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Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone

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; what about Trump’s message resonated for Suffolk voters making him the first Republican presidential candidate to win the county since the early 90s; 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 (D-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 “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 reelection 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 Times Beacon Record Newspapers 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 he and LaValle 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 — Leslie Kennedy. 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.”

He 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, the president’s and the president’s Tweets to name a few — they care about what is actually getting done. From that perspective, 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 (D), 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 reelection. He 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 ‘okay 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.

He 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.

Lake Ronkonkoma. File photo by Rachel Shapiro

The Lake Ronkonkoma Improvement Group will present a program about the revitalization of the lake at Sachem Public Library, 150 Holbrook Road, Holbrook on Saturday, March 18 at 2 p.m. The program will include slides of the history of Lake Ronkonkoma provided by the Lake Ronkonkoma Historical Society and feature guest speakers County Executive Steve Bellone (D), Councilman Neil Foley (R-Blue Point) and Councilman Kevin LaValle (R-Selden). All are welcome to attend this free event. For more information or to register, call 631-588-5024.

File photo

By Kevin Redding

In celebration of Presidents’ Day, local elected officials weighed in on the occupants of the Oval Office who inspired them to do what they do.

Legislator Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) – Ronald Reagan/George H.W. Bush

“It would have to be Ronald Reagan. He was the first president that I became familiar with as a young adult, in terms of my interest in politics. He had such a unique ability to communicate a conservative message to the country in a way that wasn’t divisive, in a way that was inspiring and uplifting, and so I really admire him for that and so many other things.

And, of course, George H.W. Bush, who took over the Oval Office after Reagan. He was the first politician I ever helped campaign for and that was during his re-election effort in which he lost to Bill Clinton. That same year Rick Lazio ran for Congress against Thomas Downey and I got pretty heavily involved in volunteering. If it hadn’t been for that, honestly, I would not be sitting here today.

From that experience, I met a former county legislator I ended up working for for a short period of time and he introduced me to county government and lots of different folks in the party, so I would say: purely from an inspirational point of view, it would be Reagan and in terms of the one president that really motivated me to get actively involved in politics, it was George H.W. Bush.”:

Legislator Al Krupski (D) – George Washington

“I think he was someone that really believed in a cause. In his case, the cause was an independent America and he was willing to sacrifice his time and his family’s time to make that happen. He certainly took great personal risks as a general and, again, as president, he sacrificed his time and the rest of his life was dedicated towards the country.

The way he was able to handle power was admirable. The rest of the world thought he was going to become a dictator, and he could’ve, but he didn’t. He didn’t want to be the dictator. He wanted America to be a democracy; he believed in that. I’ve always liked history and I’ve always read about history and been [fascinated] by him pretty much my whole life. If you look at his cabinet, he surrounded himself with people with diverse backgrounds and ideologies and I’ve always listened to people with different viewpoints. I think that kind of mentality as a leader is important: to not just have a bunch of “yes men” but being able to listen to people with different viewpoints.”

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) John F. Kennedy

“Kennedy had a sense of humor, had a sense of history, and he learned from his mistakes. His mistake early in the administration was to follow through with Eisenhower’s decision that he did not execute well, with the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and he learned from that. I think that’s why he was so successful thereafter when, in 1962, a year and a half after, we had the Cuban Missile Crisis, and he was able to diffuse that despite the urging that we invade or bomb Cuba. He avoided that and avoided a crisis and potentially a World War.

I was also extremely impressed with his June 1963 speech at American University about how we all live on one planet and talked about peace being a much nobler goal while we were in the middle of the Cold War and he could see beyond that, so I think he had vision.

Obviously as a person, he had a lot of shortcomings, which a lot of people have dwelled on since the time of his death, but I think as a man and as a leader, people wanted to follow him and I think he was a good president. I knew if he had lived, we would not have been in the Vietnam War. He spoke against getting involved. It was sad to see him go, because in going, the policies changed dramatically, and when we changed leaders, we committed an entire generation to war and turned a lot of people into cynics against their government.

[Inspired by him], I try not to rush to judgment, I try to step back and put things in context and have a sense of history. As someone who has all my degrees in history, I try to put things in context and that helps a lot.”

Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) – Barack Obama

“I’ve been in the Legislature for six years, and got elected in 2011, which was then-president Obama’s third year in office. I had been a physician and I was a big participant in getting involved in the hope and change … Obama being the first Black American president was inspirational for me as one of the few Black American elected officials.

I appreciated the fact that he started out working in the community, was someone that had all the education and training, and was a community organizer. I believe he exhibited the qualities of service and compassion for our fellow man and for those who have the smallest voice, and I believe in hard work and education as well. He had a very clear message that resonated and it got a lot of people involved, and I think that was transformative.

I don’t want it to appear that just because he was black, he encouraged me because I’m black. That had some significance but what I appreciated most was his character. He was a slow and steady hand and he brought qualities of dignity and respect … I also admired the way he conducted himself personally with his family.”

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson) – Barack Obama

“I think Obama, who was a law school professor, intimately understood how to use the law to help others and he actually worked his way up through government, so he took all the steps and is a bottom-up leader. Obama being an activist and community organizer really impressed me. I think it’s important that we [as elected officials] are in the community, and talk to people face-to-face about their issues. I think that he is, arguably, the most eloquent, dignified, and diplomatic president of my time and I try to emulate his qualities.”

Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) – Ronald Reagan

“He was a fiscally conservative guy who was socially moderate; he would try to save money and have less government … and keep government out of things. That’s what I believe: we shouldn’t be involved in a lot of these things.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) – Harry S. Truman

“Harry Truman’s my favorite president. He was an ordinary man who did extraordinary things and demonstrated that you can reach the highest levels of our government while maintaining your integrity. More than 20 years ago, I read David McCullough’s book “Truman” and it was one of the best political biographies I’ve ever read. When I served on active duty in the U.S. Army, I was based in Missouri — which is the home state of Truman — and I visited his home and library in Independence.

What was inspiring to me, and it really represents what our country is about, was that anyone can be president and that you can reach the highest levels of our government and really maintain your integrity. Truman’s honesty really impressed me.”

Senator Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) – Abraham Lincoln

“If you were in my office, whether in Albany or here in the district, you would see lots of pictures of Abraham Lincoln. When you’re growing up and you’re reading about different presidents, the idea of Lincoln being kind of a frontiersman and the way he grew up and the stories about him are very exciting. As you get older and you start looking into Lincoln’s life, you see the kind of person that he is. He cared very deeply about people and if you look at photos of Lincoln, you could see the deep lines, as some people call “worry lines,” because he cared so much. During the Civil War, he visited wounded soldiers and was very touched by their lives.

I have great concern for people and try to be very helpful to people, and I think Lincoln certainly reinforces those goals.”

Brookhaven Town Councilman Kevin LaValle (R-Selden) – Ronald Reagan

“Reagan was the president I admired most. When you’re an elected official, I think you have to have two great traits: good decision-making skills and the ability to articulate the message you want to get across to people in an effective, understandable and inspiring way, [which he had]. Reagan came into office in 1981, a point in our country’s history where, internationally, we were in the middle of the Cold War, just got done with the Iranian hostage situation, and the economy wasn’t doing well and the morale in the country was at an all-time low — so he had a lot that he was getting ready to take on. He lowered taxes, attacked the problems we had, deregulated the government and opened up the economy, which triggered a boom throughout the decade. He stood up and brought pride back into being American.”

Legislator Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) – Abraham Lincoln

“First of all, he was honest, he truly preserved the unity of our nation and he freed the slaves. He was brought into office during what was probably one of our nation’s first economic crises, and he dealt with the Civil War, dealt with issues of taxation and imports and exports, and handled it in a thoughtful, intellectual way. Those were difficult times and he made our nation what it is.”

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) – John F. Kennedy

“His presidency changed America. I think so many presidents bring so many different skillsets, and Kennedy believed in America, was passionate about America, put people to work, held the line on taxes, and was a compassionate person. Then there’s the whole history of Kennedy and how he was raised and groomed, and how his life was tragically cut short, and I think that adds an air to his [legacy] as well.”

 

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Suffolk County Department of Economic Development and Planning representative Kevin Luzong mans his station at the BRT first public information meeting. Photo by Donna Newman

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) is hoping to modernize the way Long Islanders get around.

A proposal from the county executive to create Suffolk’s first north-south multimodal transportation corridor to feature dedicated lanes for rapid transit buses running along Nicolls Road between Stony Brook and Patchogue, was presented for public information and comment Dec. 13 at Suffolk County Community College in Selden. Interested residents attended to gain an understanding of the concept of a Bus Rapid Transit service, which unlike traditional buses are not constrained by traffic, and the possible ways the roadway might be configured.

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) attended the event and said she supports upgrading public transportation on Long Island.

“Suffolk County is working to create a 21st century economy,” she said. “This requires a modern transit system that alleviates the burden of traffic and provides more transit options for a less car-dependent workforce. This is a first look at a proposal for a plan. We need community input to flesh it out more and see where the ‘buy-in’ could be.”

Hahn said she believes the idea would have multiple positive economic and environmental outcomes.

“Bus Rapid Transit offers many of the advantages of a light rail system, but at a fraction of the cost — both for the passenger and to the municipality,” a statement from Hahn announcing the county’s first BRT public information meeting said.

The BRT system would feature state-of-the-art Wi-Fi equipped buses; use dedicated “bus only” lanes, with priority traffic signaling; provide boarding at modern, comfortable, secure stations; accept fares with prepaid fare cards or electronic passes; and connect the commuter or traveler to transit hubs, such as other bus systems, railways and airports.

The purpose of the meeting was to provide information about the proposed road conversion in order to interact with three Long Island Rail Road branches, Port Jefferson, Ronkonkoma and Babylon, and facilitate public transportation access to Long Island MacArthur Airport. Visitors to the exhibit were encouraged to submit feedback in the form of comments and questions via mail-in comment cards or by email to LIinnovationzone@suffolkcountyny.gov.

Representatives were on hand from both the Suffolk County Department of Economic Development and Planning and engineering firms that have worked on the planning stage to further explain the project and answer questions.

Debbie Brown and Stephanie Larkin, self-described PTA moms from Selden, had several concerns.

“Are they adding a lane or dedicating one of the existing lanes,” Larkin asked, adding the road is crowded enough without losing one of its lanes.

“Who, exactly, is going to use these buses?” Brown asked.

Kevin Luzong, a spokesperson for the project, addressed the residents’ concerns.

“The bus lane will be created within the existing roadway in the median or through a repurposing of the shoulder,” he said. As for people who might be interested in using public transportation, he mentioned millennials, like himself, who utilize services across Long Island, including colleges, research facilities, and new housing options, like the Ronkonkoma Hub being developed near that railroad station.

Brown was skeptical that Long Island could be converted from a “car culture.”

“We, as parents, would have to get our kids used to buses at an early age,” she said, adding that parents might be hesitant to do so in today’s world.

BRT systems exist in more than 190 cities around the globe, allowing passengers to arrive at their destinations faster, while reducing road congestion.

The proposal did not include a potential cost for the project, though the county is examining grant-funding possibilities to help taxpayers cover the bill if the project comes to fruition.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and other county officials warn residents of winter weather dangers for people, homes and pets. Photo from Bellone’s office

It’s often called the most wonderful time of the year, but whoever coined that phrase must have been a fan of freezing temperatures. With a mild fall finally giving way to traditional winter weather over the past week, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) wants residents to make sure they protect themselves, their homes, their loved ones and their pets from the dangers presented by the harsh conditions.

“Although no amount of preparations can prepare us for a natural disaster, we have taken the necessary steps to ensure that Suffolk County is prepared to handle routine inclement weather conditions,” Bellone said at a press conference Dec. 15, where he was joined by Suffolk County Police Commissioner Tim Sini and other county officials. “We have been extremely fortunate this winter, but looking at forecasts, it appears our luck is running out. Now is the time for our residents to make sure they take the necessary precautions to protect themselves.”

County service centers

• Riverhead Center

893 E. Main Street

Riverhead, New York 11901-2542

Telephone: 631-852-3500

• Coram Center

80 Middle Country Road

Coram, New York 11727

Telephone: 631-854-2300

• Smithtown Center

200 Wireless Boulevard

Hauppauge, New York 11788

Telephone: 631-853-8714

• South West Center

2 South 2nd Street

Deer Park, New York 11729

Telephone: 631-854-6600

Bellone suggested several precautions Suffolk County residents should take to ensure safety and avoid inconveniences during the winter months, including running water to prevent pipes from freezing; keeping portable heaters on flat surfaces and away from flammable objects; driving with caution even without the presence of precipitation; checking on loved ones, especially the elderly; watching for some of the signs of hypothermia, like confusion, memory loss, drowsiness, exhaustion and slurred speech; keeping pets indoors; and disconnecting hoses from exterior lines.

Bellone has partnered with the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless to collect new or gently used winter jackets for those in need. Coats can be donated at county facilities across Suffolk.

Residents can contact the county’s Temporary Housing Assistance Unit at 631-854-9547 or the Department of Social Services Home Energy Assistance Program at 631-854-9100 in the event they run out of fuel to heat their home or require emergency burner repair.

The county executive also detailed options for the homeless during times when temperatures can plummet to the point of presenting deadly consequences. Sheltering assistance is available at Suffolk County service centers located in Deer Park, Coram, Hauppauge and Riverhead, and the county also implemented a Safe Beds Program to provide residents in need with warm shelter during the winter. More information about these programs can be found on the county’s website at www.suffolkcountyny.gov.

“Nobody should be left out in this dangerously cold spell,” Bellone said.

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Kym Laube, executive director of Human Understanding & Growth Services Inc., a nonprofit organization in Westhampton Beach that provides educational and recreational programs for youth in Suffolk County, discusses the effects of drugs and alcohol on the youth and student athletes at Legislator Sarah Anker’s Youth Sports Safety Forum. Photo by Giselle Barkley

Sports are fun until safety becomes an issue.

In light of two incidences in Shoreham-Wading River where children where harmed while playing sports, Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) hosted a Youth Sports Safety Forum on Wednesday, Sept. 30 to raise awareness of the issue.

The death of 16-year-old Tom Cutinella, who died last year after a collision on the football field, and an incident involving 15-year-old Jack Crowley, who was revived after he was struck in the chest with a baseball at the batting cages, sparked an even greater desire to help prevent these incidents from occurring,

Despite the poor turnout, as about 20 community members attended, the forum’s goal remained the same: to educate the public about keeping student-athletes safe on and off the field. The forum consisted of several speakers, including Anker, County Executive Steve Bellone (D), school sports coaches and athletic professionals.

Although student-athlete safety is traditionally perceived as the coaches’ sole responsibility, guest speakers like Rick Mercurio said parents and players are also responsible for an athlete’s safety. Mercurio is currently part of the Federation of International Lacrosse’s Development Committee and used to coach the Sachem High School boys’ lacrosse team.

He also admitted that coaches have the power to make a student feel stressed or happy.

“We forget that when we talk about safety … it’s not just about an athlete’s physical safety,” Mercurio said during the forum. “It’s mental safety as well.”

While athletes may jeopardize their own safety during practices or games if they feel pressured to go above and beyond for their coach, Frank McCoy, an orthopedic physical therapist from Advanced Sports Physical Therapy in East Setauket, said parents are also a source of pressure for student-athletes. He mentioned some parents may push their children to reach the professional level in their sport. He added that that pressure causes young athletes to surpass their own limits.

“They don’t want to necessarily mention that they have pain or that they’ve had some discomfort during practice or a game because they don’t want to be taken out of the game,” McCoy said during the forum.

Mark Passamonte, Frank McCoy, Dan Nowlan, Rick Mercurio, Legislator Sarah Anker, Kym Laube, Don Webster, Jeremy Thode and Dr. Hayley Queller were all speakers at Anker's sports safety forum. Photo from Theresa Santoro
Mark Passamonte, Frank McCoy, Dan Nowlan, Rick Mercurio, Legislator Sarah Anker, Kym Laube, Don Webster, Jeremy Thode and Dr. Hayley Queller were all speakers at Anker’s sports safety forum. Photo from Theresa Santoro

According to McCoy, 90 percent of athletes sustain an injury while playing sports and 50 percent continue to play when they are injured. Injuries from overusing parts of the body becomes a concern when athletes are pushing past their pain to appease parents or coaches. These types of injuries are usually preventable provided that athletes do preventative exercises, which they don’t always learn from their coaches or parents.

McCoy also mentioned that athletes should not play more hours than their age and should not play one sport year-round or multiple sports in one season.

Aside from resting the body, Jeremy Thode, the athletic director at Center Moriches High School, said positive reinforcement is also vital to an athlete’s safety. Student-athletes may suffer added stress if they are faced with degrading comments like “you throw like a girl.”

“We’re telling little boys — number one that they’re not good enough in their performance, but we are also saying negative things about girls,” Thode said.

The idea is that these comments may encourage young athletes to ignore their mental or physical discomfort or both to prove their worth in their sport or sports.

Kym Laube, executive director of Human Understanding & Growth Services Inc., a nonprofit organization in Westhampton Beach that provides educational and recreational programs for the youth in Suffolk County, acknowledged how drugs and alcohol may affect players — especially those who may not have family support or a healthy living environment.

Laube said they can’t build treatment centers big enough or fast enough to accommodate the magnitude of athletes struggling with alcohol or drug issues. According to Laube, alcohol is still the number one killer of high school students. Combatting this issue, especially concerning student-athletes, is a group effort since athletes may drink to relieve stress and anxiety, but are more susceptible to injuries 24 hours after they drink.

“We know that if coaches take a strong policy — if families take a strong policy, we begin to stop saying it’s just kids being kids,” Laube said during the forum. “It’s about wanting to keep them safe on the playing field.”

Anker not only agreed with the forum’s guest speakers on their concerns and viewpoints regarding safety in sports, but reemphasized the importance of keeping athletes safe and informing the public how to ensure the safety of young athletes.

“As a community, we must learn from past incidences and go forward to create safe programs for our young athletes,” Anker said in an email. “Everyone has the ability to protect our kids, however, if they do not have important information regarding sports safety, our children may be at risk for injury. By providing valuable information we can limit injuries on the field and keep our kids safe. I will continue to work with our sports experts to bring their information to communities across Suffolk County.”

This version corrects the spelling of Jeremy Thode’s name.

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