Saturday, November 18, 2006

Affordable housing - are there really any answers?

We've had a back-and-forth debate on affordable housing on the letters pages of The Suffolk Times in the past few months. A retiree from East Marion, John Copertino, has been a vocal opponent of municipal-sponsored affordable housing initiatives, like the Factory Avenue plan in Mattituck, claiming that these housing developments will cause taxes to rise and hurt seniors on fixed incomes. He's also said things like the younger generation needs to learn the meaning of sacrifice and suggested that if the young people can't afford to live here they should quit whining and move away. (He notes that he couldn't afford to live where he preferred to when he and his wife were just starting out, so they moved to a more affordable location and he commuted a greater distance to work, etc.)

While I don't agree with Mr. Copertino, I also don't see any real solutions to the housing crisis on the horizon. A dozen or two subsdized homes here or there won't make a dent in the problem. And it IS a crisis. Because communities need a diverse demographic to maintain good health. And our community is poised to become very unhealthy in that respect.

Riverhead's stated plan to build rental housing downtown could help young people (and seniors for that matter). But what about the American Dream of home ownership? Is that lost forever on the North Fork for the generation now coming up and starting their own families? My kids are young teens. I'm figuring there's no way they're going to be able to afford to buy a house in the community where their family has lived for generations. (While I'm a transplant — I grew up in Brooklyn and Coram — my husband has lived in Riverhead his whole life, as did his parents. His dad's mother's family, the Young family, were some of the first settlers of the North Fork.) This is our home, our town. We want to spend the rest of our lives here, but not if it means sacrificing being around our children and grandchildren. I think that if things were not so out-of-whack on Long Island, our kids would at least have the option of settling here too. But that's out of the question as far as I can tell. My hope for the long term future is that they choose to plant roots not to far from each other, so that we may follow them and be near both of their families, and be able to know our grandchildren growing up.

What's happened to real estate prices on LI represents the free market economy at its worst. It's supply and demand. The location of this little spit of land, next to one of the greatest metropolises on earth, surrounded by beautiful bodies of water, make it a most desirable place. For people like me and my family, that means being priced out of the market.

The ramifications of this state of affairs are far-reaching. For business owners, it means being unable to find qualified people to fill skilled labor jobs. I have personal experience there too. We can't recruit people from out of the area because they can't afford to buy a home or live here. We must "hire from within" and the pool of applicants is shrinking. For people like Mr. Copertino, it will eventually mean a crisis in the shortage of people available to do the work that needs to be done for the seniors on fixed incomes. The firefighters, rescue volunteers, nurses, nurses' aides and other health care workers, the auto mechanics, plumbers, electricians, and all other home improvement contractors, landscapers — the WORKERS — are going to become more and more scarce. And (thanks to the supply and demand economy) expensive. Some people decry the "illegals" working locally and advocate shipping them all back to Mexico or Guatemala. Not so fast! They're going to be the only people left who are able to do the work that needs to be done. And things that people volunteered to do (fire and rescue services) for instance, will have to be done by paid municipal workers. And that will make local taxes go up.

So, we NEED young people here. And we have to figure out a way to make it feasible to stay here. Living in Dad's basement isn't the answer. Neither is 22 "affordables" here and there. This is something I've beent thinking about for almost 20 years now. (Riverhead did its first affordable housing development during my term on the Town Board.) I don't see an answer yet.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Mark Houraney saga

Mark Houraney is the poster child for everything that's wrong with the Calverton Enterprise Park.

He wanted to run the airport there, and Councilman Ed Densieski and Supervisor Bob Kozakiewicz wanted him to do it — in spite of a clear message against an airport by the voters in a referendum several years ago. So they made sure not to call it an airport, but they were intent on putting in place all the trappings of an airport. And that included a fixed base operator — the guy with the right to sell fuel, maintain a terminal, maintain the runway and control access to it. Enter Mark Houraney. While they weren't calling him the FBO, the management agreement they negotiated with him and were set to approve in the spring of 2003 was actually an agreement to make him the airport's FBO.

Mr. Houraney believed he was going to make a ton of money at it. The dollar loss he claimed in his breach of contract action in federal court was $50 million.

He was so eager to begin — and so certain the deal was done — that he started marketing his plan on the Internet before his management agreement was approved — publicly, at least — by the Town Board. The Town Board had one brief public meeting on the deal, which is how I learned of it. But the whole thing was negotiated behind closed doors, in executive session, or privately in officials' offices. It was a done deal, until we published a front page story on Dec. 19, 2002, disclosing it for what it was, using Mr. Houraney's own words from his Web site. There, he offered Calverton to business executives as an alternative to New York City's crowded airports, just a short helicopter ride from Manhattan. He also offered jet charter service into and out of the site. And aircraft fueling, storage and maintenance.

So, just as the Town Board was poised to ink Mr. Houraney's 20-year management agreement — which, among other things, gave him the exclusive right to develop regulations governing the use of the runway — without ever airing the terms of the that agreement in public, The News-Review went to press with the story of what Mr. Houraney was actually planning to do at EPCAL, drawing attention to the fact that the town was proceeding without a bidding process, which seemed a clear violation of applicable law. And people went ballistic.

Mr. Houraney's plans — hatched, it seemed to us, with airport proponents Ed Densieski and Steve Kirschenbaum — sputtered, stalled and skidded off the runway.

But Mr. Houraney had ensconced himself in an office at the top of the old Grumman control tower, which he was leasing from a company that had purchased the building from developer Jan Burman — the man who bought the entire developed area at EPCAL, known as "the industrial core," from the town for $17 million, dubbed "the great Grumman giveaway" by Koz and Ed in their successful 1999 election campaign.

Mr. Houraney was there because, without much public attention, the Town Board in October 2002 had already signed a runway use agreement with him. From his perch atop the control tower, he pursued his plans, even though the FBO deal wasn't signed. He bought equipment, including fuel tanks. He applied to the FAA for various approvals, some of which Mr. Kozakiewicz signed off on as town supervisor. And he had, pursuant to his runway use agreement, the right to use the runway.

2003 was a bad year for Mr. Houraney. First, The News-Review stalled his FBO plans, which, it turned out, were permanently scuttled. Then things went sour between him and Steve Kirschenbaum. It's still not clear to me what their relationship was or how Mr. Kirschenbaum fit into Mr. Houraney's airport dreams. But they did share that airport dream. And in furtherance of that dream, they planned the New York Air Show, which Mr. Kirschenbaum and his airport ally Joe Van de Wetering pitched to the Town Board as a fundraiser for Central Suffolk Hospital, where Mr. Van de Wetering served as chairman of the board of directors. For that "good cause," the town gave the air show use of the facility at no charge, except the reimbursement of town police costs of $50,000.

The public will probably never know how much money Mr. Kirschenbaum made off the air show. He drew payments during the planning stages and never provided the town with a complete accounting of the cash that came in at the gate over the course of the weekend. Cars were backed up bumper to bumper from the EPCAL entrance on Route 25 in Calverton to LIE Exit 68 at William Floyd Parkway. But somehow, the air show was a bust and the hospital wasn't going to see a plug nickel — until this newspaper got all over Mr. Kirschenbaum's case and he forked up a $5,000 donation to the event's supposed beneficiary. The town didn't even get its police costs reimbursed. And its pursuit of the matter has been, at best, impotent. I'm resigned to having these questions remain forever unanswered. And I guess I'm the only person in town that's still bothered by this "mystery" — and by the fact that Mr. Kirschenbaum and Mr. Van de Wetering are both principals in Grumman Memorial Park, another not-for-profit venture using town-owned land at EPCAL.

Mr. Houraney says his relationship with Mr. Kirschenbaum went south after Steve decided to take the air show fuel concession away from him and sell it to an Islip-based company for a $25,000 fee. Selling fuel at the air show was to have made Mr. Houraney a tidy sum, and he was hopping mad. Feeling betrayed, he proceeded to do whatever he could to get back at his former friend, including coming to me with Quicken printouts of the air show's operating account. I was very surprised to hear from Mark when he called shortly before the air show was to take place. Since I'd played a big part in mucking up his FBO plans, I was no friend of Mark Houraney's. Why would he be tipping me off on a story like this? The desire for vengeance will do strange things to people.

Mr. Houraney's attempts to get back at Steve Kirschenbaum didn't stop there. He called the FAA, complaining that the runway was in unsafe condition. He sent photos of town highway department workers patching potholes in the runway. He called and wrote and met with the supervisor. If he was going to be cut out of the air show, he was going to do everything he could to make sure it didn't happen.

But Supervisor Kozakiewicz had the opposite resolve. After the Field Day debacle that summer — the three-day big name concert that was canceled at the last minute because the county determined that the town didn't have adequate law enforcement plans in place — Koz, who was facing reelection that fall, could not afford another EPCAL embarrassment. (The multimillion dollar Field Day lawsuit is still pending.) The air show was going to happen and if Mr. Houraney got in the way, he would be eliminated. Figuratively speaking, of course.

And that's exactly what happened. Mr. Houraney demanded that the air show pay him $25,000 to forfeit use of the runway for the weekend of the event, as others with runway use rights had been paid to keep off the runway. His former friend Steve told him to get lost. He threatened to hold a "fly-in" that weekend. The town responded by revoking his runway use agreement — claiming that he was in breach of contract because he hadn't bought property at EPCAL. The letter advising Mr. Houraney of the revocation was faxed to his attorney on the Friday afternoon of the air show weekend.

And so, Mr. Houraney's $50 million lawsuit was born. It was subsequently amended to include a civil rights claim (and another $130 million in damages sought) thanks to stupid comments made by town officials during a closed door settlement discussion that Mr. Houraney, of Middle Eastern heritage, found offensive. Mr. Densieski said they were only joking when they made those cracks about whether Mr. Houraney would store Osama bin Laden's planes at EPCAL. Mr. Houraney didn't find them funny.

Town officials trying to accomplish something on the sly that the public had resoundingly rejected in a referendum (the airport). Closed door meetings. No bid contracts. Good ol' boy back room deals. Political ambition taking priority over public interest. A healthy dose of avarice. Pure stupidity. (Yes, public officials shouldn't make Osama bin Laden jokes to a guy of Arab-American ethnicity, Eddie, especially during federal lawsuit settlement discussions.)

For all these reasons and more, the town's handling of Mark Houraney's proposal exemplifies everything wrong with EPCAL — a textbook case of how not to manage an "enterprise zone," bungled from start (selling all the buildings and central facility for $17 million) to finish (the ultimate development of hundreds of houses there, which will certainly ensure that no meaningful industrial or economic development will ever occur.)

What a shame.

Copyright 2006 Times/Review Newspapers

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Our sample ballot slip-up

It seems we got a lot of people upset by not publishing a sample ballot in the paper on the Thursday before Election Day. I'm very sorry. We've got at least one letter to the editor this week (in The Suffolk Times) blasting us for not printing the ballot.

I wanted to get the sample ballot in a digital format, as a portable document file (PDF) which provides the best image for reproduction. Up until a couple of years ago, we had to get the paper version (we had to drive to Yaphank to the Board of Elections to pick it up, too) and then scan it to create a digital image of it for use in the paper.

Last year, I asked and got the sample ballot as a PDF — emailed to me! No wasted time or gas, and the reproduction quality was great.

This year I figured we'd do the same thing. So I called the Board of Elections and asked. I was told I had to fax a letter with my request to the BOE Commissioners and they'd get back to me. (I got the same answer to my question about what phone number we should print for voters to call if they have problems at the polls — fax the question to the commissioners! Why is it that a Board of Elections employee who answers the phones there a few days before Election Day doesn't know if the BOE has a hotline number for reporting poll problems? That's preposterous!)

Anyway, I faxed my request for the sample ballot PDF as instructed.

The BOE emailed the sample ballot PDF to me at 4 PM on Wednesday, too late to make it into Thursday's paper; The News-Review is already at the printer and The Suffolk Times is on its way!

That resulted in a number of people calling the paper to complain that we let them down — they rely on us to provide the sample ballot they like to study before going to the polls — as well as a scathing letter to the editor from someone who sees this failure as an indication that our journalistic standards are slipping.

Next year, I will try to get the PDF, but I'm going to get my hands on that paper sample ballot just as soon as the BOE will let us have it. I don't mind getting slammed for unpopular positions we take in editorials. But I hate being held responsible for bureaucratic paralysis at government agencies, especially the BOE, which should have been able to fulfill my request for a PDF within minutes. This is, as they say "the digital age." Somebody please tell the folks in Yaphank.

Regardless, I take responsibility for not having the ballot in the paper, where it should have been, and I apologize.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

When the news isn't good

Sometimes this job requires really tough decisions. Every week we publish police reports that contain allegations about people that the subjects of the report would rather not have published. We are frequently contacted by people who've been arrested (or by their friends and relatives) to ask us not to publish news of their arrest. Our answer is always the same: If it's in the police blotter, we print it, no exceptions. We had an editor once in the inenviable position of having to print news of his own child's DWI arrest.

A lot of folks think we relish this. Nothing could be further from the truth. We hate it.

Then there are the less-than-black-and-white situations we have to make judgment calls on. A couple of weeks ago, we ran a story in The News-Review about the Riverhead Highway Superintendent being charged with DWI one night in the Village of Quogue. Normally we wouldn't run a story about a local resident being charged with DWI out of town. For one thing, we don't look at all the police reports other towns. But this was an elected official. And his driver's license was suspended, meaning the town highway superintendent couldn't drive a vehicle on the public highways. So it seemed newsworthy enough to merit coverage. But decisions like these gnaw at you long after they're made.

Then there was the Riverhead schools superintendent, who was apparently conducting a romantic affair with a woman on the district administrative staff. He was asked to resign as a result of the school board's discovery of this relationship. We reported it, especially because we learned that the superintendent and the employee were conducting their affair during business hours. We didn't disclose the woman's name in the paper — though I haven't met anyone in town who doesn't know who she is anyway.

But, boy, these are tough decisions. So, too, are decisions about whether to publish reports of suicides, photos of fatal motor vehicle accidents and articles about high school athletes being suspended from school.

I bought a book at the National Newspaper Association convention last year called "Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in a Small-Town Newspaper." One of the author's main points is that policies on reporting these kinds of stories must be clear, consistent and put in writing for all staff. And they should be clearly explained to readers in the paper, by way of editors' columns. That's something we haven't done enough of, and something I need to address.

The "Bad News..." book indicates that we made the right calls on both of these recent tough stories, mostly because the lives of public officials and public employees, whose salaries are paid by tax dollars, merit a higher level of scrutiny than private citizens. But that doesn't make it any easier to write and publish stories like that, nor does it make it any easier when you have to encounter the people you publish "bad news" about in the supermarket, or on your kid's soccer field, etc.

Monday, November 13, 2006

A day in the life

I'm posting because I said I would. It's not like I have anything much to say.

It was a crazy day today, consumed by "publisher duties" that would, I'm sure, be of no real interest to anyone outside of Times/Review Newspapers. But they kept me going nonstop from 8 am till 6 pm. Oh well.

I'm working on a column about the Northeast Holdings/Mark Houraney lawsuit against the Town of Riverhead. Well, "workng" might be a bit too strong; I've been thinking about it. If I'm lucky, I will have it formulated in my head enough to go with it in this week's News-Review.

Saturday's Riverhead Blue Waves football game was a heart-breaker — a one point loss in the final seconds of the game. To the team and coaches Congratulations on an amazing season, guys. An 8-0 record . It doesn't get much better than that! We're very, very proud of you! Way to BE!