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Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone

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It’s the end of July so it’s likely the minds of students, administrators and parents have drifted far away from the hallways of their schools, away from school board meetings and discussions about funding safety improvements. It’s understandable. But following an in-office, exclusive interview with Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. (D) July 20, county residents should sleep well knowing he has allowed himself no such break.

Hardening schools for the worst-case scenario — an intruder entering a local school with the means and intent to impose lethal, widespread harm — has become a top priority for districts across the country since the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead. In the absence of substantive action on tightening gun laws with commonsense reform coming from the increasingly feckless Washington anytime soon, local municipalities and schools have had to get creative.

This week, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) signed a bill permitting the county to pursue bond funding for a mobile application that government employees and school administrators will be able to download and use to directly contact law enforcement in the event of a shooting at a school or government building. In the aftermath of Parkland, Bellone announced an initiative that would allow districts interested in participating to grant access to school security systems to the Suffolk County Police Department, so that in the case of an emergency, law enforcement can see exactly what’s going on in the school. New York State passed its own set of bills in the spring as well, mostly geared toward allocating funds to districts interested in securing infrastructure or hiring additional security or mental health personnel.

These plans are a great start, especially, again, since we would all turn blue in the face holding our breath waiting for Congress. But Toulon raised some issues that seemed to us like they needed to be heard.

When asked if he could wave a magic wand and grant one thing to all 69 of Suffolk’s school districts to make them more secure, he identified establishing uniform practices countywide for training security — armed or otherwise — so that responders have a better feel for what they’re walking into should one of these dark days strike close to home. Uncertainty about what to expect between police and school district security should be the last thing either should be worried about in the midst of a frantic mission to save lives.

Further, Toulon said he has made his office available to districts interested in having their security practices assessed on a voluntary basis. So far, he said just 10 of the 69 districts have taken him up on the offer. We’d like to see that number reach 100 percent by the end of this year.

In addition, the sheriff’s office plans to host a forum for Suffolk school superintendents Aug. 16 at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue to talk broadly about school security and to share ideas. The offices of the sheriff and county executive have not let this issue fade away during the summer months, and we hope schools haven’t forgotten either.

A look at SCPD's current K-9 Unit facility in Yaphank, which lawmakers are seeking funding to upgrade. Photo by Amanda Perelli

By Amanda Perelli

Republicans and Democrats in Suffolk County are having trouble getting on the same page.

Amid a greater fight over the issuance and ultimately failed vote on bond-seeking resolutions lumped together into an all or nothing proposal from the Democratic side in recent weeks, funding for several county initiatives is in a state of limbo, including for plans to upgrade Suffolk County Police Department’s K-9 Unit facility in Yaphank. The bond was voted down as a stand-alone proposal at the July 17 legislature meeting.

“This is unfortunately again, where we run into politics,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said at a July 10 press conference at the facility. “The funding for the new K-9 state of the art facility here is being blocked again by members of the minority caucus.”

The roof leaks in the current structure, the floor has holes in it, and the air conditioner and heating do not work properly, according to Bellone.

“I just wanted to note for the record once again that while I support the construction of this building I do still believe that we should be able to do the planning for this building in-house with [Department of Public Works] staff,” said Minority Leader and Legislator Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) prior to the vote at the July 17 Legislature meeting. “A number of us, both on the republican side and democrat side toured the facilities. It’s clear that they need to be replaced, but we just believe that the planning for this can be done in-house. Operating funds rather than spending $150,000 of borrowed money to outside contractors to do this work.”

Bellone and other county Democrats called for funding for a renovated, full-indoor kennel for training and to house these dogs when their handlers are away during the press conference.

Sue Hansen of RSVP, Legislator Monica Martinez, County Executive Steve Bellone, and Legislator Rob Calarco call for funding for SCPD’s K-9 Unit facility in Yaphank at a July 10 press conference. Photo by Amanda Perelli

“The population of this county has grown over the years and as a result the size of our K-9 unit has grown over the years,” said Legislator and Deputy Presiding Officer Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue). “We are housing far more dogs here now than we ever had, and we have to have appropriate facilities for these animals to be kept so that they can be in the top shape and top health, so they can do their job, which is important.”

The SCPD K-9 Unit currently has 22 dogs. Nearly 12 years ago, a more than 20-year-old Sachem School District trailer was transported to Yaphank as a short-term SCPD K-9 Unit housing facility, and it is still in-use today, according to a press release from Bellone’s office.

“When it came time to vote for the resolution and fund this new facility, they voted against it,” Bellone said, referring to the legislature’s Republican members. “So here it is, unbundled, a single, stand-alone bond. Earlier this year, we put that forward and they voted no.”

The Minority Caucus wants the planning done in-house rather than borrowing to pay for the project, which, according to Bellone, would delay the project up to four years.

“We made it clear to police officials that we agree with building a new facility — that’s not the problem here, but what the county executive is asking us for is to borrow $150,000 to pay an outside contractor to design a kennel,” Cilmi said last week. “We spend $250 million in public works every year, and we believe that somebody from public works, working with our police department, should be able to engineer that building. They’re in a donated shack basically right now, we don’t need a Taj Mahal here.”

Animal rights activist Sue Hansen attended the conference representing local animal welfare and rescue organization Responsible Solutions for Valued Pets. She said the organization has been working with Suffolk County Legislator Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood), who is chairwoman of the county’s Public Safety Committee, on laws dealing with animals. Hansen said the organization is in favor of bonding to pay for the upgrades to the facility.

This post was updated July 17 to reflect the result of the vote on the matter at the July 17 Legislature meeting.

Residents prepare July Fourth at-home firework shows in Port Jefferson Station. Photo by Kyle Barr

By Kyle Barr

Every Fourth of July, if only for a few hours, Long Islanders create their own stars in the night sky.

If one drives down the side streets and residential neighborhoods late at night on America’s birthday, one can hear a chorus of whistles and pops from every direction. People in local neighborhoods sit in lawn chairs with their necks craned to the night sky to watch the lights flash high over their own roofs. All those involved know that, without a license, it’s illegal to own, sell and, especially, to light any fireworks in New York state, but this is Independence Day, and the date demands ceremony.

On one street in Port Jefferson Station, where locals hosted their own fireworks show, the air was suffused with a burning smoke that smelled like brimstone and burning paper. Fireworks enthusiast Louie, who agreed to comment if his last name would be withheld, along with his brother and their friends, laid out rows of mortars stretching more than 10 yards down the street. For close to two hours nonstop the fireworks illuminated the sky and onlookers cheered.

“Jones Beach does it, Bald Hill does it … why can’t we do it?” Louie said.

Louie said he has helped set off his block’s firework display for four years, and each July Fourth his group sets off more than $2,000 worth of fireworks.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) warned residents ahead of the holiday in a YouTube video that the county would be enacting a zero-tolerance policy for the possession, use and sale of illegal fireworks.

“We are here today to talk about the Fourth of July and how we all love to get together and celebrate,” Bellone said in the video. “We always hear about these incidents happening and they are unnecessary, preventable injuries.”

Residents prepare July Fourth at-home firework shows in Port Jefferson Station. Photo by Kyle Barr

Officials asked Suffolk residents to attend licensed firework shows going on all across the Island, rather than creating their own events. There were shows at Bald Hill, in Wading River, at Peconic Riverfront in Riverhead, on East Beach in Port Jefferson, on Shelter Island and at the Long Island Ducks stadium in Bethpage, to name a few.

Suffolk County is stricter on fireworks than other parts of the state. While New York passed a law in January that made owning sparklers legal, in Suffolk owning a sparkler remains a misdemeanor. Owning certain fireworks, like the M-80s, which were originally designed by the United States military to simulate gunfire, or the mortar-type of fireworks, is a Class E felony subject to up to four years in prison.

Several individuals were arrested this year and charged with crimes of possessing and selling fireworks. In June, a Medford man was arrested for having $100,000 worth of fireworks in a storage facility. Later that same month, an Oakdale man was arrested for bringing $2,000 worth of fireworks home from Pennsylvania and selling them online.

“We take it very seriously,” 4th Precinct Capt. Kevin Williams said at the June 1 Smithtown Town board meeting. “All fireworks are illegal, and that includes sparklers. Some of the larger fireworks that we see today, the M-80 fireworks or the mortars that people shoot up, those are designated as explosives under New York State Labor Law.”

The danger presented by misusing fireworks is real. Nationally, fireworks were identified in 12,900 hospital visits and eight deaths in 2017, according to a report by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission released in June this year.

Suffolk police reported that a man from Gordon Heights lost three of his fingers
after a firework exploded in his hand this year. Another woman, a Florida resident who was visiting her family in Mastic, was injured after she tossed a lit cigarette in an ashtray which caused a firework that had been placed there to explode. The detonation severed the tip of one finger and injured other fingers on her right hand. Both were sent to Stony Brook University Hospital for their injuries.

Dr. Steven Sandoval, medical director of Suffolk County Volunteer Firefighters Burn Center at Stony Brook University Hospital, said the last weeks of June and the first two weeks of July are the peak in terms of burn center patients. On average his unit receives five to 10 patients every Fourth of July season, and that’s not including those who arrive to the hospital with other, non-burn related injuries. By July 5 this year, the burn center received four patients who had injuries related to fireworks, but Sandoval said they would not know the total number of injuries until a month has passed.

“Every other year there’s a fatal or near-fatal event that occurs from fireworks,” Sandoval said. “This is a vulnerable population, who might already be intoxicated, inebriated or have been standing out in the sun all day … people should leave fireworks to the professionals.”

Those people setting off the pyrotechnic display in Port Jeff Station said they understood the hazard that fireworks presented.

“We’re all organized, not drunk, professional and we have order,” Louie said. “We have communication, and communication is key.”

Still, there is always danger when it comes to explosives. The street in Port Jeff Station was bordered by power lines and trees that an off-course rocket could potentially strike. One neighbor put large towels and cardboard boxes on her fence to mitigate any potential burn damage. After the grand finale, where the group let off their last rockets and mortars, they started to throw loud firecrackers into the street. One of them bounced into a neighbor’s yard right next to a fence. The firework exploded and dug a small hole an inch deep into the dirt.

Despite it all, the neighbors laughed and cheered anyway.

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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.

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