By Mike Billoni
State Sen. Mark Panepinto has completed his first quarter as the representative for Grand Island, and the Town of Tonawanda native said he looks forward to carrying the town's concerns to the New York state capital and coming home with results.
"Grand Island, like every other town in my district, will receive my complete attention and legislative focus," said Panepinto, whose district also includes parts of the City of Buffalo, the City of Tonawanda as well as the towns of Tonawanda, Hamburg, Orchard Park, Evans, Brant and Cattaraugus. "After growing up in Tonawanda, I am very familiar with neighboring Grand Island. I have family living there, and I am excited to represent both towns in my district.
"I recognize that Grand Island is a suburban community, home to beautiful parklands like Beaver Island State Park that I visited as a kid and an adult. Water quality and access to the waterfront remains an important issue as Grand Island is surrounded by waterways, and it needs to have the same access to resources that all other communities in the 60th Senate District and surrounding area deserve."
The senator said he looks forward to hosting town hall forums and meet-and-greets on Grand Island so he can "tackle the issues of importance to its residents."
The Grand Island Town Board was the only board in the district to send Panepinto a congratulations card after he won last November's election over incumbent Mark Grisanti. Supervisor Mary Cooke arranged a meeting with Panepinto and members of the board soon after the election to discuss several important issues for Grand Island residents.
Nike Base grant promise does not exist
The board members were most interested in learning what Panepinto could do to help obtain the 2014 grant Grisanti secured for $210,000 from the New York State Municipal Facilities Program to restore the floors and restrooms for the community center on the Nike Base complex.
"During the summer of 2014 while running for re-election, the former senator promised grant money to nearly every town and village in the 60th State Senate District. To the Town of Grand Island, those commitments added up to nearly $300,000," Panepinto said. "Following the election, however, he did not deliver on any of those promises. Now, localities across my district are stuck with dead-end projects that still need to be completed and, in some cases, those localities have incurred unnecessary debt because they thought the money promised by the former senator would be forthcoming. My office and I will continue to stay vigilant with these requests, and we will work closely with local officials to ensure that they are no longer ignored or forgotten. But it is clear at the outset that these grant promises do not exist in reality."
A major concern of Cooke and the Town Board is unfunded mandates from the state, including the 2 percent tax cap and the tax freeze. The freshman senator, a graduate of the University at Buffalo and its law school who manages his own law firm, Dolce Panepinto P.C., said he fully understands the town's concerns.
"Ninety-seven percent of Erie County's tax levy is used to fund Medicaid - this is not only unsustainable, it is unconscionable," Panepinto said. "I view unfunded mandates as harmful economic policies that stifle middle-class growth. They force local governments and schools to increase our property taxes. We need to eliminate these mandates, and give municipalities the flexibility they need to control costs.
"Furthermore, we need to strengthen our state aid formulas so the onus to fund critical programs such as Medicaid is not entirely shifted to our county governments. We need to do more to bring relief to our local municipalities, and we need to do it immediately. I believe these are strong steps to restoring the economic promise that will keep families and businesses here in New York."
The Grand Island Town Board also has concerns about the potential misuse of the public assistance electronic benefits transfers.
"Any assistance provided by the government and on taxpayer expense should be regulated and monitored to ensure effective delivery," Panepinto said. "The integrity of our public assistance should always be taken seriously."
Another concern the town leaders presented to the senator was the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation air monitoring.
"There used to be an air monitor on the Island," Cooke said. "We talked about the possibility of acquiring one to make sure we have clean air on the Island at all times. Air monitoring has brought the Tonawanda Coke plant issues to the public."
"I will submit a letter to the Department of Environmental Conservation asking for such an air monitoring system, and I will follow up with phone calls to see if this is a possibility," he said. "In nearby Tonawanda, an air-monitoring system exists to track the impact of industry and other causes, and the collected data should be made available to Grand Island residents who most certainly are affected, as well."
College chargeback fees 'illogical'
The community college chargebacks Erie County pushed back to each town and village as their responsibility to pay for students in the county who go to school outside of the county is costing Grand Island taxpayers nearly $500,000 annually.
"Because we are on the border of Niagara County, a number of our students attend NCCC and other community colleges in the state, and that costs us a lot of taxpayer dollars," Cooke explained. "This is antiquated and ridiculous. We should not be penalized for our students going to community colleges outside of Erie County. It should be the student's responsibility, and we are appealing to the state to change the chargeback rules."
Panepinto, who was unaware of these chargebacks when he first met with Cooke and board member Ray Billica at Dick and Jenny's Restaurant, researched the practice. He said, "New York's counties normally pawn off these community college chargeback fees to local towns and villages, and it's frankly illogical.
"The problem is that the 'charge-back' is legally being passed along to one municipality or another, whether it is Grand Island or another town in Erie County. The state must do more to ease this burden; this unfunded mandate. Also, the state law - as it reads - allows for counties to be billed chargebacks from institutions for master's and numerous advanced degrees. This falls outside the scope of helping to fund an education at a community college."
"New York's chargeback law needs reform and it needs it now," Panepinto declared.
Senator will cut parkland grass if he has to
Finally, the age-old issue of grass cutting on the state-owned parkways along the West River was broached. The senator agreed with the town's concerns.
"It makes no sense that the state is not fulfilling their obligation to cut the grass on the West River Parkway," he said. "My office will bludgeon the New York State Department of Transportation with letters and phone calls to cut the grass.
"If they are not responsive, then I will cut the grass myself," Panepinto added.
Interested in the Island
"The issues of Town of Grand Island residents are my issues," Panepinto said. "My staff is dedicated and well-versed in numerous policy issues, and all of them are native residents from towns in my district. Our office actively uses social media to communicate with our residents, and we will be sending out district-wide newsletters to update everyone about what I have been working on in Albany."
He added, "To overcome the challenges we face, our state must pursue an agenda that creates for all of us - not just well-funded special interests. Today, Western New York finds itself at a crossroads. We have seen the benefits of economic development over the past few years, but many in our region are still struggling to make ends meet in an economic climate that too often seems rigged against the working- and middle-class families.
"To create a fairer and more prosperous WNY, we must encourage job creation, reduce the tax burden, spur economic development, improve the waterfront in terms of access and quality - especially by being good stewards of our environment - and we must improve our schools," Panepinto said. "These issues, and the needs of the hardworking people of the 60th Senate District have been top priorities of mine in the State Senate thus far. With the help of the towns I represent, I will fight to change 'politics as usual' in Albany so our government works not just for those with the deepest pockets, but for all of us in Western New York and throughout our state."