By Hank Russell
Paul Pontieri, the mayor of Patchogue Village, spoke about how to manage the resources of a municipal government during the LIMBA (Long Island Metro Business Action) meeting on February 17 at the Candlelight Diner in Commack.
“He’s always impressed me from the very beginning because he was always willing to look at a new idea,” LIMBA Chairman Ernie Fazio said of Pontieri. “And he’s still the same way and he hasn’t changed.
Pontieri talked about how he was a high school principal and a business owner before entering village government — first as a trustee, then as mayor. When he became mayor, “I really didn’t know what I’m not supposed to do,” he said. He was told that, in downtown Patchogue, “you weren’t supposed to build five-story buildings, but it seemed like a good idea.”
As a lifelong resident of Patchogue, Pontieri said, “it was always about the communities supporting the downtown [area].”
Fazio credited Pontieri for the turnaround in the village, which went from an area resembling a ghost town to a vibrant downtown lined with restaurants, bars and retail stores. “It’s a much better [village now]. That little village is alive. A lot of it is because he was able to look into his heart to look at new ideas.”
He noticed that the demographics in Patchogue skew younger, with the average age being 36, whereas the average age of county residents is 42, because the housing was built in the village with the younger generation in mind. He noted that people balk at $2,800-a-month rents, but he said those in their 20s and 30s can afford an apartment as opposed to a house.
“What they can’t afford is to put 20% down on a $700,000 house,” Pontieri said. “My hope is that the [younger residents] come into New Village, they come into Copper Beach, which is the first [development] we put up, and Artspace, which is 100% affordable.”
Another aspect of affordable housing is density. Pontieri said people have raised concerns about density, but “if density is done right, you will find that the community will accept it.”
Governor Kathy Hochul is introducing a plan to add more affordable housing to Long Island, but Pontieri said that poses a problem for the island. “My problem is that it’s part of the [state’s] budget bill,” he said, adding that Patchogue has already constructed 700 affordable housing units in the past 15 years. “People have to realize that, when the budget passes, that [housing bill] passes, whether you like it or don’t like it.”
He said the housing bill will pass if it is tied to school funding, and it will pass “without any … or very little … legislative input.” He said the cannabis and bail reform bills were also put in last year’s state budget “and you saw what happened. … You can’t make legislative actions part of budget bills.”
The village recently expanded its sewer system to accommodate future residential units at a cost of $12 million. He said he was able to pay for it by reaching out to elected officials and applying for grants. The village already had $1 million saved from the Paycheck Protection Program, but he had surprisingly received $3.5 million from U.S. Senator Charles Schumer’s office after reaching out to then-U.S. Congressman Lee Zeldin’s office, as well as another $1 million from Suffolk County.
“We were trying to get the sewer pumps in without it costing the resident taxpayer a dollar … without costing the sewer district a dollar,” he said. “People ask me, ‘Mayor, where do you get the money from?’ You got to have a good story and you have to just ask. … You don’t go to one place; you have to ask for two people, three people, four people. And you have to cobble it together.” Pontieri pointed out that the village is working with Johnson Controls to have solar panels installed on the sewer plant so it can run on its own supply of electricity.
When the issue of parking in the village came up, one of the attendees asked Pontieri if he thought about building a parking garage with solar panels to provide free energy to village residents. Pontieri said, even with the panels, the price tag would be $7 million, which he said is “a waste of taxpayer dollars,” and would entail around-the-clock security, which would be another expense.
Fazio agreed that more parking is needed in Patchogue, but he also agreed with the mayor that parking garages are not the answer. “It’s not good for the taxpayers of that village.”
Future plans for Patchogue, Pontieri said, include more housing. “I look at what people are investing in, then we take those investments and use those dollars [for what] best meets the needs of the community.”
The mistakes that other villages make, Pontieri said, is that “they hold these big community meetings, they have these great ideas for the community, but there are no investors for those things. Without the money to do it, you can’t do it.”