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Meet the Candidates Night in Manhasset

Incumbents, Challengers Address an Array of Issues

November 2 couldn’t come soon enough for the people who trekked up to the Universalist Church in Manhasset last Wednesday evening to the League of Women Voters of Port Washington/Manhasset Meet the Candidates Night. Whether or not this forum proved to be a make or break for the folks taking questions remains to be seen.

Incumbents and challengers for the 7th Senate District, 16th Assembly District, 5th Congressional District and Receiver of Taxes for the Town of North Hempstead attended to take questions from the audience in an effort to voice how they stand on issues concerning Long Island and more.

LWV spokesperson Mary Ann Fleming moderated the panel. The conversation quickly turned to the MTA payroll tax and the STAR rebate check elimination during the panel of the 7th Senate District.

Incumbent Senator Craig M. Johnson, Democrat of Port Washington, voted for the payroll tax in 2009, which was met with much scrutiny by the public. Johnson stated very high fare increases would have been instituted if the tax had not been implemented. A number of residents from Great Neck, Albertson and Manhasset were very adamant about their disdain for the payroll tax.

New York State had a budget deficit of $12 billion and grew to $17 billion in 2009 and Johnson said as a result, an elimination of the STAR rebate was enacted.

“The STAR rebate check is great,” Johnson said. “But that’s not what’s going to lower your property taxes. What’s going to lower your property tax is a tax cap. If a tax cap had been enacted at the time, before the property tax crisis had started, the average tax bill would’ve been lowered by $2,000.”

Johnson stated that Long Island is a community of commuters. He said, “A lot of commuters rely on the trains to get to work. Last year we were faced with a crisis of the MTA. In order to save the service and prevent massive fair increases, we enacted a payroll tax.”

Johnson, Chairman of the New York Senate Investigations Committee, which investigates government operations, also serves on Education and Healthcare Committees and touted his taking on special interests to pass a property tax cap in the Senate.

His Republican challenger and current Mineola mayor Jack Martins, stated that he found the STAR rebate check to be a predominately suburban issue and that “we lost our STAR rebate check at a time when state spending was increasing and if you follow the money, you’ll notice that spending was increased for the benefit of New York City and the detriment of us and our suburban community.”

Martins was first elected as mayor of the Village of Mineola in 2003 and is currently in his fourth two-year term. He is touting that he has kept the average tax increase to “below four percent” during his tenure along with seven successive balanced budgets and has paid down a $33 million village debt to approximately $20 million.

With regard to the MTA payroll tax, Martins said that repealing it would create more jobs. “How do we create jobs? We repeal the tax and allow employers here the opportunity to make ends meet,” Martins said. “If elected, and given the opportunity, that is something I’d commit myself to.”

A pension reform question created a rumble among the audience. The question was asked if the candidates would support public employees paying half of their pension costs.

Another question addressed teacher unions; specifically the Taylor Law, enacted in 1967 and requires teacher increases. The law states there’s an obligation of public employees not to strike, but in turn, it’s the obligation of the employer to continue the benefits the employees had in their contract until a new one is negotiated.

Port Washington resident Frank Russo asked if either candidate would modify the Taylor Law to stop STEP increases after a teacher’s contract is over. Martins stated that he would support both.

“I’ve had the opportunity to negotiate with various unions and collective bargaining agents as the mayor of Mineola,” Martins said. “Everything should be on the table and I have made that more than clear.”

Johnson said he supported and passed Tier 5, which controls pension costs, but schools received a 45 percent increase in costs in 2010-2011 after the Tier 5 bill was passed.

“It was an important piece of legislation that was long overdue,” Johnson said. “I’d be happy to look at a Tier 6. I’d like to know what the cost savings are going to be before I agree to a Tier 6. I took a lot of heat for passing a Tier 5. I have had my battles this year with the teacher’s union. Back in January, I made it very clear that I was unhappy with my party’s efforts trying to pass legislation that would hurt education reform in New York State.”

During the 5th Congressional District panel, talks of war spending came up and the disdain that people feel for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Reducing taxes and war spending were addressed first by the Tax Revolt Party candidate Elizabeth Berney, a resident of Great Neck.

Berney is currently a litigation attorney and petitioned to be on the ballot. “The Iraq war has been wound down at this point and Afghanistan, we need to be there,” she said. “We need to be on the Pakistan border. We have to be there for our own safety. We have to make sure to defend our country and wipe out the existential threat that the Iranian nukes cause.”

Incumbent Democrat Gary Ackerman, who has been in the House for 28 years, said that he regrets voting for the Iraq war. He also said tat all options should b used to avoid war.

“But I suggest sometimes [war] is absolutely necessary because there are some things worth fighting for,” Ackerman said. “The war in Iraq was a mistake. I will not make that mistake again, in voting for something in which congress and the American people were duped.”

Afghanistan is a different story, according to Ackerman. “The faster we finish and get out of those fights, the better, but we have to use common sense in doing that. We have to pick and choose and do what is in our nation’s best interest and use intelligence, foresight, thought and planning.”

Republican candidate James Milano said that the cost of the war is a tremendous expense, but the highest cost is the “thousands of the American boys and girls that died. Parents are waiting for their children to come home, for good.” Milano is a practicing physician and is in the process of completing a masters program at SUNY Stony Brook.

The elephant in the room, term limits, surfaced toward the end of the panel. An audience member expressed her disapproval of unending congressional terms.

“You can term limit me any time you want after two years by voting,” Ackerman said. “I believe in term limits. I have one every two years. I have a contract that’s up and if you think I’m doing my job, you get to renew my contract.”

Milano had a different take on term limits. “Am I for term limits? Yes,” he said. “Is it efficient sometimes having the electorate decide if you’ve done a good job? Yes. Unfortunately, sometimes people don’t know everything about the person they’re voting for. Investigate us, research so you can make an informed decision.”

Berney agreed that term limits are necessary in that there should be a six-term limit in Congress and said, “that’s long enough to make your mark.”

The 16th Assembly District panel was one candidate short. Republican challenger Scott Diamond got lost on the way to the forum and arrived after the panel ended.

Incumbent Democrat Michelle Schimel is looking to gain her second term as assemblywoman. Schimel spoke about the Citizen’s Empowerment Act at length and how it affects the district.

“The law was passed this year to streamline the process to make it more efficient to consolidate local government entities, villages, towns, any type of taxing entity,” she said. “There are many technical flaws in that bill. I have introduced amendments to the bill. But the most important thing is that the voters have to make the decision and the Empowerment Act does not do what it’s set out to do.”

Schimel is a supporter and author of the microstamping bill. The assemblywoman said that was the reason she got into politics. Microstamping would imprint a unique mark on bullet casings, helping to connect guns and their owners to crimes.

“I was a community organizer,” she said. “Long before I ever got into elected office, I was on the streets advocating that bullets don’t know race, creed, religion or color. Microstamping is a bill that’s supported by over 100 law enforcement agencies.”

The Town of North Hempstead Receiver of Taxes panel saw current receiver, Democrat Charles Berman and his Republican candidate, Jeffrey Bass express differing views on numerous topics. Bass focused on the cost of operations of the position and that it should function more as that of a comptroller and, “elevate the Receiver of Taxes position beyond the ministerial function it is today to one that is a watchdog.” He said the position should be an elected one because of the responsibilities of the position.

Berman stated that since the office has a tremendous financial responsibility, he also believes it should be elected. “I would just let people understand and be aware what the enormity of this office is,” he said. “We do mail out 84,000 tax bills to people who pay their taxes individually. There are 72,000 parcels in this town and we have to mail out 3,500 unpaid notices every quarter and 88,000 second-half reminders. We send out 24,000 email reminders and accept 288,000 tax payments a year which we have to reconcile every single one to the penny. It’s a big responsibility.”