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Sag Harbor Candidates Discuss Issues

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Candidates Robby Stein, Bruce Stafford, John Shaka and Sandy Schroeder at a roundtable discussion.

By Stephen J. Kotz

The four candidates for Sag Harbor Village Board gathered in The Sag Harbor Express office last Thursday to outline their reasons for running and discuss how they planned to approach some of the key issues facing the village in the coming years at a roundtable discussion.

The election is Tuesday, June 17, with voting from noon to 9 p.m. at the firehouse on Brick Kiln Road.

Sandra Schroeder, a retired village administrator who fell short in a bid for mayor last year, is making her first run for a trustee seat, as is John Shaka, an active member of the group, Save Sag Harbor. Bruce Stafford, who served one term, from 2009 to 2011, is seeking to reclaim a seat, and Robby Stein, who is finishing his fifth year on the board, is seeking another term.

“The waterfront and water quality are important to me,” said Ms. Schroeder, echoing a concern also raised by Mr. Shaka and Mr. Stein. She also cited traffic, disappointment that the village was unable to settle a contract with its police union, and the need to invest in infrastructure, including the Municipal Building, Long Wharf and the sewage treatment plant.

“We need new things and we need new thinking,” she said, “and someone who is looking to the future at where we want to be.”

“I love this place,” said Mr. Shaka, who owns a painting business and has lived in Sag Harbor for 15 years. “The reason I’m running for trustee is I want to keep it beautiful and livable.”

Mr. Shaka called for better communication between the village and the school district to solve problems like traffic tie-ups at Pierson High School during drop-off and pickup times; a sharper focus on the environment, especially water quality; better efforts at historic preservation, citing the John Jermain Memorial Library expansion of an excellent example; and traffic calming, an initiative he has been deeply involved with in recent months.

Mr. Stafford, a landscaper who was born and raised in Sag Harbor, cited his local ties, including 36 years of service with the Sag Harbor Fire Department and his leadership role as chairman of the board of the Sag Harbor United Methodist Church.

He said there was a need to hold the line on taxes and cited his efforts to rein in spending while on the board.  He agreed that traffic is an issue but noted that options are limited because village streets are narrow because they “were made many, many years ago for horse and buggy.”

Calling Sag Harbor a great place to raise a family, Mr. Stafford added, “this is no longer our little home. It has been found. I’m just trying to keep it as long as possible.”

Mr. Stein, a therapist who now serves as deputy mayor, said there were many key issues facing the village, and cautioned against expecting easy fixes for any of them.

He said he was “passionate” about finding ways to manage “water and the health of the harbor and the way water is absorbed by this whole village.”

Mr. Stein said he would like to see the village review the code to see that it is keeping up with the times. The village, he added, needs to determine what infrastructure projects it will tackle first and where it can find new sources of revenue. An immediate challenge, he added, is that once the village police contract is finalized, the village will be headed right back to the bargaining table because of the short term of the new deal. He noted that negotiations have not been particularly cordial and said it was important to stabilize the contract for the long term because police costs account for more than half the budget.

“I think we really have to look at what our priorities are,” he said. “The character of the village is something we want to protect.”

When it comes to safeguarding water quality in the bay, Ms. Schroeder said a systematic plan needs to be put in place to install larger catch basins and dry wells to prevent as much initial runoff as possible. She also said she expected the village would eventually have to undertake a major upgrade of its sewage treatment plant.

The village will have to work with its neighboring towns and Suffolk County to tackle water monitoring and pollution abatement solutions.

“Sag Harbor can’t do it all by ourselves,” she said.

Mr. Stein, who has focused on runoff and water quality issues during his time on the board, disagreed.

“You can’t build big enough catch basins to hold the rainfall,” he said. It would be far more effective to try to retain as much rainwater on-site through porous natural solutions like rain gardens, which are typically planted depressions, which allow rainwater to be absorbed into the ground, he said.

He also disagreed that the sewage treatment plant needs to be expanded, saying it is operating at only about 30-percent capacity now.

Mr. Shaka said he was equally concerned about nitrogen seeping into the bay from overtaxed septic systems and said the village needs to collect baseline data of the situation by conducing regular water sampling.

He agreed with Ms. Schroeder that the village would be hard pressed to correct pollution on its own and said it would have to forge alliances with neighboring communities and levels of government to tackle the problem.

Mr. Stafford said the village could convert a portion of the Cilli Farm into a drainage and filtering area.

“Right now, it’s just a brushy pile of nothing down there,” he said, “and we’ve owned it for how many years?”

The ongoing contract dispute between the village and Sag Harbor Police Benevolent Association was also a source of concern.

“The bottom line is taxes,” said Mr. Stafford. “The smart thing to do is wait and see what the arbitrator is going to come back with and eventually put on a referendum and let the village taxpayers decide” if the village should maintain a department.

“I like having a police department,” he said, “I like having two on at one time.” But he added that the PBA has been unwilling to work with the village and suggested that the village would be better off going with a reduced force and hiring more part-time officers.

“If it goes to arbitration, you are in trouble,” said Ms. Schroeder. “Arbitration rarely benefits the village.”

Mr. Stein said the problem went deeper than negotiations. The village is limited because it can only hire officers from a local Civil Service list or the county list. He said the department would be able to hire young officers at lower wages if it could use the Southampton Town hiring list.

He said it was important that the police pay be controlled much as the village is controlling spending elsewhere.

“It has to be a consistent piece of the pie,” he said, adding that police will have to ask for smaller raises and contribute to their health care costs in the future.

“I like having an affordable police force,” said Mr. Shaka. “Let’s wait until the arbitration is in, but I can tell you what isn’t affordable—if police have 4-percent raises every year.”

All candidates, save Mr. Stafford who praised Mayor Brian Gilbride’s pay-as-you go approach, said the village would benefit by borrowing money now, while interest rates are at historic lows, to tackle major infrastructure projects, like repairing Long Wharf.

Mr. Stein said the village should lobby East Hampton and Southampton Town for a larger share of Community Preservation Fund money, which, he said, might be used to buy easements from waterfront property owners to plant buffers to protect the bay.

“There’s no property here,” he said. “We aren’t going to buy anything else. There’s only one thing left on the East End and that’s the water.”

Sag Harbor needs to ramp up its code enforcement and revisit its zoning code, the candidates agreed, if it wants to protect its character.

Mr. Stein said the zoning code should be updated to limit the construction of oversized houses on small lots, as well as not overly restrict commercial uses.

“Code enforcement would be a good place to start,” said Mr. Shaka. A leader of the fight against a plan to redevelop the Harbor Heights service station with a convenience store and other amenities, Mr. Shaka said such plans should be stopped in their tracks.

Mr. Stafford said he was particularly concerned about illegal rentals and overcrowding in homes.

All four candidates agreed that there could be better communication both among board members and with the public.

Mr. Stein called for a better website and regular newsletters to taxpayers. The board should also hold monthly work sessions, he said.

“If nobody says anything you don’t hear anything,” quipped Ms. Schroeder, who said the board needed to be willing to listen to people who may have more expertise than they do.

“If you get enough people talking, you’ll solve your problems,” she said.

 

Sag Harbor Village Board Race Coming into Focus

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By Stephen J. Kotz

With village elections a little more than five weeks away, at least four candidates have announced they will run for two openings on the Sag Harbor Village Board of Trustees, while one incumbent has said he will step down from the board. But the picture remains cloudy in North Haven, where no candidates have yet to file nominating petitions, although the mayor’s seat and four trustee positions are open.

The deadline for candidates who want to run for village board in either Sag Harbor or North Haven to turn in petitions to the village clerk of either municipality is by the close of business on Tuesday. Elections take place in both villages on June 17.

Sag Harbor Village Trustee Kevin Duchemin said on Tuesday that he would not seek another term. “I’ve discussed it with my wife and family and I’ve chosen not to run again,” said Mr. Duchemin, who is an East Hampton Village police officer. He would not provide specific reasons for his decision, but said he wanted to remain open to a future run for village office.

Mr. Duchemin said he would endorse incumbent Trustee Robby Stein, who is seeking another term, and former Village Clerk/Administrator Sandra Schroeder, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor  year ago, and has announced she will run for trustee.

They will be joined at this point by newcomer John Shaka, a board member of the Save Sag Harbor advocacy group and former Trustee Bruce Stafford, who served from 2009 to 2011.

In North Haven, Mayor Jeff Sander, who was appointed to his position to fill the unfinished term of Laura Nolan, who resigned, is up for re-election for a two-year term.

The seats of trustees George Butts and Diane Skilbred are also up for two-year terms. The seat of James Davis, who was appointed to complete Mr. Sander’s term as trustee, is up for a one-year term. The two highest vote-getters will win two-year terms.

All are members of the North Haven Party.

On Wednesday, North Haven Village Clerk Georgia Welch said representatives of the party had picked up petition packets but that none had been returned yet.

“I won’t know until I see [completed petitions] who will be running,” she said. “I don’t do ‘Rumor has it…’ I don’t sing that song well. Adele does it better.”

None of the North Haven candidates could not immediately be reached for comment by this edition’s deadline, but the four candidates in Sag Harbor were eager to share their goals for the village.

“I always have a list that I’m pecking away at,” said Mr. Stein, who is seeking his third term. Mr. Stein, who said he tries to be a voice for environmental concerns,   listed the need to reduce the amount of stormwater runoff and improve the health of the harbor and Sag Harbor Cove as priorities that need to be addressed on a continuing basis. He also said improving village information technology services, alleviating the village’s cramped parking situation, and completing the waterfront park as priorities that he would focus on if elected.

Mr. Shaka said traffic calming, improving water quality, and maintaining the village’s infrastructure were among the concerns he would work on if elected. He also said the village had to remain vigilant against inappropriate development.

“Everyone is in Sag Harbor because they love it. They love its quality of life,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t do anything.”

Ms. Schroeder, who worked for the village for more than 20 years in various capacities, echoed the calls for improving water quality by through reducing road runoff and controlling development, while adding that maintaining infrastructure along the waterfront was also key.

“I’m very concerned about our water quality,” she said. “We are a waterfront village. And we have to take care of our docks. They are our second largest source of income behind taxes.”

Mr. Stafford said he saw “a lot of unfinished things in the village that I’d like to help out on. I enjoyed being on the board. I enjoyed helping the people.”

Mr. Stafford said he has always been community-oriented and has served on the fire department for 36 years as well as chairman of he Sag Harbor United Methodist Church board, among other things.

“I’d like to address affordability,” he said of the high cost of living in Sag Harbor. Although Mr. Stafford said he no easy answers to provide more housing, he said on his first term he had worked to keep taxes low, which, he said, was the first step toward making the village affordable.

Last Time for Grievance Day?

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On Tuesday afternoon, Sag Harbor Mayor Greg Ferraris, trustees Brian Gilbride and Ed Gregory, and Village Hall Registrar Sandra Schroeder sat in the Municipal Building’s meeting room and waited for local residents to grieve their property tax assessments. The afternoon is referred to as ‘Grievance Day,’ and gives village property owners, who believe their properties have been over assessed, the chance to plea their case before the village board.

Overall, there were only three visitors, or grievers, who made it on Tuesday. According to Ferraris, this number was a little less than in previous years, but he added that a reassessment was done a few years ago. A number of grievances were mailed in and then forwarded to the Southampton Town Assessors office. These grievances, along with the claims of the three visitors, will be reviewed by the Southampton Town Assessors office, as the village doesn’t have an independent assessing office. The Southampton Town Assessment review board will be in charge of reviewing the grievances.
Hugh Merle, a lawyer from Westhampton, came before the board to present a village resident’s claim. Before taking on cases of over assessed property, Merle hires a licensed real estate appraiser to do a thorough appraisal, at the expense of the property owner.

“I want all of my ducks in a row before I present [the case] to the board,” said Merle. “Or else it’s not worth doing.”

This was the first time Merle represented a Sag Harbor property owner, since he usually handles assessments in Westhampton. Sometimes, reported Merle, he will come before the board on behalf of ten to fifteen different clients.

This might be the last year the Sag Harbor village board will hold a Grievance Day. After East Hampton Town completes a town wide assessment at one-hundred percent assessment value, the village board will likely be removed as an assessing unit. With the current process, there is duplication because each grievance case presented to the village is always forwarded to Southampton Town.

“Even though [Grievance Day] is our duty, it is somewhat of a waste of taxpayer money,” said Ferraris. “But until the town of East Hampton completes an assessment, we will continue to hold a Grievance Day.”