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Legislator William Spencer

County officials and environmental activists look at designs for new water system at the Vanderbilt Museum.

Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum has installed two innovative systems for processing wastewater that significantly reduce the harmful impact of nitrogen pollution in the Northport Bay. The new technology builds on the county’s efforts to address excess nitrogen from wastewater leaching into local waters, which once the epicenter of the region’s red tide. 

New water system at the Vanderbilt museum.

County Executive Steve Bellone (D) and county Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) announced the installations at an Oct. 30 press event at the museum. 

“The science is clear and the solution has been established,” Bellone said. 

He noted that it is necessary to replace outdated technologies that do not reduce nitrogen pollution with new technologies that do.

“We have a $6.1 billion tourism economy that is underpinned by water,” Bellone added. “With strong support from academia, business leaders and the environmental community, our region is no longer kicking the can down the road, but is taking aggressive action to reverse the water quality crisis to better protect our waterways for future generations.”

More than 115,000 people visit the park each year and the upgrade will benefit local waterways by reducing nitrogen discharge at the site by approximately 164 pounds annually. 

To date, the county has installed advanced wastewater treatment systems at Lake Ronkonkoma and Meschutt Beach, and is currently in the process of installing 13 additional systems at other parks. 

The major contributor to water quality issues, Spencer said, is nitrogen discharges from more than 360,000 antiquated cesspools in Suffolk. 

“I am so pleased to see this technology brought to our county parks, specifically the Vanderbilt Museum, which sits directly beside a water body that we have worked so hard to restore,” Spencer added. He said upgrades to Northport’s sewage treatment plant resulted in a massive reduction in nitrogen discharge, and produced tangible benefits including the absence of red tide and the reopening of a permanently closed Centerport beach.

The investment at Vanderbilt is expected to progress, improve and protect the region’s natural resources, Spencer added. 

Officials also announced at the press event that during the month of October alone, more than 100 residents have applied for grants through the county’s septic improvement program, and that next year the county plans to install 1,200 nitrogen-reducing wastewater treatment systems, doubling the amount currently installed. 

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, applauded the progress and collaborative efforts of everyone involved. 

“This is what change looks like, one installation at a time,” she said. “Good science, good advocacy and good elected officials give us good policy, and fortunately that’s what we have seen on the water quality issue in Suffolk County.”  

The installation of the new systems is part of the county’s Reclaim Our Water initiative, which seeks to reduce nitrogen pollution of surface and groundwaters. 

Homeowners outside of a sewer district are encouraged to apply for grant funding and low interest loans to assist in paying to upgrade to an innovative system. Visit www.reclaimourwater.info to find out more.

Vapes, or electronic cigarettes, are becoming more and more popular among young people, despite a lack of research about the health effects. Photo by John Petroski

As a New York State ban on flavored e-cigarettes goes into effect Oct. 4, community members and officials on Long Island are hopeful that this will be a good first step in curbing youth smoking. 

The ban comes in the wake of several deaths experts have linked to e-cigarettes. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 450 cases of lung illness nationwide have been associated with e-cigarette products containing nicotine or THC. A number of those cases have occurred on Long Island. 

Vape Shops across Suffolk say the new law will hurt their businesses. File photo by Giselle Barkley

Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) said he believes the ban is a great first step in limiting access of addictive products to young people. 

“I think [the ban] is wonderful news,” he said. “We have seen a disturbing trend, we know this stuff is not good for you.”

Spencer cautioned that they have to be prepared for the unintended consequences of such a ban, particularly he said he wants to make sure that there are support systems and resources available to addicted individuals who may seek help. 

“I want to make sure there are plans for parents who may have a child who is addicted [to e-cigarettes],” he said. “I will be working with the health department on a plan to deal with this.”

Despite the ban, Spencer believes there’s more to do to curb e-cigarette use and vaping, pointing to the ubiquitous e-cigarette product Juul as another concern. 

“One Juul pod is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes,” he said. “You have kids smoking two or three of these pods.”

The legislator also mentioned that there are a number of loopholes on the state and federal level that he feels still need to be addressed. 

There has been an increase in use of e-cigarettes in middle and high school students in recent years. Port Jefferson School District in particular is hosting a vape seminar at its next school board meeting Oct. 15. District officials are hopeful that the ban prevents further teens from thinking of vaping.  

“Any step in the right direction is a good step,” said Paul Casciano, superintendent of the Port Jefferson School District. “Unfortunately, people, including teens, were duped into believing that vaping was a safe alternative to smoking. There is still much more to be done including discussions about peer pressure and the fear of not fitting into a group.”

Casciano said the district has provided information and held numerous presentations on vaping for students and parents. Last December, the district took part in a county pilot program called Vape Out where high school students watched a presentation on the health hazards of vaping and were given advice on how to refuse a hit. They then shared the lessons they learned with other classmates and students in the middle school. 

“No singular program or curriculum is going to eliminate vaping among teens however constant and consistent messages from many voices may begin to stem the tide.” Casciano said.  

“Any step in the right direction is a good step.”

— Paul Casciano

Vape shop and small business owners have long been opposed to legislation on the sale of e-cigarettes. Back in December 2018, at a public hearing to discuss legislation that would have banned the sale of flavored e-cigarettes in Suffolk County, owners said the issue isn’t the flavors but rather an issue of access and enforcement of the sale of tobacco products to individuals over the age of 21. 

Alex Patel, owner of the Rocky Point Smoke and Vape Shop, is concerned about the looming ban on flavored e-cigarettes as it is a popular item purchased at vape shops. 

 “Of course, it is going to affect our business,” he said. “We could close down.” 

Dr. Rachel Boykan, clinical associate professor of pediatrics at Stony Brook Medicine, said while she is supportive of the new ban, she thought it would be better if it included menthol. 

“We know that youth are attracted to these products because of the flavors; this should decrease their appeal,” she said. 

In addition, Boykan mentioned some ideas to further curb youth smoking.    

“We need to regulate advertising, which teens respond strongly to and which is ubiquitous and unregulated, compared with advertising of cigarettes, which is restricted,” she said. “We need to decrease availability by including e-cigarettes in Tobacco 21 legislation … include e-cigs in the same indoor air laws as combusted tobacco.” 

Boykan said she and her colleagues have dealt with many children who vape and they try to educate them on the harm associated with it. 

“We try to educate them about the risks of the flavorings and heavy metals such as copper, in the aerosol, and the recent severe lung illnesses and deaths — which we don’t yet understand,” she said.

The professor provided some advice to parents if they think their child may be vaping. 

“They may smell a fruity smell, they may notice signs of nicotine addiction such as agitation, anxiety, or if they are using marijuana as well,” she said. “The best approach is to establish trust, ask without judgment and be supportive if a child admits to having a nicotine addiction — and take them to their pediatrician for help.”

Photo from Northport Historical Society

The Northport Historical Society recently presented a historic map of Huntington to Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) in recognition of his support and efforts on behalf of the residents and community organizations within Suffolk’s 18th Legislative District. 

The map was created in 1873 by cartographer Frederick W. Beers as part of his “Atlas of Long Island.” It is a “snapshot” of the area and captures the Town of Huntington during a time of very rapid growth, which was spurred by the coming of the Long Island Rail Road in 1868.  

Spencer was quick to recognize that the boundaries on the 1873 map are almost exactly the same as his legislative district today and include parts of Lloyd Harbor, Huntington, Centerport, Northport, Asharoken and Eaton’s Neck.

With the map, above, are, from left, board member Carolyn Hyatt-Basche, Leg. Spencer, Society Director Andrea Miller and Society Vice President Philip Ingerman.

Reprints of the 1873 Beers map are currently available for sale in the society’s Museum Shop, located at 215 Main St. in Northport. For more information call 631-757-9859.

Suffolk County Legislator William "Doc" Spencer. File photo

By Donna Deedy

Suffolk County Water Authority and Suffolk County Legislator Dr. William “Doc” Spencer, chair of the legislature’s health committee, announced April 11 the imminent construction of a new Advanced Oxidation Process water treatment system to be installed at the authority’s Flower Hill Road pumping station in Halesite. The new system is designed to remove the currently unregulated contaminant 1,4-dioxane from drinking water. It will become the third new processing system for the county, joining the existing advanced system in Central Islip and another soon to be constructed system in East Farmingdale. 

The chemical 1,4-dioxane has been designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a likely carcinogen associated with liver and kidney damage after a lifetime of exposure to contaminated drinking water. 

“Though this compound is not currently regulated at the federal or state level we’re proactively installing AOP treatment at priority locations,” water authority chairman Patrick Halpin said. “This pump station on Flower Hill Road was a priority for us given the levels of 1,4-dioxane detected by our laboratory.” 

The Flower Hill Road well field was selected because it had the third highest detection for 1,4-dioxane of all of the water authority’s well fields. The highest detections were in Central Islip, and the second highest in East Farmingdale. 

“This pump station on Flower Hill Road was a priority for us given the levels of 1,4-dioxane detected by our laboratory.”

— Patrick Halpin

“The emerging contaminant 1,4-dioxane has been a deep concern of mine as a local legislator. I am thankful for the Suffolk County Water Authority’s partnership and willingness to confront this complex water quality and safety issue,” said Spencer. “Their swift action to install this innovative technology at the Flower Hill pump station in Huntington, the third site in Suffolk County, demonstrates their ongoing commitment to protecting our drinking water.” 

The three wells at the Halesite pump station averaged a detection of 2.02 parts-per-billion of 1,4–dioxane, with well #1 having the highest detection at 3.84 PPB. The New York State Drinking Water Quality Council has recommended 1,4-dioxane be regulated statewide at a level of 1 PPB, but the state’s department of health has not yet enacted the  recommendation. 

The advanced process works by introducing an oxidant to the raw groundwater, in this case hydrogen peroxide, and then passing that mixture through an ultraviolet light reactor. The ultraviolet light reacts with the oxidant to destroy the 1,4-dioxane molecules. The water is ultimately passed through a carbon filter to remove the peroxide and any by-products from the reaction. 

Costs to install the new treatment system exceed $1 million, which does not include annual maintenance costs. In an effort to defray these expenses, the water authority filed in December 2017 a lawsuit against the chemical companies responsible for polluting Long Island’s sole source aquifer. 

In its 1,4-dioxane complaint, the water authority named Dow Chemical Company, Ferro Corporation, Vulcan Materials Corporation, Proctor & Gamble and Shell Oil Company, alleging that their products — primarily industrial degreasers, laundry detergents and other household products — are to blame for the contamination. 

 The suit also includes a complaint about two other contaminants, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). The PFOS and PFOA claims were filed against the 3M Company; Buckeye Fire Equipment Company; Chemguard, Inc.; Tyco Fire Products LP and National Foam, Inc. and allege the companies knew or should have known that the firefighting foam they made, distributed or sold is dangerous to human health and contains unique characteristics that cause extensive and persistent environmental contamination.

All chemicals are potential carcinogens. The PFOA and PFOS are particularly dangerous to pregnant women and children.

“It’s important that we take a proactive approach to removing these types of contaminants, but our ratepayers should not have to bear those costs,” SCWA board member and Huntington resident Jane Devine said. “They should not have to pay for the reckless behavior of companies who either knew or should have known about the effect this compound would have on groundwater.” 

The water authority is also working with the county and town to connect people with private wells in certain communities with the public water supply to avoid contamination.

The Suffolk County Water Authority is an independent public-benefit corporation operating under the authority of the Public Authorities Law of the State of New York. Serving approximately 1.2 million Suffolk County residents, the Authority operates without taxing power on a not-for-profit basis.

This post has been amended to reflect better who filed the 2017 lawsuit against chemical companies, as well as clarify what the water authority is doing to connect people with private wells.

Suffolk County Legislator William "Doc" Spencer, center, stands with doctors, school officials and parents rallying in support of banning flavored e-cigarettes Dec. 13. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

A legislative proposition to ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes and vaping liquids in Suffolk County created a frenzy, packing the county Legislature last week to argue the pros and cons.

Suffolk Legislator Dr. William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) drafted legislation that would ban the sale of all flavored vapes and e-liquids, with the exception of menthol and mint, before the Health Committee Dec. 13 for a public hearing. His proposal drew more than 75 speakers including health officials, small business owners and students.

“This is a public health emergency,” Spencer said. “We are seeing an astonishing increase in vamping among those ages 12 to 17, and to wait for the FDA or state to take action is not acceptable at the expense of more children becoming addicted.”

This is a public health emergency.” 

— William “Doc” Spencer

The legislator said studies indicate the number of children vaping in the last year has tripled, and that up to 80 percent cite flavor as the main reason. Spencer said candy and fruity flavors such as cotton candy or Cinnamon Toast Crunch paired with flashy advertising on social media is enticing young people.

“The kids don’t even have a chance,” he said.

The proposed legislation has gained momentum with letters of support from Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, Suffolk County High School Principals Association, the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, according to Spencer.

“Studies show children try vaping and e-cigs because of the flavors and kids who use these products get addicted and are more likely to move on to combustible cigarettes, with all the health detriments we know are caused by smoking,” said Dr. Eve Meltzer Krief, a member and legislative advocate with New York Chapter 2 of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

In 2008, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the use of flavoring in cigarettes. Spencer said it’s his belief the FDA will take this step with e-cigarettes next.

Ibrahim Bal, co-owner of Cloud Vapor and Smoke vape shop in Smithtown, speaks Dec. 13. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

A number of small business owners spoke out against the proposed legislation stating the issues of children ages 12 to 17 vaping isn’t the flavors, but rather an issue of access and enforcement of Suffolk County’s limitation on sale of tobacco product to those over the age of 21.

“Fake IDs are the biggest bane of my existence,” said Ibrahim Bal, co-owner of Cloud Vapor and Smoke vape shop in Smithtown. “I’ve come to a point where I’ve had to turn away people who have actual IDs from [New] Jersey.”

Bal encouraged members of the Health Committee to strongly consider steeper penalties for businesses that sell e-cigarettes and vapes to those who are underage. The county’s current law states a first offense is punishable by a minimum fine of $300, with a fee of $500 to $1,500 for each subsequent infraction.

“We’re all on the same page, we don’t’ want kids vaping,” Bal said.

His brother and business partner, Semih, said the children will still be able to purchase e-cigarettes, like the popular JUUL online, and said the issue of access is a matter of responsible parenting.

“Parents need to stop buying it for their kids,” he said, citing it as a frequent occurrence.

I’m in America, you can’t tell me I can’t have a flavor.”

— Ron Diamond

His point was strongly seconded by Ron Diamond, owner of Ronjo’s Magic & Costumes in Port Jefferson Station, who said he has recently made the move into selling vape and wellness products in the last nine months. Diamond said his clientele are mature adults attracted to the diverse flavor choices available for use in larger vapor units, not the e-cigarette cartridges favored by teens.

“We have a bigger problem in America, and that’s flavored cereals,” he said. “We have a bigger problem because all the children are obese. If you are going to take away flavor from a vapor, let’s take the flavor away from luring in children to be obese with cereal and sugary, flavors in cereal.”

Diamond said he would support stricter regulation including mandating ID card scanners be installed in each store, locking down sale to vape-specific shops rather than convenience stores, and strict enforcement of identification to prevent underage sale.

“I’m in America, you can’t tell me I can’t have a flavor,” Diamond said.

Incumbent Suffolk Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D) will face Republican challenger Dom Spada to represent the county’s 18th District. File photo, right; photo on right from Dom Spada

By Sara-Megan Walsh

Suffolk County’s current fiscal crisis is the motivation for a Huntington Bay resident to campaign against the incumbent for a seat in the Suffolk legislature.

Dom Spada, deputy mayor of the Village of Huntington Bay and second assistant chief of the Halesite Fire Department, is running as the Republican candidate against incumbent Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D) to represent the county’s 18th legislative district.

Spada said it’s his concern over the county’s “dire” financial situation that has inspired him to run for political office.

“We have a huge spending problem here in Suffolk County,” he said. “We have the worst gang and opioid problem we’ve had in decades with a huge deficit and debt. I think it’s time for a change.”

The county has a budgetary shortfall of more than $150 million for 2017, according to County Executive Steve Bellone’s (D) September budget proposal for 2018, and is roughly $2 billion in debt.

“We have the worst gang and opioid problem we’ve had in decades with a huge deficit and debt. I think it’s time for a change.”

— Dom Spada

Spada said he believes elected officials need to stop “spending so much money on nonsense” and cut wasteful spending, citing examples like $150,000 for a study on a guard rail in Rocky Point and $350,000 approved to design two miles of sidewalks. If elected, he said he will request reviews of all county contracts with outside vendors to see if better rates can be negotiated.

Spencer, a physician with his own Huntington practice and an ordained minister, was first elected to the Legislature in 2012 and is seeking re-election for his fourth term. Since taking office, Spencer said he’s been conscious of the county’s “abysmal” finances and has worked to improve it.

“I have a building, I have a home and a mortgage; there’s good debt and bad debt,” he said. “It’s the same thing in government. I believe when we invest in our public safety, our environment and our infrastructure, it’s good debt.”

Spencer pointed to various cost-saving measures he’s approved including reducing the county’s workforce by 10 percent; consolidating the offices of the comptroller and treasurer; and getting out of an unfunded mandate to build a new prison which he estimated saved the county approximately $100 million. He also noted he voted to freeze legislative officials’ salaries and agreed to contribute to his own health insurance.

If re-elected, the incumbent said he will continue to look to improve efficiencies, reduce waste and seek additional funds.

“I believe we send more to Albany and the federal government than we get back,” Spencer said. “I believe we should get our fair share.”

“I believe when we invest in our public safety, our environment and our infrastructure, it’s good debt.”

— Doc Spencer

His Republican challenger said the increasing number of fees — the mortgage fee, red-light camera fees, false home alarm fee, cremation fees — to make up the county’s budgetary shortfall is unfair to taxpayers. Spada said he’d repeal all “illegal” fees if elected as he doesn’t believe the fees’ cost is commensurate with the services being provided.

Spencer said he’s weighed and questioned each individual fee as they’ve come up for a vote. He supported the cremation fee, but said he agreed he’d like to review the red-light camera system and modify the home alarm fee so that a homeowner’s first false alarm requires them to register with the county but no monetary penalty.

The Legislature hopefuls also discussed opioid and heroin addiction, one of the most widespread issues plaguing the county as a whole.

The Republican candidate said he would like to see more officers on the street and requirements that anyone saved from an overdose through Narcan be required to immediately be transported to a treatment facility for a 72-hour stay, similar to treatment for mentally disturbed patients.

Spencer said the county’s resources are limited in combating opioid/heroin addition and gang violence. If re-elected, he said he would continue looking for state funding to increase the number of treatment beds for addicts and get qualified physicians more involved in the county’s 24-hour hotline and emergency resources.

Huntington town officials hope federal funding will help crack down on drug use and gang violence. File photo

Huntington town officials were pleased to find out they will be receiving federal and county funding to implement local programs addressing drugs and gang violence. 

The town will be receiving part of the $500,000 federal grant awarded to Suffolk County Police Department from the U.S. Department of Justice Oct. 5 to combat the influence of street gangs such as MS-13. The grant comes from the justice department’s Project Safe Neighborhoods, a national initiative aimed at stemming gang and gun violence through enforcement and community outreach programs.

“This is the fruits of a collaboration between Suffolk County Police Department and our town officials,” Councilwoman Tracey Edwards (D) said. “The gang situation and opioid crisis are symptoms of something larger. While they are working on enforcement, we locally have to work on prevention and intervention.”

Edwards said she called for a meeting this past July with top Suffolk County officials including Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D), Police Commissioner Tim Sini (D) and town officials upon learning about this grant’s available to come up with a strategy.

“We agreed at that meeting that tackling the problem required working together to coordinate the work being done by law enforcement and social services and youth programs,” Supervisor Frank Petrone (D) said. “The funding will enable us to move ahead at full speed towards making a dent in the effects gangs and violent crime have had on the quality of life in some of our neighborhoods.”

Edwards said she did not know exactly how much of the grant, or what funds, will be directed to the Huntington community, she will start working with local leadership to see what form the prevention and intervention initiatives will take.

“The money is now available to create these initiatives,” the councilwoman said. “We will work with community leaders and school districts to see what is best for their needs.”

Edwards said she hopes to gather these “key stakeholders” together in November, once election season is over. Ideas will also be brainstormed by Huntington’s Youth Council, a group comprised of students from each of the town’s nine high schools which meets monthly.

In addition to the federal grant, Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) announced the county legislature approved spending $70,000 to purchase two license plate scanners for the police department’s 2nd Precinct.

“It doesn’t infringe on civil liberties, but gives the police a heads up while they are cruising around,” Spencer said.

This will bring the precinct’s total up to five scanners allowing them better coverage of Huntington’s main roadways when searching for stolen cars or those on a watch list    whether protectively for an Amber Alert or wanted for suspected drug trafficking.

Spencer said, as a member of the county’s new Heroin and Opiate Advisory Panel, that recent reports pointed to Route 110 as a roadway heavily used for drug trafficking. He hoped the addition of two license plate scanners will help reduce the illegal activity in the Huntingon area.

“I want to keep the pressure moving in a positive direction and not only being reactive when there is some sort of public safety incident that has occurred,” he said.

Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) believes Suffolk County’s dire financial straights can be traced back to campaign promises made by County Executive Steve Bellone (D). File photo by Alex Petroski

Suffolk County’s nearly $3 billion budget for 2017 is waiting to be signed on the desk of County Executive Steve Bellone (D) after it was approved with several amendments by the Legislature Nov. 9. But legislators, Moody’s Investors Service and the director of the Budget Review Office for the Legislature have reported the county’s financial situation is dire.

The Legislature approved amendments to Bellone’s budget by an 11-7 vote. The Public Health Nursing Bureau, the Tobacco Education and Control Program and increased funding for overtime in the Sheriff’s Office were among the beneficiaries of the Legislature’s amendments.

Legislator for the 13th District, Rob Trotta (R- Fort Salonga), was among the seven who voted against the budget. He notably called for the resignations of Bellone and District Attorney Tom Spota (D) earlier this year for their roles in the promotion of former county police commissioner, James Burke, who in February pleaded guilty to charges of a civil rights violation and conspiracy to obstruct justice.

“The county finances are in total shambles,” Trotta said during an interview in his Smithtown office Nov. 15. “[The other legislators are] sticking their head in the sand. They’re not addressing the real problems. No one wants to address the problems. You need colossal change.”

Trotta’s primary concern is contractual pension and pay increases for county police officers. The former county police detective likened Suffolk’s current financial situation as treating a scratch on an arm that is hemorrhaging blood due to a severed hand. The county and the Police Benevolent Association agreed on the current contract which runs from 2011 to 2018.

Trotta estimated for every 200 cops that retire, it could cost the county more than $60 million. “We need to generate businesses and growth, but we can’t afford to,” he said.

Robert Lipp, director of the county legislature’s Budget Review Office, expressed many of the same concerns Trotta had in his assessment of the county budget.

“How are we able to provide services at needed levels when facing a structural deficit that is far in excess of $100 million in each of the past several years? It is a conundrum,” Lipp said in a letter accompanying his review of the budget in October. “The short answer is that the county’s structural deficit is increasingly driving our decisions. As a result, some initiatives, that may be considered crucial, are funded without regard for our ability to pay, while others are funded at less than needed levels because of our deficit position.”

The budget included $26.7 million in revenue from short-term bonds to pay for sick days, vacation days and terminal pay for the police but the measure was rejected by legislators in a bipartisan vote, though the county must still fullfill its contractual requirement with the police department.

“The county sets a bad precedent when paying for operating expenses with borrowing,” the assessment said.

The credit rating entity Moody’s Investors Service has projected a negative credit rating outlook for the county due to outstanding debt and a reliance on borrowing.

The budget actually calls for the collection of $2 million less in property taxes than the maximum allowed by New York State’s tax-levy increase cap. But about $50 million in increased fee revenue from various government services is included in the 2017 operating budget, in addition to more than $42 million in increases already enacted in 2016, according the Budget Review Office.

“In light of the size of the structural deficit, in spite of the large sums of recurring revenue that some of these fees bring in, we are still unable to make a dent in the structural deficit,” the letter from the Budget Review Office said. “That being said, some of these fees have been met with a great deal of criticism, including the false alarm program, the $300 mortgage fee, the 1-percent administrative processing fee on all contract agencies and the red-light camera program, to name a few.”

The county executive responded to concerns with Suffolk’s finances in an emailed statement through spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter:

“We always remain open if people have ideas to save money. Our simple goal is to meet our obligation to the Suffolk County taxpayers. This is a tight budget. But it is a fair budget, which protects taxpayers, prioritizes critical areas and avoids draconian cuts to important services. We will hold the line on taxes, but we will also continue to do everything we can to ensure the safety of Suffolk County residents and make the critical investments in growing our economy and protecting water quality.”

The assessment from the Budget Review Office did project an increase of revenue from sales taxes, which makes up more than half of the county’s total revenue and is an indication of an uptick in the economy. However, the office’s assessment warned sales tax revenue can be volatile, and increases can’t be assumed going forward.

William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport), legislator for the 18th District, was among those who approved the budget, though he said he also sees potentially difficult times ahead. He voted in favor of the police contract, and he called the decision a “tug of war” between the need for additional revenue and public safety.

“I think once again the budget definitely was very difficult because of the substantial structural deficit we have,” he said. “We were able to maintain services to pass the budget this year, but we’re getting to a point where we’re going to have to make some difficult cuts … we still are facing a long-term challenge where at some point we’re going to have to make difficult decisions.”

Legislators for the 5th District, Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), and the 6th District, Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), each voted to approve Bellone’s budget. Neither could be reached for comment.

File photo by Victoria Espinoza.

It’s official: bagging your groceries will cost you.

The Suffolk County Legislature approved a 5-cent fee per plastic grocery bag this month, which will be collected and kept by stores. The main goal of the legislation is to reduce bag waste by incentivizing shoppers to avoid the fee and bring their own bags.

“I feel relieved,” Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) said in a phone interview. “But I am also concerned.”

Spencer said he is “sensitive” to struggling families with the current cost of living, and doesn’t want them to feel like this is a new fee or tax being imposed on them.

“This is nothing new, people are paying for these bags already,” he said.

“Plastic bags are a mistake of the past. Reusable bags are the solution for the future.” —Adrienne Esposito

According to the legislator, grocery stores already work the price of the plastic bags they give away into the price of products they sell.

A report conducted by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments about plastic bags stated consumers pay $37.50 per year in hidden bag costs passed on by retailers.

But some residents are not on board with the future fee. Suffolk County Legislator Sara Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said she heard many responses from senior citizens in her district that they don’t like the new bill.

“I had an overwhelming response from residents not supporting the fee,” she said in a phone interview. “To [the senior community] it’s just another expense. The 5 cents goes right back to the retailer, and it should really go to a designated environmental fund.”

The idea of the fee going to an environmental cause was first implemented in Washington D.C., the first place in the United States to impose a 5-cent fee on plastic bags, with the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Act. According to the legislation, only 1 out of the 5-cent fee is collected by the store, and the rest is deposited in the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Fund.

In a 2013 study of the D.C. law, researchers found that both residents and businesses reported a significant reduction in disposable bag use and a majority of residents and businesses supported the bag fee. In addition, both residents and businesses said they saw fewer plastic bags littering the area.

Spencer said creating legislation similar to that in D.C. was discussed, with part of the fee going toward an environmental cause, however it ended up being out of his control.

“I would love to do that, but we don’t have the taxing authority,” Spencer said. He explained it would require state action for part of the fee to be divided and sent to an organization.

“I would love to see that money go towards conservation,” he said. “But it is important to move forward now and not wait for the state to act. On a county level, we’ve taken the lead.”

Spencer said he hopes eventually the state will create legislation that will supersede his own, but for now he must continue to do his job.

Citizens Campaign for the Environment Executive Director Adrienne Esposito applauded Spencer’s legislation.

“Plastic bags are a mistake of the past,” she said in a statement. “Reusable bags are the solution for the future. This legislation will reduce plastic bag use by 60 percent or more and that will make our communities and our bays cleaner and greener, and save us money. Kudos to Suffolk County Legislator Doc Spencer for his leadership and persistence in protecting our environment.”

The CCE said there is more plastic in the oceans than plankton, with 46,000 pieces of plastic in every square mile. Many marine animals are choked and strangled by bags, or die consuming them. The CCE said plastic pollution negatively impacts 267 species of marine life.

John Durso, president of Local 228, a retail labor union and Long Island Federation of Labor, said the bill will introduce positive change to Suffolk County. “The Suffolk County plastic bag law is truly an innovative bill that takes great steps to cut back on environmental waste, while also addressing the needs of local workers and businesses,” he said in a statement. “We were glad to work with the Suffolk County Legislature to collaborate on a landmark legislation that will protect our environment for future generations of Suffolk County’s working families.”

The fee will go into effect Jan. 1, 2018.

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Consumers are being encouraged to bring reusable bags to the grocery store instead of plastic bags by one Suffolk County legislator. Stock photo

Plastic bags have replaced tumbleweeds as the de-facto street debris blowing across town, but the two have very different affects on our environment.

Environmental groups from all over the country talk about the consequences of plastic bags polluting our waterways and killing our marine life. Marine animals choke on these bags and try ingesting them, which often leads to death.

One North Shore legislator is working on reducing the amount of plastic bags we use by imposing a 5 cent tax on every bag. County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) first tried to introduce an outright ban on plastic bags in stores earlier this year, but has since amended the bill to put a tax on the bags instead.

We support Spencer’s resolution to tax the bags, and think the Legislature should act quickly to put it in place.

Organic and green labels have become trendier over the past few years, but not where it actually counts. A measure like this could impact the environment that we so often take for granted.

We’re always careful when it comes to trusting government to make personal decisions for its citizens — in this case, which bags to use while shopping — but we have also been historically supportive of governmental measures that aim to conserve, improve or save the environment. This is a case where we believe the government should get more involved in our lives and regulate what materials we are using because of the tremendous impact it could have on our environment and the animals that inhabit it.

Other places, including Washington D.C., have already reported a significant reduction in the use of plastic bags through new tax laws. We think Suffolk County should join in on this success for the environment’s sake.