AN HONOR AND PRIVILEGE
As I am sure most of you know this is my last column as your Mayor. I have served on the Board of Trustees (BOT) since 2005 and during the past 12 years there has been a 360-degree change in how the Village has been managed. I was pleased to have had the opportunity to initiate some of the changes and work on the rest.
CHANGES TO HOW VILLAGE IS MANAGED
For example, the Chief of the Garden City Fire Department, a volunteer firefighter, now takes his rightful seat along with the other Executive Staff members at Board of Trustees meetings. Since 2005, mostly through attrition, the one company of paid firefighters has been reduced from over 30 to 15 without a diminution in service. Due to hard work, commitment to public service and vigorous recruiting efforts, 15 new volunteers have jointed our Fire Department within the past two years.
Twelve years ago, we had over 300 Village employees. Thanks to consolidation of functions and increased efficiency, the number has been reduced to approximately 260 with no diminution of services.
In the past, the Village has had significant problems with cost overruns and timely completion of major construction projects. By applying the time-tested due-diligence techniques used in my years as a construction lender, building our new Senior/Community Center was completed on time and within budget. The same is true of the recent renovations made to Cluett Hall and the Feringa Fieldhouse. Construction of a new artificial baseball field at Community Park was a vastly overdue improvement needed for safety reasons, and the first step in a long-range plan to improve all of our playing fields and associated buildings.
Our Community Pool complex, which is one of the most attractive facilities of its type on Long Island, has undergone complete renovations to the locker rooms and restrooms, as well as the pool and deck areas, with improvements to the snack bar and more to the sundeck areas planned for the 2017 season.
I am pleased to say that with improved budgeting and reporting methods, we have been able to keep below the New York State-mandated property tax cap, which has enabled residents to receive annual tax refunds.
In 2015, with the help of the Eastern Property Owners’ Association (EPOA) and many volunteers, people united and convinced Nassau County to abandon its plan to widen the intersection at Stewart Avenue and Clinton Road to mirror the size of the intersection at Old Country Road. For over 30 years, the Village, EPOA and residents have opposed this plan, which clearly would have had a disastrous effect on the quality of life, appearance and property values in the adjacent neighborhoods, and cut into the Stewart School property. As Mayor, as well as a resident of the East, I was happy to support the residents’ opposition and pleased when Nassau County Legislator Laura Schaefer informed us at a Board of Trustees meeting that the project had been cancelled.
AMENDMENTS TO OUR BUILDING CODE
For many years, concerned residents have asked for changes to our Building Codes that would limit the size of new or expanded homes on smaller plots, which is extremely important because approximately 70 percent of the homes in Garden City are on 60 to 70 foot wide plots. As I promised in my campaign for Mayor, I called a meeting of the Joint Conference of the Four Property Owners’ Associations and tasked them with appointing representatives to serve on a committee to study our codes and recommend changes. The selected committee, representing all sections of the Village, included members with years of experience serving on the Architectural Design Review Board, the Zoning Board of Appeals and the POAs.
Mayor’s Committees are designed to be independent bodies free of undue influence by Trustees or the Mayor. The mission of the Committee was to enter into full review and discussion of the zoning code to include, but not be limited to, the charge to the Architectural Design Review Board contained therein, as well as the existing allowable height, width, overall bulk and setbacks of residential structures within the respective residential zones; and thereafter, propose amendments that preserved the unique character of the Village’s neighborhoods without denying an owner the right to improve his or her property while ensuring the right of neighboring property owners to continue to enjoy the character and curb appeal of theirs.
The Committee circulated their recommendations to the Board of Trustees, POAs, as well as other interested residents for comment or suggested changes. These true public servants did yeoman’s work and were always willing to accept suggestions. Although certain Trustees clearly disagreed with making changes to the code, in the end, the proposed Building Code amendments were unanimously approved by the Board and are reflective of the residents’ desire to preserve the existing character of our neighborhoods.
COMMUNICATING WITH NEIGHBORING VILLAGES
Over the past 12 years, I have participated in the Nassau County Village Officials Association (NCVOA), and for the past four, served on its Executive Board. I believe it is critical to exchange ideas and information with elected officials in neighboring Villages. For example, as the result of a recent discussion with the Mayor of Farmingdale, I found out about their plans for a new water tower with a type we had not considered. While the best type of new water tower for Garden City is still being decided, at least we have the benefit of additional information and cost analysis that we otherwise would not have the advantage of considering.
As a member of the NCVOA, I have attended legislative conferences in Albany. I believe it is important for the Mayor to attend these meetings and for the Mayor and Trustees to work within the NCVOA, building relationships with neighboring Villages at a time when the Governor and other forces in Albany are determined to replace Villages with “big government” that clearly is not responsive to local residents. A prime example is the LIRR Main Line Third Track project.
LIRR/MTA THIRD TRACK PROJECT
As you know, Governor Cuomo is pushing hard for construction of a 9.5 mile third track to be built between Hicksville and Floral Park at the current projected cost of $2 billion – up $1 billion from a year ago. As a “design and build” project, there are no definitive construction plans, no information as to where the work will actually begin or how many years it will take to complete and no clear statement proving the need for or purpose of the project. The only thing we would get out of this is one additional eastbound train, and one westbound, stopping per day. The benefit would be for freight and transporting garbage trains from Suffolk County through Nassau.
Garden City, New Hyde Park, Floral Park and the Town of Hempstead have cooperated in sharing the cost of a report done by Vertex, a highly respected environmental engineering firm we retained to review the 2,000-page Draft Environmental Review Statement (DEIS) produced by the MTA/LIRR. Initially, the Governor and his representatives planned to allow the minimal statutory time for public review and input on the DEIS. I worked with the NCVOA Executive Board and as a result of the letter the NCVOA president sent to Albany, the review period was extended by two weeks. This was enough additional time for Vertex to complete their Report which, along with a summary by Michael Murphy, Esq. from the environmental law firm of Beveridge & Diamond, is available on our Village website.
Vertex found major deficiencies in the DEIS which raise serious questions that, by law, deserve answers. The Vertex questions were submitted to the LIRR/MTA over one month ago and we still have no reply. Instead, the LIRR/MTA has engaged in a multi-million dollar campaign full of platitudes promoting the project and ignoring serious questions on health issues such as dangerous chemicals the LIRR used as defoliants.
At a press conference on March 24, Senators Hannon and Phillips, Assemblyman Ra, Nassau County Legislator Nicolello, Town of Hempstead Councilman Ambrosino, Town of North Hempstead Councilman Ferrara, Floral Park Mayor Tweedy, New Hyde Park Mayor Lofaro and I all spoke against spending your taxpayer dollars with no answers to the Vertex questions. Many residents from all three Villages attended as well as trustees and administrators from Floral Park and New Hyde Park. Although a week earlier I asked my fellow Board members and our Village Administrator to join me, a number of our residents asked why no one did.
Nearly two months ago, then-Deputy Mayor Daughney formed a committee of himself and Trustees DeMaro and Makrinos to direct how Garden City would deal with the Third Track Project, and the Committee was approved on consent of the other Board members. In response to my invitation to the March 24 press conference, he responded his Committee did not approve the event. Since the Committee has not reported on their activities, I can only encourage the POAs, our Environmental Review Board and all of you to press the Third Track Committee to tell you what they have done or plan to do in an effort to protect residents whose homes are at risk from the LIRR project.
I believe that local government has a duty to protect the business community and residents’ property values and quality of life when big government puts them at risk. In this situation, this should be our Village Board’s first order of business. The LIRR has already sent letters to residents and businesses along the Main Line informing them that their properties will be used “during construction” and we have been informed that by right of eminent domain, some Village property will be “taken.”
At least several trustees have indicated they believe the Third Track Project is a “done deal.” It isn’t. The money is not in the MTA’s $29 billion capital plan and a NYS committee of four officials must unanimously approve the additional money. Almost every week there are LIRR delays west of Floral Park due to inoperative switches, faulty signals and worn out tracks. Those of us who spoke at the press conference maintain that for “safety’s sake” these problems must be addressed before a third track is considered.
The Mayors of Mineola and Westbury openly support the Third Track Project. It is public knowledge that in exchange for their approval, they expect “givebacks” from the LIRR such as tiered parking garages and money for downtown rejuvenation projects with no regard for property owners adjacent to or in the vicinity of the Main Line. Several of our Trustees think dealing with the LIRR is a good idea, but at what cost to our residents?
In summation, I want to thank all my wonderful friends and neighbors who have supported me during my two years as Mayor, 10 years as a Trustee and as President and Director of the Eastern Property Owners’ Association. I especially want to thank the President, Officers and Directors of the EPOA for all their work for the people of Garden City. I also want to thank my wife, Dorothy, who has given me help and support during all this time.
I can leave public service knowing that policies I supported and actions I took were for the benefit of the people and were not motivated by my personal preferences. It has been an honor and privilege to serve as a Village Trustee and your Mayor.