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Bellone

Joe Cognitore, commander of VFW Post 6249, dedicates much of his time to helping veterans and his local community. File photo

County and state officials plan on embarking on a statewide campaign to advocate for the restoration of funds for a veterans peer support program some have called vital. 

At a press conference March 15 Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) alongside state Sen. John Brooks (D-Massapequa) urged the state Legislature to restore funding for the Joseph P. Dwyer Peer Support Project, after the proposed executive budget of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) included no funding for the project.  

“It is our profound duty to serve our veterans both at home and abroad,” Bellone said. “Often times when our veterans return home they carry scars with them. The Joseph P. Dwyer Peer Support Project has a proven track record of assisting our veterans regain their lives and I urge Albany to reverse course immediately and fund this vital program.”

The project, which is overseen by Suffolk County Veterans Service Agency and Suffolk County United Veterans, aims to serve veterans, active duty members, reserve and National Guard troops suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other adjustment conditions. One of the program goals is to provide peer-to-peer support and counseling to veterans who are facing challenges transitioning back to civilian life, along with offering a safe, supportive space for veterans to interact with one another. 

Brooks, chairman of the state’s Committee on Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs, spoke on the challenges many veterans face when they come home and the good the program does. 

“These are heroes helping heroes,” the state senator said. “This is a program that enables veterans with knowledge and understanding of issues like PTSD, traumatic brain injury, depression and substance abuse to meet with and counsel veterans who are suffering from one, or several, of these afflictions as a result of their service to our country.”

The senator stressed the urgent need for this program and others like it. 

The program is named after Pfc. Joseph Dwyer, a Mount Sinai resident and U.S. Army combat medic who had served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. After returning home and struggling with PTSD, Dwyer succumbed to his condition in 2008. Last year, 23 counties across the state received $3.735 million in project funding.   

Joe Cognitore, commander of VFW Post 6249 in Rocky Point, knows the program works and echoed Senator Brooks’ sentiments that programs like the Dwyer project are necessary and vital for veterans. 

“It’s veterans to veterans,” he said. “Mental health is an important issue.”

Cognitore said on a grassroot level the program works, and he was disappointed about the proposed funding cuts. 

“This is not a Democrat or Republican issue — it’s a bipartisan one,” he said. “We are all in the foxhole.”       

As chair for the VFW Department of New York Legislative Committee and a member of the VFW National Legislative Committee, Cognitore was in Albany lobbying earlier this month with other veterans groups urging lawmakers to restore full funds for the program. This year Suffolk County only received a $185,000 share of the money in the state budget.  

Previously, when the project had its full funds there were plans on expanding the program further into New York state, in addition to the already 23 participating counties. Similarly, two years ago, U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) introduced legislation to expand the Dwyer program to the national level.  

Cognitore mentioned if he had another chance to speak with Cuomo and other lawmakers he would tell them not to slash the budget of a program without due diligence and background research. 

“It’d be one thing if this program wasn’t working but that’s not the case here — it works,” he said. “Put yourself in our boots, come visit us and see how the program runs.” 

Cognitore hopes lawmakers in Albany reverse course and restore funds to the program. He said they are fortunate to have county and state officials on their side who are committed to helping veterans. 

Bellone plans on traveling to the Hudson Valley and Western New York over the course of the next few weeks to build a coalition of state and local officials on the issue of restoring funding. 

Beginning in 2012, more than 10,000 veterans have participated in the Joseph P. Dwyer program countywide. Suffolk County is home to the largest veterans population in New York state.

Juvenile clams maturing in Brookhaven’s hatchery. File photo by Alex Petroski

Long Island has become synonymous with shellfish farming, though in recent years it has become increasingly difficult for farmers to sell and market their products. 

With that in mind, County Executive Steve Bellone (D) launched a pilot program March 11 designed to remove the red tape to assist local oyster farmers by allowing vendors to expand their current retail opportunities. 

“Shellfish farming has been an important part of Long Island’s heritage for decades, and plays an important role in cleaning our waterways and promoting economic activity,” Bellone said. 

He will be introducing legislation to implement an annual temporary event permit for vendors of shellfish grown or harvested in Long Island waters. The permit will not include fees for the first two years. 

“The introduction of this legislation will go a long way in removing barriers that have made it difficult for our farmers to sell and market their locally sourced products,” the county executive said. 

Under current regulations, shellfish farmers must apply for a vendors temporary food service permit with the Suffolk County Department of Health Services before they can market and sell their products. The permits cost $95 and are valid only for a single event at a fixed location, with a 14-day limit. A permit’s time restriction makes it hard for shellfish farmers to participate in weekly and monthly events such as farmers markets and fairs. As a result, it limits a shellfish farmer’s ability to do business. 

“The introduction of this legislation will go a long way in removing barriers that have made it difficult for our farmers to sell and market their locally sourced products.”

— Steve Bellone

“The county’s aquaculture industry is vital not only to our Island’s history but to our economy as well,” said county Legislator Bill Lindsay (D-Bohemia), chairman of the Suffolk County Legislature Economic Development Committee. “This industry generates millions of dollars in revenue, supports our local restaurants and provides our residents with world-class locally grown products.”

In addition to improving the shellfish industry, the county will continue efforts to improve water quality and restore marine ecosystems.  

Past efforts include the 2010 aquaculture lease program. That program secured marine access for shellfish cultivation in Peconic Bay and Gardiners Bay to accommodate growth, while considering the needs of existing shellfish agriculture businesses. 

According to the county’s Department of Economic Development and Planning, the program’s total economic output from 2012 to 2017 was estimated at $13 million.

“Long Island’s farmers and aquaculture producers are grateful for this economic incentive proposal put forth by County Executive Bellone to help us market and sell our products direct to consumers,” said Rob Carpenter, administrative director of Long Island Farm Bureau. “It will keep jobs, increase sales tax revenue and continue all the associated environmental benefits the industry does for Long Island residents and our waters.”  

According to the Long Island Oyster Growers Association, local oysters filter approximately 900 million gallons of water every single day. Oysters improve waterways by eating algae, filtering out particulates and excess nutrients as well as creating habitats for other organisms.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. File photo by Kyle Barr

Suffolk County financial reform has leaped to the tops of the minds of members of both parties in county government.

County Executive Steve Bellone (D) announced proposals aimed at strengthening Suffolk’s financial future at a press conference in Hauppauge Feb. 27. As part of the Securing Suffolk’s Financial Future Act, Bellone proposed amending the county Tax Act to allow the county to collect tax revenue that is owed in January, instead of waiting until June. Officials said the plan is the latest in the county’s efforts to streamline operations and be more efficient. 

Bellone said the goal of the plan is to help strengthen the county’s financial condition going forward. 

“It would ensure the county would get tax revenue that it is owed at the beginning of the year instead of waiting until June and [being] forced to borrow funds.”

— Steve Bellone

“When we look at planning ahead, looking beyond where we are today and thinking about where we’ll be five, 10, 15 years down the road — it’s important that we do that,” the county executive said. 

The plan would build upon previous undertakings by the county, which include bipartisan efforts to bring the county in line with the best finance practices set forth by financial experts from the Office of the New York State Comptroller and the Government Finance Officers Association, according to Bellone. 

In doing so, the county would press to amend the Tax Act, which would require state legislation. The county executive said the 100-year-old law is seriously outdated.

“It would ensure the county would get tax revenue that it is owed at the beginning of the year instead of waiting until June and [being] forced to borrow funds,” he said. “This is an issue that crosses party lines, this is not an issue that is partisan or [one] that should be partisan.”

The county executive called for the authorization of a four-year budget plan, which would allow the county to focus on long-term projects as well as updated debt management and fund balance policies. New computer software will be purchased to enhance transparency and
accountability.

Suffolk Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. (R), a known critic of Bellone, announced plans in February to run for county executive in November. His campaign has attacked Bellone on the current state of the county’s finances, placing a lot of the blame on his Democratic contender for a downgrade in Suffolk’s bond rating and for raising county fees. 

Kennedy said Bellone is just attempting to look fiscally responsible.

“Steve Bellone doesn’t know how to spend less,” Kennedy said. 

In a Jan. 31 TBR News Media article, Eric Naughton, Suffolk’s budget director, said while the county’s bond rating has dropped, Kennedy were “overstating” the impact. He said Moody’s, which gives the bond grades to municipalities, was only looking at the past and not the future. Kennedy has said he plans to consolidate county offices in order to reduce taxes.

Legislator Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue), deputy presiding officer, said fiscal responsibility is the top priority when talking about taxpayer dollars. 

“These policies that we are laying out are common-sense ways to ensure that we are transparent with the public,” he said. 

The county executive also called for re-establishing an insurance reserve fund, originally created in 1980, which would assist in paying unexpected legal expenses. There was a call as well to reorganize the county’s audit joint committee and add more members. 

“Steve Bellone doesn’t know how to spend less.”

— John Kennedy Jr.

Bellone said the changes would allow for a more robust and diversified review of the fiscal condition of the county. 

Deputy County Executive Jon Kaiman (D), who helped piece the plan together along with a team from the county executive’s office, said its goal was to figure out how Suffolk County can be best managed and reach its fullest potential. 

“What we can do is to present reform in a manner to get the best out of what this county can offer,” Kaiman said. 

County officials indicated legislation has been filed and expect a hearing to be set at the end of March and the proposals could be up for consideration into law sometime in April. 

Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. (R) and his wife Legislator Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset). Photo by Kyle Barr

Less than a month ago, Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. (R) was still debating whether he would run this year for Suffolk County executive. 

On Feb. 11, Kennedy stood shoulder to shoulder with other top Republican leaders to announce his running for the top county office.

“None of us forgets who we work for, and that’s the taxpayer,” Kennedy said. “We will stop the hemorrhaging, stop the bleeding. We will cut up the credit cards, start to pay our debts and bring life back to Suffolk County.”

John Kennedy Jr. (R) points to the county’s loss in bond rating. Photo by Kyle Barr

Kennedy, along with other county Republicans, has been consistent in attacking county Executive Steve Bellone (R) for the current state of the county’s finances, pointing to a drop in bond rating from A3 to Baa1 on the Moody Rating Scale since 2015. In a Jan. 31 article by TBR News Media, Eric Naughton, Suffolk’s budget director, said while the county’s bond rating has dropped, Kennedy was “overstating” the impact. He went on to say Moody’s, which gives the bond grades to municipalities, was only looking at the past and not the future. 

Kennedy has called for a 90-day top to bottom look at the county’s offices to see which ones can be pruned, which employees can be shuffled around and what belts can be tightened. He also called for an end to excessive spending, while cutting county fees and reducing the size of the county’s red light camera program. He said he was especially concerned with delays in payment to public employees and to contractors.

“We don’t pay our daycare providers on time, we don’t pay anybody on time,” the comptroller said. “We make them all our bank.”

John Jay LaValle, the Suffolk County Republican committee chairman, said during a phone interview the party is throwing its weight behind the current county comptroller. So far two other Republicans have announced their candidacy, including Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga). LaValle said former police officer Larry Zacarese, who previously ran for Suffolk County sheriff in 2017, was also considering running on the Republican ticket. 

The Republican committee chairman said he would ask the current candidates to sit down and work out their differences, saying a primary could do damage to the party’s chance to win.

“If we do a primary, we give the executive seat to Bellone,” LaValle said.

Kennedy announced his plan to run for office at the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge, surrounded by U.S. Reps. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and Peter King (R-Seaford), along with many other elected Republicans. King ran again for his position alongside Kennedy in the 2018 electoral season.

“If we do a primary, we give the executive seat to Bellone.”

— John Jay Lavalle

“He ran us all into the ground — I’ve never seen a harder working campaigner,” King said.

Trotta said during a phone interview he would be willing to sit down with Kennedy and the Republican leadership, potentially to drop his candidacy if he agrees with what he hears.

“I welcome John Kennedy to the race, this is what democracy is all about, and no one knows more than John about what a financial mess the Bellone administration has created,” Trotta said.

Kennedy has worked in public office for years, working with current Brookhaven town supervisor Ed Romaine (R) when he was county clerk before being elected to the Suffolk County Legislature in 2004. He then later ran for and was elected to the Suffolk County comptroller position in 2014, boasting at the time he was vastly outspent by his opponent on the campaign trail.

Bellone’s office came out the gate swinging as Kennedy’s candidacy was announced.

“No one has opposed government reform or voted to increase spending and debt more than John Kennedy,” said Bellone spokesperson Jason Elan in a press release. 

“Under [Bellone’s] watch, I have seen red light cameras pop up over intersection after intersection, finding new ways to put their hands in their pockets,” Zeldin said during Kennedy’s campaign announcement.

Kennedy was also joined by his wife Legislator Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset), who is running again this year for re-election. Both husband and wife said partially it took so long for him to announce his candidacy because of the concern one’s campaign fight could affect the other’s.

“It was a weighing process for both of us,” Legislator Kennedy said. “It’s about what he can do to make it better here so that everybody can afford to stay.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone delivers his State of the County address May 24 at Newfield High School in Selden. Photo by Alex Petroski

By David Luces

Suffolk County has been working toward reducing inmate populations through programs to give people who have been incarcerated a new lease on life.

On Jan. 2 county officials announced the completion of the Suffolk Fresh Start program which has helped assist more than 100 formerly incarcerated individuals find employment after their release.

Over the past two years, after receiving a $489,901 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, the county’s Department of Labor has administered Suffolk’s Fresh Start program with the county’s Sheriff’s Office and Eastern Suffolk BOCES. Its main goal was to try and provide employable skills and vocational training to incarcerated individuals.

‘Having gainful employment is one of the factors that can reduce recidivism.’

— Errol Toulon

County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said in a press release the county has created a successful criminal justice model to reduce recidivism and protect taxpayers.

“This program is giving people a second chance to become productive members of society, strengthening families and saving Suffolk taxpayers millions,” he said.

More than 350 individuals were enrolled in the Fresh Start program where they were given resources and training to address any possible barriers to employment. They were also registered with the county’s One-Stop Employment Center in Hauppauge.

The employment center supplies job-seeking individuals with the tools necessary for a self-directed or staff-assisted job search. There they can receive help with creating or editing résumés, navigate the internet for potential jobs and be interviewed by prospective employers on-site.

“The program has changed people’s lives,” said county spokesperson Derek Poppe.

Since 1999, New York State’s prison population has declined by 35 percent, according to a report from the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision released Jan. 1. The report said since 2011, the state has eliminated 5,500 prison beds and closed a total of 13 correctional facilities. The number of male inmates in maximum security prisons has been reduced from 24,151 in 2009 to 20,173 in 2019.

Suffolk has two jail facilities. One is the Riverhead facility which was intended to hold 529 inmates in maximum security cells and 240 in medium security cells, according to a 2008 county report. The facilities in Yaphank included a minimum-security jail that had cell space for 504 inmates, and a DWI Alternative facility for 54 inmates.

Since 2010 the county’s jail population has decreased drastically. Newsday’s data on Long Island’s jail population shows a fall from 1,609 in 2010 to 1,157 in 2016. The decrease has been mostly in inmates at the Riverhead facility.

Poppe said Bellone was against the construction of a new jail facility, and programs like Fresh Start work to keep inmates from committing further crimes.

“Many of these individuals were able to find work in the construction, manufacture and telemarketing field,” Bellone’s spokesperson said.

Even though the grant from the Department of the Labor expired in December 2018, Poppe said there are plans in place to continue the programs through internal county funds and possibly funds from the federal government.

‘This program is giving people a second chance to become productive members of society, strengthening families and saving Suffolk taxpayers millions.’

— Steve Bellone

The number of people in Suffolk’s jails is strained by a lack of corrections officers in both Riverhead and Yaphank. County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. (D) told TBR News Media in July 2018 the county was dealing with a large amount of corrections officer vacancies, saying at the time there were 76 positions left unfilled with 30 new officers being added as early as August that same year.

The sheriff said in a press release that Fresh Start gives county inmates opportunity and hope following incarceration.

“Having gainful employment is one of the factors that can reduce recidivism, and we are fortunate to have Department of Labor staff working with us to improve outcomes for those transitioning from jail to our communities,” Toulon said.

By repurposing existing internal funds Poppe said the county plans on having Department of Labor staffers work in conjunction with the correctional facilities in future, adding, “We want to continue to run this
successful program.”

County Executive Steve Bellone, center, SCPD Commissioner Geraldine Hart, left, and Chief of Department Stuart Cameron, right, present common phone scams.

By David Luces

Suffolk County police and elected representatives are saying if you think the person on the other end of a phone call may be a scam, hang up as quickly as possible and call the authorities.

According to Suffolk County officials, 2018 has seen a steady increase of telephone and digital scams, especially those targeting the elderly and non-English speakers. In 2018, there were 68 incidents reported, and the largest amount of money taken was $800,000 between 2017 and 2018. Of the 68 victims, 40 were elderly. 

“Simply put, this is the 21st century definition of highway robbery.”

— Steve Bellone

In 2019, nearly half of all calls to mobile phones will be scammers looking to fraudulent gain access to financial information, according to a report from telecommunications firm First Orion.

At a press conference Jan. 4, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said the trend is alarming.

“Simply put, this is the 21st century definition of highway robbery,” Bellone said. “These scammers are targeting a vulnerable group of people.”

According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, the median loss people experienced from a phone-based scam in 2017 was $720. 

Bellone said thieves will sometimes call victims using an automated message to demand money or threaten to call the local authorities. 

“Our message to the public is to not give personal financial information when someone is calling you over the phone,” Bellone said. 

Suffolk County Police Department chief  Stuart Cameron said these scammers call threatening to stop certain utilities, claiming bills were unpaid. With tax season close by, Cameron cautioned the public to be on the lookout for scams mentioning the IRS as well.  

“They also call claiming a relative is seriously injured or in danger,” the chief said.

It is difficult to hold these scammers accountable because most are either out of state or out of the country and are using technology to mask their identity. 

Cameron said payment is usually requested through gift cards. 

“No government agencies are going to ask for gift cards,” Cameron said. “If you get a call like this, call law enforcement.”

Bellone mentioned that many of these crimes go unreported because victims feel embarrassed or simply ignore the calls. 

“We are trying to do everything we can to protect residents from these scams,” the county executive said. 

“In every case we are going to tell people if they are utilizing an app like LetGo to please do it in a public place, meet in daylight hours and don’t go by yourself.”

— Geraldine Hart

At the press conference Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart also informed the public on five robberies — one as recent as New Year’s Eve — involving the LetGo app, a digital marketplace that allows users to buy and sells items locally on their phones. 

Four out of the five robberies involved meeting up to purchase an iPhone, according to Hart. 

“In every case we are going to tell people if they are utilizing an app like LetGo to please do it in a public place, meet in daylight hours and don’t go by yourself,” Hart said. “Make sure you can verify the seller.”

A majority of the robberies occurred in the Mastic Beach area beginning in August 2018. During that month, a victim arranged to sell a cellphone to someone outside a home in Mastic Beach at 10 p.m. The suspect took the phone and told the victim he would return. The suspect fled into the backyard and never returned with the money.

On Nov. 30, a suspect and a victim agreed to meet to sell an iPhone. The suspect showed an iPhone in a box and the victim gave him $400. The suspect told the victim he had to get a SIM card and fled through a backyard and onto an adjacent street. 

The most recent incident occurred at the Mastic-Shirley train station. The victim gave the suspect money and was pushed to the ground. When the victim attempted to follow the suspect, a second man threatened to shoot him.  

 “Thankfully no one was seriously injured,” Hart said. 

The suspects involved appear to be connected to all five robberies and got away with several thousand dollars. 

Officials said if residents have information on phone scams and the robberies to call 800-220-TIPS (8477). 

Legislators not letting Bellone off hook

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone is searching for ways to improve the county's financial outlook. File photo by Alex Petroski

A high stakes political finger pointing battle is ramping up in Suffolk County.

Top Suffolk County officials have been left to answer for the promotion of former Chief of Police James Burke, who in February pleaded guilty to charges of a civil rights violation and conspiracy to obstruct justice, which occurred following the arrest of Smithtown man Christopher Loeb in 2012.

On Tuesday Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) held a press conference at the Suffolk County Legislature in Riverhead where he and fellow legislators, including Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) and Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst), called for both County Executive Steve Bellone and District Attorney Tom Spota to resign from their positions.

On Thursday, Bellone joined the list of people including the legislators and Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco calling for Spota to resign.

“For refusing to cooperate and work with federal law enforcement to prosecute crime in this county, for refusing and blocking federal law enforcement who were working on the Gilgo Beach serial murder case, for allowing violent criminals to go free to protect political friends, for lying about Jim Burke and conspiring to conceal his past…” Bellone said Thursday afternoon on the steps of Spota’s Hauppauge office. “Tom Spota, you must resign from this office so that we can begin the process of reforming this place governmentally and politically in a way that we can ensure this doesn’t happen again. If you fail to do so, I will call on the governor to exercise his authority under the constitution to remove you from this office.”

Trotta arrived while Bellone addressed the media, and interjected that reporters were speaking with a “co-conspirator.” Trotta reiterated his stance on Thursday that Bellone is as much a part of the political corruption problem in the county as Spota for his role in promoting Burke, and standing by him despite evidence of Burke’s troubled past.

“I have never said that I have never made mistakes in my public career,” Bellone said. “I’ve made many mistakes. But they have never, ever been with ill intent and I’ve learned from my mistakes and I don’t repeat them. When I promoted Jim Burke I consulted District Attorney Tom Spota. When I fired Jim Burke I did not consult Tom Spota.”

Bellone said he promoted Burke not because of recommendations from Spota or others, but because he was a “charismatic” and “impressive” person who made a memorable presentation.

Bellone handed a letter calling for Spota’s resignation to one of his employees inside the office, and Spota later met the media to respond Thursday.

“It’s a very, very difficult day for me,” Spota said in a video of that press conference. “He has delivered to me a letter asking for my resignation. I have absolutely no reason why I should resign, or should I be removed from office.”

Spota fired back at Bellone, suggesting his motivation was a “personal vendetta” against Spota for investigating and prosecuting people Bellone was close to.

On Tuesday, Bellone responded to Trotta, Cilmi and McCaffrey’s calls for his resignation through an email from a spokeswoman.

“Rob Trotta and Tom Cilmi are partisan politicians who just don’t get it,” the statement said. “This is not a partisan issue, this is about sweeping out a culture of abuse and corruption in the district attorney’s office.  I regret that I trusted the word of the district attorney regarding Jim Burke, and I have learned from that error in judgment.”

Trotta made it clear following Bellone’s comments that the county executive should not be let off the hook.

“It was an Academy Award winning performance,” Trotta said of Bellone’s press conference. “Forty-eight hours ago we were partisan, and we were political hacks. Now all of the sudden he responds to a Newsday article, he sees what’s going on and he tries to jump in front of it. It’s ridiculously absurd…He’s a total, unadulterated liar.”

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