LISTEN: From parking to power plants, village candidates debate the issues

03/11/2015 5:00 AM |
(L-R) Greenport Village Trustee candidates David Murray, Doug Roberts, jack Martilotta and William Swiskey during Tuesday night's debate. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

(L-R) Greenport Village Trustee candidates David Murray, Doug Roberts, jack Martilotta and William Swiskey during Tuesday night’s debate. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

In a nearly three-hour debate Tuesday night, Greenport Village trustee candidates Jack Martilotta, David Murray, Doug Roberts and William Swiskey tackled the major issues of the campaign, from code enforcement and sewer district fees to health benefits for trustees and infrastructure repairs.

We’ve compiled each candidate’s answers from the debate, which was held at the United Methodist Church and moderated by village resident and business owner Rena Wilhelm.

Trustee health benefits:

Mr. Murray said he wasn’t ashamed to admit that he takes the health package available to trustees. “We do a lot of work for the village,” he said. The benefits cost about $88,000 and are paid through three village reserves: electric, sewer and general fund, Mr. Murray said.

Mr. Roberts said he wouldn’t take the benefits if elected, saying the village “can’t afford this.” Mr. Martilotta said he’d rather see money allocated for health benefits spent in the three reserves it comes from. Mr. Swiskey disputed Mr. Murray’s claim about how health benefits are funded through three separate reserves and said all $88,000 could be placed into a general reserve to be used elsewhere.

Transparency and civility at Village Board meetings:

Mr. Roberts said the village website needs to be updated so residents can remain informed and easily access public documents. He also called the tone of public meetings “unconscionable,” calling for more opportunities for the public to speak in a structured format. Mr. Martilotta agreed, but said the larger issue was a lack of long-term planning. He said civility will return if the village has a clear “overarching theme or goal.”

Mr. Swiskey slammed the village’s response time to Freedom of Information requests, which he claimed takes up to a month. “We need to allow the public to speak,” he said. “If I’m on the board, I’ll answer any question.”

Mr. Murray said the village’s staff works hard to get FOIL requests back quickly, though they sometimes need additional time to pull the information from various departments. “We do not have the staff to get everything on the website immediately,” he said, adding a website upgrade wouldn’t be cheap.

Jack Martilotta (Credit: Grant Parpan)

Jack Martilotta (Credit: Grant Parpan)

Trustee oversight of mayoral appointees:

Mr. Martilotta said he believes the mayor should have the ability to appoint people to positions within the village, but said those members should “work for the board.” He said the Village Board should provide clear direction to those appointees based on a long-term plan for the village.

Mr. Swiskey said trustees should be able to interview candidates. Mr. Murray said the proposal was a good idea, but said finding people to fill the positions is often difficult. “Hopefully, that doesn’t scare people off from doing these,” he said.

Mr. Murray praised current Mayor David Nyce for doing a “very good job” filling the positions. He also said the village’s various committees are “very communicative,” something Mr. Roberts took issue with. Mr. Roberts said the village government needs to earn back residents’ trust and be more approachable. He said the Village Board should review and ratify appointees.

Power plant upgrades and renewable energy:

Mr. Swiskey called phase one of the power plant upgrades a “mess,” noting he oversaw a power plant upgrade while he worked as the village utilities director and described the project as being “under-budget” and “on-time.” Mr. Swiskey said he believes the power plant isn’t fully working. Mr. Murray disputed that, adding the Village Board knew the power plant upgrade wouldn’t be quick or easy.

“We went into this knowing this was going to be a difficult thing to do,” he said. Mr. Murray said village administrator Paul Pallas is “dissecting” the problems that have occurred and plans to address them as additional upgrades are made. Mr. Roberts said he would pursue grants to improve the village’s electrical grid. Mr. Martilotta questioned how much had already been spent on the power plant and whether the investments were worth it.

On renewable energy, Mr. Swiskey said adding solar panels would “drive price up” for consumers. Mr. Murray agreed that solar wouldn’t work for the village, but both Mr. Roberts and Mr. Martilotta said the village must plan for energy production of the future.

Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan:

Mr. Murray said the village’s Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan was ready to be released, but the state held up the process after requesting format changes. “This is nothing we have to rush into,” he said. “We want to do this right.”

Mr. Roberts said the Village Board could already be implementing some of the “interesting” ideas in the plan. Mr. Martilotta said the village should focus on promoting aquaculture to create jobs and to protect the local waterways. Those items are mentioned in the plan, he said, but no action has been taken. Both he and Mr. Roberts said the village should ask residents for their thoughts on the plan.

Mr. Swiskey said Mr. Murray’s explanation didn’t make sense, saying he believes the report should have been ready to be approved by now and claimed that someone “dropped the ball.”

David Murray (Credit: Grant Parpan)

David Murray (Credit: Grant Parpan)

Infrastructure and revenue:

Mr. Roberts said that while the village’s code enforcement officer works hard, he believes more could be done to improve safety concerns like overcrowded homes and dangerous buildings. He said money saved from not offering health benefits to trustees could be used to offset a bond for road repairs. Grants could also help cover the cost, he added. Mr. Martilotta described the village’s road and sidewalk conditions as poor. “The kids get seasick when I’m pushing them around town,” he said.

Mr. Martilotta said the village should be “actively pursuing” grants and other sources of funding to pay for the repairs. He said other villages have had engineering studies to prioritize road repairs, something he believes is needed in Greenport.

Mr. Murray said the village is already creating such reports. He also said the village’s refinanced debt makes it easier to bond for repairs and agreed repair work is desperately needed. Mr. Murray said an electrical upgrade on the east pier of the marina would add $75,000 to the village’s coffers. Mr. Roberts said the marina needs to be more profitable.

All the candidates agreed with Mr. Swiskey’s proposal to charge a $1 fee for cars traveling on the North Ferry to create more revenue. Mr. Swiskey said the fee could be used for road repairs.  Mr. Martilotta, Mr. Roberts and Mr. Swiskey all proposed sharing services with other municipalities.

The railroad dock and west pier:

Mr. Swiskey said the village should rent out the west pier or have the North Ferry company pay an equivalent amount. He said the village should try to “break even” on the railroad dock and brought up accusations from fisherman Sid Smith that the village tried to require a higher insurance for his boat. “Why the Village Board tried to kick Sid Smith off the dock is beyond me,” he said.

Mr. Murray said Mr. Smith wasn’t kicked off the dock, but was instead made to carry the village’s required insurance policy. He said state fishing regulations are keeping fisherman off the dock — not the village. He agreed that the west pier should be rented out.

Mr. Roberts said he would bring residents who have expertise with fishing into village meetings to get their input. He suggested outsourcing the management of the marina or raising rates as dock space becomes scarce. “We have to squeeze every dollar possible out at those docks,” he said. He also expressed concerns about the Firefighter boat’s location at the railroad dock.

Mr. Martilotta agreed, saying fellow servicemen worked on Firefighter and suggested the village end its agreement.

Peconic Landing’s sewer deal:

Mr. Murray said the public didn’t have the right to know about the deal before it was approved. “Certain things we can’t leak out before the deal is done,” he said. Mr. Murray said the deal was advantageous to the village, a “top dollar” amount based on a new formula that had Peconic Landing pay more for its expansion than it had for larger construction projects. Mr. Murray also cited Peconic Landing’s reputation in the village as a “wonderful organization” that donates time and funding for village projects.

The three other candidates took issue with the deal. Mr. Roberts said the agreement seemed like a “pay to play” scenario, with Peconic Landing getting a favorable deal in exchange for donations. Mr. Roberts said emotions shouldn’t play a role in what was a business decision. Mr. Martilotta expressed concern that the village had used up some of the sewer capacity, which he feels is a valuable asset. Mr. Swiskey also took issue with the sewer deal, claiming the village had lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Doug Roberts (Credit: Grant Parpan)

Doug Roberts (Credit: Grant Parpan)

Tall Ships event:

Mr. Roberts said since three trustees attended Tall Ships meetings, the meetings should have been opened to the public since there was a quorum. He called for more transparency about how much money is being spent on the event. Mr. Martilotta was also concerned about the cost, which he claimed is difficult to figure out due to the event plan’s secrecy.

Mr. Murray said this year’s Tall Ships event will cost about $275,000. He expects to $200,000 in tickets will be sold, with enough additional funding from the Greenport Business Improvement District and other sponsors to make a profit. Mr. Swiskey said he didn’t like the village taking a “gamble” with the event. “That’s $300,000 of your money,” he said to the audience. “You better pray it don’t rain.”

Code enforcement:

Mr. Martilotta said the village’s code enforcement officer needs “direction and purpose.” He said safety concerns, like dangerous properties or overcrowding, should be addressed first before ticketing smaller offenses. He also said some sections of the code aren’t enforced and have been ignored.

Mr. Swiskey said the Village Board should change the building codes to ease restrictions and make it work for residents. He also called for equal enforcement by the village. As an example of unfair enforcement, Mr. Swiskey brought up North Fork Smoked Fish House, which he said is leasing property owned by Trustee Mary Bess Phillip and was allowed to remain open without obtaining proper approvals.

Mr. Murray said the village handled the North Fork Smoked Fish situation correctly because the issue was addressed in meetings. Mr. Murray said the new code enforcement officer has been focused on addressing snow violations. He said the village can’t focus on some parts of the code while also avoiding selective enforcement. “You guys want code enforcement, but then you get pissed off when we issue tickets,” he said.

Mr. Roberts said the code enforcement officer should have goals set by the Village Board about which issues he should address first. Mr. Roberts also advocated for more communication between the village and residents over smaller code enforcement issues.

Building permits:

Mr. Swiskey said the board should go after outstanding building permit fees. As an example of when unpaid fees could be demanded, he cited the Village Board’s recent decision to grant approval for a construction project at Brewers Yacht Yard. “We could’ve held them up,” he said. “I don’t care if you’re Jack Brewer or anybody else. I’m looking out for the village first.” He also said the code needs to be revamped.

Mr. Murray said the building department has seen more permits now than ever before. He praised how The village building department has kept up with permits and said the department only has one employee. Mr. Murray also took credit for helping implement the rental permit law.

Mr. Roberts said the code should be changed to “maintain safety, but remove restrictions.” He said the permits shouldn’t be an impediment to businesses or discourage growth and renovations in the village.

Mr. Martilotta said the Village Board could reach out to neighboring municipalities to see about sharing services related to building permits.

William Swiskey (Credit: Grant Parpan)

William Swiskey (Credit: Grant Parpan)

Parking:

“Parking is an issue we’re always going to have here,” Mr. Murray said. “We’re not going to solve it here right now.” Mr. Murray brought up a parking meter proposal that would have addressed downtown traffic, but said the plan was scrapped after local business owners rejected it.

Mr. Roberts called for an urban planning study to find solutions for ease traffic. “There are grants galore to pay for this,” he said. He also said the Village Board should be open to less conventional ideas, like turing roadways into walking areas and building a parking garage. Mr. Roberts said trustees should also volunteer to help enforce parking codes after hours.

Mr. Martilotta suggested a sticker system to help the village catch violators. He also proposed turning sections of roads into a one-way street. “We need to start thinking outside the box,” he said.

Mr. Swiskey said issues with event parking are a part of Greenport and “we have to live with it.” He said that the code enforcement office should be working after hours to catch people violating parking rules at night.

Short-term rentals:

Mr. Roberts said he was concerned that focusing on short-term rental codes would interfere with what he believes are larger issues related to safety. “We have much bigger fish to fry than that,” he said. “We can’t over legislate this.”

Mr. Martilotta said owner-occupied homes who are renting out their homes should not be regulated, and said current rental and quality of living laws should be enforced to eliminate problematic renters.

Mr. Swiskey took the opposite approach, saying short-term renters should have to register their homes and be subject to standards similar to the ones hotels and bed-and-breakfast establishments must adhere to.

Mr. Murray said he supports a “happy medium” between overregulation and total registration. He suggested waiting for the state to issue its opinion on short-term rentals before putting village rules in place.

Events at Mitchell Park:

Mr. Roberts and Mr. Martilotta both proposed opening the park up for events that are free to the public and “provide cultural or educational experiences to parkgoers.” Mr. Martilotta  said businesses make money from customers going to events in the park, but said the Village Board hasn’t set clear rules. He proposed setting up a committee to oversee events.

Mr. Roberts said the Village Board should have a better relationship with the Friends of Mitchell Park community group and allow it to collect cash. Mr. Murray said auditors specifically advised the village on how to collect money, and allowing an outside group to handle village money isn’t permissible. He said the park should only be open to village-sponsored events.

Mr. Swiskey said the Village Board should lift the moratorium on events in Mitchell Park.

Snow removal:

Mr. Murray said village employees are working overtime to remove snow. He said it would cost the village more than $5,000 to remove snow that businesses are responsible for shoveling.

Mr. Roberts, Mr. Martilotta and Mr. Swiskey said the village should focus less on enforcing those who don’t shovel snow and more on shoveling the snow itself. “It’s a service that we’ve absolutely got to figure out how to provide,” Mr. Roberts said. Mr. Martilotta described the snow situation as “unsafe.”

Mr. Swiskey said the village should be able to find money to pay for snow shoveling services.

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