Below is the full transcript of Brookhaven Supervisor Mark Lesko’s State of the Town address from Tuesday.
The major announcement from the speech was the unveiling of “Accelerate Long Island,” an initiative to take advantage of Long Island’s research assets by creating and retaining new technology companies and jobs.
State of the Town address
I’d like to welcome everyone to our annual State of the Town address. Welcome council members. And welcome to our distinguished guests. Thank you for attending.
The past year had many storylines.
Leaders and Heroes.
And the Town as an Incubator of Ideas.
But I must start by saying that we began the year with a heavy heart. Because one of the seven seats behind me was empty as we had just lost Councilman Keith Romaine. And I would ask that we please take a moment of silence to remember Keith, who will not be forgotten.
Thank you. And I would note that we recently completed the construction of one of Keith’s dreams, a skate park in Mastic, and I’ll start today by announcing that, at the request of Keith’s father Ed, we will not be charging fees at that skate park in Keith’s memory.
We started 2010 facing financial challenges the likes of which the Town had never experienced. Landfill fees and mortgages tax receipts had plummeted and our multi-year projections showed that, if we didn’t act quickly, we would violate our fund balance policy in 2011 by about $20 million and by 2012 we would be flat broke.
Our fiscal situation took a turn for the worse with the record setting 2010 Blizzard, which threw our highway fund into a deficit.
I think it’s safe to say that in the early part of 2010, the Town of Brookhaven was heading down the road towards financial collapse.
So, what did we do?
We implemented a Five Point Fiscal Plan that plugged that $20 million gap and then some.
We offered retirement incentives that resulted in millions of dollars in savings.
We reduced our workforce by almost 100 employees, and now have the lowest amount of employees since 2003.
We passed a budget, with bipartisan support, that froze taxes and cut spending in our General Fund by 17%.
We put a tax cap, a spending cap and a debt management cap on the ballot, and all three passed with about 80% of the vote.
We ratified extensions to the collective bargaining agreements with the White and Blue Collar units that will save the Town $8 million over the next two years and over $25 million over the life of the contracts.
And, because of these swift and decisive actions, the Town maintained its high bond ratings. That meant that, in our latest bond issue, we were able to get an interest rate of less than 1%, which is effectively free money when you factor in inflation.
So, I think it’s fair to say that this Town aggressively addressed its fiscal challenges and, while our work is not done, we are certainly in a better place today than we were a year ago.
The past year was also one of transition, particularly within our workforce. 112 employees took the retirement incentives and left the Town. That’s over 2,000 years of experience that literally walked out of the door.
And I’d like to take this moment to thank each and every employee who retired for their years of service. Let’s give them a round of applause.
While many see these retirements as a problem, I see them as providing opportunity.
Opportunity for younger employees to gain new skills and assume more responsibilities.
And an opportunity to bring in new talent, fresh sets of eyes, people who can add in a variety of ways to the energy and vitality of the Town.
One person who falls into this category deserves special mention. When Charlie McGinley retired, many of us wondered who would be willing to take his place at the animal shelter. And in what can only be described as a gift, Dori Scofield agreed to run the animal shelter.
Dori’s passion and dedication are second to none. And we all notice her initiatives, whether it’s Furry Fridays or Barktoberfest, e-mails about adoptable pets, or her tireless efforts to adopt pitbulls at the shelter.
I’d like you to join me in recognizing Dori, who is apparently here with a friend, for her willingness to serve the Town and its animals at our Animal Shelter.
Thank you, Dori.
Many people, when they talk about the Town of Brookhaven, talk about partisanship. And, yes, occasionally we do get after each other. We have to do something to keep the ratings up on Channel 18.
But isn’t that the essence of democracy? Democracy is messy. It’s supposed to be that way. And, remember, we still run this Town almost entirely through a legislative body, our board, using a mode of government created over three centuries ago.
We don’t have a true chief executive, like the county or the state, so every issue is subjected to the legislative process and sometimes that process isn’t pretty. They say that there are two things you don’t want to see made, legislation and sausage, and we certainly proved that point over the last two months.
And there are going to be disagreements. But they will be transparent disagreements. Our business is conducted in real time, before the people, and that’s a good thing.
I want to emphasize, though, that in the past year we’ve agreed far more often than we’ve disagreed.
Over 95% of our resolutions are passed unanimously.
We accepted Land Use Plans for Portion Road, Mastic-Shirley and East Patchogue and voted to change the zoning on 100s of parcels pursuant to new land use plans. We also accepted visionings for Route 25A, Medford and Farmingville.
We passed the Blight to Light code amendments, giving the Town the means to eradicate suburban blight. We finished a Blight Study and started a Sewer Study to identify our sewer assets.
We partnered with the Long Island Housing Partnership to provide mortgage and foreclosure counseling to over 220 residents.
We acquired 140 acres of open space and farmland development rights throughout the Township, and are in contract for over 200 more acres of open space.
We started our Green Homes and Go Solar programs, which to date have completed work on 85 homes and kick-started a new Green economy in the Town.
We appointed or re-appointed members to our various boards, including our Ethics Board, Planning Board and Board of Zoning Appeals, regardless of their political affiliation.
Our Quality of Life Task Force continues its aggressive enforcement of our Code, resulting in a doubling of fines to almost $1 million. And, as part of the Sixth District Court in Patchogue, we created the Brookhaven Community Court.
In economic development, our IDA did a number of refinancing deals and currently has five pending deals totaling over $77 million and 300 jobs. The IDA also produced the award winning Blight to Light film, which you can watch on YouTube.
The Town hosted a Building Business in Brookhaven event for over 60 businesses and obtained federal funding for Brookhaven Sewer District No. 2 at the Brookhaven R&D Plaza.
We issued 7100 permits out of our Building Division.
And we started construction on the sewer lines in East Patchogue.
And now we await the work of the Carmans River Study Group, which is drafting a proposed protection plan for that jewel of a natural resource.
Environmentalists and Builders, Town and County officials, all came together under the leadership of Dr. Lee Koppelman and by all accounts they are on the cusp of the most historic environmental event since the passage of the Pine Barrens Protection Act.
So I’m proud to say that, on the issues that matter, we are working together in a democratic process, airing our differences when they arise, and doing the people’s business in an open and transparent manner.
And I say to my colleagues, Steve, Jane, Kathy, Connie, Tim and Dan – you work hard and care passionately about this Town and your districts, and I’m proud to serve on this Town Board with you.
The past year was also one about leaders and heroes.
We had a number of events honoring current and future leaders in our community, from the Anti-Bias Task Force’s event honoring diversity leaders, to our ceremonies recognizing Eagle Scouts and Student Government leaders from all of our high schools.
We also witnessed extraordinary efforts by our Highway Department, Parks Department and Waste Management employees, who worked tirelessly to clear snow from our roadways during what has seemed like an endless string of blizzards. Let’s give those employees a round of applause.
We also had the propane gas incident on New Year’s Day in Shirley. At the worst possible moment we saw the best in people.
Chief DJ Blankenship’s courage and leadership was awe-inspiring as he ordered the evacuation of a square mile and plugged the leak by the end of the day.
About 80 Fire Departments and Ambulance Companies responded to assist that morning.
And our Fire Marshals responded almost immediately, making several dangerous attempts to stop the leaking propane gas. They put their lives at risk, using their training and experience to help avert a catastrophe and for that we are all indebted to them. Please join me in giving our brave Fire Marshals a round of applause.
With all of the challenges and transitions and problems we face, the storyline for the past year that holds the most promise is our willingness to be creative, to find innovative solutions to those challenges.
Much like the business incubators at Stony Brook, I see Brookhaven as an incubator of ideas for municipal government. And we are in many respects leading the way for the rest of New York to follow in devising a new model for government.
We passed the three caps and I believe we may be the only municipality that has these three caps in place to ensure fiscal discipline.
We reformed our procurement and RFP policies, and adopted a new management policy.
We launched the Blight to Light initiative.
We’re planning transit oriented development at Ronkonkoma that may be the most exciting TOD location on the entire East Coast.
We are participating in Suffolk County’s Purchasing Council, an effort to pool purchasing power to lower costs. We also started our Central Receiving Pilot Project to pool office supply costs.
Our Efficiency and Revenue Team spent the past year saving the Town millions of dollars, and I’d like to thank Lou Marcoccia for leading that effort.
We overhauled our website and now, for the first time, post maps and documents related to land use hearings on the site.
We reorganized our Planning Department, moving toward a interdisciplinary team approach.
We partnered with our Union, entered into new contracts, and shared sacrifice to allow the Town to weather the continuing economic storm.
We’re working with Stony Brook University on a number of projects.
The University’s National Science Foundation Center for BioEnergy Research and Development is helping the Town develop technology to clean the biogas emitted from the landfill so that it can be used to produce electricity.
We’ve been working with Stony Brook Hospital’s Quality Management Department to develop and implement a quality management initiative here in the Town of Brookhaven.
We’re working on ways to make the Town run more efficiently with lower costs, and to address our quality of life and environmental issues.
But we are mindful that, along with the issue of high property taxes, there is one issue perhaps above all else that is essential to the future well-being of Brookhaven and all of Long Island. And that issue is the economy. What is the future of our economy?
Many have debated this issue for years and, while there’s no clear answer, I would suggest to you that there is no doubt that Long Island must be competitive in the national and global marketplace. How will we be competitive? By leveraging our economic assets to create jobs.
And I would suggest to you that our best assets are the world class research institutions on our Island. Places like Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Lab here in Brookhaven, and Hofstra, Cold Spring Harbor Lab, Adelphi and North Shore LIJ’s Feinstein Institute elsewhere on the Island.
So today I am proud to announce a groundbreaking initiative to commercialize research at our world-class institutions: Accelerate Long Island.
First, I would like to thank our IDA and the Rauch Foundation for their support in this effort. In particular, they funded a nationally-known consultant, Collaborative Economics of Mountainview, Calif., who has worked with regions throughout the country to figure out ways to repeat success stories like Silicon Valley.
About nine months ago we began a series of meetings with the leaders of the research institutions, as well as other regional leaders, to design a strategy that would create a rich entrepreneurial ecosystem on Long Island where start-up companies commercialize innovations at our research institutions.
We need these start up companies. We need to get back to making things again. We need them to employ our next generation. But to create startups, we need the entrepreneurs to start the companies and the funding to run them.
That’s where Accelerate Long Island comes in.
There are at least three parts to this entrepreneurial ecosystem.
First, you need ideas.
And our institutions are generating idea after idea, in industry sectors like biotech, energy and IT. They spend over $1 billion in research each year.
We have a national lab right here in Brookhaven. Other regions of the country are jealous of our assets because that’s the hardest part. The intellectual capital. And we have it in abundance.
The problem is that we haven’t been able to meaningfully connect entrepreneurs with those ideas.
So here’s the plan:
First, we need to create an innovation ally. This person will create an Innovation Index that collects and publishes data regarding a potential innovation ecosystem, focusing on things like the number of patents and amount of venture capital that flows to Long Island.
The Innovation Ally will also construct a Tech Portal, which will be an open source searchable inventory of all technology innovations at the major research institutions on Long Island. The Tech Portal will provide a window into the research institutions for budding entrepreneurs and seasoned venture capitalists.
Second, we need to change the cultures at Long Island’s major research institutions so that their priority is commercializing their inventions.
This is already happening, but things like business plan competitions and creating an Entrepreneurial Clinical Program where law, business and engineering students can help start up companies is being done all over the country, and it should be done here.
Third, we need to create a Regional Technology Commercialization Center, which would be a central location to promote mentoring and networking. It would have an Entrepreneur-in-Residence program to assist in the creation of startups, as well as other training and mentoring programs.
The Center would also market the region as being entrepreneur friendly, and work to access funding for startups.
Last, we need a Seed fund, to partner with other sources of funding like the Long Island Angel Network and venture capital firms to provide the capital startups desperately need.
As we worked on Accelerate Long Island, two things became clear. It needs to be a private sector initiative. And it needs a home. And we all agreed that the home should be the Long Island Association.
I want to thank Kevin Law, president of the LIA, who supports creating Accelerate Long Island under the auspices of the LIA, and I can announce today that last week I presented Accelerate Long Island to the LIA’s Board and they seemed overwhelmingly supportive. The LIA Board plans to vote on Accelerate Long Island next month.
And I’m also happy to announce that the leaders of Long Island’s major research institutions have agreed to participate in Accelerate Long Island.
This is a critical time for Brookhaven, as well as Long Island as a region, and we need to work together and think regionally when it comes to the future of our economy. We’re falling behind. Falling behind in the number of startups and falling behind in venture capital investments.
And we’re losing our young people, who want to work in companies like Google and Facebook, but they don’t see them starting up on Long Island. This is our chance to be competitive. To unleash the potential of our amazing research institutions. That’s why Accelerate Long Island is so important.
Elected officials have been talking about this idea for years. The time for talking is over. The time for action is now. Accelerate Long Island is real, it’s necessary, and it is essential for the economic future of Long Island.
As I said when I started, this was a year of many storylines. And all of them are positive. We are seeing a glimmer of optimism for the first time in a long time in Brookhaven.
We tackled our financial challenges.
We see our transitions as full of opportunity.
We embrace democracy and work in a bipartisan way.
We honor our leaders and celebrate our heroes.
And we are a Town that is an Incubator of Ideas.
And we are the Town that will lead Long Island toward a bright economic future in the new innovation economy.
Thank you very much.