Over 200 members of the Sachem community packed the auditorium at Samoset Middle School Thursday night for a legislative question and answer session with several esteemed members of local and state government.
Those in attendance were able to submit questions for any representative individually, or address it to a certain level of government. The questions provided by the Sachem community were varied, with some addressing issues people are facing, while others were solely looking for the personal opinion of one of the members of the panel.
"I think people came here for different reasons," said Dana Platin, a representative from Sachem's Legislative Commitee, who is responsible for helping construct the session. "Certainly everyone is very concerned about the budget. Our timing could have been any better. When we chose this date, we had no idea it would be a day after the budget was released."
Rep. Tim Bishop opened the night with a bang when he discussed school budget cuts.
"I think there will be cuts," to school budgets, he said. Bishop added that he feels that the federal government has to "return as much authority" back to the local governments and school districts themselves.
Sen. Lee Zeldin addressed Gov. Andrew Cuomo's announced education budget cut, calling it "outrageous."
"I will not be voting for a $16 million cut to Sachem," said Zeldin to the appreciation of the audience, who answered with applause.
Zeldin did, however, state that there would be some cut to school aid. "Times need to change," he said, before praising the board of education members in attendance.
Brookhaven Town Supervisor Mark Lesko informed the attendees that since he has become supervisor, he has been able to cut spending by 20 percent through "sacrifices." He said that if tax payers wish to limit spending, they have to be open to talking about layoffs and other measures.
Lesko then shifted focus to job creation as a key to the future of Long Island, including , his newly created initiative that will see several research institutions, including Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Lab, come together to commercialize research innovations on Long Island.
Bishop faced two questions with national significance, with the first being President Obama's "" initiative that is designed to help reform state and local kindergarden through high school districts. He stated that he supports the idea of the bill, including judging teachers based on student performance. But he also has problems with the bill, most notably, his view of charter schools. "The jury is still out," said Bishop. "Is it perfect? No, not even close."
The other issue Bishop was questioned about was his stance on the health care bill. He stated that 5 million Americans gave up on their private insurance. They're "taking a gamble," said Bishop. He described the current health care situation as a "death spiral." As prices increase, customers leave their plans. By doing so, those who still pay for their insurance will see even higher rates to make up for the lost revenue. He thinks an overhaul is needed, but that this specific bill is not perfect.
Two other local issues were brought up through audience questions, including special education aid cuts. "The special education unfunded mandates are at the top of everyone's list," said Zeldin. He stated that early intervention can potentially allow special needs students to catch up to their peers and maybe not need special education in the future.
"Bottom-line, it's about the kids," said New York State Assemblyman Dean Murray. "It's important for us to get the feedback from the people who do the work."
Most members voiced their support for state-supported special education, including New York State Assemblyman Michael Fitzpatrick who said the program needs to be as "efficient as possible."
The session concluded with a question proposed to the panel as to what Sachem can do to assist the various stages of government in making these upcoming difficult times easier.
They all stated that feedback from the community can make this tumultuous period easier. "I want to come back next year and say we did something great as a state," said Zeldin before ending his night with a YouTube video suggestion for those in attendance, which was received with a laugh from the remaining crowd.
Sen. John Flanagan urged the audience to vote this coming April. He praised the district for their strong turnouts on voting days, stating that there are several elected officials in New York City who won elections despite just gaining 10 percent of the voting population's vote.
For New York State Assemblyman Al Graf, being able to answer questions from the Sachem community, where his three children graduated from, is "very important."
"I love when I have dialogue," said Graf after the session had concluded. "It shows the concern that people have. You have different concerns with the kids in the school, and at the same time, concerns from the people that just can't afford their property tax anymore. There's a balance we have to strike."
Sal Tripi, a member of the committee and also a member of Sachem's board of education, was pleased with the turnout.
"The turnout should be an indication that the Sachem community is concerned about what's happening, and will be watching what the legislators do, and will be holding them accountable for what we elected them to do," he said.
"Honestly, we would have been satisfied with 100," Platin said. "This far exceeded our expectations. I'm very proud of our district."