Democrat Shari James-Pierre is challenging incumbent Republican Bruce Blakeman for the Town of Hempstead’s 3rd Councilmanic District.
James-Pierre of Valley Stream is seeking to leverage her extensive financial background in both the public and private sectors against Blakeman, of Atlantic Beach, a more than 30-year political veteran, holding both elected and appointed seats in town, county and city government. He is seeking re-election to his second term in office after his appointment in 2015. The Herald asked both candidates questions focusing on issues vital to the 3rd C.D., which encompasses multiple neighborhoods in the southwest portion of the Town of Hempstead.
Herald: The current town budget anticipates $8.5 million in expected savings from planned early retirements. The supervisor has criticized this as being overly speculative. Do you believe this is a proper budgeting strategy, and what could be done at the end of the year if there is a budget shortfall?
Shari James-Pierre: I do not believe this is a proper budget strategy. There is only one strategy that works with budgeting and that is accounting for all money — all of it, what goes in and what goes out. The $8.5 million in “expected” savings is not a true representation of the town’s budget. It doesn’t account for the cost associated with those planned early retirements, and this strategy also assumes that all retirees are departing on Jan. 1. Budgets are like a puzzle, the only way to get the full picture is to have all the pieces.
Budgets shortfalls should never be an end of year problem. On a monthly basis or at the very least, each quarter the town should be monitoring the budget and adjusting its spending accordingly to account for any shortfalls.
Bruce Blakeman: The 2019 tax-cut budget that was adopted in a bipartisan manner is a study in sound and sensible fiscal management. Indeed, the tax-cut budget was approved by every member of the Town Board except for the supervisor. Even the supervisor’s Democrat colleague on the Town Board, Councilwoman Dorothy Goosby, supported the spending plan. It didn’t take long for Wall Street to weigh in on our financial stewardship either. The respected credit rating agency, Moody’s Investors Service, awarded the town a credit rating upgrade a day after the budget was adopted.
With respect to the practice of budgeting savings for vacant positions, it is a method that is commonly employed and universally accepted among qualified government accountants. Apparently, the supervisor has reconsidered her position and come to the same conclusion on the matter, having budgeted savings for vacant positions in her recent 2020 proposed budget. Regardless, our budgeted amounts in this area are very close to target, and, our 2019 adopted budget included for the restoration of $8 million to the reserve fund balance, providing adequate protection against any budget variances.
Herald: With skyrocketing property taxes, commercial districts in Valley Stream and Franklin Square are struggling to keep businesses in the area. How would you increase economic activity in your district?
James-Pierre: Yes, the commercial districts in our area are struggling and this is not a problem unique to Valley Stream and Franklin Square, but the entire Island. Our communities are in a very transformative period and there are three key things that I would do to increase economic activity:
1) Community focused approach: ensure community and stakeholder collaboration in any development, zoning overhaul and/or economic activity decisions made on the Town level.
2) Create walkable, vibrant and distinctive downtowns that reflect our communities’ character. I will work with all levels of government to ensure the town does its part to support smart development. We need to pour resources and tools available into making this happen.
3) Create a range of housing opportunities and choices for our young folks and seniors, in a fashion that preserves the character of our community.
Blakeman: When it comes to the issue of skyrocketing taxes and the adverse impacts on commercial districts, at least one level of government — Hempstead Town — is doing its fair share to provide real tax relief. In fact, I sponsored the 2019 town budget, which cut town taxes by 4.2 percent. Any meaningful downtown revitalization, however, will require decisive action on the part of New York State and Nassau County since they control the major thoroughfares along which our commercial districts are located. I am eager to work with state officials to secure grant funding for revitalization efforts in our commercial districts.
Herald: Large portions of Council District 3 were badly affected in Hurricane Sandy. With revelations that the Town Building Department has not been informing some residents of the need to elevate their homes, and reports of months-long wait times for construction as routine as building a deck, how would you help ensure the department is overhauled to meet the needs of residents and businessowners?
James-Pierre: All change begins with evaluation. Any overhaul starts with a comprehensive objective review of how the Building Department is doing business, and assessing everything from the culture, down to how permits are being processed. We need to ensure that Building Department is taking a citizen-centric approach to doing business, that will increase public satisfaction and reduce costs. We have some great people that work in our Town, I want to make sure they have the tools, resources and support to succeed.
Blakeman: I have been one of the primary forces behind the overhaul of the Town’s Building Department. The effort is geared toward making the Department more efficient and user-friendly. Weekend hours are at the forefront of the initiative, making it more convenient for homeowners and contractors to apply for building permits and have their construction plans reviewed. At the same time, I am focused on working with Don Clavin on a “top to bottom” review of all town departments, including the Building Department, to improve operations, increase accountability and enhance transparency. With regard to helping those who are recovering from Superstorm Sandy, Hempstead Town is the only municipality on Long Island that has waived building permit fees for those rebuilding their homes in the wake of the hurricane.
Herald: With an increasingly diverse population within Council District 3, what is in your view some of the most urgent concerns and needs within its communities that the town would be able to address?
James-Pierre: 1) Representation: We need to ensure that the residents of the 3rd Council District have a government that truly understands the barriers faced by their diverse constituents so they can work to eradicate them.
2) Accessibility and inclusivity: We need to ensure that we are reaching our constituents where they are. The town needs to consider the needs and varying life experiences of the diverse population it serves and receptive to different traditions and ideas.
Blakeman: The population in the 3rd Councilmanic District is culturally vibrant and diverse. Nonetheless, the most urgent concern in the in all areas of the Town remains the need for government to be accountable to taxpayers. That is why I spearheaded the 2019 tax-cut budget. Additionally, the need to increase the investment in our infrastructure, especially road repaving, is something to which I am committed. I am working with Don Clavin on a plan to substantially increase the road repaving schedule in our town. Another serious issue that my district confronts as a community that borders the city is “crossover crime.” I am working with law enforcement officials to develop strategies to deal with this issue. What’s more, security at our municipal pools is an area that calls for a greater public safety presence. Finally, the rise in anti-Semitic crime must be dealt with in a forceful and serious manner.