? Either way, the proposed $1,000 fees will not raise anywhere near the $125,000 predicted in the town’s 2011 budget.
• With the town complaint that wineries generate noise, the Blues and Mustic Festival downtown generates noise. Traffic generates noise. Parties in backyards of every house generate noise. Boom boxes in cars generate noise. Emergency vehicles generate noise. Corn mazes generate noise. Catering facilities generate noise when they hold outdoors weddings. Irrigation pumps generate noise. There is a noise ordinance on the books. Enforce it.
And how does charging an arbitrary fee make anyone suddenly lower their noise? Isn’t it about enforcing current noise regulations? Don’t violations carry substantial fees and don’t these pay for themselves?
• Mr. Walter was also quoted as saying, “the residents are getting the short end of the stick.” If that is true certainly it needs to be corrected. We have too much respect for our neighbors to be cavalier about something like this. Therefore I challenge Mr. Walter to be very specific and detail, by establishment, any instance where we have been so negligent. If there is an establishment that is abusive, why generalize and stigmatize a whole industry?  If he does not come up with specifics he should retract his statement.
Now, if Mr. Walter has a real problem and wants to craft intelligent solutions, why does he not invite the wineries and tasting facilities to a meeting? He should be prepared to present facts not innuendos and we should be prepared to own up to our problems where they exist. If we are to prosper we certainly need the support of our community. And if he has issues with a particular establishment that happens to be a “vineyard” then why does he not deal with that establishment with existing laws? Since when is accusing everyone for the sins of one is something we tolerate?
As the math above shows, it would appear Mr. Walter is making little sense. He has a choice to retract his statements or come out with specifics. We understand crafting a budget is difficult, but this town deserves better leadership — not cheap shots.

Mr. Massoud is the owner and operator of Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue.

11/09/10 6:06pm
11/09/2010 6:06 PM

BY BRIAN HARMON

Conservatism. Liberalism. Journalism.
Two of these isms go hand in hand — but their relationship has hardly spelled doom for the other ism.
American journalism, a proud product of our treasured First Amendment, has long attracted the liberal-minded to its fold. Journalists write, speak and report about all sorts of topics — movie reviews, high school football games and Lindsay Lohan, to name a few — but serving as watchdogs of government, businesses and public figures remains their most important function.
Aspiring journalists boast about the opportunity to “change the world.” The veterans maintain varying levels of skepticism toward anyone with power or influence.
Like liberals, reporters are broad-minded and unconventional. Many — liberals and reporters — relish the chance to stir the pot. And far too many pursue change for ­— dare I say it — change’s sake.
I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to say that muckraking journalists — watchdogs, sleuths, bloodhounds and the like — typically are not conservative.
It hardly surprises me that numerous studies have shown that the politics of the majority of journalists lean left. I’ve worked as either a reporter or an editor in six newsrooms — big and small, dailies and weeklies — in such places as Detroit, West Viriginia, New York City and the North Fork of Long Island. Each one was dominated by news men- and -women who proudly vote Democratic.
But journalists are counted on to be fair and balanced; their own politics shouldn’t pervade their own reporting. After all, isn’t the golden rule of journalism to be objective?
The truth is that the predominance of political liberals in newsrooms can’t help but push news coverage in a liberal direction. The reason: subjectivity.
Objectivity is bit of a journalistic myth. As a reporter and editor, I was paid to be subjective.
While reporting a story, I decided what to write about, whom to talk to and what questions to ask. Then, while writing a story, I determined which facts were most important and I handpicked which source’s quotes I believed were needed. All subjective.
Journalists have no choice but to be subjective, so long as their main objective is telling the truth.
So, Michael White was indeed correct last week when he asserted in his column that despite the counter-attacks of the Fox News Channel “The American media is dominated by liberals” and that “story ideas coming out of a room of left-leaning thinkers are going to be different from those pitched by a team of right-leaning thinkers.”
But has this liberal bias really mattered? Yes, when you consider that liberalism and journalism have teamed for decades to play key roles in spreading civil rights and religious freedom.
But when it comes to putting people in office, it doesn’t seem to have much sway.
Consider the wave of Republican support at the polls in last week’s election.
Then consider that since 1960, a Republican has sat in the oval office for 28 of those 50 years. Congress meanwhile has witnessed a healthy volley of power between Democrats and the GOP.
In New York State, the governor has been a Republican for 26 of those same 50 years. Here on Long Island, the voting base remains predominantly Republican, despite the left leanings of Newsday’s opinion pages.
The Suffolk Times — Times/Review Newspapers’ flagship newspaper — has long been lambasted on the street and in the paper’s letters to the editor for a political bent that lands somewhere left of Attila the Hun. Yet the Southold Town Supervisor has been a Republican for 17 of the 33 years that the paper has been under its current ownership.
Now, imagine if there were a conservative bias.

Mr. Harmon is a Medford resident and former managing editor at Times/Review Newspapers.

10/27/10 4:02pm
10/27/2010 4:02 PM

Our town is in bad financial shape. I didn’t cause the problem. In fact, the day I took office I warned that our tax rate was about to soar because over the years we have employed nothing but one-shot gimmicks to balance our town budget. Why are we in such bad financial shape? Well, obviously the American economy isn’t helping, but here in our hometown our woes can be directly tied to our landfill. Our landfill costs this town more than $6,000 every business day in interest payments alone. If we are ever going to balance our budget we have to pay the piper for this huge mistake of attempting to reclaim the landfill.

Believe me folks, these have not been pleasant times at Town Hall. I have had to cut back; we’ve cut everything from paper clips to town vehicles, overtime and everything in between. Amid the downdraft of a bad economy, I have recognized that our taxpayers have had enough. As supervisor, I have to submit a town budget. My budget calls for a modest tax increase and it calls for cutbacks in staff. In fact, rather than cut staff, I offered our town’s principal labor union (CSEA) a plan to avoid layoffs by utilizing lag payroll, which means withholding some employee pay until a later date. That offer was rejected by union leaders.

How fitting it is that we are in an election season during which near everyone thinks we are taxed too much. Everyone talks about shrinking the size of government. Everyone talks about hard choices and tough solutions but no one really wants to be the one to make those decisions. I will and have made those tough choices.

The budget battle has begun in earnest. Last week there were fire trucks and protestors at Town Hall. I am sure I will be burned in effigy a few times this month. The unions are mad at me and if I were them I’d probably be mad at me too. It is easy to talk about cutbacks until you are the one with your belongings in a box. However, if we are serious about reducing the size of government and getting out of debt then we must swallow some bitter medicine.

The easiest thing for an elected official to do is to promise things, rack up debt and hope the public doesn’t notice. I could take more money from our fund balance to bring down taxes and pray the economy improves quicker than it is. I won’t do that. I could overestimate revenue and pretend we will collect more in taxes and fees than we will to artificially make the tax rate go “down.” I won’t do that. I could “paper over” the debt and roll it out to a future supervisor. I won’t do that.

Maybe I’ll be re-elected next year or maybe I’ll be run out of town on a rail. But I want you to know, whatever my personal fate is, as long as I am supervisor I am going fight to reduce the cost of government, hold the line on taxes and be honest with the public about my budgets.

I take seriously the displacement that staff cutbacks cause. We are diminished whenever we lose a town employee but I also recognize the day-to-day struggle that each taxpayer has, making ends meet here in Riverhead. The question before us now is this: Do we mean what we say when we talk about cutting the size of government and balancing our books? I believe the public is crying out for Town Hall to live within its means; I am going to fight to do just that.

10/12/10 4:36pm
10/12/2010 4:36 PM

Did you know that corporations can now legally make unlimited anonymous political contributions? That became true last January when the Citizens United v. The Federal Elections Commission case was ruled on by the U.S. Supreme Court. The result is that airways across the country are flooded with political attack ads and voters have no way of knowing who is putting up the money.

This act of judicial overreach resulted when the Supreme Court ruled on a case involving a nonprofit corporation (501-C group) called Citizens United, which had tried to disseminate a feature film they had produced entitled “Hillary, The Movie” in anticipation that Senator Clinton would win the nomination. When the Federal Elections Commission ruled that “Hillary” and the trailers promoting the film were in effect campaign ads, the distribution of the film and the trailers were made to follow the same rules as any political message.

Citizens United took their appeal to the Supreme Court and won in a ruling that went even further than they requested and struck down years of precedent in the process. In doing so, this activist Supreme Court ruled that corporations had the same rights as people and that they could donate unlimited amounts of money to 501-C and 527 nonprofit groups. The court also ruled that these groups could, for the first time, run ads against specific candidates as long as they did not work in concert with the individual campaigns. The court further ruled that these 501-C and 527 groups no longer have to reveal who their donors are, leaving the voting public in the dark as to who paid for the ads.

Republicans universally celebrated this groundbreaking ruling knowing that their longtime supporters, big oil, health insurance companies and defense contractors, would now be able to open their coffers and anonymously defeat Democratic candidates. Another provision in the ruling allows corporations for the first time to draw money directly out of their general funds, tapping into their multibillion dollar profits. The result is that the contributions of individual citizens are being drowned out, overwhelmed by millions of new stealth corporate dollars.

What does this mean for Long Island voters? Last week an ad appeared on local television skewering Congressman Tim Bishop in the harshest terms replete with ominous graphics. It ends by urging voters to choose “businessman Randy Altschuler” whose image is superimposed over sunny clip art of home construction. This distortion of the truth was levied against Congressman Bishop by the Alliance For America’s Future. Like many other Republican-linked 527 groups, this “Alliance” sounds like a group of hardworking, regular Americans who think that Tim Bishop is ruining our country. So I researched their website at http://www.allianceforamericasfuture.org and found that this organization is just a front for laundering corporate campaign donations. Average Americans can’t join this alliance; you can’t even make a donation. What you find through additional searches on the web is that The Alliance is headed by Mary Cheney, the former Vice President’s daughter. This group has purchased an initial ad buy of $90,000, but if their pattern in other states such as Florida and Nevada holds true, this is just the beginning.

Who might be donating the $90,000 to defeat Tim Bishop? One might speculate that since Congressman Bishop has supported U.S. companies developing alternative energy, his undisclosed enemies might be the same oil companies that made the Cheneys multimillionaires. Another possibility would be multinational companies that would benefit from American outsourcing who would see Randy Altschuler as their natural ally. A third possibility would be large insurance companies, who would love to resume gouging excessive profits by denying coverage if they could just repeal the new health care bill. The problem is we do not know who’s putting up the cash. We only know that the Alliance For America’s Future and other newly formed Republican 527 groups are secretly taking in millions of dollars in hidden, undisclosed donations and pouring them into aggressive, anti-Democratic media campaigns.

A few months ago, Democrats in the House tried to pass the DISCLOSE Act requiring that all of these 527 groups reveal their donor list and Republicans in Congress successfully blocked the legislation. So far in 2010, the vast amount of Democratic Party donors have been disclosed and are available online, while undocumented Republican donations to 527 groups (over $300 million according to the Wall Street Journal) have skyrocketed and outstrip undisclosed Democratic donations significantly. If this trend continues unchecked, average Americans will be completely priced out of the process and anonymous corporate messaging will dominate the political landscape. So much for “free” speech!

Jerry Silverstein is a retired teacher of media studies and a Calverton resident.