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New York State

Narcan, a drug that stops opioid overdoses. File photo by Jessica Suarez

By Donna Deedy

New York State Attorney General’s office announced March 28 that it has expanded a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers, distributors and members of the Sackler family, whose company Purdue Pharma made and marketed OxyContin.

The lawsuit, originally filed in Suffolk County, has now become the nation’s most extensive case to date to legally address the opioid crisis.  

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D)applauded the move.

“It is our hope that our lawsuit, and ones like it, will bear fruit that forever changes the way destructive—but profitable—drugs are marketed and sold across the nation,” he said.

“As the Sackler Family and the other defendants grew richer, New Yorkers’ health grew poorer and our state was left to foot the bill.”

— Letitia James

The lawsuit alleges that six national prescription opioid manufacturers, four prescription drug distributors and members of the Sackler family are largely responsible for creating the opioid epidemic through years of false and deceptive marketing that ignored their obligation to prevent unlawful diversion of the addictive substance. 

The amended lawsuit includes Attorney General Letitia James’  findings from a multi-year, industry-wide investigation of opioid market participants, which alleges that manufacturers implemented a common “playbook” to mislead the public about the safety, efficacy, and risks of their prescription opioids. 

“Manufacturers pushed claims that opioids could improve quality of life and cognitive functioning, promoted false statements about the non-addictive nature of these drugs, masked signs of addiction by referring to them as “pseudoaddiction” and encouraged greater opioid use to treat it, and suggested that alternative pain relief methods were riskier than opioids, among other grossly misleading claims,”  the attorney general’s office stated in its summary of the amended suit. The office claims that manufacturers used a vast network of sales representatives to push dangerous narratives and target susceptible doctors, flood publications with their deceptive advertisements, and offer consumer discount cards and other incentives to them to request treatment with their product. 

The manufacturers named in the amended complaint include Purdue Pharma and its affiliates, members of the Sackler family (owners of Purdue) and trusts they control, Janssen Pharmaceuticals and its affiliates (including parent company Johnson & Johnson), Mallinckrodt LLC and its affiliates, Endo Health Solutions and its affiliates, Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc. and its affiliates and Allergan Finance, LLC.  The distributors named in the complaint are McKesson Corporation, Cardinal Health, Inc., Amerisource Bergen Drug Corporation and Rochester Drug Cooperative, Inc.

“As the Sackler Family and the other defendants grew richer, New Yorkers’ health grew poorer and our state was left to foot the bill,” James stated. “The manufacturers and distributors of opioids are to blame for this crisis and it is past time they take responsibility.” 

“This company and company’s owners knew the addictive quality and used it for financial gain.”

— Kara Hahn

The opioid epidemic has ravaged families and communities nationwide and across New York. Suffolk County has been particularly hard hit statewide. When the county originally filed its lawsuit, legislators reported that the region suffered the highest number of heroin deaths statewide.  Between 2009 and 2013, 418 people died of a heroin overdose. Many people turned to heroin when their prescriptions ran out.  The opioid related death tolls have continued to rise.According to New York State Health Department data for 2017, opioid pain relievers, including illicitly produced fentanyl, caused 429 deaths in Suffolk County. Over six thousand people were admitted for opioid addiction, including heroin, into the counties Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services. 

“I applaud New York State Attorney General James for joining in our efforts to recoup untold amounts of public funds that were spent to assist those afflicted by this epidemic,” Bellone stated. “Suffolk County is taking a page out of Big Tobacco’s playbook to hold the Sackler family and others accountable for their role in connection with the opioid crisis.  

The Suffolk County legislature is proceeding with their lawsuit as it was originally put forward, but officials agreed with the state’s initiative.

“The pharceutical companies opened the flood gates,” said county Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mt. Sinai). “I agree the Sacklers should be targeted for a lawsuit.”

County Legislators Anker, Kara Hahn (D-Port Jefferson) and William Spencer (D-Centerport) originally co-sponsored the bill.

“It’s an incredibly important that all responsible be held accountable,” Hahn said. “This company and company’s owners knew the addictive quality and used it for financial gain.”

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.

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The Maryhaven Facility in Port Jefferson. Photo by Kyle Barr

A Port Jefferson school for children and young adults with developmental disabilities announced it would be shutting down gradually over the next two years.

The Maryhaven Center of Hope, whose entrance is located along Myrtle Avenue in Port Jefferson, announced it will shut down the school over time, regularly moving the children, aged 5 through 21, along with faculty to different Maryhaven facilities on Long Island.

The entrance gate to the Marhaven facility in Port Jefferson. Photo by Kyle Barr

“We have to stay open, and we want to stay open until every student is placed,” said Chris Hendriks, a Catholic Health Services of Long Island spokeswoman. “This population requires one-to-one care.”

Representatives from Catholic Health Services, which runs Maryhaven, said it would begin winding down the residential school program at the end of the 2018-19 school year. It’s 71 students will need to be placed in other programs.

“It is a very difficult decision to close this important program that we have been running for more than 50 years, and we are heartbroken that we must do that,” said Maryhaven President and CEO Lewis Grossman in a press release. “But this action is the only fiscally responsible option to secure a strong and vital future for Maryhaven’s many other needed programs.”

In a letter posted to the Maryhaven website, Grossman added he anticipates the program would be active throughout the 2019-20 school year.

Maryhaven, which aids over 1,500 children and young adults in total, has experienced a significant operating loss at the Port Jeff from 2018 at approximately $1.7 million, according to the press release. The facility off Myrtle Avenue is also aging at an unsustainable rate, Hendriks said. The school said it would cost more than $10 million to renovate the building, which was originally constructed in the 1930s. The spokeswoman added the reimbursement rates New York State supplies to the organization has declined in recent years.

“The state’s rates that give us the money for caring for these children has not kept up with the pace of cost of living.” the spokeswoman said. “For example, as of this week we got the rates for 2016, so we’re paying well in advance and then have to wait to be reimbursed back.”

Several Maryhaven students will be older than 21 after June, Hendriks said. The letter by the Maryhaven CEO said those age 21 or older will be eligible for adult placement through the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, and some will be able to transfer to other adult programs within Maryhaven.

Hendriks said Catholic Health Services is offering monetary incentives for the near 200 workers at the facility to stay on with the health care service provider until the end. Those who stay on will be moved to other Maryhaven or other service centers within the orbit of CHSLI. 

For the students, Hendriks said where they attend after the Port Jeff facility is closed will be up to their respective school districts.

“This population requires one-to-one care.”

— Chris Hendricks

“The way it works is if, for example, the [Smithtown] school district can’t care for a child because they often have behavioral social, medical or behavioral issues, the school districts send them to our facilities and we take care of them,” she said. “Now, in this case it’s up to the school district to find a new location for them with the help of the state, and there are other locations to go to.” 

Parents of children in the Maryhaven programs were brought in for a special meeting March 12 to discuss their options.

Many people who knew of the facility voiced their disappointment of the news on social media. Now a Change.org petition called Save Maryhaven’s Children Services!! has reached more than 8,500 people in support. The petition calls for U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) or Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), along with other state and federal representatives, to step in and give support to the ailing facility. Some signing the petition said they had children who attend the facility, others claimed they had worked with Maryhaven and were devastated to see it go.

“I’ve worked here for 10 years, and the dedication of staff is priceless,” said Jennifer Moore, of Brentwood, on the petition. “Everyone is like second family, we care so much for our clients. I am devastated for my fellow employees but even more so for the kids.”

Maryfran Fantigrossi, who has worked with the school for 30 years, said she has seen the good work the school does for its students.

“Special needs children need and deserve a residential school that will help [them] in all facets of their lives to be the best person they can,” Fantigrossi said on the petition. “Maryhaven has done that for years.” 

The Town of Smithtown's Whisper the Bull statue as decorated for the 2017 holiday season shows the Happy Hanukkah sign that was destroyed. Photo from Corey Geske

Whisper the Bull has long been an iconic landmark in Smithtown, standing at the west entrance of town at the intersection of Routes 25 and 25A, but recently is gaining attention at the state level.

Smithtown resident Corey Geske announced the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation has determined the Whisper the Bull statue is officially eligible for the New York State and National Register of Historic Places. Geske called on Town of Smithtown officials at their Dec. 11 meeting to sign off on and complete the application that could protect the statue for generations to come.

“I’m bullish on seeing downtown revitalized with historic preservation leading the way,” she said. “So, let’s get Whisper registered.”

I’m bullish on seeing downtown revitalized with historic preservation leading the way.” 

— Corey Geske

Geske said it was in 2017 she first proposed a three-part conceptual plan for revitalization of downtown Smithtown to elected officials. One key component was the creation of a historic corridor along Main Street/Route 25A starting at the western edge with the bull statue.

“It’s comparable to the Charging Bull on Wall Street, the famous sculpture that brings in tourists from around the world” she said. “We have something to be very proud of, it’s a world-class sculpture.”

The concept of creating a statue for Smithtown was first conceived in 1913 by town founder Richard Smythe’s descendant, Lawrence Smith Butler, while he attended the National School of Fine Arts in Paris. He asked a fellow student Charles Cary Rumsey for help, who came up with depicting the centuries-old legend of Smythe riding the town’s boundary on a bull to claim it.

Geske said she uncovered the sculpture’s history when drafting the nearly 80-page report in April to be submitted to the state for a determination on whether it was eligible to be named a historic place.

New York State’s Registry of Historic Places is an “official list of buildings, structures, districts, objects, and sites significant in the history, architecture, archeology, engineering, and culture of New York and the nation,” according to the state’s website. Four criteria considered by the state in evaluating the statue include: whether its associated with events that have made a significant contribution to history, associated with the life of a significant person, if it possesses high artistic value or yields information important to history.

The cement platform on which Whisper the Bull stands has a crack. Photo from Corey Geske

Geske said she received a letter in July from the state parks department that Whisper is eligible, but the Town of Smithtown must be the applicant as they are the official owner of the statue.

“We will be moving forward with the approval on that,” town spokeswoman Nicole Garguilo said. “Once it’s on the registry, we will be applying for grants to take better care of it.”

One immediate concern of both Geske and Smithtown’s elected official is a crack visible on the cement pedestal on which the 5-ton sculpture rests. It is visible immediately along “Smithtown” in the inscription and can be seen running from front to back of the platform. Garguilo said the town has plans to repair the base this upcoming spring under the direction of Joseph Arico, head of the town’s parks department.

“It’s our understanding any restrictions the historical register would require [to] be maintained pertain to the bull itself, not the base or anything around the base,” she said.

If Whisper the Bull is approved as a state historic place, Geske said it would be the first phase before applying to have it placed on the national registry. She hopes to follow up by seeking historic status for other Main Street buildings, including the 108-year-old Trinity AME Church on New York Avenue, the 105-year-old Resurrection Byzantine Catholic Church on Juniper Avenue and the 265-year-old Arthur House.

Candidate Rona Smith debates her opponent for a New York State Assembly seat Anthony Palumbo at TBR News Media. Photo by Alex Petroski

People across the United States have been motivated to enter into politics and pursue government office for the first time in their lives during the current election cycle and the prior one in 2017. When asked, many of those candidates tend to cite the current state of things in national politics.

In the race to represent New York State’s 2nd Assembly District, candidate Rona Smith, a 73-year-old first-time candidate who serves as the Housing Advisory Commission chairwoman for the Town of Southold, is making her first run for office. We admire that someone would be inspired to make an effort at fostering greater good despite having carved out a nice living for herself and having nothing personally to gain from pursuing the seat.

This is not to say incumbent Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) doesn’t have his heart in the right place and hasn’t helped accomplish tangible things for the district, like co-sponsoring legislation for the state to acquire and preserve about 900 acres of green space in Shoreham.

Still, with a Democrat majority in the Assembly that is unlikely to go away any time soon, we would like to see Smith given a chance to bring some of her fresh ideas and tenacity to Albany to join a conference with the political clout to get tangible results locally and statewide.

Smith is educated, hard-working, has government experience in a critical area to the future prosperity of Long Island — namely affordability of housing.

We appreciate the years of dedicated service Palumbo has given the district, but we’ll be voting for Smith Nov. 6.

Rona Smith is challenging Anthony Palumbo for his New York State Assembly seat. Photos by Alex Petroski

The North Shore’s easternmost New York State Assembly District — which juts as far west as Mount Sinai and portions of Port Jefferson — has been represented by an incumbent Republican since 2013, and a first-time candidate for political office is seeking to unseat him.

Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) was elected in a special election to represent the 2nd District in 2013 and won subsequent races in 2014 and 2016. The 48-year-old practicing lawyer will be challenged this Election Day by 73-year-old Democrat Rona Smith, a newcomer to politics from Greenport with government experience, as she currently serves as the chairwoman of the Housing Advisory Commission for Southold Town.

The candidates sat down for a debate at the TBR News Media in Setauket in October to discuss issues impacting the district.

Health care

The future of health care is at the top of minds for candidates in federal and state races alike this cycle, likely because it’s on the minds of their common constituents. State law can be used in conjunction with federal law regarding health care, meaning the legislative houses of New York’s government will have an opportunity to stabilize health care policy for its residents as the federal Affordable Care Act waits in limbo for a bipartisan solution in Congress.

Democrats in the Assembly have passed a single-payer health care bill — meaning essentially everyone in the state would pay into a pool and everyone would be covered — which has gotten no traction in the state Senate, controlled by Republicans, and appears unlikely ever to become the law.

As the ACA suffers, Palumbo said he would suggest some simple tweaks to improve the current system, rather than implementing a single-payer bill, which he said he believes will be too expensive.

“When you think about the numbers, we’re talking about 900,000 people in New York state are uninsured — they’re between the Medicaid gap and the private insurance gap — that’s 5 percent,” he said. “Not a lot I think, generally speaking.”

He suggested bringing back the Family Health Plus option, a subsidized plan for low-income individuals, which wasn’t available under the ACA, rather than “overhauling” state tax code to afford a single-payer scheme.

“Nothing comes off the shelf perfect,” Smith said of both the ACA and the single-payer bill passed by the Assembly. “They’re not perfect, they’re attempts to try to make sure that everybody — rich, poor, old, young — has health insurance they can depend upon for any health need that comes up. We have got to figure out how to do it.”

Affordability and opportunity

The candidates agreed there are obstacles for people — but especially recent college graduates — for being able to live and prosper both in the district and in the county as a whole. The problem will only be exaggerated going forward by the capping of state and local tax deductions, a component of the new federal tax code bill that will disproportionately impact homeowners in high-tax states like New York.

Smith said she would home in on reducing student loan debt as a means to foster more affordability, in addition to investment in more affordable housing projects for low-income individuals, a plan she said Democrats in the Assembly are already working on.

She said students need access to mandated, objective advice when it comes to borrowing and affording college, rather than just input from for-profit loan collection businesses.

Palumbo said New York’s susceptibility to outward migration can be traced to out-of-control budgeting and spending.

“It’s conservative fiscal values that we need to have,” he said.

He said the Assembly has been working on a solution to mitigate the capping of the SALT deduction at $10,000, though so far the IRS has not blessed any of the fixes.

Infrastructure investment

Investing in projects that could stimulate the local economy is seen as a solution by members of both parties. Currently legislators in New York are gathering funds to study the feasibility of electrifying the Long Island Rail Road east of Huntington on the North Shore line, an idea many have suggested to increase opportunities for people to live and work in the area.

“I think investments in infrastructure always come back in salaries and benefits for people,” Smith said. “It might make housing more accessible.”

She said electrification might be the answer, but the state’s economy could be better served by using the LIRR to ship freight, an idea that would allow farmers and vineyards on the East End to ship fresh products beyond the direct vicinity.

Palumbo said he would go in another direction instead of committing major funds to electrify the LIRR line. He said he would like to see the results of a study examining LIRR ridership to the East End before going down that road and would prefer to see smarter leadership from the Metropolitan Transit Authority when it comes to train schedules and usage.

He also called on school districts to examine ways to scale down spending, which is the largest driver of increasing property taxes.

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With less than two weeks to go before New York State’s primaries, we’ve been ramping up our coverage of the 2018 elections at TBR News Media. One thing has become abundantly clear: There are a seemingly endless number of hurdles for who can run, their campaigns and how to vote.

In Shoreham, Rocky Point Fire Chief Mike Yacubich has fought to stay on the ballot after citizens in the state’s 2nd Assembly District challenged his petitions to be the Republican candidate to run for the seat. Their objections were based on the fact that he and his son share the same name — and that there was no distinguishing middle initial indicated on the forms — which they argued could have led to confusion for voters.

In Northport, Democratic hopeful Michael Marcantonio was found ineligible to run for the state’s 12th Assembly District after it was brought to the court’s attention he cast his vote in North Carolina in 2014. At the time, he was a law student at Duke University and didn’t realize judges may rule that ballot severed his five-year residency in New York, which is the time required to run for political office.

In Huntington, Republican candidates have petitioned to create a “Stop LIPA” ballot line for the Nov. 6 elections. Their opponents have filed objections. It has raised questions about when Stop LIPA became a legitimate third party and cast doubts on which elected officials are rallying against the utility’s attempt to get the taxes lowered on its Northport plant, an issue we see as local and party-less.

Throughout the summer, we’ve seen voter drives encouraging teenagers to register before heading off to college. The process of simply obtaining an absentee ballot requires completing a preliminary application that needs to be hand delivered to the Suffolk County Board of Elections Yaphank office or snail mailed at least seven days in advance, and casting an absentee ballot then requires a second trip to the post office. Also, being required to work during polling hours is not listed as a valid reason for obtaining an absentee ballot.

Our state laws regarding how to run for office and how to cast a vote need to be simplified. The process needs to be streamlined and modernized. Our failure to do so hurts both Democrats and Republicans, it knows no party lines. Rather, it collectively silences the voices of aspiring politicians looking to make a difference, employees working long hours to make ends meet and uninformed youth who find too many barriers between them and the polling booths.

First, information on how to run for office and eligibility needs to be made clear and more easily available to the public. A fundamental concept to our democracy is that anyone can run for office — but they have to know how and what to do.

In New York state, anyone with a valid driver’s license can register to vote online and change their party affiliation. Given this is possible, we fail to see any reason why a request for an absentee ballot should not also be fileable via email or an online form on Suffolk County Board of Elections’ website with an electronic confirmation given.

With the technology available today, it’s hard to believe we’re locked into pen-and-paper forms and snail mail to register political candidates for elections and to vote if temporarily out of state. It’s time we re-examine these methods. Participating in democracy should be getting easier, not more difficult.

Brookhaven is looking to increase it's cyber security through a state grant, but the town is not saying how. Stock photo

The Town of Brookhaven is looking to beef up its cyber security.

At the Aug. 2 Brookhaven Town board meeting councilmembers voted unanimously to apply for a $50,000 grant under the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services Cyber Security Grant Program. If the town attains the grant, Brookhaven will use town funds under specified cyber security initiatives and seek reimbursement through the grant.

The grant will make $500,000 available for any county, town or village in the state at a maximum of $50,000 per entity. Other municipalities in Suffolk County such as the Town of Smithtown are applying for the grant.

According to the state grant application, the money can be used for a number of items, including hiring a cyber security consultant, software packages for items such as firewalls and encryption, new equipment such as servers or hardware used against cyber threats, and for staff training involving cyber security awareness.

Jack Krieger, communications director for Brookhaven Town, said the town does not comment on current or future cyber security measures when asked what the money might be used for.

In June 2017, the Town of Brookhaven’s website, among 76 other municipalities, was successfully hacked by what was described as a “pro-ISIS group.” ISIS is referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the group that took over parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014 and is now being pushed back by U.S.-backed Iraqi forces and the Syrian army.

The group, Team System DZ, created a static webpage using the Town of Brookhaven servers, but it did not affect the official Brookhaven website. A link was set up through town servers to a static, look-alike webpage.

Deputy Town Supervisor Dan Panico (R-Manorville) said at the time they did not see any information extracted from the servers. The town’s website was taken down temporarily but was restored within a few days.

Much emphasis has been put on cyber security by government officials of late, as it was revealed that Russia had made efforts to hack into Democratic National Convention servers during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, taking information which was later released via several outlets including WikiLeaks, an international whistleblower organization. U.S. intelligence officials have warned that Russia is already attempting to influence the 2018 midterm elections through multiple electronic means including phishing scams that target people’s passwords and by setting up fake accounts on social media, according to Bloomberg News recently.

Meanwhile, the Suffolk County Board of Elections is also keeping tight-lipped about cyber security measures as Long Island and the rest of the country heads toward a heated midterm election taking place Nov. 6.

“The board generally doesn’t comment on its security measures because we understand that doing so could aid nefarious individuals in their attempts to exploit our voting processes,” said Republican board of elections commissioner, Nick LaLota, when asked about the board’s preparedness to ward off security threats.

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has put New York on a path to become the 10th state in the United States to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. We’re in favor of jumping on the national movement, so long as it’s done with both eyes wide open.

On Aug. 2, Cuomo announced that he was forming a group of 20 experts specializing in public health, safety and economics to draft legislation to regulate the recreational use of marijuana by adults. The bill would go before the state Legislature in January 2019.

Laws surrounding marijuana have been gradually shifting since California legalized its medical use in 1996. A number of scientific studies have shown the drug may be beneficial for those suffering from chronic pain, seizures and mental impairments. New York adopted medical marijuana laws in July 2014.

The state’s foray into opening the medical marijuana market has been closely regulated. Patients need to be formally diagnosed by a licensed medical practitioner, have it prescribed, register with the state and carry an identification card. The state has limited the number of dispensaries, making for news whenever a site opens.

Moving toward decriminalizing recreational use of pot — as its more commonly called — could provide several benefits. Colorado, one of the first states to allow smoking marijuana in 2012, saw an immediate economic boom. It saw a vast spike in tourism, something unlikely to repeat here in New York, but reports show benefits from taxing and regulating what was once an underground market.

The Gazette, a Colorado Springs newspaper, reported in July that studies show there’s been an increase in the number of adults who are indulging in marijuana, while the number of high school and middle school students who report testing it out has held steady at or below the national average. Simply put, if a teen was tempted to try it — marijuana’s legality wasn’t stopping them.

New York approving legislation allowing for the drug’s recreational use — treating it similarly to alcohol — could open up avenues for regulations of an otherwise black market turning it into a resource to provide tax revenue for the state. The funds would arguably benefit school districts and could be used to help close state budgetary shortfalls while helping offset any further tax hikes.

The drafted bill should outline restrictions on smoking up more in line with shifting socially acceptable drugs, like alcohol. We agree age restrictions, limitations on appropriate places and enforcement against drugged driving need to be on the books.

The issue becomes, can marijuana be safely, legally and responsibly used?

State legislators need to create a carefully crafted, well-thought out bill that sets parameters to allow for regulation of what’s already happening. Each week, TBR News Media reporters see countless incidents of people being arrested for possessing or smoking marijuana — without committing other criminal behavior. Regulate it, create a market and be flexible to amending the laws when — not if — loopholes emerge.

It’s time to refocus our law enforcement’s efforts on cracking down on Long Island’s illegal heroin and opioid problems, which can and do result in fatal overdoses and places stress on our health care system.

Rob Gitto of The Gitto Group, representative from the Long Island Rail Road Ryan Attard, grant writer Nicole Christian, Tony Gitto of The Gitto Group, Leg. Kara Hahn, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, village Mayor Margot Garant, village Trustee Larry LaPointe, Trustee Bruce Miller, and Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright during a groundbreaking for an upper Port Jefferson revitalization project May 9. Photo by Kyle Barr

After years of planning upper Port’s redevelopment to deal with blighted buildings, traffic and a lack of parking space, Port Jefferson Village officials are finally ready to say, “Don’t believe me, just watch.”

As part of the village’s revitalization efforts — a project dubbed “Uptown Funk” — village, Suffolk County and Brookhaven Town officials held a groundbreaking ceremony May 9 for a new parking lot in the space at the corner of Texaco Avenue and Linden Place. The lot should allow for another 74 parking spaces, largely for Long Island Rail Road commuters using the Port Jefferson train station.

“The village is thrilled to partner with the county, Empire State Development and the Long Island Rail Road on improvements in upper Port to enhance pedestrian connectivity and safety, revitalize blighted commercial properties, and promote safe living and economic growth,” Mayor Margot Garant said.

The revitalization of upper Port is part of the Connect LI project of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D). The plan behind the initiative is to use both existing and new public transportation options to connect people to commercial centers and main streets as in Port Jefferson.

“This is a model of what we need to be doing around the region,” Bellone said. “My administration is committed to providing funding to assist our towns and villages with these revitalization projects. The project we broke ground on today is a major step in continuing our efforts to make Suffolk County a great place to live, work and raise a family.”

Phase one of the project will cost $850,000 to be funded by grants from the county’s Jumpstart program and other financial contributions. Along with the parking lot the first phase of the project will improve sidewalks that lead to the train station from The Hills at Port Jefferson apartment complex.

Phase two of the project will include a renovation of the north, east and south LIRR parking lots with new pavement, lighting and plaza entryway.

Phase three will create “Station Street,” a new one-way road that will provide access to the new renovated parking lots. Garant said the road should also reduce congestion on Main Street and allow for smoother access into the train station parking lots.

Part of the hope for the project is that students coming from Stony Brook University and other commuters will help create interest in the area, which in turn should incentivize businesses to invest in upper Port and remedy the blighted property seen on Main Street, according to Garant.

“We want feet on the street,” Garant said.

Last year Nicole Christian, a consultant at law firm HB Solutions and grant writer for the village, helped apply for several grants for the Uptown Funk project. Last year Port Jefferson Village was awarded $250,000 in Jumpstart money to start plans on the project and the village also applied for a grant from the Empire State Development Corporation, a state entity, for $500,000.

“Empire State Development is excited to support this roadway realignment that will foster this transit-oriented development and revitalize this community to create a true linkage from upper Port Jefferson to the waterfront,” Howard Zemsky, ESD president, said in an email.

Part of the purpose of the new parking lot is also to help facilitate foot traffic from The Hills at Port Jefferson to the train station across the street. “All of the apartments in two separate buildings, which were completed in 2016, have already been rented out and there is already a long wait list to get in,” said Tony Gitto of The Gitto Group, the real estate development company behind development of the apartment complex, during the event.

The Town of Brookhaven and Port Jefferson Village worked with Gitto and his company to create the two-building complex. To incentivize the creation of the apartment complex, Brookhaven Industrial Development Agency, an arm of municipalities dedicated to funding projects to stimulate job creation and economic growth, gave Gitto and his company sales tax exemptions on construction items, a mortgage tax exemption and a 10-year property tax abatement.

Gitto said that they provided money toward the funding of the new parking lot.

“They hired the contractors and we made a financial contribution,” Gitto said.

This post was updated May 15.

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