Southold Town has been designated a Clean Energy Community by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority for “its leadership in reducing energy use, cutting costs and driving clean energy locally,” said Town Supervisor Scott Russell in his State of the Town address Thursday night.
The designation will allow the town to apply for state grants up to $100,000 toward additional clean energy projects — grants that come with no local cost sharing.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the Clean Energy Communities initiative in August of 2016, as part of his Reforming the Energy Vision strategy to help the state meet its goal of producing 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by the year 2030.
The town completed four out of 10 clean energy actions identified by NYSERDA in order to achieve the designation — adopting a standardized solar permit application to make it easier for property owners to install solar panels, installing electric vehicle charging stations at the Peconic Lane Community Center, Town Hall and the Mattituck Human Resource Center, establishing a law to benchmark energy use in municipal buildings and training of code compliance officers in the best practices in energy code enforcement.
“We are proud to be the first small municipality on Long Island to earn the Clean Energy Community designation,” said Mr. Russell. “These initiatives not only help the environment, but they also save taxpayer dollars. The Town of Southold is committed to sustainable leadership, and we are excited to pursue additional clean energy projects with the grant money awarded through the Clean Energy Communities program.”
Mr. Russell also renewed his pledge in last year’s State of the Town address to work to bring more affordable housing to Southold.
In 2016, the town adopted a zoning code amendment that would allow developers to build 12 affordable rental apartment or condominium units per acre, if they submit to the requirements of the town’s affordable housing program. Before, the zoning had allowed six units per acre, but Mr. Russell said the affordable housing developers have told him they need to build 12 units per acre to make their projects financially feasible.
Mr. Russell said that he plans to work this year on code changes to allow affordable apartments as principal uses in commercial areas, since code changes made several years ago to make it easier to build apartments above businesses “didn’t go anywhere” because of the cost of implementing state health, building and fire suppression codes.
He added that building affordable housing in commercial areas may cut down on the “Not in My Backyard” public sentiment toward affordable housing when it is proposed in residential areas.
Mr. Russell said the town also plans to host another public forum on affordable housing this year, to “dispel a lot of myths” about what affordable housing is.
Mr. Russell acknowledged this year’s 7.57 percent property tax levy increase, which pierced the state’s tax cap, stating that the town needed to repair long-suffering roads, which accounts for “a substantial percentage of the complaints I get.”
“I know it was substantial. It was the first time we had to exceed the tax cap,” he said. “We needed to make decisions and get work done.”
Mr. Russell said the town, which is currently in negotiations with its Police Benevolent Association, is also looking for ways to save money on police disability payments.
He pointed out that two police officers who have been out on disability for several years have cost the town $2 million this year, up from $1.5 million last year, which accounts for 1.79 percent of the tax increase.
“When an officer is out on disability, they’re entitled to their full pay, and that income is tax free. It’s state law,” he said. “But 24 months is enough time to know they can’t come back to work and it’s time to retire. I know they are disabled, but there needs to be a decision made at some point. Seven, five or six years is too long.”
Mr. Russell added that police officers put on “light duty” roles after injury are currently entitled to stay in a light duty role after they recover, while still making the same salary they made on active duty.
“That’s not an efficient use of payroll expenditures,” he said. “They need to return as quickly as possible to active service.”
Mr. Russell said the town just closed the books on 2016, and ended up “in the black by a little under a million dollars.”
Town Comptroller John Cushman, who is retiring, gave his last financial report to the town board at its Feb. 28 work session.
Mr. Russell said the town has reduced vehicle fuel consumption by 30,000 gallons in the last five years due to a fleet management plan put together by Councilman Bill Ruland, creating “substantial savings for the town,” and that, due to a Moody’s credit rating upgrade to aa1, “the highest credit rating in the town’s history,” the town will save $2 million in renegotiated debt service between now and 2030.
“We’ll start to see the savings this year,” he said.