By Annette Hinkle
This year’s New York State Senate race in the 1st district pits longtime incumbent and Port Jefferson resident Kenneth LaValle against current Southampton Town Councilwoman and Noyac resident Bridget Fleming.
The two squared-off in a debate Monday night at the Hampton Bays Senior Center. Throughout the evening, LaValle, a Republican who also has the Conservative and Independence lines in November’s election, focused on his 36 years in office and his record on issues like education, tax relief and jobs. Meanwhile, Fleming, a Democrat who’s also on the Working Families line, painted the senator as an out of touch establishment figure who has overstayed his time in Albany and lost touch with his constituents.
The contest, sponsored by the Hampton Bays Civic Association and the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons, consisted of questions posed by league members, Southampton Patch editor Brendan O’Reilly and the audience.
“Being a legislator is about planning — not only for today but for the future,” said LaValle in his opening remarks. “I think I’ve done a good job listening to and learning from the people I represent.”
“I’ve had an agenda of tax relief, jobs and fixing the economy,” he added. “Together we’ve forged a good record in first senatorial district.
LaValle specifically cited his role as chairman of the Senate’s Higher Education Committee as one that has benefited residents the first district.
“Especially here on the South Fork where I used my chairmanship to get the money needed to acquire the Southampton Campus that was Long Island University,” said LaValle who added that the new affiliation between Southampton Hospital and Stony Brook University Medical Center will expand the Stony Brook Southampton campus in way that will benefit the region.
“Greater integration with Stony Brook will lead to better healthcare and more specialists — and the healthcare campus will become vibrant, add jobs and contribute to the economic development of this community,” he said. “I think it’s a win win for people of this area.”
Fleming, a former Manhattan assistant district attorney, cited her role in prosecuting fraud in public programs and, more recently, her accomplishments as a member of the Southampton Town Board as examples of how she would work for the community if elected.
She also maintained that LaValle’s longevity in the Senate is a liability.
“He’s been an incumbent for 36 years and is part of the culture of Albany,” said Fleming. “Meanwhile, unemployment exceeds state and national levels and our young people go elsewhere. We’ve never had a female senator in Suffolk County and there hasn’t been one on Long Island since 1984. He shut down on issues important to us — be it the health care exchange or equal pay for equal work.”
“I’ll fight for women so they are no longer an after thought. My record shows I fight for all in the East End community,” added Fleming. “Business as usual in Albany has failed Long Island families.”
Calling LaValle the “number one spender” in the state legislature, Fleming said Long Island struggles under some of the highest taxes in the country. In six months, she said the senator spent more than $500,000 on office expenses and $140,000 on mailers which “look like campaign literature.” Fleming also said LaValle has voted over 400 times to raise taxes and voted to increase his own salary by 38 percent — accusations which LaValle strongly countered were not born out by fact.
“You can’t distort the truth Bridget — you can’t lie. I have not had a salary increase, people can look wherever they want,” said LaValle. “In a different forum you said I voted on taxes of a billion dollars or $550 million — I don’t know. I’ve asked you to produce those taxes I voted for.”
“The STAR rebate program, capping taxes, there’s not an individual who’s more anti-tax,” said LaValle. “We can do a variety of things like reduce taxes, improve programs, increase school aid, but you can’t talk about things that are not true.
“The legislature has not had an increase [in salary] and the fact is we moved our office,” he added. “My expenses this year were higher, but I was always down in my expenses. I’m not a spender.”
Candidates were asked about the current road widening project underway on County Road 39 in Southampton and if they favored adding a second lane to Montauk Highway heading into Water Mill and points east.
“I have to say when the county was talking about the job they recently started we asked them not to do it because it dumps onto [Route] 27 – there’s nowhere for that traffic to go,” said Fleming. “I thought it was a poor decision in terms of using those federal dollars which could’ve been used elsewhere.”
She pointed to the traffic that backs-up at the eastern terminus of the Northern State Parkway as an example of what happens when a highway ends at a smaller road. She also questioned whether expansion of Route 27 was feasible, given the protected status of farmland along the stretch of roadway leading into Water Mill.
In regards to his support for the County Road 39 project, LaValle said he took his lead from officials at both the town and county level.
“I work with people, listen and learn. I’m a person who believes in home rule,” said LaValle. “It’s up to the local people to make that decision and you get your clues from what people want. You sit down with the town board, county officials, a lot of people. In Southampton, the individuals involved in the traffic and highway department are top notch and are very involved in the work on County Road 39.”
The Long Island Railroad (LIRR) was raised as an issue in a question citing phony disability claims and workers who purportedly don’t put in a full day — “Is there anything the state can do to rectify this, change it or bring pressure to bear on those who can?”
“There is absolutely no tolerance for people who don’t put in a full day’s work — no tolerance for waste, fraud or abuse,” said LaValle adding that Long Island was also hit with the MTA payroll tax which the legislature has been working to eliminate. He noted the state’s attorney general and inspector general have the ability to look into allegations of fraud while the legislature can hold hearings “to find out what’s going on that shouldn’t be.”
“I like to think most people who work for the railroad are hardworking,” said LaValle. “But if they’re not, they have to expect to be dealt with harshly.”
Fleming said her prosecution of fraud and abuse cases in New York City resulted in millions of dollars in savings to taxpayers. She sees a similar opportunity in taking on accusations of fraud and corruption within the LIRR.
“As a town board member, I voted to sue the MTA,” she said, referring to the payroll tax which affects businesses and municipalities throughout the East End. “We don’t know if we can recoup town money. We’ve asked the state legislature to exempt municipalities.”
On the tax front, both candidates were asked to weigh in on the state’s 2 percent tax cap on schools, libraries and municipalities.
“I’ve had to live under it as a municipal official,” said Fleming “It has forced fiscal discipline and it’s also created a difficult situation for schools and municipalities.”
Fleming criticized the fact the tax cap was passed with no mandate relief for schools and municipalities, which are still required to provide certain contractual services and benefits under the burden of the cap.
“Something’s got to give,” she said. “If the tax cap continues, we’ll have to look at its actual impact regarding real hits on services. At the municipal level, people think you can cut staffing and not lose services. That’s pie in the sky. Choices have to made at schools and municipalities. Someone has to work on that.”
LaValle, who voted for the 2 percent tax cap, said it is the latest effort in a long series of state legislation designed to reduce the tax burden for residents particularly when it comes to school funding.
“I was the sponsor of the law that said on the third Tuesday in May everyone comes out to vote on a budget,” he said. “The thinking was more people would come out to vote on a budget people want. That didn’t work. Then we passed a bill to reduce the number of times a school budget could be voted on before you went to contingency. That didn’t work. Then we gave people STAR tax relief, but that didn’t work.”
“And the senate has passed numerous bills for mandate relief,” added LaValle. “Suffolk County will receive $39 million in tax relief because we picked up Medicaid funding.”
Both candidates were asked if they felt the county might be reaching a crisis stage if a sewer system is not installed in areas currently not served by a wastewater treatment facility.
“We need a dialogue on this issue,” said LaValle. “When you talk sewers there’s an additional cost and you need a cost benefit analysis.”
Though LaValle said he believes most parts of the county should be on sewer treatment, he added it’s something that must be carefully considered and involve both town officials and residents.
“In our county, there have been scandals over sewerage and the cost,” he said. “At a time when we’re talking about people finding it hard to make ends meet, they need to be involved in this decision. Referendums are a good thing because they express the will of the people.”
“This is a good place to discus this,” said Fleming. “Hampton Bays is the most densely populated part of Southampton Town and 70 percent of the East End is not sewered.”
“I agree we don’t want to rush through it,” said Fleming adding the issue is one that could potentially be addressed by the governor’s regional economic council. “We also need to look at alternatives and create solutions and find promising systems.”
While she applauds the idea of instituting a sewer system, Fleming cautioned that property owners would end up footing much of the bill.
“We need to look for incentives and ways to sponsor and support those efforts,” she added. “It’s a crisis situation.”
In closing the debate, LaValle expressed pride in his accomplishments and cited his partnership with State Assemblyman Fred Thiele as one that has allowed them “to get things done.”
“I think we’ve been very productive — $13 billon in debt has been eliminated, we’ve increased state aid, and given $690 million in tax cuts to taxpayers with the two percent cap,” he said. “But the thing I’m proudest of is what we’ll do in Southampton with the hospital being integrated into Stony Brook Medical Center. It will bring top healthcare, more jobs and become a vibrant part of Southampton.”
In her final remarks, Fleming reiterated her service to the Southampton community as a councilwoman and stressed the need for new blood in Albany.
“I started a teen market that sold produce in Flanders, I got utility workers to remove damaged and ugly poles, fixed the town’s damaged credit rating and instituted internal controls to take care of taxpayer’s dollars,” she said. “Senator LaValle is more concerned with aligning with ultra conservatives. He voted against same sex marriage, and equal pay for women. In these economic times you need someone who serves all, including women and families. I would love for you to be a partner in that quest.”