In the late 1990s, when most of the people currently parenting Northport-East Northport students were still children themselves, in college, or otherwise beginning their adult lives, the Long Island Power Authority sent a letter to then-Huntington Town Supervisor Frank Petrone essentially promising not to grieve their taxes. The Supervisor and Town Board at the time decided this letter was good enough and they moved on. They didn’t just kick the can, they launched it into the stratosphere until it landed some 13 years later on a completely changed landscape with different players. LIPA and utilities were winning tax certiorari cases everywhere you look.
In the business world, LIPA’s losses ($77M in 2018, $68M in 2017) would force it to invest money to increase efficiency or get out of the business and let somebody else try to make it profitable. But in the world of NY State municipal subdivisions, you can lawyer up and sink millions into forcing the people living near your power plant to fix your financial problems for you. 10 years ago, the LIPA legal ghouls looked at the LILCO letter to the Town and figured that was their path of least resistance to fix their financial mess.
They went to court saying essentially that LILCO had its fingers crossed behind their backs when they made that promise. The court agreed. The town and school district have spent millions contesting this but lost at every turn, with the fate of the latest appeal sitting in a sealed envelope in Judge Emerson’s courtroom while we all fight with each other about whether this settlement is a good enough deal or not.
In a recent op-ed, Town Councilman Eugene Cook lays out a case for not settling with a confusing array of magical thinking (“This time, maybe we will win!”) and a rough outline of a legal strategy for yet another appeal.
But it all sounds like the same thing over and over again. He claims that the $10-$25K per household back tax payment is a “scare tactic” from LIPA, but it is much more than that- it is a possible outcome if the Town does not accept the settlement.
The attorneys for the town and school district have threaded the needle for ten years, keeping LIPA paying their full tax bill throughout every year of this 10-year legal odyssey. What if the next judge in Councilman Cook’s proposed endless string of appeals allows LIPA to reduce their tax payments during the trial? The Cook op-ed sums up the anti-settle arguments perfectly, providing retread emotional arguments and possible legal strategies that provide nothing but uncertainty and risk to Northport-East Northport parents and taxpayers.
In a stunning discussion at the Board’s August 11 workshop, Councilman Cook refused to carve out a few hours from his 2-week vacation to participate in follow-up Zoom LIPA meeting, asking the rest of the Town Board and LIPA to work around his schedule to clear the Town Board’s calendar for the rest of August and pushing the final meeting on this out to 9/3. During a pandemic when travel is restricted, pleasure travel is not advised, and when small businesses owners are working crazy hours to keep their employees on the payroll, it’s bewildering to hear that one of our elected officials feels entitled to decline to spend a few hours tuning in to video meeting that determines the fate of our schools. Adding insult to this injury, Councilman Cook and his supporters have tried to paint parents carving time out of our busy lives to save our schools as being drones to a PR firm, incapable of independent thought. I don’t begrudge The Councilman his vacation. But this vacation episode is an example of why we should judge the positions of elected officials based on what they do, not what they say. This is nothing more than political grandstanding and pandering.
Northport-East Northport parents don’t have time for political games. We don’t care about PR campaigns. At a time when so much about what school will look like is unclear, we want to stop the endless uncertainty of LIPA’s tax grievance. We want to plan our families’ lives and finances for the next 12 years without every year wondering if our taxes will double. We want our elected officials to do their fiduciary duty by eliminating, not increasing risk to the Town and its residents. The people who have stepped up to support this settlement do so somewhat begrudgingly. We are taking time away from our jobs and families to write testimony and letters that will result in us paying more taxes. This is not a hobby for us, moving from Facebook group to Facebook group, chasing the next conspiracy. We are just a bunch of parents raising children here because we believe in our schools and we were concerned that the political aspirations of others might lead to a rash decision by the Town Board. A glide path that brings us to the middle of the pack in terms of school taxes compared with our neighboring districts is by far not the worst outcome. Most importantly, it is a guaranteed outcome. Our Town Council must take the sure path, stop trafficking in risky conspiracy theories, and vote to approve this LIPA settlement now and let’s get to work on an agreement to make sure no community in this town ever has to go through this again.
Doug Roberts is a Northport resident and founder/CEO of The Institute for Education Innovation.