A community caved in
Rob Miller and Chris Anderson

Provided

A community caved in

Story By: TARA SMITH
3/16/2017


It’s not over ‘til it’s over.

In November, Mastic Beach residents turned out in the thousands, voting to decide the fate of their young village. It came down to 1,922 dissolve votes to 1,215 for saving the village. In the weeks leading up to the referendum, things got ugly in the 5.3 square-mile shorefront village. Accusations, rumors and insults were thrown, followed by cries to heal and unite as a community after the Nov. 16 vote.

This Thursday, March 16, the village board will hold a public hearing on its proposed dissolution plan, which will be carried out by an incoming administration to be elected on Tuesday, March 21. 

A look back 

The hamlet incorporated as a village in 2010, as frustrations brewed over neglect from Brookhaven Town. Residents felt that village incorporation would give the community local control over issues, a way to pull themselves up by their boot straps. 

After Paul Breschard, now deceased, led the local effort and the Mastic Beach Exploratory Committee in 2009, residents voted to incorporate the following year: 17,797 for, 1,385 against in a hard-fought win.

“There’s a house down the block with a mattress on the lawn and debris,” Breschard pointed out to the Advance in 2009. “It takes a long time for the town to address something like this. We’re in an area that’s the size of a small state and on the extreme end of Brookhaven Town. With an incorporated village, that would be taken care of immediately and the owner would go before the village court in a week.” 

Breschard would go on to become the first mayor of Mastic Beach, assuring residents that taxes would not be raised. In their new village, residents sought more diligence from code enforcement officials to address the high number of vacant homes and illegal renters. They wanted to take the community back, many claiming that the area had become a “dumping ground” for criminals and sex offenders. 

It sounded too good to be true and, in some ways, it was. 

“We lowballed everything,” Breschard explained to the Advance in 2009, stating that initial budget planning was aligned with spending in other villages. He added that fines not currently being collected would add to that fund, coming from illegal renters paying for permits and fines for property owners who let things go awry.
Taxes did not increase for village homeowners until 2016, when Mayor Maura Spery presented the board with a $4.7 million spending plan. The jump, Spery explained, resulted from a $427,000 overspending error for road maintenance. Spery also said they used the entirety of the $350,000 surplus funds for insurance and other legal fees. 

“I overspent — I admit that,” Spery said in an interview earlier this week. “But a village, especially a new village, cannot be tax neutral,” she said, comparing it to any new start-up. “You can’t start a business without capital expenses,” she said, claiming that creating a new village on a tax-neutral basis was a false pretense.

The board eventually adopted a $3.8 million budget, which meant the village could only provide the “bare minimum” when it came to services, Spery said. “We couldn’t fill potholes, we couldn’t properly clean the streets or drains,” she said, reflecting on her final year as mayor. 

Then, last summer, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the Mastic Beach rating from A1 to Ba1. The report states that the outlook is negative, which will downgrade all future debt. Downgrading to Ba1 reflects a rapidly deteriorating fund balance and liquidity position that resulted from three consecutive years of operating at a deficit. The poor rating also factored in the limited tax base and below-average wealth levels for the region.

With a bare-minimum budget, the village was also unable to meet the community’s needs in terms of code enforcement. In the preliminary dissolution plan adopted by the village board on Feb. 1, 2017, the current staff of one part-time code supervisor and two and a half full-time equivalent code enforcement officers is not enough. “Assuming no new problems develop, it would take almost 23 years to address all the potential current code problems,” it states. 

With no capital improvement budget, the village, in its six years, has paved two miles out of 84 centerline miles of roadway. 

“The village cannot provide adequate services to meet the community’s needs without substantially increasing taxes,” the plan states.

More tax hikes proved to be the last straw for village residents, who voted to dissolve in November. Prior to the referendum, Spery said that if Mastic Beach was to remain a village, homeowners could see an increase of up to 400 percent to provide all essential services and work to improve quality-of-life issues. That could have meant up to an extra $1,200 each year, Spery said. Dissolving the village, she explained, would mean a tax increase of just 22 percent.

Village residents also learned that dissolution would mean a $1 million Citizens Empowerment Tax Credit that Brookhaven Town would be eligible for if they absorbed Mastic Beach. Article 78A of New York State’s General Municipal Law states that of the $1 million, at least $700,000 must be used to lower taxes townwide and the remaining $300,000 can be used at the supervisor’s discretion. 

For many — even those who had hoped to preserve their village — optimism is key in moving forward. Since the initial petition was filed in August, Frank Fugarino, president of the Pattersquash Creek Civic Association, had been a vocal opponent of village dissolution. Fugarino saw village preservation as the only option in which local residents could control their quality of life and other issues. Since the referendum results were validated at a December board meeting, he remains cautiously optimistic. “There are many quality-of-life issues and future plans for our community that I and my association members look forward to contributing to,” he said. “We love our Mastic Beach and want to continue to be part of its future development.”

The aftermath of dissolution

Mastic Beach did not return to the town overnight. Dissolution, Laberge Group officials explained, is a process that can take up to two years. But Mastic Beach officials have been eager to begin the governmental reorganization. 

A dissolution committee was quickly formed, consisting of Spery, trustee Joseph Johnson and resident Robert Miller, who is now running to take Spery’s seat in the upcoming election. Working alongside town officials, Spery said that Mastic Beach will now receive services at a lower cost than the village could have provided. 

They will still have to pay off debts from their stint as an incorporated village, a burden Spery sees as feasible. “We’ve only been a village for six years, so we don’t have that much,” she said. 

The dissolution plan, presented at a board meeting in February, focuses on fiscal impacts and how dissolution will be implemented. 

The fiscal estimate is $804,000: $304,000 for two full-time building inspectors and two clerical staff, $250,000 for two part-time code enforcement officers, one law department investigator and one clerk typist and $250,000 for additional street maintenance responsibilities. “They’re going to need to bump up the staff to pick up the slack down here,” Spery said of the increase. The CETC grant, according to the plan, will help offset these costs. 

Projected tax rates for village property owners are expected to be $23.07, an increase of $3.37 per $100 of assessed value. If 100 percent of the CETC is used to reduce taxes, the estimated increase would instead be $22.85 annually. 

“We are trying to get residents back to the town with as little tax liability as possible,” Spery explained, noting that a large part of that would mean liquidating village assets. “That could mean an auction or separate realtors. We will find the most efficient and judicious way to liquidate everything,” Spery explained, hoping to get the best prices to help pay off village debt. 

“It’s time to move on and do what the people voted for,” she said, noting that any opposition to the plan is a “last effort” to save the village, or at least prolong its life. 

“Taxes will go up this spring if we expect potholes to be filled and drains and streets to be cleaned,” Spery said, noting that the lack of those services left the village “a mess.” 

The town, Spery hopes, will be able to step in with Intermunicipal Agreements to offset some of those burdens, but cannot legally do so until mid-May, unless any petitions opposing the dissolution plan are filed. The dissolution plan states that the following IMAs will be used to carry out dissolution: A highway IMA to cover street sweeping, drainage, pothole repair, line repainting and snow removal; a wetlands IMA to regulate wetland areas and use a $500,000 village grant for alternative septic systems to tear down homes destroyed by Superstorm Sandy instead, as well as a code enforcement and building IMA.

“We’re going to start making improvements right away, as soon as we are legally able to do so,” said Supervisor Ed Romaine on working with Mastic Beach. Councilman Dan Panico spoke to Mastic Beach residents to ease their minds about the change. “I am interested in working with those who are passionate to see Mastic Beach reach its potential.  Those who seek to divide residents with false information or to settle past grievances will only make this process more difficult. It is time to come together,” he said.

Romaine and Panico have been working alongside the dissolution committee on the transition. “They have been great partners,” Spery said, noting that the transition will help Mastic Beach in its “next phase.” 

“We’ll get downtown revitalization, sewers downtown, our waterfronts fixed for ecotourism. The road ahead to me is very bright,” Spery said, adding that she is looking forward to her life in Mastic Beach as a resident and possible business owner. “I’m all in on this,” she said.

As for this year’s budget, Spery declined to comment on the outlook or projected tax increases. “I will not be mayor, so the new administration can vote in whatever budget they choose.”

An incoming administration

On March 21, Mastic Beach Village will hold an election to fill three open seats on the board as terms expire in April for mayor and two trustees. Despite voting to dissolve, NYS law requires that an election still be held for the open positions. 

Current trustee Chris Anderson, 33, is running for mayor with Diana Soldano and Chris Ricciardi for trustees on the ticket. 

Earlier this month, the village board filed a lawsuit to remove Anderson for allegedly sharing confidential village records and information with unauthorized people. “[Anderson] refused to take even minimal steps to protect the village and its residents,” the petition states, continuing that he granted unauthorized persons access to critical documents and secretly recorded conversations with village officials. Spery called the allegations “serious” and said that they were brought to her by other board members. “This isn’t me on a witch-hunt,” she said. “These are allegations brought up by his compatriots. I can’t blow it off or put it under the rug.” 

According to Anderson, allegations — false ones — are exactly what these are. “It’s nonfactual nonsense,” he said in response to the claims, and is shocked they are taking the action with only a month left in his term as trustee. According to Anderson, he has been locked out of at least four executive sessions and accused of recording those conversations. “Even when I took the battery out of my phone or put it in a box,” he said. “Then they accused me of recording them with my watch. My Samsung Gear Fit doesn’t have a microphone.”

Despite the he said she said, Anderson is focusing on his campaign, where he calls for no hidden agendas. “I want honest and transparent government all the way through,” he said. “We’ve had leaders be dishonest and financially irresponsible, so I want to focus on generating more revenue and getting the debt burden down before dissolution goes into effect.” 

One of his solutions is to create a streamlined process to get rental permits approved or renewed, something Anderson says has quite a bit of backlog. “We can’t change what happened. We can’t save the village,” Anderson said, acknowledging that some dissolve-party candidates see his candidacy as a last-ditch effort to save the village, which he was a public supporter of. 

Anderson said that he doesn’t see any outright problems in the plan released, but dislikes the way it was created. 

“It was behind closed doors,” he said of the committee, consisting of just three people. “I would have liked to see between five and 10 people, civic leaders from each association, members of the fire department or EMS, a business owner. Instead, we have three people who supported dissolution on the committee,” he said. Anderson said that he did not know of any current effort to petition the current plan, but said that if elected, he intends to involve the public in the discussions to come. 

On the dissolve party side, Bob Miller is running for mayor with Victor Viola and Fred Krege for trustees. Miller, 50, has lived in Mastic Beach his whole life and is running to carry out the plan he helped create. “We want to be the guys who move the plan forward and return peacefully,” Miller said of his running mates. 

Miller has worked for Brookhaven Town since 1984, most recently as a union maintenance mechanic. He helped start the initial dissolve petition, getting people out to vote to dissolve since the beginning. “So I think I should be the guy to finish this up,” Miller said, adding that he has enjoyed going door to door and meeting the community. “I’m here because I love the area,” Miller said, adding that he looks forward to working with the current Brookhaven Town administration. “Past administrations can’t hold a candle to [Ed Romaine and Dan Panico],” Miller said, adding that both have been champions of the area for years. 

“The projects will just roll forward. My great-grandfather had a vision that his great-grandchildren could walk to the waterfront and fish and crab ... I hope the town preserves all six miles as parkland, so it will be forever protected,” Miller said, noting his long Mastic Beach lineage. “It really is a beautiful community, but we’ll see what happens. I know I won’t have a full term as mayor but hope, if elected, I can accomplish a lot in terms of dissolution.”