Meeting Recap – Dr. Sam Stanley from Stony Brook University

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Dr. Samuel Stanley came to LIMBA to share his thoughts on what is happening at Stony Brook University and what the future looks like.

Stony Brook University has an annual budget of $2.7 billion. A major part of that is healthcare, which is $1 billion. The university’s extensive medical practice comprises of $500-600 million of that budget.

The university’s economic impact on the region is $5.5 billion. Stony Brook is the largest, single- site employer of Long Island, with 14,000 employees on its main campus alone. It also added 1,500 more employees when it took over Southampton Hospital.

There are currently 27,000 students who attend Stony Brook. Dr. Stanley pointed out that the university is becoming more competitive academically; last year, the university received 38,000 applications for 3,300 slots. Of the student body, 1,500 are transfer students, mostly from Suffolk County Community College. In addition, Stony Brook is accepting more New York State residents than it has in the past, and is accepting more international students as well.

Dr. Stanley said Stony Brook has been able to increase enrollment while maintaining quality of education. In the last five years, the on-time graduation rate increased from 40% to 60%. The retention rate has also remained high.

He also said that Stony Brook is a nationally recognized when it comes to quality and value. Forbes ranked Stony Brook No. 25 among STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) based universities, and 18th among all public universities nationwide. Money magazine ranked Stony Brook No. 22 in value.

Many of the students receive financial aid. According to Dr. Stanley, 46% attend the university tuition-free as the result of Pell Grants, Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) and the Excelsior program, and one-third of the students are eligible for a Pell Grant. When asked if most of the students are taking advantage of the Excelsior program, Dr. Stanley said that 850 students are in the state-run tuition-free program; he added the number is so small because there are other forms of financial aid that students can qualify for.

With the growing interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) among current and graduating high school students, Stony Brook has seen a 70% increase in enrollment of its engineering program. However, because there is not enough classroom space in its engineering buildings, many qualified applicants are turned away. To expand its program, the university is undertaking a $100 million project to construct a facility that will house more of its engineering department.

Dr. Stanley said the major focus points for the university are research and medicine. In the research department, he said Stony Brook is putting an emphasis on generating knowledge. This, in turn, brings money to Long Island through National Institutes of Health grants. He added the university has attracted top academic talent in its assistance. Eight faculty members have been awarded by major federal agencies.

Stony Brook is looking to modernize its buildings for its medical department. This includes the construction of a medical research and translation building featuring classrooms and a state-of- the-art cancer center, as well as the first stand alone children’s hospital, in which each child gets their own room and beds for the parents to stay with their children overnight.

In looking to expand its medical and scientific research, Dr. Stanley said he is reaching out to form partnerships and collaborations with other Long Island institutions – including Northwell Health, the Feinstein Institute, Brookhaven National Laboratory and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Dr. Stanley did not want to finish without mentioning its athletic program. He pointed out that the Seawolves are the only Division I football team on Long Island; last year, the team finished 10-3 and went to the FCS. This past spring, the women’s lacrosse team was ranked No. 1 in the country. Dr. Stanley predicted they will be named champions of the 2019 season.

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart

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Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart spoke about her career in law enforcement. She spent 21 years with the FBI. She was assigned to the FBI’s Manhattan office, where she worked in the Organized Crime Unit.

Before Tim Sini became Suffolk’s police commissioner – and now its District Attorney – Commissioner Hart said there was no communication between Suffolk police and the FBI. After Sini became police commissioner, he was able to facilitate communications and information sharing between the two agencies on the MS-13 gangs, counterterrorism and the Gilgo Beach murders.

Over the past year, violent crime in Suffolk County has gone down 20%, while property-related crime has decreased by 10%. Despite those encouraging statistics, Commissioner Hart said, more needs to be done.

As police commissioner, her top priorities are cracking down on gang-related crime, dealing with the opioid crisis and school safety. In addressing the first priority, Commissioner Hart said the FBI is working with the Long Island Gang Task Force; she is also encouraging the officers to become involved with the community. She said that community relations should be in the DNA of every officer. Most recently, some police precincts took part in the National Night Out as a way for the officers to interact with the public.

In speaking about the opioid crisis, she said they will prosecute the dealers, while those who are addicted to these painkillers can receive help. The police department is partnering with LICADD (Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence), which, in turn, will reach out those who need help. This program, she said, will provide treatment for addicts instead of sending them to jail.

The third priority – school safety – was widely discussed. Those in attendance asked how the police can make schools safer. Commissioner Hart said the schools and the SCPD are working together as part of the SHARE program. She said all transmissions from the schools’ cameras go directly to a centralized location where SCPD personnel can monitor it. From their location, they can get control access to the schools remotely in the event of an active shooter; they can also assess the building to make sure the school is not a soft target.

Commissioner Hart said her agency is staying on top of potential attacks on schools by viewing real-time video, responding to social media posts, establishing a robust intelligence center that is vetting all threats and making sure everyone communicates with one another. She pointed out that, nine times out of 10, an active shooter makes their intentions known before committing the act, so she urged everyone that, if they see or know of a threat against the school, to contact the police immediately.

One of the audience’s concerns was the overtime pay collected by the officers. The commissioner addressed the problem by stating that overtime costs are down by $5 million compared to last year and more officers will join the force after completing academy training. Further, many of the police academy graduates have a four-year college degree or higher.

Steve Levy on Budgets and Deficits

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Steve Levy talked about how taxes are affecting Long Islanders and why they are so high. He addressed the 2% tax cap, which, he said, is not a permanent cap. It gets renewed every four years because the elected officials in Albany need to stay in power and will make that campaign promise to renew the cap. The last time the cap was renewed was in 2015.

Mr. Levy said there is a struggle in the state Senate between the suburban legislators, who are looking to keep the cap and the urban legislators, who are interested in rent stabilization rather than the cap. He said, if control of the state Senate flips to the urban legislators next year, there is no guarantee that the tax cap will be renewed.

To get around the tax cap, more school districts are bonding, or borrowing, money to pay for special projects. In the end, he said, school district residents will pay more from bonding, He pointed out that the Port Jefferson School District bonded for $29 million for a project, resulting in a 5% tax increase. Mr. Levy added that most bonds are legitimate, but they need more scrutiny; he proposed that bonding for projects should be voted on the same day as the school budget.

Suffolk County recently bundled a series of bonds for infrastructure projects and put them to a single vote. Mr. Levy said bundling of the bonds takes away the opportunity to debate each bond individually and make a decision on each bond.

School districts, meanwhile, have hoarded excess money in their coffers. Many districts have reserves in excess of the 4% allowed in escrow. This extra money is not given back to the taxpayers, thereby keeping taxes artificially high. A solution is to use the MTA Rule, in which any excess money would be taken back by the comptroller.

This morning, it was announced that the GDP grew by 4.1%. Mr. Levy said that tax cuts generate more revenue, not less. As examples, he cited John F. Kennedy’s tax cuts by 20-30%, resulting in 5% growth over the next eight years, and Ronald Reagan cutting taxes by 40-50% from 1983 to 1989, income for the upper class and the middle class rose by 12%. He also disabused the notion that tax cuts lead to budget deficits; he said the budget deficits are caused by overspending. When the budget deficit grew under the Reagan administration, Mr. Levy said that was the result in spending, especially within the military. Chairman Fazio pointed out that when JFK reduced taxes the highest tax rate was 90% and that was the reason the effect was great.

On the topic of renewable energy, Mr. Levy said he supports alternatives to fossil fuel, but at the same time, he does not believe these goals proposed by Governor Cuomo and other elected officials of 50-100% renewable sources within 10 years is not achievable. He also said offshore wind power would not be economically feasible because it would cost seven times more than what New Yorkers are paying now for energy costs. Mr. Levy added that Long Islanders are currently paying $7 billion to bail out a nuclear power plant in upstate New York; he reminded the audience that, when Shoreham closed down, no one else in the state offered a bailout.

Mr. Levy concluded his presentation with councilmatic districts. He mentioned the lawsuit that was filed by a group of Latino residents and activist groups against the Town of Islip, claiming the town’s at-large voting system does not properly represent the Latino population. Mr. Levy said all of the current town board members live on the southern part of Islip Town, with none of them living in Brentwood or Central Islip, which is predominantly Latino. He said the town residents should vote for a councilmatic district and that, if it is good enough for a Republican-controlled town like Islip, it is good for a Democrat-controlled town like Babylon. Chairman Fazio suggested that councilmatic districts in more homogeneous towns probably work better, and that all remedies may not work everywhere.

Making the LIRR Better – Phillip Eng, Long Island Rail Road President

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Since accepting the role as president of the LIRR in April 2018, Phillip Eng has looked for ways to improve service for the 300,000-plus riders that use the trains every day. For example, he described the proposed addition of a second track that would improve service between Ronkonkoma and Farmingdale. In addition to alleviating stress on the existing first track, the second t rack would be built without the need to acquire additional property, provide more choices for commuters and more reliable service.

LIRR Forward is the initiative Mr. Eng is bringing to the LIRR. He asked, “What do our customers deserve?” to which he replied “A seamless, safe, comfortable ride.” He said the LIRR is adapting a “fix it now” attitude, taking a proactive (rather than a reactive) approach. In addition, he wants to accelerate best practices and find new practices to make the LIRR more cost-efficient. This includes identifying and attacking the causes of delays and making improvements in relaying real-time information to riders so they can make better commuting decisions.

In 2017, there were 205 switch failures; 10 of those switches caused 44% of all failures. To fix that, Mr. Eng said, those switches will be upgraded within six months. Also last year, 417 trains were delayed as the result of vehicles on the tracks. The problem was addressed by installing high-visibility delineators all of the 29 grade crossings this year. The LIRR also worked with the company that made the Waze app to prevent motorists who use the app from accidentally coming onto the tracks.

Last year, Mr. Eng said, over 2,600 trains were delayed due to extreme weather conditions. To remedy the situation, the agency has cleared 180 miles of overgrown vegetation to reduce the number of track incidents and installed 60 snow switch covers – a project that was completed two years ahead of schedule – and added 14 third-rail heaters. He is also working with PSEG to replace 80 utility poles along with the right-of-ways; as of this writing, 51 have been replaced so far. He is also looking to have the door components that have failed during winter months; these repairs will reduce delays and liability.

He concluded by emphasizing the importance of providing access to the state’s airports via trains, citing the AirTrain that is connected to JFK Airport. He said he is looking to improve access to other airports such as LaGuardia and MacArthur.

Mr. Eng said the programs that are put in place can work, but they cannot be successful unless his customers – the commuters – are satisfied.