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Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone

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Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) admitted in his 2018 State of the County address last week that our county, our home, remains a constant work in progress. We couldn’t agree more. There needs to be action taken to push for more concrete progress now, instead of just talking about the potential Suffolk has.

Many of the quality-of-life issues addressed by Bellone are no surprise to Long Islanders. The high cost of living and economic stress it creates, need for affordable housing, improvements to public transportation to reduce traffic, and tackling our county’s narcotic drug abuse and gang violence are daily issues we struggle with. And these aren’t new problems.

Bellone first recognized that “young people have been leaving our region at record rates for 20 years in search of opportunity and in search of a place to live other than their parents basements” in his 2012 State of the County address. Enrollment in most of the county’s school districts is dwindling as families are moving off Long Island to pursue their version of the American Dream.

The true question is how much progress has been made toward meeting housing demands, creating opportunities for better-paying jobs, improving the Long Island Rail Road and other public transportation while addressing crime in the last six years?

A Connect Long Island master plan to construct new transit-oriented housing centers was presented by Bellone in 2015. While we’ve seen ground broken on Port Jefferson’s Uptown Funk project, key plans like the Ronkonkoma hub, Huntington Station’s revitalization, Heartland Town Square in Brentwood off Commack Road and other promised projects are either just getting underway or largely still lofty ideals sketched on paper.

Residents have spoken out against many of these planned housing developments in rallies at town halls and roadway intersections. Location is key, and we are tired of seeing open green space slated for development when there’s plenty of vacant storefronts and zombie houses in residential areas.

Let’s not forget the affordable aspect. Recently opened housing projects in Huntington Station are quoting a rent of more than $2,300 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, when the median income for Suffolk workers is about $41,000 a year, according to the U.S. Census 2012-2016 American Community Survey. That’s not far off from apartment costs in parts of New York City, which don’t require a commute.

Electrification of the LIRR’s eastern tracks – including the Huntington to Port Jefferson stretch – has been talked about by the county since 2015. As of this April, town leaders including Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R), Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) and Town of Huntington Supervisor Chad Lupinacci (R) are still writing letters to state and county officials begging for a feasibility study to be started. As for the promise of a rapid transit bus system, a reliable system has still not materialized while many of the line stops have been closed.

High-paying jobs that offer opportunity for future growth, reasonably priced housing and solutions to roadway gridlock need to be put into place to make Suffolk County’s future bright, as Bellone first promised when taking office.

We are willing to commend what appears to be progress in reducing narcotic drug abuse and gang violence, as early crime stats for 2018 are trending in the right direction. But we must remain vigilant.

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

In his annual State of the County address, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) touted recent initiatives while also keeping an eye on both the near and distant future. The executive spoke for more than an hour from the auditorium stage at Newfield High School in Selden in front of a crowd of county, town and village lawmakers, students and others.

“I can tell you that the state of Suffolk County — this amazing place that we all call home — is strong,” Bellone said. “I remain committed to making Suffolk County a model for effective and efficient government, a government that is as good as the people it is there to represent.  We can build a stronger economic future, we can protect our water quality, we can transform this government, and we can do big things in Suffolk County and on Long Island if we do them together.”

Though he admitted the state of the county government, “remains a work in progress,” Bellone called on both political parties to look past the issues that divide them and remember the things that unite Americans. He honored the four Suffolk County native airmen of the 106th Rescue Wing, based out of Westhampton, who died as a result of a helicopter crash while carrying out a mission in Iraq in March, including Commack resident Master Sgt. Christopher Raguso and Port Jefferson Station resident Staff Sgt. Dashan Briggs.

“These are the individuals that make our country great,” Bellone said.

The executive spent a large chunk of his speech on public safety and the work of the Suffolk County Police Department, specifically a decreasing rate of opioid related overdoses and violent crime and reported that last year 222 arrests were made in connection with the violent gang MS-13.

While discussing public safety, Bellone detailed the recently implemented SHARE initiative. The program — Sharing to Help Access Remote Entry — allows participating school districts to connect closed circuit security camera systems directly to SCPD, who can access surveillance footage in real time in the event of active shooter situations on school campuses.

He gave a nod to the students locally and across the country organizing marches and walkouts to protest for stricter gun control laws in the wake of more high-casualty school shooting incidents around the U.S.

“It has been inspiring to see young people speak out on issues, organize rallies, run for school board and demand more of their elected officials,” he said. “Your voices will be heard.”

The county executive made numerous references to the state of government and politics in Washington D.C., specifically in making a pledge that he and his colleagues “will not rest” until the State and Local Tax deduction, which was repealed as part of the federal tax overhaul bill passed in 2017, were restored. The elimination of the deduction stands to cost residents in high-property tax areas — like Suffolk County — thousands of dollars more than previous years.

Bellone stressed the importance of economic development through downtown revitalization projects — like upper Port Jefferson’s “Uptown Funk” plan — and streamlining public transportation around these hubs as a means to foster an environment in which young people can afford to live in Suffolk County going forward through the creation of quality jobs.

“We spend a lot of money educating our kids here,” the county executive said. “Too many of them have left for other parts of the country, where they are helping to power their regional economies. We have to stop that.”

Bellone called water quality a critical issue for all Suffolk County residents. The county has made funding available for septic system improvements for homeowners, which would help reduce the amount of nitrogen polluting Long Island’s waterways. He also recently implemented a recycling program for six county school districts.

Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr., second from right, joined by his wife Tina, right, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone during his inauguration Jan. 12. Photo by Kevin Redding

Just days before the nation celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. and his famous dream, Errol Toulon (D) made history by taking the oath as Suffolk County Sheriff, making him Long Island’s first African-American elected official in a nonjudicial countywide position.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo administers the oath of office to Errol Toulon Jr., Suffolk County’s new sheriff, during his inauguration ceremony Jan. 12. Photo by Kevin Redding

Toulon, 55, was officially sworn in by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) Jan. 12 during an inauguration ceremony held at Van Nostrand Theater on the Brentwood campus of Suffolk County Community College in the company of his wife, Tina Toulon, family members, friends and town and county elected officials, including County Executive Steve Bellone (D), recently sworn-in District Attorney Tim Sini (D), Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) and former sheriff Vincent DeMarco (C). A former Rikers Island corrections officer and captain who emerged victorious against Republican candidate Larry Zacarese after just two months of campaigning, Toulon entered the race determined to utilize his more than 35 years in corrections and law enforcement to tackle gangs and the opioid crisis, while creating a stronger environment within the county’s jails.

“I have to say, this is a long way from my days being a batboy with the New York Yankees,” Toulon laughed, referring to his two-year stint in the 1970s serving on the team. “For me, this race was a whirlwind, but this job is one I’ve been preparing for my entire life.”

After serving at Rikers Island from 1982 to 2004, Toulon, starting in 2012, worked for two years in Bellone’s administration as assistant deputy county executive for public safety and in 2014 was named deputy commissioner of operations for the New York City Department of Corrections. In the midst of his career, he has also beaten cancer twice — in 1996 and 2004.

“He is a man who has confronted great challenges in his life,” Bellone said. “I have personally seen him face these difficulties with incredible grace and dignity and fortitude. He has confronted all these challenges and has perseverance, which is exactly what you want to have in a leader. I am proud to be here today to support a friend, a colleague and a leader.”

During the ceremony, Cuomo called attention to the historical significance of Toulon’s victory.

“It says something about the people of Suffolk County, says something about the progress of society, says something about acceptance and it says that we’re one step closer to Martin Luther King’s dream of one day judging people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin,” Cuomo said. “This sheriff is different in a number of ways, but the first precedent he sets is that he’s the most qualified man to ever serve in this position … I am selfishly overjoyed by Sheriff Toulon’s election because in government, job number one is public safety.”

“This sheriff is different in a number of ways, but the first precedent he sets is that he’s the most qualified man to ever serve in this position.”

— Andrew Cuomo

Toulon assured the cheering audience he is committed to making the county a better and safer place for all, with plans in place to continue and create initiatives in the sheriff’s office to combat gang and substance abuse-related problems, as well as rehabilitation services and re-entry programs for those incarcerated. He also said the office, under his leadership, will routinely participate in community events, civic association meetings and will do everything in its power to prevent young people from going down the wrong path.

“I am ready to work and I am ready to lead,” Toulon said. “We have to ensure that we deliver as a society and assist those who need help and keep those who do harm off our streets. These gangs might think they’re tough, these gang members might think they have all the answers and can outsmart us, but they’re going to have a lot of time to think about their decisions when they’re sitting behind bars because they were no match for the men and women in the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office.”

A look at Port Jefferson Harbor from the Village Center during Winter Storm Grayson as blizzard-force winds and more than a foot of snow pound the coast Jan. 4. Photo from Margot Garant

Winter Storm Grayson arrived early Jan. 4 and pounded Port Jefferson, and the surrounding areas to the tune of more than 16 inches of snow.

The storm was officially categorized as a blizzard by the New York office of the National Weather Service, with sustained winds or frequent gusts greater than 35 mph, “considerable” falling and blowing snow, visibility of less than a quarter of a mile and more than three hours of duration. Port Jefferson Village Mayor Margot Garant, Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R), Town of Huntington Supervisor Chad Luppinacci (R), Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) declared states of emergency for each of their respective jurisdictions.

“This storm was actually worse than predicted for us,” Bellone said during a briefing Jan. 5. “We saw up to 16 inches of snow in certain parts of the county. This was, as we discussed, a very difficult and challenging storm because of all the conditions — high rate of snowfall, very rapid rate and high winds. It made it very difficult. I want to thank all of those who heeded our calls to stay off the roads yesterday. There were far too many people on the roads. The result was hundreds of motorists ended up stranded.”

Based on unofficial observations taken Jan. 4 and 5, the highest snowfall total reported by the New York NWS office was in Terryville, where 16.4 inches of snow fell during the storm. Suffolk County appeared to take the brunt of Grayson’s wrath according to the NWS data, not only in actual snowfall, but also as the home to the highest wind gusts in the state during the storm, with gusts exceeding 60 mph.

Despite the substantial snowfall totals, Main Street in Port Jeff Village was up and running and open for business Friday morning, according to Garant, who said the village’s Department of Public Works did an “A++” job in an email.

“We have a good system and a great team in place,” she said, adding she was thrilled with how quickly village streets were passable. “The community really makes this possible for us by staying home and avoiding parking on the snow emergency streets.”

Steve Gallagher, the village’s DPW superintendent, said 22 village DPW employees worked using nine trucks equipped with plows and nine trucks with both plows and sanders to clear the streets. He estimated the village used between 150 and 200 tons of salt and sand mix to mitigate the impact of road and sidewalk icing. He reiterated Garant’s point that cooperation from the public is critical in returning the village back to business as usual following a storm.

“Village roads were passable at all times thanks to the dedication and commitment of the men in the DPW,” he said. “People staying off the roads and not parking in the streets would help expedite the clearing of the roads and allow a better job.”

PSEG Long Island reported 97 percent of the 21,700 of its customers who lost power as a result of the storm had their service restored by 9 p.m. Jan. 5.

“Our goal, always, is to restore power as quickly and safely as possible,” a spokesperson for the utility said in a press release. “We ask our customers for a fair amount of patience and to know we will be there just as soon as it is safe.”

The storm came in the midst of a record-setting stretch of below freezing temperatures, according to the NWS. A streak of 13 straight days with a maximum temperature below 32 degrees Fahrenheit measured at Long Island McArthur Airport in Islip was snapped Jan. 9. The 13-day duration was the second longest period of below freezing temperatures reported at the airport since 1963.

Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini is read the oath of office by Sen. Chuck Schumer during Sini's inauguration Jan. 2. Photo by Alex Petroski

Though calendars and thermometers will provide unmistakable evidence that spring is still several months away, new hope sprung eternal in Suffolk County Jan. 2.

Tim Sini (D) was officially sworn in by U.S. Sen. Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York), the Senate minority leader, to begin his tenure as Suffolk County’s District Attorney, a position Sini captured with a 26-point landslide Election Day victory over his Republican opponent Ray Perini. Sini officially assumed the vacated position Tuesday, left open by his retired and federally indicted predecessor Tom Spota (D), during an inauguration ceremony at the Brentwood campus of Suffolk County Community College in front of town and county elected officials and friends and family of the new DA.

Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini shakes hands with Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone after he was sworn in Jan. 2. by Sen. Chuck Schumer, center. Photo by Alex Petroski

Sini campaigned on restoring public faith to a position and office now synonymous with controversy and accusations. Speakers including County Executive Steve Bellone (D), former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York David Kelley and co-chairman of Sini’s campaign and transition team, and the newly inaugurated DA himself each referred to his responsibility in restoring that faith as a primary objective during his time on the job.

“The prosecutor’s mission at its core is not to seek convictions, but to seek justice,” Bellone said. “It is like many things that this person of deep faith believes to his core. Unfortunately in Suffolk County for too many years and in too many instances this truth has been overshadowed by self-dealing and chicanery. I can tell you with certainty, with as much certainty as one individual can hold, that this chain is broken today — that a new era of integrity in the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office has begun.”

Though their time in the Eastern District of New York didn’t overlap, Kelley served at the head of the U.S. Attorney’s office, where Sini was an assistant U.S. Attorney before returning to Suffolk, where Bellone would eventually appoint him Police Commissioner. During his remarks, Kelley cited a quote from a 1935 Supreme Court decision in which members of the court took a prosecutor to task for his conduct, indicating the quote was particularly relevant for Suffolk County and should remind Sini of his duties ahead.

Suffolk County District Attorney speaks about moving the office forward into the future during his inauguration ceremony Jan. 2. Photo by Alex Petroski

“The prosecutor is the representative not of an ordinary party to a controversy, but of a sovereignty whose obligation to govern impartially is as compelling as its obligation to govern at all, and whose interest, therefore, in a criminal prosecution, is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done,” Kelley recited from the court’s findings. “As such, he is in a peculiar and very definite sense the servant of the law, the two-fold aim of which is that guilt shall not escape or innocence suffer. He may prosecute with earnestness and vigor — indeed, he should do so. But, while he may strike hard blows, he is not at liberty to strike foul ones.”

The theme of Sini’s message during the ceremony was to look forward.

“Today marks the beginning — marks the moment that together, we usher in a new era of criminal justice in Suffolk County, one that ensures public safety, champions the law and promotes faith and trust in our law enforcement agencies,” he said. “Each and every day the public will know that the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office is doing the right thing.”

Suffolk residents are suing the county, overseen by Executive Steve Bellone, for what they deem to be illegal fees. File photo

By Kevin Redding

An upstate New York legal group that helps residents stand up against improper actions by their government recently set its sights on Suffolk County, whose hike in illegal fees in the past two years is the focus of a class-action lawsuit.

On Oct. 24, the Government Justice Center, an Albany-based nonprofit that offers pro bono representation to New York residents seeking to “fight city hall,” filed a lawsuit in state Supreme Court on behalf of five Suffolk County residents against the county, saying its abundance of assessment fees are “unauthorized taxes.”

The plaintiffs — homeowners living in Melville, Kings Park, Commack, Calverton and Shirley — face increasingly expensive fees for filing real estate documents, namely tax map verifications, which raked in $66 million this year, that far surpass the county’s operating budget of $1.2 million to perform the transactions through its Real Property Tax Service Agency, the suit alleges.

Between 2015 and 2017, mortgage recording fees and tax map verification fees imposed by the county jumped from $60 to $200 per land parcel, with an additional $300 slapped on for every mortgage recording instrument used. The revenue from the fees contributes to the county’s general fund.

According to the complaint, the county passed legislation to enforce these “backdoor taxes” on a certain subset of residents — in this case, homeowners — to bear the county’s burden as it was “unwilling to rein in its spending or face the political consequences of raising taxes to pay for general fund expenses.”

But, under state law, local fees are not allowed to exceed the cost of service or be used
to offset the revenue of government functions.

The homeowners are now calling on the county to stop imposing the illegal fees or at least reduce them to more closely match the $1.2 million service cost, and to refund them a portion of the real estate document fees. The county is currently being subpoenaed.

“It’s important that residents get the opportunity to have their voices heard,” said Cameron MacDonald, the executive director of the GJC. “The county is not supposed to be raising revenue through unauthorized taxes in the form of excessive fees. They need to either pass a tax that affects everyone or cut its spending.”

Ahead of the Suffolk County Legislature’s budget vote for 2018, which passed Nov. 8, MacDonald said he and his group called on legislators, to no avail, to eliminate a total $102 million in fees that generate revenue above the cost of the departments that collect them.

Mike Armstrong, the director of field operations for Reclaim New York Initiative, a nonpartisan group with representation on the GJC’s board which launched the Fight the Fees campaign to end illegal fees across the state, has been active in gaining public support of the lawsuit.

Armstrong compared the gradual increase of fees on taxpayers to “the difference between getting small cuts on your arm to having it chopped off entirely.

“The county talks about wanting to keep people here while they’re pushing them out the door with fees and taxes,” Armstrong said, adding that while tax increases are never popular, it’s at least honest compared to these fees. “I feel bad for young couples who want to buy a house that are now paying that mortgage fee. I feel bad for senior citizens who are closing out their mortgages and then are faced with an  exorbitant fee. It’s an issue that’s impacting people in a really dramatic way.”

During a vote last December to adopt the 2017 county budget,  Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) defended the fee increases, saying residents will not leave Suffolk County because of a few additional hundreds of dollars.

“I don’t think anyone is going to move to Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Arizona or anywhere else because of $300,” Gregory said regarding the verification fee. “I think it’s going to cost more to relocate than the
increase in this fee.”

Among few voices of opposition on the Legislature is Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), who, during the meeting to adopt the 2017 county budget, called it “death by a thousand knives.” He warned of an inevitable deficit in the county’s budget.

“The mismanagement of Suffolk County is heading us down the path of bankruptcy,” Trotta said. “They’re going to lose the lawsuits and they’re going to have to refund the fees and stop spending money. There’s going to be a huge hole in the budget no matter what.”

Jason Elan, a spokesman for County Executive Steve Bellone (D), addressed the lawsuit in an emailed statement.

“This is a politically motivated lawsuit filed by Albany insiders who lack any understanding on how government costs are apportioned, yet have no problem saddling taxpayers with the cost of fighting this completely frivolous complaint,” Elan’s statement read.

The state supreme court has since ruled similar fees in Nassau unconstitutional.

“This is a major victory for taxpayers, homeowners, businesses and any New Yorker who has been forced to pay an illegal fee,” Reclaim New York said in an email. “Every government around the state should get the message loud and clear. Nassau and Suffolk legislators have knowingly been stealing from residents with illegal fees ­— it’s theft. It is time to end illegal fees across New York.”

Suffolk County District Attorney Tom Spota, who did not plan to run for re-election, was indicted Oct. 25 and will retire prior to the completion of his fourth term in office. File photo

Suffolk County residents and lawmakers have known since early 2017 there would be a new District Attorney for the first time since 2001, but thanks to a federal indictment, the timeline for that to take place has moved up.

Thomas Spota (D), the sitting Suffolk County District Attorney, was charged by a federal grand jury in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York Oct. 25 with four counts relating to his involvement in the obstruction of a federal civil rights investigation. Christopher McPartland, the Chief of Investigations and Chief of the Government Corruption Bureau of the DA’s office, was also indicted.

Spota released a statement Oct. 26 announcing his intentions to step down “at the earliest opportunity after the resolution of normal administrative matters relating to my retirement.” Emily Constant, the Chief Assistant District Attorney, will serve as the interim District Attorney until the winner of the 2017 campaign for the seat is sworn in next January.

The four charges were conspiracy to tamper with witnesses and obstruct an official proceeding; witness tampering and obstruction of an official proceeding; obstruction of justice; and accessory after the fact to the deprivation of civil rights. The initial civil rights violation investigation was examining the actions of former Suffolk County Police Commissioner James Burke, who was charged in December 2015 after assaulting and thus violating the civil rights of a Smithtown man who had been arrested for breaking into Burke’s police-department issued vehicle. He was also charged with conspiracy to obstruct the investigation. Burke was sentenced to 46 months in prison almost exactly one year ago.

“Prosecutors swear oaths to pursue justice and enforce the law,” acting U.S. Attorney Bridget Rohde said in a statement following the indictment. “Instead of upholding their oaths, these defendants allegedly abused the power of the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, attempted to cover up the assault of an in-custody defendant, and attempted to thwart a federal grand jury investigation. Abuses of power by law enforcement authorities cannot and will not be tolerated. There are serious consequences to such actions.”
Since allegations against Burke came to light and he pleaded guilty in February 2016, Spota’s resignation has long been discussed by members of both political parties.

“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…” County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said in May 2016 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.”

Bellone renewed his call Oct. 25, before Spota’s announcement the next day.

“The person holding the awesome power to decide whether people go to jail or not cannot effectively serve under federal indictment for corruption,” Bellone said in a statement.

The indictment detailed some of the specifics of Spota’s and McPartland’s actions that led to the charges.

“Between December 2012 and the present, defendants Spota and McPartland, together with others including Burke and other members of the SCPD, had numerous meetings and telephone conversations discussing the assault of John Doe, John Doe’s allegations against Burke and the federal investigation,” it reads. “During those meetings and telephone conversations, defendants Spota and McPartland, and Burke and other members of the SCPD, agreed to conceal Burke’s role in the assault and to obstruct and attempt to obstruct the federal investigation in order to protect Burke.”

Bellone has been criticized by Republican legislators and others for his role in Burke’s promotion, and some have also called for his resignation during the last year.

Spota, 76, of Mount Sinai, and McPartland, 51, of Northport, were arraigned Oct. 25.

By Sara-Megan Walsh

The decision by lawmakers in Charlottesville, Virginia, to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, a general in the Confederate Army, from a city park sparked protests featuring unabashed Nazi salutes, white-supremacist rhetoric and violence.

Three people have been killed in the Charlottesville protests. On Aug. 12, an Ohio man allegedly drove a car into a crowd of counterprotesters opposing the hateful rhetoric of those aligned with the neo-Nazi sympathizers, killing 32-year-old Charlottesville resident Heather Heyer and injuring many others, according to Virginia police. Two Virginia state troopers — Lt. H. Jay Cullen and trooper-pilot Berke M.M. Bates — also died in a helicopter accident on the way to the scene of the accident, according to a state police spokesperson.

A Huntington vigil attendee holds a sign standing against the events in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photo from Julia Fenster

The impact of these protests have rippled out across the nation into local communities. Demonstrations were held in Huntington and Huntington Station by residents on Aug. 13 in response to the Charlottesville events.

More than 100 residents attended a solidarity vigil Sunday evening on the corner of Park Avenue and Main Street, organized by Action Together Long Island, a grassroots social action group formed in backlash to President Donald Trump (R) taking office. Action Together Long Island has nearly 3,500 members, according to founder and chief organizer Julia Fenster.

“What we are witnessing in Charlottesville is not representative of our nation, and it’s not representative of our community,” Fenster said. “We are going to draw a line in the sand and will not let that happen here.”

Rev. Larry Jennings, president of the NAACP Huntington Branch at Bethel AME Church in Huntington Station, opened the vigil with a moment of silence for those affected by the violence. This was followed by a live performance of “Amazing Grace.”

Eve Krief, a Centerport resident, said she attended because the events of Charlottesville touched her personally. Krief recalled growing up hearing stories of how her Jewish mother as a 5-year-old was forced to go into hiding during World War II. Both of Krief’s grandparents and her aunts were killed by Nazis.

“Growing up as a Jewish girl, I was taught never to forget how the Europeans were silent as Jews were targeted and taken away,” she said. “All day long the silence was deafening. The words — ‘the silence was deafening’ was never more powerful and meaningful to me than yesterday.”

Krief called for elected officials, both Democrats and Republicans, to come out more strongly against the violent protests, racism and white-supremacist attitude of Charlottesville protesters.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and Julia Fenster, chief organizer of ATLI, at the vigil. Photo from Julia Fenster

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) attended the Huntington vigil.

“The rally in Charlottesville does not represent our American values and must be denounced outright,” he posted in a statement on Twitter. “There is no middle ground here — the ugliness of hate and intolerance have no place in our society. Period. On behalf of all Suffolk County residents, my thoughts and prayers are with the victim, those injured and their families during this difficult period of time.”

A second rally against the violence in Charlottesville was held at the corner of Route 110 and Jericho Turnpike in Huntington Station on Sunday evening. The event was a result of collaboration between several groups, including Action Together Long Island and LI Activists.

As calls for unity against hate rang through Huntington, racist graffiti was discovered painted on a fence in Huntington Station on the corner of Depot Road near Bogart Street, according to Suffolk County police. Suffolk County police did not provide any further details on what was painted on the fence.

State Assemblyman Chad Lupinacci (R-Huntington Station) has called for law enforcement to increase the number of patrols in the area for the safety and security of residents.

“As someone who was born and raised in Huntington Station, I want to reassure the community that such acts of hatred will not be tolerated here, as they are not tolerated anywhere in New York,” Lupinacci said. “Hate speech directed toward any group of people needs to be publicly denounced now more than ever.”

Suffolk County’s Hate Crimes Unit detectives are investigating the matter, according to SCPD Assistant Commissioner Justin Meyers.

Suffolk County Democratic Committee Chairman Rich Schaffer works at his desk in his North Babylon office. Photo by Alex Petroski

As the night progressed Nov. 8, 2016, it steadily became clear that months of data and polls had failed to accurately predict the future. Around midnight, it was no longer in doubt — Donald Trump was going to be the 45th president of the United States, and Democrats had a long road ahead to figure out what went wrong.

Both nationally and locally, the time since the shocking 2016 presidential election has served as a period of reflection and resistance for the Democratic Party. Political leaders across the country, like Suffolk County Democratic Committee Chairman Rich Schaffer, were tasked with crafting a new message and understanding the emotion Americans voiced with their votes in November: anger.

In an exclusive interview at his North Babylon office, Schaffer weighed in on the platform of the party going forward: How Trump’s message resonated for Suffolk voters making him the first Republican presidential candidate to win the county since the early 1990s; a high profile race for Suffolk’s district attorney; the two congressional seats up in 2018; his journey in politics since age 11 and much more.

The future of the party

Schaffer is in an enviable and high stakes position. The leading Democrat in the county has a blank slate as a platform, while the party tries to rebirth itself from the ashes of 2016. The path forward is whatever Suffolk Democrats choose to make it from here, but choosing wrong could be a major setback. The successes of ultra-progressive candidate Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) could make a further left-leaning Democratic Party a possibility for the future. However, swinging too far to the left could alienate moderates from both sides of the aisle, similar to the way Trump Republicans are trying to go it alone with little support outside of the base.

“I’m trying to make sure I keep saying this: Make sure we don’t burn the house down,” Schaffer said of infighting amongst different sects of the party. “Or even I use the line, ‘Don’t make me pull the car over.’ The kids are arguing in the back and we’re about 50 miles away from the destination and they’re carrying on … I’ll pull the car over and we’re not going anywhere.”

Schaffer said he held a meeting in March with about 25 leaders of various activist groups in the hopes of emerging with a unified front.

“I brought them all together at our headquarters and I said, ‘Look, we all have the same goal — we want to defeat [U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley)] and [U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford)] and we want to defeat Trump,’” Schaffer said. “‘That’s our four-year plan. We all have different reasons why we want to accomplish that goal — your issue might be health care, your issue might be the travel ban, your issue may be you think Trump’s an idiot, you’re concerned about the Supreme Court. Whatever your issue is, we have to put that energy together and see how we can, as best as possible, move in the same direction to accomplish that.’”

The Democratic Party is not in the shambles locally as it might appear nationally, according to Schaffer. The Suffolk County Legislature has had a Democrat majority since 2005. He said he wasn’t a huge fan of the “A Better Deal” Democratic rebranding effort released by the party nationally recently, but instead would like to see politicians from both sides of the aisle meet in the middle and compromise on important issues, rather than focusing on branding and slogans.

Schaffer described his initial foray into politics as getting swept up in a Democratic wave of support. Living in West Islip, Schaffer had a friend named Jeff, whose older brother Tom Downey was running for the county legislature in 1971. The candidate, who was just 22 years old at the time, enlisted the help of neighborhood kids, including 11-year-old Schaffer, to pass out fliers for the campaign.

“The father, Mr. Downey, says, ‘Alright you guys, get in the station wagon, we’re going to go deliver these fliers for Tom,’” Schaffer said. Downey was elected, becoming the youngest member of the legislature in its history. In 1987, Schaffer was also elected to the county legislature, and when he was sworn in at age 23 he became the second youngest member. He also currently serves as town supervisor for Babylon and will seek re-election in the fall.

Schaffer credited his preparation for office at such a young age to an unusually difficult upbringing. He said his father abandoned the family when he was 10 years old, and when he was 14, his mother was sent to jail for killing someone while she was driving drunk. His aunt and uncle finished raising him through those difficult times, though he came out the other end more prepared than most for adversity.

In 1974, Downey ran for Congress again aided by Schaffer and others. He attributed the post-Watergate environment to Downey’s victory as a Democratic candidate. Schaffer said he anticipates a similar wave to impact the 2017 and 2018 elections locally and nationally as a response to all things Trump.

Trump support in the county

Trump’s victory nationally was a surprise, but a Republican winning Suffolk County was a shocker not seen in the last five election cycles. He took home nearly 53 percent of the vote and Suffolk County Republican Committee Chairman John Jay LaValle, who also played an active role in Trump’s campaign, told TBR News Media during an interview in April the key issues that drove local residents to the polls in support of a first-time politician were the failures of his predecessors to make any inroads on immigration, health care and jobs in Suffolk.

Schaffer realized the irony in LaValle and him naming the same few issues as the most important to voters in the county.

“Because they’re human issues,” he said. “So that’s what I say, is that I’m never going to question John LaValle’s commitment to wanting to make a better place in Suffolk County. I’m never going to question — take a Republican — [county Legislator] Leslie Kennedy [R-Nesconset]. I’m never going to question that. I know that nobody wants to have gunfights breaking out and gangs and people overdosing, but can we sit down and figure out how we get it done?”

Schaffer was careful to relay that the party needs to have a parallel focus in order to smooth over tensions between the two in the current political climate.

“I think the message should be that we’re going to oppose Trump and his team on things we believe are hurtful to people,” he said. “And we’re going to support him on things, or compromise with him on issues that are going to deliver results.”

A common refrain from Republicans is the everyday voter doesn’t care about “distracting” issues — like the investigation into Russian collusion with the Trump campaign/administration, palace intrigue stories and the president’s tweets to name a few; the voters care about what is actually getting done. From that perspective, the Democrats Schaffer has come in contact with are in the same boat as Republicans.

Local races

Schaffer pointed to the race for Suffolk County district attorney as a potential indicator of where politics is heading in the county in the near future. He sang the praises of Democrat candidate and current Suffolk County Police Commissioner Tim Sini, whom the party has already endorsed. Sini will square off with Ray Perini (R) a criminal lawyer from Huntington, for the seat left open by Tom Spota (D), who will not seek re-election. Schaffer also cleared up an issue with Sini’s announcement of his candidacy, which came as a surprise because during his confirmation hearing to become police commissioner before the legislature he said he had no interest in running for DA.

Schaffer said at the time Sini was being truthful, he had no intentions of running, but he said Sini felt he had made more progress in his short time as Suffolk’s top cop to make him comfortable seeking a step up.

“No secret kabuki plan, no conspiracies,” he said. “Nobody said, ‘OK, we’ll fake them out and tell them you’re not running and then you’ll run.’”

LaValle was critical of County Executive Steve Bellone (D) and his management of Suffolk’s finances. The county has a poor credit rating and an ever-growing deficit, though Schaffer defended Bellone and said he’s done an admirable job in a tough position.

Schaffer also addressed comments LaValle made in April regarding Zeldin and his claims that “liberal obstructionists,” and not genuine constituents, were the ones opposing his policies and protesting his public appearances. LaValle called those constituents “a disgrace.”

“Yeah and John should know better also,” Schaffer said. “I’m not ever going to question anyone’s patriotism unless somebody shows me evidence that they’re colluding with a foreign government or they’re doing some terrorist activity.”

Schaffer said regardless of where on the political spectrum a given Democrat falls currently, the goal is to find candidates capable of defeating Zeldin and King.

Bellone speaks during a town hall at Port Jefferson Village Center. Photo by Kevin Redding

For a few hundred dollars annually, Suffolk County residents now have the option to take a step to improve the quality of Long Island waters.

County Executive Steve Bellone (D) urged homeowners at a town hall meeting at Port Jefferson Village Center April 27 to get on board with a new grant and loan program that will help make the installation of state-of-the-art, nitrogen-reducing septic systems more affordable.

Bellone said the new systems, which would replace the 360,000 outdated and environmentally harmful septic tanks and leaching systems installed in a majority of homes across the county, are the next step in a years-long initiative to reclaim Long Island’s water.

Brookhaven Town amends nitrogen protection zone law

By Alex Petroski

In June 2016, the Brookhaven Town board voted unanimously to approve a local law proposed by Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) that established nitrogen protection zones within 500 feet of any body of water on or around Long Island. The zones prohibit new structures or dwellings being built in that range from installing cesspools or septic systems, which took effect in January.

At a board meeting last week, an amendment was passed that will allow the board to adjust the former law, which allows for 19 milligrams of nitrogen per liter of water discharged from new septic systems or cesspools. This will come following the release of new technology that will make lowering the amount of nitrogen possible. It is uncertain what the new level may be, but once the town knows what it is, the board will be able to lower the limit immediately with the new amendment. Without the amendment, the limit would have to have waited to be put into effect Dec. 1.

“This law says we’ll meet the standard, but the minute there’s a lower standard, we will go with the lowest possible standard,” Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) said during a public hearing on the amendment April 27.

Mary Anne Johnston of the Affiliated Brookhaven Civic Association commended the town’s actions during the hearing.

When the law was initially passed in 2016, Romaine spoke about the importance of limiting nitrogen in Long Island’s waters.

“We’ve all watched our waters degrade over the last 50 years,” Romaine said after the vote at a town board meeting held on June 9, 2016. “We all know part of the problem is nitrogen…the solutions to this problem are neither easy nor cheap. But doing nothing is not an option; we must act now. Our future depends on us addressing this problem.”

“Water quality is everything to us here — it’s our quality of life, our heritage, our economy, tourism economy, our recreation and what we drink,” Bellone told a roomful of residents in Port Jefferson. “We need to retrofit those homes to protect our environment and reverse decades of water quality decline. We will lose another generation here if this is not done right and we’re very focused on making sure we do this right.”

Under the Suffolk County Septic Improvement Program, Bellone and Deputy County Executive Peter Scully told attendees individual homeowners can apply for grants administered by the county’s department of health services, which will approve permits, perform inspections and supervise system installations. Loans, administered by the nonprofit Community Development Corporation of Long Island, offer homeowners low-cost financing for up to $10,000.

To cover the $17, 850 total cost of installation, eligible homeowners would be given an $11,000 grant — $10,000 for the installation of the individual alternative on-site wastewater treatment systems and $1,000 for a pressurized shallow drain field. Homeowners would pay the balance with a 15-year, fixed 3 percent loan.

The program primarily targets single-family, owner-occupied residences served by a septic system or cesspool. It excludes employees of the county, including elected officials or officeholders.

Charlie McAteer, a retired Port Jefferson Station resident and a member of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association, said his home’s septic system is among the 360,000 that are a few decades old now. He said he and his wife showed up to the town hall meeting to gain more information on the grant program.

“We want to investigate it a bit more — see if it’s viable and economically feasible,” McAteer said. “We just have to do some numbers-crunching and see if it makes sense in our particular parcel and then see if we would qualify.”

Ed Bram, from Port Jefferson, expressed concerns the county isn’t reaching out to the right group of people, as many in the room were already environmentally aware.

“We all think it’s a wonderful idea…so it’s sort of like preaching to the choir,” Bram said. “The general public out there has a different nature of thinking. I think the county is trying their best at doing something for the environment but going about it the wrong way.”

It’s a legitimate concern, Scully responded.

“There’s an education piece to this that people need to come to grips with,” Scully said. “It’s important for people to speak up.”

The County Executive hopes the project can get underway July 1, with 400 homeowners to be selected to receive funding in the first two years of the program.

Homeowners can contact septicdemo@suffolkcountyny.gov. for more information.

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