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Candidates make cases at confab

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO Candidates for Town Council, from left, Marcus Kaasik, Albert Dickson and Councilwoman Amber Brach-Williams at the candidates forum Sunday in the school auditorium.
BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO Candidates for Town Council, from left, Marcus Kaasik, Albert Dickson and Councilwoman Amber Brach-Williams at the candidates forum Sunday in the school auditorium.

There were no fireworks or serious disagreements at Sunday afternoon’s candidates forum at the school auditorium.

Sponsored by the Shelter Island Association and the League of Women Voters of Shelter Island,  the forum featured three candidates for Town Council and two for supervisor who agreed on what constituted the critical issues facing the Island and, for the most part, how to solve problems.

The forum was run efficiently, with League Treasurer Kathleen Minder asking prepared questions and later reading questions from the audience.

There was some news: Gary Gerth, Republican candidate for supervisor, asked incumbent Supervisor Jim Dougherty, a Democrat, why the results of a survey asking residents questions related to deer and tick issues would not be released until after Election Day.

Mr.  Dougherty answered, “I’m ready to go,” but information later revealed he had asked for a delay until after the election.

Some see the timing as a political decision that, if results were released now, could affect voters one way or another.

Mr. Gerth and the rest of the candidates, Republican Councilwoman Amber Brach-Williams, who is running for re-election, Albert Dickson, a Democratic candidate for Town Board and Marcus Kassik, a Republican running for a Town Board seat, listed the lack of affordable housing as the key issue that will affect the Island’s future.

Mr. Dougherty, running for a sixth term as supervisor, who has relied on his mantra of “ticks, taxes and the aquifer,” as the major Island issues, also agreed that affordable housing was high on his priority list.

Mr. Gerth said he knows three people who are ready to build affordable housing now and include financing for potential residents, but are waiting for the town to give the go-ahead. Ms. Brach-Williams echoed Councilwoman Chris Lewis, who is retiring when her term is up in January, by saying that the real roadblock to an affordable housing program on the Island “is a lack of political will. I have it.”

Mr. Dickson agreed, saying there is “an inertia” and “dramatic steps need to be taken.”

Mr. Gerth noted that his opponent had once signed a petition against affordable housing.

Mr. Dougherty denied this, but he did sign a petition in August 2009 against a proposal for 20 rental units in a 25,000-square-foot building in the area of St. Mary’s Road. The petitioners who signed said they feared the neighborhood would be changed in ways that would have a negative effect on their lives.

“I was completely comfortable signing,” Mr. Dougherty told the Reporter last year, pointing out that he wears two hats — that of supervisor and the other of a private citizen and taxpayer.

“I would do it again,” he said, pointing out that his opposition was specific to what he considered a project too large for the site.

The candidates agreed it was necessary to have strategic planning to maintain infrastructure on the Island through budgeting. But Mr. Dougherty was not so sure. He spoke of his record of keeping taxes here the lowest in the region, and among the lowest in the state, and abiding by the principle of not taxing residents for services they’re not receiving.

He noted that Moody’s Investor Service’s report has given the town an “Aa2” rating for credit worthiness based on its low debt burden and sound fiscal management.

Mr. Gerth called for long term strategic planning, and “professional management,” especially on a capital plan. Mr. Dougherty said the town had a capital plan — although this was the first time it has been mentioned — the town’s coffers were full and “we have plenty of planning.”

His proposed budget for 2018 includes “half a million to keep infrastructure up to date,” he said, and pointed to ongoing renovations at Justice Hall.

Mr. Gerth cited a report from State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli that most municipalities “have been underfunding their capital needs over the last several decades,” and the comptroller “encourages local government officials to develop and implement multiyear capital planning.”

Mr. Dougherty was aware of the report, he said, dismissing it as “boiler plate.” As chief financial officer of the town, he reiterated that he that was doing his job of keeping taxes low, and bringing in responsible budgets.

One notable disagreement among the candidates had to do with short-term rental (STR) legislation passed by the Town Board in April after more than a year of contentious debate and heated public meetings where ad hominem attacks were common.

All candidates except Ms. Brach-Williams are opposed to the legislation, which regulates residents renting their homes on a short-term basis, including how long and when they can rent their places when they’re not present.

The board voted 4 to 1 for the STR law, which is now the subject of a federal lawsuit, with Ms. Brach-Williams on the majority side and Mr. Dougherty the lone “no” vote.

He, along with the other candidates, said Sunday that STRs are an Island tradition and restricting them hurts working families who face steep mortgage and other payments that STRs helps to ease, as well as being a violation of property rights.

Ms. Brach-Williams said Sunday that the law, as written, is a work in progress with provisions to review data collected and make future adjustments. She also noted that it is a simple zoning ordinance restricting commercial ventures in residential zones.

Water quality was a topic that, again, the candidates formed a consensus of agreement. Mr. Kaasik made the point that as a fisherman, he cares deeply about water quality, and nitrates flowing into the bays are killing our most precious natural resource.

He said that we “should start with Goat Hill.” At times, he said, [pollution was so bad that fishing off Crescent Beach “shuts down fishing for weeks.”

The county-approved upgrades to septic systems, even with subsidies to homeowners are much too expensive, Mr. Kassik said. He was against mandates imposed on homeowners by the county not only for the expense and maintenance costs, but because mandates open the door to allow “officials to come on your land.”

Mr. Dickson, who is chairman of the town’s Water Advisory Committee, said that water quality has to be addressed for Islanders’ health and the overall economic well-being of the community. An Island-wide commitment to to ensure clean drinking water from the aquifers is imperative, Mr. Dickson said.

On the issue of ticks and deer management, all candidates were in agreement with the town’s three pronged approach of 4-posters — feeding stands that brush deer with a tickicide, permethrin — aggressive culling of the deer herd and educating the public about tick borne-illnesses.

Mr. Kaasik added that he remembers when he was a child that there were controlled burns on properties to keep the tick population at bay, and said the idea should be revisited.

Summing up, Mr. Dickson said to residents: “I want to engage you. I want to encourage your participation.”

Ms. Brach-Williams said her financial background as an accountant and business owner brings benefits to the board and “I’m hard working and bring analytic skills.”

Mr. Kaasik said, “Everything I’ve done in my life has prepared me to be a good councilman.”

Mr. Gerth would bring professional management to Town Hall, he said, and his greatest asset is that he’s “a problem solver.”

Supervisor Dougherty said the town was sound financially, and noting that Ms. Lewis and the town attorney are retiring and the town engineer has resigned, “Shelter Island is at a cross roads.” His re-election, Mr. Dougherty said, will bring much needed “consistency.”