The format - 90 seconds to answer questions, with limited opportunity for rebuttal - yielded little in the way of revelations. However, two issues evidently struck a chord, because two days later, during a regularly-scheduled town board meeting, Town Supervisor Jacqueline Annabi, who is running uncontested for re-election, gave a full-throated response. She rejected accusations made at the candidates forum that the town board had behaved inappropriately after the discovery of contaminated landfill at the new fire hall, and that there had been recent improprieties at the Highway Department.
At the Monday night candidates forum, Patty Villanova, a Republican candidate for the town board who the Republican Party has not endorsed, reiterated her criticism that the town board had done nothing to seek restitution for the $2 million that the Fire Department had to spend on remediation after the contaminated soil was discovered. Calling it "one of the biggest scandals in this town in the last forty years," Villanova said that if elected, she would ask the state comptroller to conduct an audit and investigation to get to the bottom of how it happened, who was involved, and why taxpayers got stuck footing the bill.
One of Villanova's competitors in this year's election for town board is Republican incumbent Louie Luongo, who does have the endorsement of the local Republican Party. Like Annabi, he was a member of the town board when the contaminated fill was discovered, and he has also been an active member of the Fire Department for more than 30 years. At Monday night's forum, Luongo stated that the $2 million spent on remediation came from the Fire Department's budget, over which the town has no say, since the volunteer organization is an independent service provider. "We cannot tell the Fire Department what to do. They present us with a budget. We go over it. If it’s acceptable, we allow that much money yearly," Luongo said.
Villanova made it clear she wasn't buying Luongo's argument. "I don’t think that the Fire Department is allowed to print money, so let’s not be so disingenuous and pretend that that money did not come directly from the taxpayers. Because it did.” Historically, the town transfers more than $1 million from the tax revenue it collects each year to the volunteer fire department to help cover its costs. Over the years, the Fire Department has amassed a multimillion dollar fund to pay for its new building. Now that it has had to use $2 million of those funds to cover the remediation required by the state's Department of Environmental Conservation, the completion of the fire hall has been delayed. Villanova maintains that the $2 million came from the town's taxpayers, since those funds are such a critical source of the organization's revenue.
At Wednesday town board meeting, Supervisor Annabi supported Luongo's position. "The Fire Department is a contracted entity. The town had no jurisdiction on anything to do with a contracted entity," she said. Annabi also vehemently rejected any suggestion that town board members knew about the contaminated fill or covered it up once it was discovered. She said that once the issue came to light, the board held 23 meetings with Fire Department representatives, all of which she said are reflected in minutes and videos of public meetings. "Nothing was ever hidden from the public, nothing was ever done to protect or hide anything. No one knew it was contaminated," Annabi said. She added that she knows nothing about the lawsuit that the Fire Department recently filed against the landfill provider.
On previous occasions, Villanova has criticized the Fire Department for the length of time it took to seek a legal remedy, suggesting they only moved on it after she began raising questions publicly. At Monday night's forum, Luongo responded to that criticism, saying, "As far as the time it took to start a lawsuit, that's on the Fire Department." (Luongo's wife, Sheryl, is the current president of the Fire Company; she is also the town's tax assessor. Keeler is vice president.)
At Wednesday night's board meeting, Annabi also rejected an accusation made by Mark Pawera, a candidate for highway superintendent who, like Annabi, is on the Republican ticket, and instead came to the defense of his opponent, Democrat incumbent Shawn Keeler. At the candidate's forum, Pawera had accused Keeler of allowing the Highway Department to work on Bell Hollow Bridge without necessary permits, an error he said had exposed the town to liability. He also accused Keeler of using town equipment on private property and the private road where Keeler and Luongo live. Since Pawera made these accusations during his closing statement, and Keeler had already given his, Keeler had no opportunity to rebut Pawera's claims.
On Wednesday night, Annabi said she wanted to respond because, "an accusation was made that the town performed work for the benefit of a private property owner.” Referencing Pawera's criticism of the Bell Hollow Bridge project, Annabi explained that while the legal paperwork was being processed for the town to acquire the property from the owner, who thought they had already conveyed it to the town, the Highway Department performed minor tree work. "The town is now the owner of the property and is in the process of acquiring the necessary permits to begin the bridge replacement. No work was performed by a town employee for the benefit of a private resident,” Annabi said.
The town supervisor did not address Pawera's other two accusations involving town equipment being used on private property and a private road. In a follow-up email, Keeler wrote that the Highway Department did repair the edge of a property on Tanglewylde Road that he considers part of the town's right of way, after it was washed out by heavy rain. He acknowledged that if snow prevents him from getting to work from his home on Luigi Road, which is private and thus not maintained by the town, he will occasionally plow it. He stated that that is a rare occurrence since he usually heads to work early or is out checking other roads when snow begins to fall.
To watch a video recording of the more than two-hour event, click here. The Q&A for the two county candidates begins at the 8:42 minute mark. Pawera and Keeler square off at 41 minutes. And the four town candidates can be heard starting at the 1 hour, 4 minute point.
A reminder that although the general election is on November 7th, early voting starts on October 28th in two locations: 25 Old Rt. 6 in Carmel and the North Highlands Firehouse at 504 Fishkill Rd. in Cold Spring. For all early voting dates and times, click here.
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