For those watching the Town of North Hempstead, the dispute over allocating $3.1 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act money is deja vu all over again.
In this case, North Hempstead Town Supervisor Jennifer DeSena, a Republican, has proposed that the money be used to pay for the second phase of a project to provide sewers to the downtown businesses along Plandome Road in Manhasset.
The project, five years in the planning but overdue by about 40 years, is supported by civic associations, the Manhasset Chamber of Commerce, DeSena and board Republicans.
In January, Democrat Councilmember Veronica Lurvey said she, too, was a longtime supporter of the project
But she and the other members of the Town Board’s Democratic majority said they needed more information before voting to allocate the money.
“This is a good project and the ARPA funds are uniquely suited for a project like this,” Lurvey said. “But there are still many unanswered questions about the project.”
So what happened at the board’s March meeting held last week?
Same thing. Further delay with almost the same words spoken.
“The most basic facts about this project are unknown,” Lurvey said in a statement to Blank Slate Media. “Who will receive the money? How will it be spent? What controls will be in place? Is this a legally appropriate use of the funds? These are critically important questions to which there are no concrete answers.”
Why exactly have the Democrats been unable to get the answers during this time? We don’t know.
And what assurances do we have that Town Board Democrats won’t have the same problem the next time they consider the funding at their April 4 meeting?
DeSena blamed the delay on politics.
The Democratic majority Town Board members are “committed to sabotaging” her administration, she said in a statement to Blank Slate Media.
“It’s sad to see a group of elected officials who are so committed to sabotaging my administration that they are willing to sacrifice the future of our Manhasset business district in the process,” she continued.
DeSena has a good point about the politics but doesn’t exactly have clean hands either.
She and the four town Democrats have frequently clashed since she took office in January 2022 over a wide range of issues, including the town Building Department, appointments to a town ethics board and the selection of a town comptroller.
But she does have a good point about the cost of the Town Board’s delay for approving a badly needed project.
Imagine, the main business district in Manhasset, one of the most affluent communities in New York, relies on cesspools in the year 2023.
Matt Donno, co-president of the Manhasset Chamber of Commerce, which has spearheaded the project, said businesses along Plandome Road can pay as much as $50,000 to $70,000 annually to pump their septic systems. And some may have to spend upwards of $500,000 in a year to maintain the system.
The project would allow Plandome business owners to convert to a pump system that Donno said would connect to each building and essentially pump the water down a sewer line to the Great Neck Water Pollution Control District, where it would be treated.
Supporters point out that the cesspools also pose an environmental threat, especially to the water quality of Manhasset Bay.
So delaying the project has a real cost.
The project received a kick-start in April 2022 when state Assemblywoman Gina Sillitti, a Democrat, helped get a $5 million state grant for the first phase of the project. The $3.1 million is for the second phase.
DeSena is not without blame in playing politics with the ARPA money, federal funds approved by Democrats in Congress without the vote of a single Republican in response to COVID.
In November 2022, shortly before the election, she held a press conference with Republican County Executive Bruce Blakeman to announce that $9 million would be allocated toward five different infrastructure projects in the town using the ARPA money. This included the Plandome Road project
She said at the press conference she had allocated $3.1 million to connect Plandome Road businesses in Manhasset to a public sewer system, $2 million for sidewalk replacement along Westbury Avenue in Carle Place, $1 million for rehabilitation of the 8th and Asbury Ballfields in Carle Place, $1.76 million for Sunset Park improvements in Port Washington, and $1.2 million for Fuschillo Park improvements in Carle Place.
The only problem is that the Town Board had not voted on the use of the money – as is required by law. And DeSena had not even notified town Democrats about the press conference.
That did not sit well with Lurvey or her fellow Democrats.
Lurvey declared that “North Hempstead is not a dictatorship” and that the allocation of the money needed to be approved.
She then set a Nov. 17 hearing date to consider allocating the money. The board approved the $2 million for sidewalks in Westbury and $445,919 for the Port Washington Public Parking District at the meeting, a second grant for Port Washington.
But not for the Plandome Road project or the other two projects.
The Plandome Road project was instead postponed for the board’s January meeting, which was postponed again to the March hearing date and now to an April hearing date.
Brian Devine, a spokesman for DeSena, said the town was awarded the ARPA money this past summer after the town sent an “application to the Treasury Department that identified the projects we were looking to utilize the funds on.”
He said DeSena identified a number of long-delayed projects “that would be kick-started by this infusion of funds but did not consult with the Democratic majority in submitting the project.
“There was no stipulation dictating board involvement prior to submission. As with any spending item, the board weighs in when it comes before them,” DeVine said.
“At this point, to allocate it to something other than what the Treasury Department approved would probably require further conversations with the Treasury,” Devine said in an earlier email to Blank Slate Media.
Really? DeVine is legally correct but politically foolish.
Under state law, funding decisions must be made by a majority of the Town Board – not the supervisor.
This is a system that when the majority of the Town Board is of the same party as the supervisor, things usually go along smoothly.
But when the supervisor is not of the same party? Well, welcome to North Hempstead. Especially when DeSena is keeping Democrats out of the loop on important projects.
Is the delay in approving the money for the second phase of the Plandome Road project payback for her keeping them out of the application process for the money?
Was DeSena excluding the Democrats from the application process in retaliation for the Democrats blocking her picks for the Town Ethics Board and other steps that the town supervisor has complained about?
We will let our readers decide that question.
But, in the meantime, needed funding for an important town project sits in limbo.
“There’s a lot of politics in this and I still haven’t gotten to the reason behind it,” Donno said last week. “Why couldn’t you commit to just putting it into an account? You’re not committing to spending it at this time.”
DeSena and town Democrats need to drop the gloves for a moment and approve a long-needed project.