Friday, 09 December 2011 00:00
Great Neck House overflowed with people attending the Meet the Candidates Night for Great Neck Park District Commissioner that was moderated by Judy Jacobson from the Manhasset-Port Washington League of Women Voters and sponsored by the Great Neck Rotary Club.
Each candidate emphasized his unique experience, background and qualifications for the job. All of the men stressed that current economic times do not warrant major new undertakings or capital projects, but only one, Ray Plakstis criticized the current board for “increasing spending” in the last 10 years. All of the candidates believe that it is important to maintain and repair the existing facilities properly.
Neil Leiberman portrayed himself as a “passionate” park user taking advantage of its numerous programs and as a “people person.” He said, “You’ve seen me everywhere campaigning hard... imagine how hard I would work as your commissioner.” He said that from talking with residents, he believes that ideas such as providing WiFi access at certain parks, expanded recycling and yoga and tai chi classes at Steppingstone would be popular, but inexpensive. He says he has a lot to learn, but that his enthusiasm and marketing experience would be valuable in promoting park programs.
Martin Markson emphasized his engineering background and experience in working with multimillion dollar budgets and analyzing and negotiating contracts. He also added that he would “continue to work for the park district” as he has chaired the Open Space Advisory Committee, that has as one of its missions to make the most of underutilized park parcels. He was involved in the planning of the renovation of Ravine Park and opening Peninsula Park. He credits the use of talented park district staff for keeping costs of renovations and upgrades low. Due to his five-year experience with this committee, he says, “I would hit the ground running.”
Dan Nachmanoff highlighted his experience as a mayor of Russell Gardens and as president of the Village Officials Association and his familiarity with working with municipal budgets and coordinating with various levels of government and grant writing. He believes he could utilize those skills for even more cooperative efforts with other local government entities. He complimented the current commissioners for their park improvements in the past, but he said, “Now, the party’s over...no big projects...let’s keep the taxes in line.” He added that state grants are not viable because the state would require the parks to be open to everyone if state monies are involved; however, he stated that he would work hard to secure federal grants which do not have the same restrictions.
Ray Plakstis, who was also sworn in as chief for the Alert Fire Company this week, stated that his service station on Steamboat and Wood Roads is the “crossroads” of the community and that he has an ear to the ground, talking with employees from the parks, library, schools and that he gets the “truth” of what goes on behind the scenes. He thinks that there are too many supervisors and administrators in the park district. He stated that in the past decade the library budget increased 31 percent; the Village of Great Neck budget by 51 percent and the park district budget by 112 percent. He says he is the only candidate “mandated to take a hard look at spending and save the community its hard earned cash.”
After the opening statements, the members of the public raised questions. Ellie Brook pointed out that in a four-way race with the possibility of a candidate being elected with say, only 26 percent of the vote, and asked if any candidates would consider stepping aside and endorsing another candidate with similar views. Although the candidates took that opportunity to reiterate their qualifications, none were willing to step aside.
Mr. Markson, however, stated that in the future the rules could be changed to allow for rank voting which would allow people to vote for first, second, and third choices.
In regard to a question about the cost of salaries and benefits, Mr. Nachmanoff, said that while the park district has a very professional staff, he would consider reducing the work force through attrition. Mr. Leiberman said, “You get what you pay for...some of our employees, who have salaries of over $100,000, have been working for the district for 35 to 40 years...the morale is high... and I’ve never seen such a fine, dedicated staff.” Mr. Markson said that from analyzing the budget, it was clear that the hourly rates have “been virtually unchanged” in the past five years. Mr. Plakstis believes that the park district staff is “top-heavy and needs to be pulled back...part-time employees must be wrangled in and cut back.”
One resident suggested that Mr. Plakstis’s number one priority was “just cutting the budget...how would you do that and keep services?” Mr. Plakstis replied, “We’ll do more for less...do you want your taxes to continue to go up?” (The resident responded, “If a raise will keep the quality of services we have, yes.”)
Another resident asked if the candidates have been attending park district commissioners’ meetings. Mr. Leiberman said that he has attended many of the meetings over the years. Mr. Markson stated that he has attended many and has been impressed with how open the meetings are and how responsive the commissioners are to the public. Mr. Nachmanoff said that he has attended many meetings in the last six months. Mr. Plakstis said that he “talks to employees...there’s a lot of things you learn from not going to meetings...You get the truth.”
After a question from a resident, Mr. Plakstis recounted that indeed after working at the World Trade Center site after 9-11 and “seeing things that no one should ever see...I turned to drugs...made a mistake, took money from the 8th Battalion and then paid it back. That was 10 years ago.” The moderator would not allow any further questions on the matter.
A question came from Steve Walk about whether the candidates would take insurance benefits along with the per diem. None of the candidates would take health benefits as they have their own coverage.
Assemblywoman Michelle Schimel asked the candidates for a punch list regarding infrastructure and their vision for the future. Mr. Nachmanoff said that the main goal is to maintain what we have. He would like to see an evaluation of programs, energy conservation and better utilization of what we have. Mr. Markson said, “In the past, facilities were rundown and needed many expensive repairs..we don’t want to repeat that. The splendid Great Neck parks keep our property values high.”
Mr. Leiberman said, “Maintenance is important.” He wants to get grants from LIPA. He wants to get more people involved in the parks. “Don’t just complain, get involved.”
Mr. Plakstis said, “Wiring upgrades are needed, foundations have problems, roofs are leaking...We need to take care of those things....These (advisory) committees are like little lobbying groups..you should be talking to the mother at Parkwood who is saying, ‘It costs too much to skate.’”
A question was raised about the park district’s indebtedness. The total amount is $2.4 million. Mr. Markson commented that 2.5 waterfront acres were purchased with money bonded. He called it “a good investment.” Mr. Nachmanoff agreed. (The capital improvements at Parkwood were also bonded.)
All of the candidates estimate that the role of commissioner would be time-consuming and each says that he would make the time to do the job properly. All of the candidates, with the exception of Mr. Plakstis, are retired.
For detailed information about where to vote, visit the park district website at www.greatneckparks.org.
(Editor’s note: The evening event was filmed by a crew from PATV. Tune in to Channel 20 (Cablevision) or Channel 37 (Verizon). Dec. 9, 6 p.m.; Dec. 10, 2 p.m.; Dec. 11, 6:30 p.m. or Dec. 12 at 8:30 p.m. to see the candidates answer questions.)