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Rob Trotta

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone speaks during a press conference June 20 calling out Republicans for voting down three bond resolutions. Photo by Kyle Barr

Democrats and Republicans in the Suffolk County Legislature are at each other’s throats over funding for a series of bonds, including for public safety initiatives, that failed to pass at the June 19 legislature meeting.

“The Republican caucus put politics ahead of public safety,” county Executive Steve Bellone (D) said at a press conference June 20. “We saw a group of seven Republican legislators put their own politics over the interests of their constituents, of public safety, of teachers and students.”

At the June 19 meeting, three out of four bond resolutions failed to garner support from at least 12 legislators, which would represent the two-thirds support necessary to pass a bond resolution. The seven members of the Republican minority caucus voted against the resolutions. The three failed bonds included 14 items that would have provided funding for county parks, correctional facilities, public safety initiatives, road reconstruction and more.

Republican legislators said they voted against the bonds because they did not want to feel forced to vote on items they might disagree with in the future, lumped with items they were comfortable supporting now.

“We shouldn’t be paying these things off for 30 years because it’s just not fair to young people.”

— Rob Trotta

“The blame for the failure of this bond rests squarely on the shoulders of Steve Bellone,” said Minority Leader Legislator Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore). “Last month the county executive abandoned 40 years of history and precedence in Suffolk County… in an effort to bully the legislature into every one of his proposals.”

Bonds traditionally had not been grouped together by the Suffolk Legislature.

Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said he opposed the resolutions in part because bonding for each of the 14 projects would increase the country’s deficit.

“What we’re doing is increasing debt,” Trotta said. “We shouldn’t be paying these things off for 30 years because it’s just not fair to young people.”

Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) sponsored a bill that would allocate funds for a Rails to Trails project from Wading River to Port Jefferson. That bill was included in a larger bond proposal at the June 6 legislative meeting, and that too was voted down by the Republican caucus.

“I hope they can get this resolved soon because it’s basically hindering government,” Anker said. “The county has to bond for these sorts of projects – that’s why we have this sort of process.”

Anker said the $8 million Rails to Trails project was to be funded by that bond and then the county would be reimbursed by the federal government, but without the bond the county is now looking for different revenue sources so it would not have to push back plans to start building the trail by spring 2019.

The most contentious item amongst the recent three defeated bonds was $2 million in funding for licensing Rave Panic Button mobile app, a downloadable application that acts as an instant call to fire and emergency services as well as police in an emergency, specifically a school shooting, for school and government employees.

The Rave app is currently active in 95 percent of county facilities with 20 percent of county employee phones now equipped with the app, according to Joel Vetter, the county Emergency Medical Services coordinator. The program is already in place in 19 school districts with 10 enabled devices per building. The funding, Vetter said, would have put the app in the hands of all current school administrative and teaching staff in all county school districts.

“This means that if the cellular system is down, you could contact emergency services through WiFi,” Vetter said.

Bellone defended the lump bonding, saying it’s a practice used in town and local governments across the state. He said the public safety initiatives would have saved district schools more than $1 million since each would not have to pay for it themselves.

“This has become the worst of our politics.”

— Duwayne Gregory

“If we back down from this outrageous conduct now, they will continue to hold hostage every important investment on the environment, on public safety, on roads, on parks — and we’re not going to allow that to happen,” the county executive said.

Cilmi contended that bundling the bonds together does not save money because the county’s bond council, New York law firm Harris Beach PLLC, does not charge for bond preparation.

The contract between Suffolk and Harris Beach, signed by the county in 2014, reads that there shall be no fee paid by the county related to the preparation of county resolutions, which includes bonds.

Cilmi and Trotta both said they could come close to guaranteeing funding for the Rave app would be approved as a stand-alone measure.

Democrats accused the Republican caucus of being hypocritical as the bond vote was all for items those legislators have already supported in the recent past.

“This has become the worst of our politics.” Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) said. “Nobody gets 100 percent of what they want, and when they say, ‘we’re going to vote against a package to other bills regarding funding for our correctional facilities,’ saying ‘I don’t like one or two parts of the bill and I’m going to vote against,’ is just ridiculous.”

Bellone said he expects to put the bonds back up for vote in the next legislative meeting July 17, but he did not give specifics about whether or not the county would try and repackage the bills to be more favorable to the wishes of the Republican caucus.

Deputy County Executive Jon Kaiman (D) said if the bond vote fails again the app will not be available to districts until after school reconvenes in September.

“We have to regroup and think what kind of strategies we have going forward,” Kaiman said. “When you fail a vote the process takes a lot of time to come back.”

Suffolk County district attorney candidate Tim Sini and sheriff candidate Larry Zacarese during recent visits to the TBR News Media office. Photos by Kevin Redding

Suffolk County District Attorney

A fresh start for DA’s office

It’s no secret that Suffolk County’s District Attorney office is in desperate need of a culture change. The allegations-turned charges against Thomas Spota (D), who held the position since 2001, have created public distrust in a position that requires it. The district attorney decides who gets charged with crimes, and a lack of confidence in the integrity of the person leading that position creates a tangled web of problems Suffolk County residents shouldn’t have to worry about.

To that end, Tim Sini (D) has dealt with a startlingly analogous situation as police commissioner, which ironically features many of the same players, and he’s handled it as well as anyone could have asked. Real progress is being made on the gang front, and we think his experience in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, coupled with his time as police commissioner are more than enough to put to bed concerns from people like his challenger about his age and relative inexperience.

On Ray Perini (R), we were mostly satisfied with his defenses of two scandals from his past brought to light during this campaign. However, at a time like this, the mere hint of possible wrongdoing in the position of district attorney is enough to continue damaging public perception of a position in need of a fresh start.

With all that being said, we’re endorsing Sini for Suffolk County district attorney.

Suffolk County Sheriff

A new sheriff in the county

With two new candidates boasting impressive work backgrounds running for Suffolk County sheriff, Republican Larry Zacarese and Democrat Errol Toulon, it was difficult deciding who to endorse. After much deliberation Zacarese gets our endorsement.

We believe Zacarese has done his homework when it comes to the job as sheriff and his experience at Stony Brook University as assistant chief of police and director of the Office of Emergency Management will be an asset. His position there is a well-rounded one. He is involved in operations, planning, mitigation, response and recovery and working with the installation of and maintenance of the electronic security system for more than 250 buildings.

He has also met with those on task forces dealing with the gang problems on Long Island to ensure that they are well staffed and good relationships between federal and local agencies are intact.

We hope that Toulon will continue to pursue a career in politics. With a great deal of experience in law enforcement including at Rikers Island, we can see him serving the county in the future, perhaps in a role such as police commissioner.

Suffolk County Legislator District 5

Hahn handles county business

Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) has the experience to take care of business in the 5th Legislative District of Suffolk County, and we endorse her in her run for a fourth term as a county legislator.

Approachable and accessible, Hahn listens to the needs of her constituents.

The chairwoman of both the Environment, Planning & Agriculture Committee and Parks & Recreation Committee, she supports the county’s program to update septic systems, which will reduce nitrogen in our waters. In the past she has sponsored initiatives authorizing appraisal of lands under the Suffolk County Drinking Water Protection Program.

She has been a steward for our local parks by tackling illegal dumping by increasing county penalties and creating programs for children to explore local public lands with her Parks Passport program.

We were impressed with her challenger Republican Edward Flood, and we hope he will continue to pursue a political career. A lawyer who is the chief of staff for state Assemblyman Dean Murray (R-East Patchogue), we believe Flood has the potential to serve in office, and as a supporter of the group Long Island Needs a Drag Strip, he has good ideas when it comes to bringing in more tax revenues while creating minimal disruption to residents.

Suffolk County Legislator District 6

Safe in Sarah Anker’s hands

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) is focused on local issues.

Although legislative issues may reach further than that of the town, we appreciate the incumbent’s care and concern for her district’s constituents and the challenges they face, not just the ones that the county does.

We think she works diligently and closely with her constituents, making her the best candidate in this race. We commend her track record on issues like parks creation; protecting drinking water by prohibiting the acceptance of wastewater produced by hydraulic fracturing; and her work with Father Frank Pizzarelli and Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson to try to quell opioid addiction.

Some of the points her Democratic opponent Gary Pollakusky made about the county’s lower bond rating, $2.1 billion debt and $200 million structural deficit are all causes for concern, but Anker is just one member of a larger group, and should not be held accountable for all of its ills or credited with all of its successes.

Pollakusky’s campaign style tends to be rough, even bullying. We are also concerned about the merits of his business ventures and nonprofit organization based on the odd mechanics of the website and social media.

Anker has shown leadership, being able to see the problem, recognizing who can solve the problem, getting in touch with the right people, putting them all together in a room and stepping back and letting the solution evolve. She listens to people and sees if she can help. We’re all for that.

Suffolk County Legislator District 12

Kennedy should keep at it

As her first full term in the Suffolk County Legislature comes to a close, we feel that Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) has proven to be a passionate, effective and caring leader for the 12th District.

Kennedy, a longtime nurse, is not afraid to go toe-to-toe with her colleagues from both  sides of the aisle, whether it’s regarding hikes in county fees or public safety projects, and seems to have the residents’ needs in mind with every decision she makes. It’s very clear she is rattled by the county’s current financial situation and is doing everything in her power to make sure families and constituents have the opportunity to grow and thrive. She has also done plenty of research on a wide variety of issues not only in her district but Suffolk County as a whole, and seeks to find a pragmatic solution to every one of them.

Suffolk County Legislator District 13

Trotta tackles Suffolk’s issues

It’s important, and rare, in politics to have a watchdog in the ranks —  a whistle-blower who’s not afraid to call out colleagues and issues for the greater good. And there’s perhaps nobody on the local level with a louder bark than Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga).

Trotta, a former county police officer, has for the last four years consistently fought in favor of making Suffolk County an easier and cheaper place to live for residents of all ages even at the expense of making enemies. He’s become the face of exposing corruption in the county, whether it’s egregious hikes in fees or the connection between campaign contributors and elected officials. He’s also on the front line of the debate against the Suffolk County Red Light Safety Program, which has been proven to increase accidents at busy intersections and seems to serve no other purpose than to collect more fees from residents.

His Democratic opponent Colleen Maher doesn’t appear to show any interest in campaigning and, as far as we know, is just a name to put on the ballot.

Trotta is brutally honest, a statistics and facts-based whiz and the very definition of a realist. He tells it like it is and actually backs up his accusations with ways to fix the problems.

As cynical as he is about the way the county runs, it’s apparent that Trotta still very much cares about the region and is rooting for it to turn around, especially for the sake of young people. He wants them to have an opportunity to grow and thrive here. And,  with him serving more terms as legislator, there’s a chance they will one day.

Suffolk County Legislator District 16

Bring Berland to the county

When it comes to Suffolk County’s 16th Legislative District, we believe that Democratic hopeful Susan Berland has the experience and community knowledge needed fill the seat of termed-out Legislator Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills).

Berland has shown her devotion to the Town of Huntington’s residents by working full time as a councilwoman for the last 16 years, despite it being only a part-time position. She demonstrates a fine-tuned understanding of the taxpayers needs on multiple issues: sticking to a tight budget while maintaining town services and supporting affordable housing projects while promising to fight for preservation of open space.

Her prior work experience as a state assistant attorney general will give her insight into tackling the area’s challenges of combating gang violence and drug addiction. Public safety remains another big task.

While we applaud the efforts of Republican candidate Hector Gavilla in his first run for political office, he needs to gain a better grasp of a county legislator’s role and how national issues translate the local level first. It’s difficult to understand his position on some issues. Gavilla said he was strongly in favor of cutting back on Suffolk police officers’ salaries while simultaneously stating that the government should spare no expense in protecting the public’s safety, also noting that he would increase police patrols.

The next individual elected to the county legislature will need a nuanced, detailed understanding of budgets, contracts and smart growth, and we think Berland fits the bill.

Suffolk County Legislator District 18

Doc Spencer can fix Suffolk

Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D) has served admirably in his role representing the northern portion of Huntington township in the county’s 18th Legislative District for the last six years.

Spencer’s background as a licensed physician has given him the insight and experience to successfully tackle several serious health issues. Spencer’s résumé includes raising the age to purchase tobacco to 21; banning the marketing of energy drinks to youth; prohibiting the sale of powdered caffeine to minors and more. In our conversation with him, Spencer demonstrated a nuanced understanding of the different challenges the county faces in addressing the opioid and heroin problem.

While his Republican challenger Dom Spada raises legitimate concerns regarding Suffolk County’s fiscal situation, it is a crisis that every elected official is aware of and has spoken about at length. No one is arguing against cutting costs, but the bigger challenge is reaching a consensus on where to make cutbacks and trim programs.

We believe that Spencer is an overall stronger candidate to address the county’s pressing health needs and build the consensus in the Legislature needed to fix the county’s budget woes.

Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta. File photo by Rachel Shapiro

After two terms at the helm of Suffolk County’s 13th District, Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) remains extremely critical of how the county functions — specifically its handling of finances.

The Republican incumbent has called the current system “broken,” “totally corrupt” and “horrible.” If re-elected Nov. 7, he said he plans to keep fighting to control spending and shed light on government mismanagement.

“I don’t want to see people struggling — I want this to be a prosperous place but it’s not a good situation we’re in,” Trotta said in a discussion at the TBR News Media office in Setauket, with the editorial staff Sept. 22.

Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta is running for his third 13th District term. Photo by Kevin Redding

He talked about his plans moving forward as the representative of his district, which encompasses Smithtown, Fort Salonga, Kings Park, Nissequogue, St. James, Head of the Harbor and portions of Commack and East Northport.

First elected in 2013, he is running for another two years as legislator against Democratic challenger Colleen Maher, who did not respond to a request for an interview.

Trotta said the legislative bills that he’s passionate about pushing through will ultimately “die in committee.” They include a law to limit Suffolk County “backdoor taxes,” or fee permits and registrations imposed on residents, to 2 percent per year — a reflection of the state’s cap for property tax increases — in order to make living on Long Island cheaper for residents; one that imposes justification for a fee increase; and a campaign finance bill to limit the amount of money in donations elected officials running for office can accept from contractors and public employee unions within the county.

Trotta said the campaign finance bill is the most crucial one because it will serve to clean up the “cesspool” of county government and curb money being tossed around in campaign contributions.

“Campaign finance is the root of all evil,” the legislator said.

A member of the Suffolk County Police Department for 25 years, Trotta pointed to County Executive Steve Bellone’s (D) 28.8 percent pay increase to the police department as a prime example of the county’s “out-of-control” spending.

“We’re in debt, we have to cut spending,” he said. “I see the county budget as a pie. Cops came in and ate everything and left the crumbs for everybody else. Why would you give them a $400 million increase? It’s because they gave him $3 million to get elected.”

“I don’t want to see people struggling — I want this to be a prosperous place but it’s not a good situation we’re in.”

  Rob Trotta

Trotta overall outlined a grim portrait of the future of the county, especially for young people looking to stay and start families here.

“If it wasn’t for Manhattan, we’d be dead — we’d be finished,” the legislator said. “I want young people to be able to buy houses here but … a third of the people in their 20s are moving. People always say, ‘Oh the beaches.’ How many times in the last year were you at the beach? Apartment buildings popping up are a last resort.”

He also spoke out against the county’s Red Light Safety Program, which he has long advocated against, chalking the system of cameras at traffic signals to ticket cars that run red lights up to a “money grab” by the county against residents that’s only causing more damage along busy intersections.

The day before the debate Oct. 17, Trotta publicly called for an investigation into the county’s annual report of the program, accusing it of purposefully, and illegally, eliminating data on car accidents involving pedestrians and bicyclists.

“Cameras are at 100 locations and accidents are up at about 46 of them, some as much as 100 percent,” he said. “Now, if it’s about safety, wouldn’t you shut those cameras down immediately? It’s not about safety. It’s about money … it’s not a happy place to live.”

The legislature approved hiring an outside contractor to perform a six-month study of the county’s red-light camera program at its Oct. 2 meeting.

The front cover of the 2015 Red Light Safety Program Report.
The front cover of the 2015 Red Light Safety Program Report.

By Victoria Espinoza

The results are in for the 2015 Red Light Safety Program Annual Report — the most recent report to date — but there are still questions to be asked. The report, released in April, showed in 2015 a total of $31 million in gross revenue was collected from the program for citations issued from the start of the program in 2010 but paid in 2015 — a drop of some $1.9 million from the previous year.

However, an entire section is missing on accident data, which in years past indicated how many accidents occurred from right angles, rear ends, accidents that involved injury, what intersections they occurred at and more.

“It’s a disgrace,” Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said in a phone interview. “They say it’s coming — but they won’t even tell us who prepares the report.”

Trotta is not the only person to raise this concern.

Personal injury lawyer David Raimondo, based in Lake Grove, agreed not knowing what company prepares the report is a red flag. He has worked on several injury lawsuits having to do with red light camera intersections and has filed a Freedom of Information Law request to discover what company creates the current annual reports on the program. Just last month he called for a federal investigation into the program.

Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta goes over legislation to suspend the camera program. Photo by Phil Corso

“We don’t know who makes the report, they [Suffolk County government] claim the data used is correct, but I’m challenging that right now because I don’t think their data is accurate,” he said.

The county executive’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Every annual report has the Suffolk County seal on the cover as well as the seal of the county’s office of Traffic and Parking Violations Agency. All services in maintaining, operating and managing the red light cameras are done by Xerox, a corporation that entered into a contract with Suffolk County. Xerox provides a monthly invoice to the county for contractual requirements, and according to the study was paid $9.4 million that year. But it’s still unclear which entity condenses the raw data and creates the annual reports.

Raimondo also took issue with an article from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety referenced in the 2015 report. “Red light cameras installed at intersections reduced the number of fatalities due to crashes at these intersections … there was a steep increase in fatalities at intersections that removed red light cameras,” the report stated.

The article also included data from 57 cities throughout the country between 1992 and 2014, comparing trends in fatal crash rates in those cities with trends in 33 cities that never had cameras.

The lawyer called the article “propaganda,” and said he has worked with many scientists and engineer experts who confirm red light camera programs do not reduce fatalities.

Another problem with the Suffolk County study, Raimondo said, is it does not include data on accidents involving bicyclists or pedestrians.

“Every single intersection with a camera and a crosswalk needs a report,” he said.

Red light cameras are placed in two types of intersections: New York State intersections, where a state road meets a state, county or town road; and non-state intersections, where a county road meets a county or town road. According to the report, intersections are chosen based on where the cameras would yield the highest safety result, but Raimondo doesn’t buy that.

“It’s an insult to the residents.” — Rob Trotta

“They’re putting them in areas with the highest volume of people who don’t want to go to court and can afford to pay the ticket,” he said. “They’re targeting middle class people. It’s a real racketeering operation, it’s enterprise corruption.”

Trotta echoed the sentiment.

“It’s a sham,” he said. “It’s the equivalent of a 63 percent tax increase on resident’s general fund tax, except this way the Suffolk County executive can say he didn’t raise it — but in actuality he did and it’s absurd. He [Steve Bellone (D)] thinks the people of Suffolk County are idiots. It’s an insult to the residents.”

According to the report released last month analyzing the 2015 data, 352,472 red light camera fines were paid in 2015, including payments immediately after first notice of a ticket and court-related fines. This has led to more than $17.6 million in gross fine revenues for the year ($19 million in 2014 on 380,809 fines paid). These fines and fees are deposited directly into a Suffolk County comptroller’s account, according to the report.

Some areas across Suffolk County saw more red light camera incidents recorded and tickets issued in 2015, but others stayed at a steady rate or saw a decrease.

The study details how many incidents a red light camera intersection tracks in a certain year, as well as how many tickets are issued from those incidents.

In 2015 in Huntington Station on Oakwood Road, a huge 73,217 red light camera incidents were noted, with 3,741 tickets issued, compared to 9,773 incidents noted and 602 tickets issued in 2014. Lake Grove had 86,343 incidents with 4,636 tickets issued in 2014, and the next year that number jumped to 106,145 incidents yet saw a drop in tickets to 4,435. In East Setauket on Route 347, more than 1,000 incidents were recorded than the prior year at 37,594, however 45 fewer tickets were issued at 1,838. On Miller Place Road, 117,016 incidents were recorded in 2014, with 7,055 tickets issued, and in 2015 there was a drop in incidents tracked at 113,915, with 6,088 tickets issued.

Some debris dumped at the Town of Brookhaven’s Tanglewood Park in Coram. Photo from Legislator Anker’s office

The penalty for illegally dumping on county-owned properties may soon include jail time in Suffolk County, after legislators unanimously approved on March 28 both increased fines and the potential of up to one year’s imprisonment for anyone convicted. The bill, sponsored by Legislators Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), Tom Muratore (R-Ronkonkoma), Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) and Kate Browning (WF-Shirley), now goes to Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) for his signature within the next 30 days. 

A no dumping sign along North Country Road in Shoreham. File photo

Once implemented, maximum fines for illegal dumping of nonconstruction, demolition and hazardous material wastes by a business or corporation will increase to $15,000 from the previous fine of $5,000. The penalty for dumping nonconstruction materials by an individual will remain at $1,000. If an individual is found dumping construction or demolition material, the misdemeanor fine will increase to $10,000 for an individual and $15,000 for a corporation or business. Under the change, both an individual and someone convicted of dumping material on behalf of a commercial entity may be sentenced up to one year in jail. Imposition of the ultimate fine or criminal sentence is within the sentencing court’s discretion.

“For far too long, fines associated with illegal dumping were considered just the cost of doing business,” said Hahn, chairwoman both of the Legislature’s Parks & Recreation and Environment, Planning and Agriculture Committees. “For those who choose to pursue greed over the health of the public and our environment, your cost of business has just gotten a lot more expensive. The one-two combination of increased monetary penalties and potential jail time will hopefully give pause to any person or commercial entity that believes these significant fines and the potential loss of freedom is a cost effective business strategy.”

Illegal dumping on Long Island has emerged as a serious environmental issue and threat to public health following the discoveries of potentially toxic debris within the Town of Islip’s Roberto Clemente Park, Suffolk County’s West Hills County Park and a housing development for military veterans in Islandia. In February, New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation issued approximately 200 tickets for unlawful disposal, operating without a permit and other violations during stings conducted on Long Island and the Hudson Valley that also identified nine dumping sites upstate. 

“Illegal dumping of hazardous materials and construction waste on county property causes harmful chemicals to seep into our water.”

—Sarah Anker

“For decades, Suffolk County has worked tirelessly to preserve land in order to protect our environment and groundwater,” Anker said. “Illegal dumping of hazardous materials and construction waste on county property causes harmful chemicals to seep into our water, which negatively affects our health. It is important we do everything in our power to continue to protect our parklands and to ensure that illegal dumping does not occur. By doing so, we are not only preserving the environmental integrity of Suffolk County, but improving the quality of life for all residents.”

Trotta called the dumping a crime against the residents of Suffolk County.

“I want to make it unprofitable for contractors to dump this material,” he said, “and more importantly, I want them going to jail for this.”

Browning added that the parks are vital assets for Suffolk County residents, and one of the core recreational resources available to them. She doesn’t like seeing the destruction of quality of life. Legislature Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) agrees, saying it’s an important step to protecting parks, while giving teeth to all legislation recently passed on this quality of life issue.

“I applaud legislator Hahn for her hard work toward preventing this serious problem,” Browning said. “Aggressively attacking illegal dumping head on will ensure the sustainability of our parks and preserve one of the many reasons Suffolk County continues to be a great place to live.”

Committee created to start the process of creating family-oriented motorsports park

Suffolk County Legislator Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory discusses Long Islanders' desire for a drag strip in Suffolk County. Photo from Legislator Gregory's office

Suffolk County is putting the pedal to the metal in an effort to build a drag strip for its need-for-speed residents.

A large crowd of more than 100 drag racing enthusiasts filled the auditorium at the Suffolk County Legislature Feb. 7 and cheered on as Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) announced the formation of an ad hoc committee, consisting of a bipartisan group of legislators, representatives from the Department of Planning and the Suffolk County Supervisors’ Association, and members from the racing community, to start the process of bringing a family-oriented motorsports park to the county.

Long Islanders who wish to see a drag strip in Suffolk County created a Facebook page “L.I. Needs a Dragstrip.” Image from Facebook

“Long Island has thousands of families who are passionate about racing as a sport, and providing a legal outlet for drag racing could bring tremendous benefits to Suffolk County,” Gregory said during the press conference.

The ad-hoc committee was suggested by Suffolk County Legislator Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) after representatives from the “L.I. Needs a Dragstrip” advocacy group charged into the legislature auditorium in December to protest a resolution on the board’s agenda.

The board had been considering a bill for a master plan in Yaphank, but the racing community argued against accepting the master plan, claiming that the property would be better used as a drag strip. The group had been looking at some areas included in the master plan for a potential site to build on. Even though the Yaphank property wound up not being anywhere near large enough for what they were proposing, the passionate group had the board’s interest.

“I was really inspired by the passion of all those that came to the Legislature and we’re going to do all we can to try and make it a reality,” Cilmi said in a phone interview.

In terms of the crowd at both gatherings, Cilmi said, “it’s worth pointing out that in the room were young children, lots of women and lots of guys … it was a large group of very enthusiastic people and it’s not every day that you fill an auditorium with people all interested in one issue.”

The Suffolk legislators on the committee —Gregory, Cilmi, Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), and Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) — will explore potential locations in Suffolk for the drag strip, which is projected to occupy between 100 and 200 acres, as well as the economic boom a full-fledged drag strip could bring to the struggling county.

“Long Island has thousands of families who are passionate about racing as a sport, and providing a legal outlet for drag racing could bring tremendous benefits to Suffolk County.”

—DuWayne Gregory

Gregory said the committee hopes the drag strip will deter the illegal and dangerous street racing that’s been known to take place in areas like Wyandanch. Another task is to make sure the local community and neighboring towns are behind the project and understand their quality of life will not be disrupted by it.

In building the drag strip, the committee anticipates growth in the local racing-related industry, like shops that paint the racing cars and work on engines, and job creation in those fields. There will also be food concessions within the arena, and spectators who could potentially come out and spend money at surrounding restaurants and hotels.

Gregory said any large venue has the potential to attract thousands of people and effectively increase the county’s sales tax, which has been flat for the last few years — “Long Island is losing money in sales tax as residents and tourists flock to nearby states, including New Jersey, to use their drag racing strips.” He said estimates show that a drag strip could generate more than $100 million in revenue.

He proposed that this would be “a safe and enjoyable attraction that people [will] want to come to.”

Kruspki, who grew up in Cutchogue and remembers his grandfather taking him to the Riverhead Raceway when he was young, said the racing culture is still very much alive.

“A lot of people are really interested in this and enjoy racing and working on cars and so to most people it’s more than a hobby, it’s more of a lifestyle,” he said in a phone interview. “I give DuWayne Gregory credit for putting this together; it’s a nice bipartisan group and everyone sees the value in it.”

While still too early to confirm any serious location ideas, the committee and members of the advocacy group have areas like Enterprise Park in Riverhead on a list of potential sites to build on. One of the motorsports advocates has expressed interest in contributing a piece of their own property.

Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta said the proposed drag strip has the potential to bring in needed revenue for Suffolk County. File photo by Rachel Shapiro

“It’s going to be tough to find a spot to put this because a lot of people won’t want to hear it,” Trotta said in a phone interview. “It’s going to have to be somewhere far away from most people, but we’re going to try our utmost [best] to find a place.”

Trotta, who has been consistently vocal about Suffolk’s current economic state, said while he doesn’t necessarily believe the drag strip will be “a savior of Suffolk County,” there’s great potential to bring in needed revenue.

“There’s not a resort in Nassau or Suffolk, and Long Island is bigger than most cities,” Trotta said. “There’s an opportunity for us to make something and mix it with the drag strip. We need people from the city to come out here and spend money.”

During the press conference, John Cozzali, a Mastic resident and founder of “Long Island Needs a Drag Strip,” said he was happy to see the Legislature taking a serious look at his group’s long-dreamt project.

“We look forward to working on this initiative, which we believe will have a positive economic impact for Long Island and will create a safe place for the new generation to come and race,” Cozzali said.

According to Gregory, the full economic analysis, conceptual planning of the racetrack and location securing should take roughly nine months.

A rock, that sits in front of a home in Rocky Point and is believed to be a boulder deposited from glaciers thousands of years ago, is part of a Suffolk County spending controversy. Photo by Erin Dueñas

By Erin Dueñas

The massive boulder that sits in front of the boarded-up house at 30 Sam’s Path in Rocky Point looms large in the childhood memories of Annie Donnelly, who grew up there. When she was 8 years old, the rock was the place to be in the neighborhood — the place local kids would gather for use as a clubhouse or a fort or even just to climb. Years later, teens would find the rock made a great place for a first kiss or a first swig of beer.

“It was the focal point for so many of us,” said Donnelly, who is now retired and living in Florida. “It was the go-to place for many of our first times in those days.”

The rock, which measures 50 feet long and 35 feet high, was even the site for Donnelly’s wedding reception in 1971.

The home which the rock sits in front of, at 30 Sams Path, was purchased last year for $107,000. Photo by Erin Dueñas
The home which the rock sits in front of, at 30 Sams Path, was purchased last year for $107,000. Photo by Erin Dueñas

“There was a dance floor built by my dad behind the rock and we decorated it with flowers from around town,” she said. “It was an enchanted wedding.”

With her fond memories, it comes as no surprise that Donnelly supports efforts spearheaded by Suffolk County legislator Sarah Anker to acquire the property and turn it into a “pocket park.” Donnelly recalled that her father never minded when kids played on the rock, even though it sat on his front lawn. “Any kid could use it,” she said. “We knew it belonged to the town and everyone in it.”

According to Anker, efforts to acquire the property where the rock sits began after campaigning in the area last year, and listening to neighbors who weren’t concerned with the rock, but more with the dilapidated, empty house behind it.

“Neighbors asked about doing something with the zombie home,” Anker said. “Revitalizing the property was the main objective of the initiative.”

Anker pointed out that she never submitted legislation for the county to purchase the property with tax dollars like it’s been reported — stressing that public funds would not be used to purchase it. She said she is in talks with several not-for-profit organizations including the Nature Conservancy and the Peconic Land Trust, who may have an interest in helping to purchase the property for public use. The house was purchased though, last year, for $107,000, and the current owner has signaled that he could be willing to sell.

While some like Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Smithtown) says it’s “preposterous” and “embarrassing” to buy a rock, community members and historical leaders view the piece of property differently.

“Rocky Point is very proud of this rock,” said Rocky Point Historical Society President Natalie Aurucci Stiefel. “It’s a natural wonder and the town takes pride in it.”

“Neighbors asked about doing something with the zombie home. Revitalizing the property was the main objective of the initiative.”

—Sarah Anker

She said that the rock is likely how Rocky Point got its name. Local legend contends that it was once a spot frequented by Native Americans in the area, lending it its nickname, Indian Rock. Stiefel said that like many of the rocks on the North Shore, the boulder was deposited from glaciers thousands of years ago.

Anker said that there are many benefits to revitalizing the spot, which as it stands now, depreciates the value of the entire community. She noted the historical and natural value of the rock, as well as value of remediating the blighted area.

“There’s also the educational value,” she said. “I imagine a child looking at that boulder from thousands of years ago in awe.”

Dot Farrell, of Sound Beach, said she passes the rock frequently and considers herself sensitive to the historical significance it plays in the town. But she has reservations about what the acquisition of the property could mean for the town.

“Pocket parks become drug hangouts,” she said. “We don’t need another one.”

She also questioned where the money would come from to maintain the property, even if the initial purchase was made without tax dollars.

“It’s going to need ongoing upkeep and there are so many other things to spend money on,” she said. “I prefer my town didn’t take on anymore obligations that they don’t need. I want my town to be as fiscally savvy as I try to be.”

Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta goes over legislation to suspend the camera program. Photo by Phil Corso

The Legislature may not be behind them, but Suffolk County residents are still calling the red light camera program a money grab and a safety hazard.

People cried out in support of county Legislator Rob Trotta’s (R-Fort Salonga) bill to suspend the county’s program during a Public Safety Committee meeting on May 26, but the Suffolk legislative committee stopped it from coming to fruition. The vote was 5 to 3 against a motion to move the bill to the full county Legislature for voting after nearly 20 residents spoke up against the use of the cameras.

Stephen Ruth Jr., pleaded not guilty at his arraignment on June 3 to 17 counts of criminal mischief after allegedly tampering with 16 red light cameras at intersections along Route 25 in Coram. He also spoke at the Legislature meeting late last month.

“Red light cameras are a detriment to Suffolk County,” he said. “The risks and damages to the well-being of Suffolk County residents far outweigh the benefits. We all know now that red lights cameras are a systematic form of extortion and nothing more. … Traffic signals were manipulated for revenue and it was only made possible by Suffolk County’s reckless willingness to do anything for money.”

Stephen Ruth mugshot from SCPD
Stephen Ruth mugshot from SCPD

Residents cited statistics to try to back up their issues with the program, using a 42 percent increase in rear-end collisions in 2014 as evidence of the program’s shortcomings, and said nearly half of the locations where cameras were installed showed an increase in personal injury.

“You’re not here working for the middle class people, you’re actually hurting them,” Hector Gavilla said. “The program is not working at all. We were promised that these red light cameras would stop these incidents.”

But overall, crashes have decreased by 3.1 percent, while T-bone crashes have decreased by 21.6 percent. The data also reflects an overall decrease in crashes involved injury by 4.2 percent, based upon data from the New York State Department of Transportation’s most current data available as of December 2014.

Rachel Lugo, who has worked in highway safety for over 20 years, was the only person to speak in support of the cameras. She said that although crashes have increased, she believes it’s not because of the cameras, but as a result of more new drivers on the road, and “increasingly dangerous” issues like texting and being distracted while driving, drinking while driving and being under the influence of drugs.

“You can’t say that these crashes are increasing because of red light cameras,” she said. “What about stop signs? Let’s take them away also. Why won’t we just take away traffic lights? Red light cameras are not the problem. Teaching the motorists to change their behavior behind the wheel is where we need to start. If everyone stopped at the red lights we wouldn’t have to worry about what’s going on with fines and who is making money.”

There are statistics to back her up.

Paul Margiotta, executive director of Suffolk County’s Traffic and Parking Violations Agency, said that between 2012 and 2013, the county saw a 34,000 increase is licensed drivers, where prior to 2012 the average was trending down. He said citations for texting and driving and distracted driving doubled since 2011, which tends to cause rear-end crashes.

Legislature William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) joined Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) and Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) in voting to pass the bill.

Spencer asked to put the program under a microscope.

“We have to do something,” he said. “It’s hard for me to discount the public outcry. There’s a lot of smoke here. I want to make sure I’m doing my oversight job to make sure I have looked at this with a very detailed eyed.”

A county report says Indian Head Road and Jericho Turnpike in Commack saw crashes increase since a red light camera was installed in 2014. Photo by Phil Corso
A county report says Indian Head Road and Jericho Turnpike in Commack saw crashes increase since a red light camera was installed in 2014. Photo by Phil Corso

County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) agreed, although she stated that there was always an expectation that there would be an increase in rear-end crashes.

“Many things we deal with here are not black and white,” she said. “The policy decision was to institute an enforcement mechanism that will decrease the right-angle crashes which cause the more serious injuries and death, with the chance of and the expectation that there will be some uptick in rear-end crashes.”

She said she would like to see a report done on the intersections where there were a large number of rear-end crashes, to see if a majority of them were a result of the cameras, or other things like texting and driving.

According to William Hillman, Suffolk’s chief engineer, that investigation is ongoing. The county is in the process of reviewing crash data at the 42 intersections it controls. The state controls the other 58 intersections with cameras.

“These intersections where there’s been that high uptick, all-due haste is needed in reviewing what is going on so that we have a real answer,” Hahn said. “There’s a huge increase in crashes just in general because of distracted driving. This is happening more and more and red light cameras are not going to stop that. What red light cameras were designed to do was for the folks who were choosing to put their foot on the gas when the light turns yellow, to rethink that. They will actually stop at a red light, and that will save lives when people know that there could be consequences for running a red light. And that probably already has, because we’ve seen a decrease in T-bone crashes, which are more serious and life-threatening, and that is the purpose of the program.”

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.”

Legislator Rob Trotta, left, calls on Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone to resign. Photo by Alex Petroski

Corruption is a word used often relating to Suffolk County government recently, and at least three legislators have had enough.

Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) spoke at a press conference at the Suffolk County Legislature, Evans K. Griffing Building in Riverhead on Tuesday in which he called for the resignation of County Executive Steve Bellone (D) and District Attorney Tom Spota. Trotta also called for Babylon Town Supervisor Rich Schaffer (D), who is also the Suffolk County Democratic Committee chairman to step down from one of the two jobs.

“At this point we are calling for the district attorney to step down and to let normalcy come back,” Trotta said, adding stories that continue to come out relating to former Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke, who pleaded guilty to a civil rights violation and conspiracy to obstruct justice in February, are “disgusting.” Spota, Bellone and Schaffer were all critical in Burke’s career rise and promotion despite evidence reported by Newsday the men were warned of Burke’s troubled legal past.

Trotta’s calls for Spota’s resignation also stem from his backing of Chris McPartland, a corruption prosecutor in Spota’s office, who Newsday reported in January is under investigation by a federal grand jury for political corruption.

“People need to be held responsible for their actions and right now, in this county, they’re not being held responsible,” Trotta said. “I don’t mean in federal courts or being arrested, I mean morally and socially.”

Legislator Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) and Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) joined Trotta at the press conference. Cilmi stopped short of calling for resignations when pressed, though he made a statement condemning Bellone and Spota’s alleged actions relating to Burke.

“People always have a sense that their political system is corrupt,” Cilmi said. “But day after day, week after week, year after year they’re seeing those fears play out right before their eyes in Suffolk County and it’s disgraceful. Whatever integrity Suffolk County has left is evaporating in a murky haze of finger pointing and deceit.”

Cilmi also echoed Trotta’s sentiments about Schaffer and suggested Schaffer’s two positions created a conflict of interest.

“The people of Suffolk County didn’t elect Schaffer,” Cilmi said. “The people of Babylon elected him town supervisor. Is he able to keep his government role separate from his political role?”

Schaffer could not be reached for comment but Bellone responded to Trotta’s comments in an email through his spokesperson, Vanessa Baird-Streeter.

“Rob Trotta and Tom Cilmi are partisan politicians who just don’t get it,” she wrote. “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, which is why I nominated former federal prosecutor Tim Sini as police commissioner after vetting him for more than a year.”

Bob Clifford, a spokesperson for Spota, responded in a similar fashion.

“This predictably partisan press conference calling for the resignation of the duly elected district attorney is nothing but a political challenge to the effective leadership of Thomas Spota, who has spent the last 14 years putting criminals in jail,” he said.

McCaffrey and Trotta refuted any claims that the legislators’ motivation was driven by anything other than morality.

“I can tell you there’s Democrats in there that want to be standing here with us,” McCaffrey said, gesturing toward a legislative meeting going on at the same time. “They are ashamed of what’s going on in Suffolk County right now.”

Trotta said he invited Democratic legislators, though none attended.

“This is not about Republicans — this is not about Democrats,” Trotta said. “This is about corruption. Our job as representatives is to look into this. My constituents don’t have the ability to look into it like I can. Having been a former detective for 25 years I came to this job and I am sickened by what I see. Sickened.”

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