10/31/11 7:00am

Halloween is a magical time on Shelter Island, falling leaves, pumpkins in every size and shape lining stairs and guarding doorways and huge inflatable ghouls that lie like colorful wreckage during the day.

The Halloween parade (on Monday, October 31 at 4 p.m. in the Center) is one of the best parts and gives us adults a chance to see the costumes and be part of the festivities after we’re not allowed to accompany our children trick-or-treating anymore. Anyone can participate, dressed in whatever their imaginations can dream up: dogs dressed as hot dogs or cowboys, mortified expressions on their doggie faces; a baby slumped in a wagon decked with flowers; an Eskimo, a mime and sixth grade boys, unafraid to dress as girls or the Tooth Fairy. Last year, there was a boy dressed only in a blue towel and shower cap, fake suds cascading down his shoulders. It was a clever costume but maybe not the best choice for late October in New York, as you could see the goose bumps from across the street.

The parade is followed by a party at the firehouse where the Fire Department Auxiliary hands out trick-or-treat bags and hot dogs, so at least the kids have something in their stomachs besides candy, before the main event of trick-or-treating on Smith Street.

Our first Halloween here, somewhere between the parade and Smith Street, we lost track of our sixth grade son. For an hour and a half, we never saw him. He was with friends, so it was okay. This was Shelter Island and someone knew where he was; he was safe. We finally met up with him at Chrissy Gross’s house.

Chrissy is the Queen of the Halloween scene. At the corner of Smith Street and South Ferry Road, her house is the end of the line for trick-or-treaters. To get her goody bags, kids have to go under the huge inflatable tree, its glowing eyes watching, into the fog, up the stairs and into the house, where two witches hand out candy. Afterward, they can take a walk around the yard — if they dare. Watch out for “Marcus the Carcass” with only his head, hands and feet sticking out of his grave, the huge inflatable scarecrows with pumpkin heads and the dragster, complete with Dracula, just emerging from his coffin. The community donates all of the candy for Smith Street residents to hand out. Chrissy and her volunteers put together close to 300 bags of treats every year for her own house.

Our reputation as the place to trick or treat even crosses the moat, as kids from Sag Harbor and other far-flung places take advantage of our Island generosity.

There were years when Joanne Calabro hosted a haunted graveyard at St. Mary’s Church. Joanne plundered her impressive collection of Halloween decorations and the teenagers would chose their roles, outfits and accessories from boxes filled with costumes, toy chain saws and more fake blood than was ever seen outside of a horror movie. The hall was transformed into a spooky place, complete with an 8-foot-tall inflatable Grim Reaper arch that had to be passed through to gain entrance.

The graveyard was strung with lights and fake spider webs, eerie music emanating from somewhere in the darkness and featured “tours” of the graveyard. The teenagers were not supposed to scare the little kids, the ones who clutched their glow necklaces like protective amulets. But some of those intrepid kids wanted to be scared. They’d walk off the lit path, away from the group, daring to look at the dead bride, covered in blood, the banquet table that had a real head served on a platter, stifling a scream when a kid wielding a plastic chain saw jumped from the bushes. A recent grave added to the creepiness.

Halloween is a time when we come together, after the hectic activity of the summer. We look around and see friends we may not have seen in awhile and celebrate a child’s holiday.

If a community defines itself, in part, by the way it celebrates its holidays, then no place does it better than Shelter Island.

10/26/11 10:47pm

For some reason — perhaps the bad economy — more people have asked me to explain how the budget process works this year than in my previous seven years as your town councilman combined. I would like to offer a simple overview of how it is supposed to work.

1. In late summer or early fall, the supervisor is supposed to provide worksheets to all the department heads to include information such as the year-to-date amounts in their accounts and previous year(s) budget amounts. They fill in estimates for each of their budget lines for the upcoming year and return the worksheet to the supervisor by the date requested. The amount requested is supposed to appear in the budget column entitled “Requested Budget” with no modifications. That did not happen this year. Many “Requested Budget” lines in the presented budget were not what the department heads said they had asked for. Some were higher, others lower and others simply left blank.

2. Once the worksheets are returned to the supervisor, he or she usually schedules meetings with the larger department heads to review their requests. For some reason, some departments, such as the Building Department and ZBA, did not meet with the supervisor during this year’s budget review.

3. At this point, the supervisor has full discretion to modify any numbers up or down based on his meetings with the department heads or simply of his own accord. Once he has made those modifications, they are entered into the column called “Preliminary Budget” (aka “Supervisor’s Budget” or “Tentative Budget”).

4. This version is then turned in to the Town Clerk’s office, where it is recorded, copied and presented to the Town Board and public for review. At this point, it is entirely the supervisor’s budget, as he has the final say on all the numbers in the “Preliminary Budget” column.

5. Once presented to the Town Board, we (the board and supervisor) initiate our review of it in our open session budget meetings. We call in the various department heads to discuss their expenditure and revenue requests for the upcoming year. We also review their year-to-date numbers to see how adequate the prior year’s figures were. We pore over every single line item several times. When in disagreement on a number, we confer until we arrive at a consensus.

6. After numerous such meetings and board revisions, the draft is once again submitted to the Town Clerk and presented as the “Preliminary Budget,” but it is often referred to as the “Town Board budget” since it comprises input from all five members. This is the budget that is advertised for public hearing.

7. After the public hearing, the Town Board has the opportunity to make additional changes, which are usually based on public input or “just-in” numbers, such as the final change in health insurance premiums. After that, the budget is placed before a roll call vote to adopt or not.

I have also been queried a lot this year about “fund balance” — what it is, where does it come from, how is it used and how big should it be. Fund balance is also referred to as “reserves” and appears in more than one budget line. The simplest way to understand this concept is to think of it as a sort of savings account, while the budget is the checking account.

For example, if the adopted budget is, say, $9 million, a new “checking account” is created on January 1 with that $9 million deposited into it. That $9 million can come entirely from the amount to be raised by taxes or the Town Board has the option of applying some money from the fund balance (“savings account”) if we feel doing so would still leave adequate money in that coffer for any large, unexpected emergencies.

During the course of the year, if a particular budget line runs out of money for any reason, the Town Board can vote to either transfer funds from another budget line, if there is a surplus, or from the fund balance. The more accurate a budget, the less money transfers are needed, but unfortunately no one has a crystal ball and we cannot predict every item in advance — especially items over which we have no direct control, such as rising fuel costs or revenue from mortgage tax income.

On Friday, October 21, the Town Board voted to make the third transfer this year from the fund balance to certain accounts, for a total transfer of $177,000. That merely means specific funding lines were depleted and not that the whole budget was running out of cash.

On December 31, if there is any money left in the “checkbook,” it is rolled over and added to the “savings account” (fund balance) to be supplanted by the new budget on January 1.

With regard to how much should be in the fund balance, that is a matter of personal opinion. Auditors recommend a minimum of 10 percent of the budget. My motto of “always be prepared,“ coupled with the fact that we are a small and geographically isolated community, lead me to feel that 15 to 20 percent is an appropriate reserve amount for Shelter Island. Anything in excess of that amount should, in my opinion, be used to reduce the tax burden. After all, it is your money, and the Town Board is the custodian you elected to manage it. The other Town Board members and I have always strived to do what we feel is in the best interest of the Island while trying to keep taxes as low as possible. Your Town Board members live here, too, and have to pay the same taxes.

The other confusion on the street seems to be what budget numbers are being quoted. There are two different numbers — both important. One is the change in the budget. That is the net increase (or decrease) of expenditures and revenues as compared to the previous year. The data I got on October 21 from the Town Clerk’s office showed this increase to be up 7.9 percent from 2011. By the time you are reading this, that number will have most likely changed. The other number often quoted is the net increase (or decrease) in the amount to be raise by taxes, which is the budget number less money taken from the fund balance to reduce that tax burden.

Offsetting the budget number with something like $500,000 from the fund balance may reduce that budget number from an increase of 7.9 percent to below 2 percent. That number, after tapping the fund balance, is what the supervisor has been quoting, but again, that can be very misleading to people, especially when comparing it to pre-tapping the fund balance budget numbers from previous administrations.

I hope this has helped enlighten you on the fund balance and the budget process.

Mr. Reich is running for re-election to a third term on the Republican and Conservative lines. 

09/28/11 10:14pm


For a mere handful of dollars, our bird feeder has provided an abundance of avian highjinks. Hanging off a dogwood branch outside the bay window of our place on Shelter Island, it has attracted the neighborhood’s colorful winged contingent and many an hour has been spent watching their antic airborne competition for one of the four small perches where the seed lies for the taking. A regal pair of cardinals is our favorite and the blue jay looks like it weighs five pounds. Tanagers, woodpeckers, finches and many other species arrive throughout the day and grab a perch while the mourning doves are content to work the turf below for the ample strewn kernels.

The feeder was marketed as squirrel-proof and employs a movable screen sheath that slides down over the seed portholes when an interloper weightier than a bird attempts to penetrate the feeder’s bulwark. (The thuggish grackles of summer are too heavy to get at the seed but they have never figured out why and just thrash about in midair.) It took us a while to wise up to the fact that the simple unsecured hook that came with the feeder was wholly inadequate to deter our twitchy band of backyard squirrels. They would simply whack the feeder hard enough to knock it to ground and then roll the feeder across the lawn. The seed poured out for leisurely eating. A length of chain wrapped around the dogwood branch and a spring-loaded hook solved that problem. After months of assaults, they reconciled themselves to peacefully grazing with the doves on the ground.

One day, after consulting the birders’ guide, we identified several rose-breasted grosbeaks, a medium size songbird with (for males) a black hood, red chest and white belly. They became regulars at the feeder. In the middle of summer, lazing about, I heard something (a bird, I instantly knew) hit the kitchen window (a surprisingly small patch of glass, given the bay window nearby) and, sure enough, there on the deck was a lifeless grosbeak, lying on its side with its legs comically sticking straight out, a bit of spittle trailing from his beak.

I was going to dump him (definitely a male) in the woodsy perimeter that borders our lot on two sides. Well, I reconsidered, maybe that’s a bit pitiless. Maybe a quickie burial was more suitable for this fine newcomer to the dogwood tree soup kitchen. I went to get the dustpan in the kitchen to take the fallen bird to the shed and get the shovel for the ceremony.

I came back moments later to see the bird’s eyes open and his chest gently pulsing. I went inside, Googled “injured bird” and learned that leaving injured birds alone (or putting them in a shoe box lined with soft paper) is the preferred treatment option. I definitely was not going to pick this one up because I figured he probably had broken bones and a concussion. And I didn’t want to freak him out. So there I left him, in the shade, on the deck, about a foot from the house, directly below the kitchen window, which I noticed had a small, slightly greasy splotch: the telltale marker of bird meeting glass at high speed. I began my vigil.

Some of the websites said that it could take hours for a bird knocked senseless to recover. And, after an hour, there was progress. The grosbeak was on its feet, utterly motionless, staring at the side of the house at about a 30-degree angle. It was 2:30 p.m. An hour later, same spot, same unwavering stare. A half hour later, it had turned around on the same spot and had pointed itself toward the metal deck chairs, motionless. I imagined something deeply embedded in the grosbeak’s little brain was issuing an urgent alert that the sky above was filled with potential enemies and that gaining the cover of the chair was a necessary survival tactic.

At this point I was thinking maybe it’s time for a little human intervention. But as I slowly reached for him, he flinched ever so slightly so I pulled my hand back and let him pursue his deliberate journey to safety on his own. A half hour later, he was under the chair. During the entire vigil, I never saw him actually move to new positions and after each maneuver he retained his still-as-a-statue bearing. Conserving his rattled resources, I supposed. A half hour later, at first I thought he was gone but then spotted him perched, absurdly motionless of course, on the seat of an adjacent chair. He can fly! Okay, it was only two feet but this was very promising.

A half hour later, he was nowhere to be seen, presumably (as I lapsed into an anthropomorphic idyll) having returned to his mate and other bird pals to relate his amazing day and nurse a whopper of a headache. And that was the last we saw of the grosbeaks. “This place is dangerous,” I imagined them agreeing. “Let’s get out of here.”

James Bornemeier is a New York-based writer.

09/14/11 9:47pm

ELEANOR P. LABROZZI PHOTO | Luke Lowell-Liszanckie, Libby Lowell-Liszanckie and Nicholas Labrozzi releasing baby turtles back into the wild.


It was Saturday, Hurricane Irene was set to arrive that evening and into Sunday. I was running around trying to clean up the yard and running my girls, Libby, 15, and Hayley, 11, to a friend’s house. As I arrived back home to get some items to bring to the Recycling Center, I told my boys, Henry, 6, and Luke, 9, to stay in the car while I loaded it up.

Henry immediately jumped out of his seat, opened the door, and shouted, “Turtles!”

We have seen a turtle in our yard once or twice before but this was totally unexpected. He ran over to the side of our house, right below the great big picture window, and he stopped and stared at five baby turtles. They were covered in dirt but were moving quite well. My son Luke found the hole from which they had come. It was a tiny hole that seemed shallow because it was caved in. As I felt around in the hole, I could tell the dirt was loose enough for the turtles to dig out.

Luke was immediately worried about the turtles and how they would survive the hurricane. I was worried about how they would get to a pond. Either pond they chose in our neighborhood meant that they would have to cross the road. Years back, I had seen several baby turtles killed by cars down at Coecles Harbor as they tried to cross the road. My children and I did not want to see that happen again.

We happened to have a very large fish tank in the garage. We cleaned it out and created a habitat for the baby turtles that would mimic the outdoors. We put the five turtles in there and I continued to clean up for the storm and was finally ready to head to the Recycling Center. As I walked out to the car. I saw another turtle! I knocked on the window and told Luke he had to keep watch for any other turtles. When I came back, he ran up to the door and I asked, “Are there any more?” He said 12 more! I couldn’t believe it! We had 18 baby turtles!

The storm was approaching and we were happy that the turtles were safe and sound.

The storm came and went and we were falling in love with those baby turtles. We fed them lettuce, apples and strawberries. We gave them tub time as well. We would fill up the tub with about an inch of water and let them roam around. They were so cute but we knew it was time to release them.

Libby, Hayley, Luke and Henry said their good-byes and their father drove all of them down to the pond near Crescent Beach. They were joined by the Labrozzi family. After searching for a nice place to let them go, they decided that Ice Pond would be an easier location. Libby, Hayley, Luke and friend Nicholas (who loves turtles) carefully took out each of the 18 turtles and watched some walk toward the water while others walked into the grass and buried themselves under leaves.

We will never forget those baby turtles and are happy that they are safe.

08/10/11 9:58pm


I have been really fortunate to travel a good amount in my life but something I always wanted to do was live abroad and work with children from other cultures. I first looked into doing something like this six years ago. I had lived in San Francisco for five years and I was ready for a change. I looked into different programs for living abroad but in the end decided to move back home to Shelter Island to be close to family and friends again. I was really lucky to get a teaching job in East Hampton and, three years later, get tenure. My abroad plans were always in the back of my mind and last year, in my fifth year at my school, I knew I had to go for it because if I didn’t it would be a huge regret in my life.

The planning started in January of 2010 for a January 2011 departure. I researched a lot of programs and only one stood out from all the rest, Cross Cultural Solutions (CCS). CCS is a worldwide volunteer organization that has been profiled by Time, National Geographic and The New York Times. Its mission and what was offered fit my needs perfectly. I then went to my school principal and assistant superintendent to discuss what I wanted to do and request a sabbatical. Everyone was very supportive and the school board approved my leave. In the following months, the real planning began with booking flights and researching travel plans around my volunteer work. It also involved renting my house, selling my car and working to try to finance the whole thing.

The few weeks leading up to my departure were hectic, doctors’ appointments, lots of shots, packing and making sure I had everything in order to be gone for six months. As my parents drove me to JFK, I had a flood of different emotions. I was sad to say goodbye to my family, terrified at what I was getting myself into but mostly excited to do something different, see the world and meet new people. After 17 hours of flying, I landed in Cape Town. What a sense of relief, I hate to fly and — WOW — I was in Africa!

The volunteer house was nice, located about 10 minutes outside of downtown Cape Town. There were about 15 volunteers in the house, all staying varying amounts of time and ranging in age. The majority of us were from the U.S. with others from Canada, Europe and Australia. Cape Town is such a beautiful city with the mountains to one side and the ocean to the other. The downtown has a lot of neat neighborhoods to check out and there are amazing beach spots up and down the peninsula. Not far outside the city, in the cape flats, are the townships. The categories and descriptions of people during apartheid are still used in South Africa today: black, colored and white. There are four black townships in Cape Town: Langa, Nyanga, Gugulethu and Khayelitsha.

Khayelitsha is huge. Five million people live in Cape Town and two million of them live in Khayelitsha. There is a mix of tiny stone houses and tin shanties. Many families are without electricity and running water. There are portables set up around the perimeter for everyone to share but they are rarely serviced. Driving around the townships, one sees people and garbage everywhere. It is such a stark contrast between the city of Cape Town and the townships and the segregation is so obvious.


For my volunteer work, I was placed in a pre-school/kindergarten in Khayelitsha. I worked Monday through Friday from about 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. I knew the conditions would be poor but, when I stepped into the classroom on the first day, I was definitely surprised. The rooms were bare with no resources or materials at all except for an alphabet and number chart on the wall. I had 50 kindergarteners who spoke the local tribal language, isiXhosa. The local teacher looked at me, pulled out her cell phone, sat down and said, “Teach, teacher.”

Those first few days were the most challenging times I’ve ever had as a teacher. Over the next three months, I did the best I could with what I had, brought materials from the volunteer house, taught the kids songs and games but mostly just gave the kids attention and love and dancing, lots of dancing!

My time with the children in Khayelitsha was amazing and I’m so thankful for it. It was at times frustrating with the lack of materials and lack of help from the local staff, at times scary from seeing the physical punishment laid on the kids — from hitting to making them balance on one foot for 20 minutes — to wonderful: there was dancing, tons of hugs, smiles and laughter.

These children have so little and are so happy. It was a lot harder than I thought to say goodbye. I definitely connected with many of the kids and it’s so difficult to know I won’t see them again or to wonder what their futures hold. It was a daily struggle to check my emotions at the door but, as my director said, their situation is not for me to judge or have opinions about; it’s not good or bad, it’s just different and that’s all. These children are going to be okay. This is always how it’s been and all they know. So I walked away with that and so many amazing memories of these kids, whom I’ll never forget.


CCS offered many cultural activities throughout my time in Cape Town. Every week I had an isiXhosa lesson. I definitely got a few key phrases down but it is a really tricky language, especially because three of the letters are clicks. We took drumming lessons, so fun! We also spent a lot of time meeting and speaking with people from the townships; District 6, a community that was destroyed during apartheid; and people from the healing and reconciliation committee. Their stories and experiences were mind-blowing and their compassion and forgiveness were amazing to see. As many of them said and it’s true in most places, people are obsessed with race and we have a long way to go to resolve racial conflict. There are a lot of empty promises from the government and many people won’t see their land and homes, which were taken from them because of their skin color, returned in their lifetimes. I felt very fortunate to travel to South Africa and be able to speak with so many people who lived through the most desperate times of apartheid.

It was strange in a sense to be in the townships in the mornings and then go off to the beautiful city and do wonderful, touristy things. But it was a nice escape from one reality to another. Cape Town is such an amazing city with so much to see and do. I went to a soccer match at the new FIFA stadium; it’s a whole different type of team spirit. We drove down the peninsula to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope. The landscape is so beautiful with huge, rugged mountains leading down to blue/green ocean. Definitely the biggest highlights were visiting the wine country, going on safari and cage diving with great white sharks: terrifying but one of the coolest things I’ve ever done!


After my three months in South Africa I flew on to Brazil. It was a tough transition for me because I was really sad to leave South Africa and it was a bit overwhelming to be at the beginning of a whole new experience. I lived in the city of Salvador in the state of Bahia. My new living conditions were much more basic and the city, being 60 percent favelas (slums) and dangerous areas, was not as easy to enjoy. I knew it would just take time to get used to and a big reason why I took this journey was to challenge myself.

My volunteer placement was at Caasah, a government- and donation-funded home for people with HIV. The home was made up of two parts, adult and children sides. On the adult side, men and women could stop in for social services and medical care. They also could live there if they were recuperating from a serious illness or if they were in their final days. The children’s side was home to 23 kids from the age of 2 months to 17 years. These children were either found on the streets, abandoned by family or their parents had passed away from HIV/AIDS.

I paid a few visits to the adult side but my time was spent primarily with the children. My tasks included helping with the babies, bathing, feeding, changing, holding and chasing after the toddlers. With the older kids, we danced, played outside, played cards, games, drew and made paper airplanes. One weekend, a fellow volunteer and I surprised the kids on a Saturday with water balloons and ice cream for “make your own sundaes.” It was such a blast. Needless to say, the “toss” turned into an all out war and out of 100 balloons, I think I threw one but I got soaked!

It was really nice for a change to work with children outside of a classroom setting. I felt a special connection with these kids; maybe because I was in their home environment, maybe because of their situations, I don’t know. These children at Caasah are amazing! Carlos is 14 and has lymphoma. He is in and out of chemo every week. He is an unbelievable artist, loves teaching people origami and has the sweetest personality. Sandro watched his mom die of AIDS. He was bounced around among different family members until they decided he was a “demon” child so they dropped him on Caasah’s doorstep. A month later, he contracted meningitis and lost his hearing. He was hard to get to know at first but, once he lets you in, he is funny, loves to beat people in cards and loves magic.

All of these children have different stories and have been through so much but they are the most warm, caring, fun and special kids I have met. Most of the babies are in the process of adoption but the older kids have been there most of their lives and they will remain there until they turn 18 and have to go out on their own. Despite their situations, these kids are very fortunate to have a place like Caasah as their home. They are well taken care of and they have a true family dynamic.

Saying goodbye to them was very hard and emotional for me. I was so lucky to have had the time with these kids. I will never forget them and hopefully one day in the future I can return for a visit.

Through the program in Brazil, I took Portuguese lessons twice a week, capoeira (a Brazilian art combining martial arts and dance) lessons every week and, in my free time, I traveled around Bahia and down to Rio de Janeiro. Definitely the highlight of my time in Brazil was the people I met and just the music, vibe and energy of Brazil. I went to many festivals in Salvador with drumming and dancing in the streets, bossa nova performances and live reggae concerts.

I have been home about a month now and it’s so nice to be back around the things that I missed so much, my family, friends, dog and little things like a hot shower, TV, a cell phone, and driving a car. I have always known how lucky I am but this trip definitely put things in perspective. I had some of my most challenging times and some of my best times. I learned a lot about myself, other people and other cultures.

I can’t wait to return to my first graders in East Hampton in September and share with them all that I have learned.