Viewpoint: Local engagement needed! Vote in special district elections Dec. 10

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Karen Rubin, Columnist

Erica Beggs held her own “Meet the Candidate” evening – with a Powerpoint, no less – because the Great Neck Parks Commissioner Frank Cilluffo who she is challenging in the upcoming Dec. 10 special districts election refused to participate in a candidates debate.

In that space of 90 minutes, Beggs effectively communicated her background, experience, values, her understanding of park district affairs and the role of a commissioner, her appreciation for our parks and programs. She also demonstrated her willingness to take questions, answer questions and listen, and overall, demonstrated why she will make an excellent Parks Commissioner.

In the first place, she brings an incredible background to the office. Her day job, 11 years as a school guidance counselor requires her to be adept at listening and also caring, and seeing the bigger picture about her role as commissioner in fulfilling the Park District’s mission:

But she has an extraordinary other background, as a competitive ice skater which she has employed for the past 23 years as a skating instructor including 13 years as a coach at Parkwood Skate School and the Director of the Skate School from 2008-2012.

This gives her an unusual and impressive understanding of the inner workings of the park district from the perspective of someone who works within it, and for clients (“the people”) who come from the community.

While too many candidates speak in platitudes and slogans, Beggs laid out specific priorities: commuter parking, an indoor recreation center, upgrade the tennis center, kosher and healthier food selections at the snack bars, walking trails and fitness pathways, introduce recycling and explore using solar energy, implement educational programs such as STEM into the camp curriculum, and (of course) fiscal responsibility.

She showed an understanding of the nitty-gritty of the office, listing as her goals more cross-department planning and communication; to institute internship/volunteer opportunities; make the online registration system more user friendly; ensure adequate offerings to meet the needs of all residents (Sunday events, public sessions); finish installing WiFi in all parks; improve efficiency for staff (payroll, purchasing).

And she described her own leadership style, beginning with the recognition that a park commissioner is a public servant; to empower others and not micro-manage; to understand limits to the role (“no over-involvement with program oversight”); to advocate for the needs of the entire community; use skills as a counselor; be team-oriented; employ creative solutions based on cohesive thought with team members and “be reflective.”

In other words, a stark contrast to the current commissioner she is challenging.

“This is the most diverse place I’ve ever lived in,” Beggs, who grew up in upstate New York and trained at Lake Placid, told the gathering. “Bringing people together is one of my passions about the next venture in my life, pursuing as commissioner – to bring cultures together.”

It is an important juncture for the park district, which is embarking on an ambitious master plan after considerable and thoughtful study and outreach to the community.

But the district, with a $20 million operating budget, has to navigate that delicate balance between its responsibility as a municipality and its obligation to taxpayers. Over the past several years it has steered its fees and revenue stream to reduce the amount of tax subsidy.

Fees for most services, after being stagnant for several years, are going up especially for non-residents (and why not, in this period of relative economic prosperity?) to achieve a 26-30 percent cost recovery (70 percent is cited as more typical of a comparable park district).

Beggs acknowledged the push-pull of a municipality’s goal to provide programs for the community and during the dialogue, showed she was also receptive to hearing other suggestions.

There are other special district elections, as well, including the Manhasset-Lakeville Water District and Great Neck Water Pollution Control District.

To her substantial credit and the strongest indication of character and respect for the office, Patty Katz is uncontested for re-election as Commissioner of the Great Neck Water Pollution Control District, but nonetheless is doing outreach to encourage people to vote. An environmental activist with a long, long record of engagement (especially through Reach Out America), she has brought that energy and philosophy to her office.

Katz, who I also know as my neighbor, reviewed some of the significant achievements that have made the GNWPCD a model for environmental sustainability: A grease receiving station that will generate over $100,000 a year in fees from haulers, reduce their carbon footprint and allow for a third micro-turbine for increased generation of electricity and heat (the project is 50 percent complete); an anaerobic digester upgrade that more than doubles bio-fuel (methane) production and reduces sludge production and hauling by 30 percent, saving $120,000 a year (50 percent complete) and a micro-turbine addition that burns methane produced in the digester that will enable the district to generate 50 percent of its electricity and 100 percent of heating (100 percent complete), paid for with a $12 million state grant the district won.

She also was instrumental in creating the Shed the Meds program.

There are those at the state and county levels who would like to eliminate special districts and local control and charge that communities don’t care, as measured by how many turn out for district elections.

Is there anyone who would argue that the quality of our parks, water supply, waste treatment, are crucial to our everyday lives? You only have to imagine what it is like for the people of Flint, Mich., to appreciate the answer or nearby Queens where residents had to evacuate their homes because of a sewage backup.

Because we have local control, we have the highest quality parks, libraries and schools, and the highest standards for water quality and waste treatment.

So vote on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 1-9 pm.

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