The people of Shelter Island last week gave a patriotic hometown welcome the visiting members of the the First Cavalry’s Banshee Troop from Fort Drum, who served alongside Shelter Island’s own Joseph Theinert, the Army first lieutenant who was killed in Afghanistan a year ago.
The troops were escorted down State Route 114 — part of which has been renamed Lt. Joseph Theinert Memorial Way — along a route lined with banners, smiling friends and family and American flags waving from roadside utility poles.
But Island residents, and people across Long Island, were outraged when a front page story in Newsday on Monday reported that the Long Island Power Authority would be charging a $5 fee for mounting flags on its utility poles — even though town officials had believed the issue sesttled and that a fee would not be charged. The story spread to New York TV stations, which sent crews to Tuesday’s Town Board meeting to interview local officials.
Now politicians are challenging the power authority’s interpretation of a state law that LIPA officials say requires them to charge to display anything on their poles, including Old Glory.
County Legislature Ed Romaine complained in an interview Tuesday that most of the poles along the route belong to Verizon, not LIPA, and yet LIPA initially wanted to charge for all of them anyway. He said LIPA was an “out of control company” that “has done so many skunky things.” Verizon, he said, never demanded any fee.
He said the case was closed and no one on the Island would pay any fees. Verizon does allow for pole attachment fees “to be waived for commemorative ceremonies such as this,” said Verizon spokesperson John Bonomo. “We intend on waiving it in this case.”
As State Senator Ken LaValle put it, “The Long Island Power Authority’s assertion that it cannot allow the placement of American flags on its light poles without charging a fee is an over interpretation of the Public Authorities Law.”
Said Sen. Lavalle (R-Port Jefferson), “Section 2897 of The Public Authorities Law was never meant to be applied to patriotic displays. Rather, the law was meant to address leasing agreements with for-profit companies.”
The flags are now hanging from utility poles along lighted areas of Ferry Road from the South Ferry to North Ferry. They were installed by the Highway Department and funded by the American Legion Mitchell Post in preparation for Banshee Troop’s visit. The American Legion, along with Shelter Island Hardware, has spearheaded a movement to display the flags along the route every year from now on from Memorial Day through July 4.
Mitchell Post commander Mike Loriz said the Legion had raised $8,000 to buy and maintain the flags, poles and brackets and only half the money has been spent.
“A lot of people in our outfit are angry,” Mr. Loriz said of the fees to attach American flags to the poles. “I’m just astonished.”
The rate is $5 annually to use the poles, though the fee has been pro-rated to $1.25 for the flags to be displayed for two months. It would cost $23.75 in 2011 to use LIPA’s 19 poles, according to LIPA spokesperson Vanessa Baird-Streeter.
LIPA Chief Operating Officer Michael Hervey, who claims the state mandates that LIPA issue the charge, told Mr. Romaine in an e-mail last week that he would pay the fee out of his own pocket this year. Shelter Island Town Supervisor Jim Dougherty reported Tuesday afternoon that Mr. Hervey had done so and the matter of who would pay the fee had been closed.
Town Councilman Peter Reich commented, “It’s not about the fee; it’s about the principal.”
He said that, just as there is no sales tax on American flags, there should be no public utilities fee to display them.
Everyone seems to agree that state law must be changed.
“This matter must be addressed by the State Legislature to amend the law that prohibits state authorities from giving use of or disposing of their property for free,” LIPA’s Mr. Hervey said in a statement. “The unintended consequences of this law put us in an unfortunate predicament.
Mr. Dougherty said he’d had a conversation with Mr. Romaine earlier this week, who indicated that the fee would not come out of the pockets of anyone on Shelter Island.
“My understanding is we don’t have to pay it,” Mr. Dougherty said even before he had heard from Mr. Hervey. “No one has told me the contrary.”
Mr. Dougherty, in fact, anounced at a Town Board work session a week ago that no one in town would be required to pay the fee.
Councilman Reich commented he could understand the power authority charging to display a banner advertising a community event or fundraiser, but not for the Stars and Stripes.
“So many things in government are so ridiculous,” Mr. Reich said. “At some point, common sense has to prevail.”
On Tuesday evening, he was preparing to be interviewed at home by a New York TV station via Skype on the issue.