By Andrew Wroblewski
In one of their last big opportunities to sway voters before Election Day, candidates seeking to represent the Town of Huntington got to offer their visions and address a variety of issues before a crowd of more than 75 people at the League of Women Voters of Huntington debate Tuesday night at Harborfields Public Library.
Candidates for the Huntington Town Council, Democrats Keith Barrett and Susan Berland, an incumbent, and Republican incumbent Eugene Cook with running mate Jennifer Thompson, fielded most of the crowd’s questions, which most notably focused on taxes and affordable housing.
A fifth candidate for Huntington councilperson, Michael Helfer, did not attend. Candidates for Huntington receiver of taxes, Democrat incumbent Ester Bivona and Republican Monique Pardes, also participated in the debate.
On the topic of taxes, Berland said she believes the town has done its part to keep taxes “incredibly low” and within the state’s tax cap.
Cook said he believes Huntington can better manage taxes while paying down its debt, which is listed at $79.1 million in Huntington Supervisor Frank Petrone’s proposed 2016 budget.
Thompson said she has fought to reduce expenses while on the Northport-East Northport school board since 2010, despite a 2014 audit from the state comptroller’s office that showed the district overestimated spending by a total $33.9 million over a five-year period that ended Sept. 30, 2013. In an interview earlier this month, Thompson said the district’s questioned budgeting practices were in place before she joined the board and that she’s since raised her concerns while working to reverse effects of the overestimating.
On Monday, Thomson said she’d like to take what she’s learned as a school board member and use that knowledge to modernize and reduce the scope of the town’s government to make it more effective and streamlined.
Barrett said he believes he could implement cost-saving measures similar to those he’s made as the town’s deputy director of general services, which he said has saved the department over $50,000 per year.
Following closely behind taxes was the topic of affordable housing.
“What can the town do, if anything, to create more housing for working young people… who make too much for Section 8 housing, but not enough for market-rate apartments?” asked moderator Lisa Scott, LWV of Suffolk County president.
Barrett suggested the town could look into its foreclosed houses and partner with private investors to create legal, two-family homes. Cook agreed with that idea, but reiterated he believes taxes must be lowered.
Thompson backed a “balanced approach” that would take into consideration factors like traffic, density and open space before moving forward with housing developments. Thompson also said she believes lower taxes would cause rents to “naturally come fall into line with the lower tax rate so that it’s not so difficult for our returning college seniors to come back to our area and live within their means.”
Berland said communities must “accept” housing opportunities for both young people and seniors, citing Melville’s Ruland Road 117-unit housing development as an example. That development was originally planned for affordable one-bedroom units, but will now be a limited-equity cooperative community following a housing-discrimination lawsuit settlement in February.
“A lot of times everybody says that they want it [workforce housing], but when we go in to try and put it into a neighborhood, that’s when people go to eject,” Berland said.
On a countywide scale, means to keep taxpayers in business – while keeping them in Suffolk – were also discussed.
“Do you have any ideas to lure small businesses and jobs back to the county?” moderator Scott asked.
Candidate for Suffolk’s 18th Legislative District, Republican Grant Lally, said he believes the conversation begins with lowering taxes.
“We are massively overtaxed here on Long Island and those high rates of taxation filter through, meaning… businesses need to pass those costs of taxes on to the consumer [and] everything, groceries, restaurant bills, hardware stores, everything is more expensive,” he said.
Democratic incumbent William Spencer, Lally’s opponent, said, “We have to create an environment for small businesses to thrive in.” Spencer added that he believes the county has already made efforts to create that environment through the county’s industrial development agency’s Jumpstart program, which looks to provide tax breaks and real estate locations for small businesses.
In the race for Suffolk’s 17th Legislative District, Democratic incumbent Louis D’Amaro said a focus needs to be placed on infrastructure, particularly sewers, in order to handle an influx of new small businesses.
Republican Janet Heller-Smitelli, D’Amaro’s opponent, said she believes the county should further develop internship and mentoring programs. “Gone are the days where we go someplace and work nine-to-five. We have to think outside those perimeters,” she said.
Along with keeping taxpayers housed and in business, candidates also focused on how the county can keep them safe.
The pair running for Suffolk’s 16th Legislative District seat, Republican Thomas McNally and Democratic incumbent Steve Stern, agreed that informing and working with young people is where public safety begins.
McNally suggested a resurgence of Suffolk County Police Department’s Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, which was disbanded in 2007 due to a lack of effectiveness. “Get into the middle schools and give them [students] a good example to live by,” he said.
Stern said he’d like to continue supporting youth-minded programs to “give our children a safe alternative after school,” but added that he wants the county to be aggressive with treatment and prevention measures in addressing Suffolk’s drug problem.
Election Day is Nov. 3.