It was an opportunity for the people of Shelter Island to honor a fallen hero and his comrades by displaying the American flag. Along the way, however, LIPA managed to infuriate local lawmakers by enforcing a little-known fee to hang those flags on utility poles.
As town officials were making plans last month to commemorate a native son -- Army 1st Lt. Joseph Theinert, who was killed June 4, 2010, by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan -- they said they received a call from a Long Island Power Authority representative. He told them of a $5-per-pole annual fee to hang flags along the parade route to be traveled by Theinert's troop members as part of last weekend's ceremonies.
Lawmakers on Shelter Island and elsewhere went through the roof.
"What's the fair market value on patriotism?" asked State Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), who has battled behind the scenes to nix the fee, however small.
"It seems absolutely ludicrous," said Peter Reich, a Shelter Island Town councilman. "The American flag? I mean, come on."
LIPA said it has no choice but to enforce the fee for the 19 poles it owns along the route. The agency later prorated the charge to the two months the flags will be up.
Verizon, which owns 65 of the poles along the route, said Monday in response to Newsday questions that it would waive its fee. "Verizon does allow for pole attachment fees to be waived for commemorative ceremonies such as this, and we intend on waiving it in this case," spokesman John Bonomo said.
LIPA cited a requirement in a state authority reform law in imposing the fee. LIPA chief operating officer Michael Hervey, who has offered to pay the fee himself, called the decision to enforce the charge an "unintended consequence" of the law. "I don't think anyone expected this to apply to flags on poles, but if you read the language there's no way around it," he said. Hervey added, "We welcome any amendment to state legislation that would allow for American flag attachments to our poles without fees."
Mark Ketchum, Shelter Island's superintendent of highways, said he was surprised when a LIPA representative contacted the town after news of his plans for the flags appeared in a local newspaper.
The town had to sign a contract with LIPA's contractor, National Grid, agreeing to the $5 fee and assuring that it had liability insurance.
"My first reaction was that this is ridiculous," Ketchum said. "It's not like I'm putting up a banner for a yard sale -- this is an American flag."
The Shelter Island American Legion, which paid the cost for the heavy-duty brackets and poles for the flags -- after getting a steep discount from the Shelter Island Hardware Store -- was scheduled to pay the pole fee. An American Legion official didn't respond to a request for comment.