02/03/14 2:41pm
02/03/2014 2:41 PM
MICHAEL WHITE PHOTO | Residents running low on fuel may qualify for help. Visit the HEAP website or call 1-800-342-3009.

MICHAEL WHITE PHOTO | Residents running low on fuel may qualify for help. Visit the HEAP website or call 1-800-342-3009.

Residents at risk of running out of home heating fuel or having their heat shut off this cold winter may qualify for additional federal funding recently released thorough the Home Energy Assistance Program, officials announced Monday. (more…)

08/05/13 2:30pm
08/05/2013 2:30 PM
Calverton EPCAL sign

MICHAEL WHITE FILE PHOTO | One of two signs marking the EPCAL entrance along Route 25.

The state bill that would fast track development applications at the Enterprise Park at Calverton was approved by both house sof the state Legislature in late June, but Governor Andrew Cuomo has yet to sign it into law.

Still, locally elected state officials say they are not worried, and that the governor is presented with hundreds of bills to sign in a given year.

“Obviously, I would like it signed sooner than later but I don’t think there is a cause to be concerned at this point,” said Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter.

“It just hasn’t been delivered to the governor yet,” said Drew Biondo, an aide to state Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), who was a sponsor of the bill.

Both men said they’ve been given no indication the bill has run into any opposition at the executive level.

“From what I’ve heard, the governor takes these bills in batches,” Mr. Walter said.

A spokesperson for Governor Cuomo said the governor considers about 100 bills a week. Once a bill is presented to the governor, he has a week to either sign it into law or veto it, she said.

She said the governor’s office doesn’t generally comment on bills until they are signed or vetoed.

The timing of the signing of the bill is not a concern at this point because the town still needs to adopt an environmental impact statement for the plan, Mr. Walter said, and that’s not expected to be done until next year some time.

“So this proposal wouldn’t really get rolling until next year anyway,” Mr. Walter said.

The bill establishes a generic environmental impact study, or GEIS, at the outset, to cover all possible development proposals for the town-owned land in Calverton that meet a re-use plan agreed upon by the town, county and state, officials have said.

Any fully engineered development proposal for land within the area covered by the study will be guaranteed approval within 90 days of the application being filed.

If an application isn’t approved in that time frame, it would receive a default approval.

tgannon@timesreview.com

06/02/13 8:40am
06/02/2013 8:40 AM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Some of the North Fork's corn crops are known to be grown from genetically modified seeds.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Some of the North Fork’s corn crops are known to be grown from genetically modified seeds.

New York could become the first state in the nation to require that genetically modified foods be labeled as such, a move farmers say could put locally grown produce at a disadvantage.

State Senator Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan) have sponsored legislation to require mandatory labeling of genetically modified food. The bills follow years of debate over the safety of genetically modified foods, which were introduced in the early l990s. Legislation has been proposed in several states, including California, where it was put before voters in 2012 as Proposition 37 and failed by a slim margin. Bills have been introduced more recently in Connecticut and Maine.

A genetically modified organism (GMO) is produced when genes from one species are extracted and artificially introduced into the genes of another, according to the American Heritage Medical Dictionary.

The practical applications of this process include giving a plant the ability to produce its own pesticide to deter insects, thereby saving farmers having to apply costly and potentially dangerous pesticides, according to the Institute for Responsible Technology, which investigates the risks and impacts of GMO foods.

Major GMO food crops include soy, cotton and corn, said Dale Moyer, associate executive director of agriculture for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk. It’s not employed on fresh fruits and vegetables such as oranges or peppers.

Varieties of sweet corn are the only GMO crops grown on the North Fork intended for human consumption, but they’re very limited, Mr. Moyer said. Some area farmers also grow field corn, used primarily as animal feed, he added.

Under the pending legislation sweet corn varieties grown from genetically modified seeds would fall under the mandatory labeling requirement.

“Consumers have a right to know what’s in their food,” said Mr. LaValle. “Essentially, if a foodstuff is produced using genetic engineering, this must be indicated on its label.”

But Steve Ammerman, spokesperson for the NYS Farm Bureau, said mandatory labeling is unnecessary.

“We believe the policies should be based on sound science, and the science so far is that GMO foods are safe,” Mr. Ammerman said. “Labeling would imply that GMO foods are not.”

He argues that labeling will put GMO-grown products at a disadvantage when placed next to other produce. “If a consumer walked up and saw a label that said ‘Contains GMO,’ it misleads the consumer,” he said.

Kathleen Furey, director of GMO Free New York, said genetically modified foods have not been proven safe. There have not been any long-term, independent, peer-reviewed human consumption studies to support that claim, she said. The longest study to date on GMO foods ran about two years and involved rats, not humans, she said.

The study, led by French scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini, found that mice fed a diet of genetically modified corn experienced increased mortality, tumors and organ damage compared to a control group that was fed non-modified corn, said Ms. Furey.

“We deserve the right to know what were eating,” she said.

About 80 percent of what shoppers see on supermarket shelves contain GMOs, said Ms. Furey. Many of the products are processed foods, including infant formulas.

Consumers do have one way of spotting GMO-free foods. Certified organic foods do not contain genetically modified products, Mr. Ammerman said.

If labeling is mandated, farmers would rather see labeling say something like “GMO free” as compared to “contains GMO,” said Joe Gergela, director of the Long Island Farm Bureau.

The legislation is expected to come up for a vote before the current legislative session ends June 20.

cmiller@timesreview.com

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

03/29/13 3:50pm
03/29/2013 3:50 PM

Aside from school aid bumps, other items in the New York State budget adopted Thursday include a “middle class” tax rebate for families with kids, a creation of a bar-type exam for prospective teachers and financial incentives for top-performing teaching.

The spending plan will also increase the state minimum wage, and provide more highway improvement funds for local towns.

The budget deal extends from last year a higher tax on top earners, which reportedly raises about $1.9 million annually.

The 2013-14 budget is the third consecutive state budget that’s been adopted before the April 1 deadline by which it’s supposed to be adopted. That hasn’t always been the case, as the state routinely missed the budget deadline for many years prior to that.

This is the first time since 1984 the state made the deadline three years in a row.

Overall, the $135 billion budget increases total state spending by under one percent, according to state documents.

“This budget agreement puts New York on track to have the third consecutive on-time, balanced, budget that holds increases in spending under 2 percent,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a press release.

The adopted budget “includes direct tax relief for middle class families in the form of a $350 Family Tax Relief credit,” according to officials.

Over the next three years, each New York family with at least one dependent child and a household income between $40,000 and $300,000, will receive a “Family Tax Relief” credit in the amount of $350.  The statewide amount of these payments will be $1.23 billion over three years, beginning in 2014.

The budget extends the “middle class” personal income tax rate reductions enacted in 2011, which were due to expire in 2014. Those reductions will provide 4.4 million taxpayers with $707 million in tax relief per year, according to state officials

The new budget also calls for creation of “Bar Exam for Teachers,” officials said.

“To ensure the best and brightest are teaching our children, the State Education Department will increase the standards for teacher certification to require passage of a “bar exam,” in addition to longer, more intensive and high-quality student-teaching experience in a school setting,” Mr. Cuomo said.

The state also plans to reward “high performing teachers” under the new budget.

“To improve results and incentive high-performance, the budget implements a program that will offer $15,000 in annual stipends for four years to the most effective teachers beginning with math and science teachers,” the governor said.

A total of $11 million in incentives will be given statewide. Specifics were not available on how teacher performance will be judged.

Local municipalities on the North Fork will see an increase in Consolidated Highway Improvement Program (CHIPS) funding under the new budget, which increased that fund by $75 million statewide.

“This nearly $7 million in funding for towns and villages in the First Senatorial District will allow us to put New York back to work by repairing roads and bridges,” said state Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson).

This is the first time since 2008 that CHIPS funding has increased.

Locally, Riverhead Town will receive $372,218 in CHIPS funding for 2013-14, an increase of 26 percent over the previous state budget allocation.

Likewise, Southold Town will get $421,071, a 28 percent increase, Southampton Town will get $842,159, a 28 percent increase, and Shelter Island Town will get $123,321, also a 28 percent increase.

Greenport Village is getting $52,902, a 24 percent increase, and the tiny Village of Dering Harbor on Shelter Island, is getting $59,891, a 27 percent increase.

The new budget also raises the minimum wage in New York State from $7.25 per hour to $9 per hour, but over three years.

“Recognizing that New York’s minimum wage is unlivable and that 19 other states have higher minimum wages than New York, the budget raises the minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $9.00 per hour over three years, beginning with $8.00 by the end of 2013, $8.75 by the end of 2014, and $9.00 by the end of 2015,” the governor said.

The budget also provides hiring tax credits to businesses that hire returning veterans and young people.

The credit will equal 10 percent of wages paid for hiring veterans, and 15 percent of wages if the veteran is disabled, officials said.

The budget includes a refundable tax credit for businesses that hire people under the age of 20, which officials say will save those businesses a total of $112 million over three years, statewide.

tgannon@timesreview.com

03/26/13 11:30am
03/26/2013 11:30 AM
KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO  |  A commercial fishing boat docked in Greenport.

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | A commercial fishing boat docked in Greenport.

A saltwater fishing license fee that East End towns successfully fought against after it was enacted in 2009 was officially eliminated as part of the state budget, New York State Senator Ken LaValle announced Tuesday.

The state Legislature repealed the controversial license in 2011 and registration was guaranteed to be free for the next two years.

“For many in our region, fishing is a way of life,” Mr. LaValle said in a statement. “Mandating a license placed a burden on individuals and families who have fished our local waters for generations. I voted against the license law and fee when it was part of the 2009 budget and I’m happy to see the demise of what was essentially a hidden tax.”

The Senate passed a portion of the state budget Sunday, which included a provision to eliminate the saltwater license fee permanently.

The $10 license for anglers age 16 or older was originally implemented by the Department of Environmental Conservation in October 2009.

Previous Coverage: Legislature sinks saltwater fishing license

03/07/13 8:00am
03/07/2013 8:00 AM
EPCAl in Riverhead, FAA

NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | A view of the EPCAL site from the sky.

After years of fighting, it appears Riverhead Town and the state Department of Environmental Conservation are close to reaching a consensus on what land is developable at the town-owned Enterprise Park at Calverton, and what needs to be preserved as open space.

And by consensus, we mean the town has given up fighting over whether the grasslands by the EPCAL runways, which were once used for testing fighter jets, should be preserved for migratory birds.

It looks like Riverhead will get to develop about 600 acres on the land that was given to the town for economic development to compensate for the jobs lost when the Grumman Corporation left.

This, after the EPCAL reuse plan approved by the federal government in 1998 identified more than 2,000 acres that could be developed at EPCAL. And just a few years ago, the town planned to sell two EPCAL parcels comprising 1,055 acres, though the deals fell through.

How did the town lose all this land without a penny of compensation?

It appears the state is requiring the town to protect EPCAL grasslands for endangered birds. But birds can fly, and preserved grasslands exist at the 385-acre Otis Pike Preserve across Route 25. Supposedly, the only reason the birds started feeding by the runways is because the town didn’t cut the grass there during all the years the land sat unused.

If you believe the town got stiffed, you can blame bureaucrats, the system, politics and small-minded and short-sighted town officials. But it’s hard for the public to tell. The process by which we learn of decisions on EPCAL matters is shadowy and often secondhand, based on town officials’ descriptions of closed-door meetings between town representatives and staff at the DEC, or just DEC officials themselves.

The regional director of the DEC isn’t allowed to speak directly to the media, so questions must be addressed to public relations people, sometimes based in Albany, who never seem to answer them fully.

The people making the decisions on the state end are not elected, it seems.

So where were our elected state leaders through all of this, when town taxpayers and the region as a whole needed real leadership?

They never seem to say much of anything. State Senator Ken LaValle and outgoing Assemblyman Dan Losquadro — and before him, Assemblyman Marc Alessi — should have been out there, taking a stand on this issue.

Do they support preserving hundreds of acres for birds at the expense of development or not?

They should let the people know, one way or the other. But it seems they prefer to work (read: hide) behind the scenes and collect the endorsements of environmental organizations while never taking any responsibility for the decisions being made by state agencies.

03/02/13 8:00am
03/02/2013 8:00 AM

KATHARINE SCHROEDER FILE PHOTO | The Miss Nancy fishing boat moves through Greenport Harbor.

Life could get just a little easier for East End commercial fishermen if a bill Senator Kenneth LaValle (R-C-Port Jefferson) ushered through the New York State Senate has the same support in the Assembly.

The bill that passed the Senate with only a single negative vote would allow commercial fishermen to aggregate their daily catch limits over a seven-day period. A fisherman could, for example, catch three times his daily quota on Monday and two times the limit on Wednesday and then stay off the water until the following Monday, thereby conserving fuel. The bill that passed the Senate would also allow individuals, each of whom had a fishing license, to go out together in the same boat with each able to take a daily or aggregate limit.

“Fuel for running a fishing boat is extremely costly,” Mr. LaValle said, noting that it “significantly cuts into the already slim profits” fishermen get.

Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor), who is shepherding the bill through the Assembly, said he and Mr. LaValle drafted the bill together in consultation with local fishermen.

While the Assembly is focused on getting a budget passed by the April 1 deadline, Mr. Thiele said as soon as that’s accomplished, the fishing bill would move ahead.

“It’s a bill that is high on my list,” Mr. Thiele said.

Assuming the Assembly gives the legislation the go-ahead, it would go to Governor Andrew Cuomo for his signature.

jlane@timesreview.com