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Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone

Elected officials were on hand for a ribbon-cutting at Old Field Farm. The event marked the official opening of a nearly half-mile trail that can be used for walking, running, hiking and biking. Photo by Rita J. Egan

Elected officials have made it easier for outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy a county property in East Setauket.

At a press conference Aug. 12, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D), county Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), NYS Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), employees from the county’s parks department and residents were on hand for a ribbon-cutting at Old  Field Farm. The event marked the official opening of a nearly half-mile trail that can be used for walking, running, hiking and biking.

Bellone credited Hahn’s persistence for making the trail happen. The legislator secured $100,000 from the county’s 2018 Capital Budget and Program to fund the path. The trail starts at a pedestrian entrance on West Meadow Road on the eastern side of the farm, runs around the perimeter of the farm and ends on Trustees Road right before visitors enter the Town of Brookhaven’s West Meadow Beach pathway.

“What a wonderful gem this park is for our community and for the county, and what an incredible addition this is for people,” Bellone said. “You think, well is a path that significant, and the answer is yes. It literally changes the whole environment for people.”

Hahn said she knows that trails such as the Old Field Farm are important to the community, because it allows people to be physically active, while enjoying the outdoors without sharing the road with vehicles. 

The nearly half-mile trail can be used for walking, running, hiking and biking. Photo by Rita J. Egan

“I’m a runner, and I run often on West Meadow Road here,” she said. “There are some blind curves. And, this will also function to get people — walkers, runners, bikers — off the dangerous road and on to our public space. Having people have access to these public places is so important for us as elected officials to make sure that these spaces that we invest in — that we spend money to maintain — that people use them and appreciate them, and this is a way that many more people can take advantage.”

Hahn thanked community leaders for their support, including county parks department employees, Herb Mones of the Three Village Civic Association’s land use committee, Larry Swanson from Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and Englebright, who secured the land for Suffolk in 1985 when he was a county legislator. She also thanked Sally Lynch, president of Old Field Farm, Ltd., who she called an advocate and steward of the property. Hahn said the nonprofit organization has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars through the years. The funds, in conjunction with county grants, have helped to restore and maintain the historic structures on the property. The farm is also home to horse shows, and the trail will be closed during those shows to avoid spooking the horses.

Old Field Farm consists of 13 acres that adjoin the 88 acres of protected wetlands and overlooks the Long Island Sound and West Meadow Creek. Long Island philanthropist Ward Melville built Old Field Farm in 1931, and it was initially called North Shore Horse Show Grounds. Melville commissioned architect Richard Haviland Smythe to create the equestrian facility, which includes a main barn and courtyard, freestanding stables and a wooden grandstand.

“This property is exquisite, spectacular as you can see,” Hahn said.

Englebright said the property could have been sold to a developer to build a waterfront housing development in 1985. The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, who owned it at the time, decided to sell it to the county. The land acquisition was an important one, he said, because it is located right next to West Meadow Beach. The assemblyman described the area as a mosaic of public lands forming a protective encirclement around West Meadow Creek. He called the addition of the trail extraordinary.

“With the access now of this trail, when you add this trail to Trustees Road, you have more than a mile of waterfront-exclusive, non-motorized access,” he said.

In the past, Hahn has spearheaded initiatives for a parking lot and walking path at Forsythe Meadow Woods County Park in Stony Brook and a parking lot at McAllister County Park in Belle Terre.

 

By Heidi Sutton

The Long Island State Veterans Home (LISVH) in Stony Brook honored our fallen heroes with a Memorial Day ceremony on May 24.

The special event featured speeches from Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley); Colonel James McDonough Jr., director of the New York State Division of Veterans Services; County Executive Steve Bellone (D); and was attended by many veterans living at the LISVH, elected officials including Assemblyman Steve Engelbright (D-Setauket) and Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. (R) and many veteran service organization members. 

Rabbi Joseph Topek gave the invocation, Rev. Gregory Leonard gave the benediction, Father Thomas Tuite gave a Veterans Prayer and Lee Ann Brill, Miss NY Senior America 2017, sang lovely renditions of “Star Spangled Banner,” “Wind Beneath My Wings, “Amazing Grace and “God Bless America.”

The afternoon commenced with a wreath laying ceremony conducted by James Carbone, World War II veteran and LISVH member, at the Walk of Heroes on the grounds; a color guard, firing detail and taps memorial by Marine Corps League East End Detachment 642, and a “Tolling of the Bells” memorial service led by LTC Marion McEntee, deputy director of nursing at the LISVH.

Rabbi Topek said it best in his opening prayer. “Today we remember those who have laid down their lives in service of our country, who in the words of President Lincoln have laid the most costly sacrifice upon the altar of freedom … May we the citizens of the United States remain mindful of those who have sacrificed their lives for our freedom in the many conflicts of the past — Veterans of World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam, Persian Gulf War … May their memories always be a blessing to our nation today and every day.”

Photos courtesy of Doreen Guma and Congressman Zeldin’s office

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By Donna Deedy

It was a life well-lived. A first-generation American, the child of Italian immigrants, born during the Great Depression and dedicated to public service.

“At the end of the day, I’ve done something for people. And that’s the guiding principle of my life,” said former Smithtown Supervisor Patrick Vecchio in a 2015 interview with The Times of Smithtown. 

“At the end of the day, I’ve done something for people. And that’s the guiding principle of my life.”

— Patrick Vecchio

Patrick Vecchio died Sunday, April 7, at age 88. For a record 40 years — nearly half of his lifetime — he held the Town of Smithtown’s highest office. During his tenure, seven different U.S. presidents held office, while the residents of Smithtown re-elected the same man to represent them again and again for 13 terms.

Roughly half of his years in office, he served as a Democrat, the other half a Republican. Today, people in both parties recognize his distinct leadership qualities. In fact, his portrait hangs in the Town of Smithtown Town Hall, and the building itself bears his name. The gesture, announced while Vecchio was still in office during a March 3, 2015 board meeting, surprised Vecchio and left him humbled and teary-eyed.

During the 2015 town hall dedication ceremony, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) made a point to say that Vecchio had served Smithtown the right way. At the same event, New York State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) was equally complimentary.

“He’s cheap, and he wears it like a badge of honor,” he said. “He never forgot, never forgets and never will forget where the money is coming from.”

Vecchio was legendary for his fiscal restraint. Town Historian Brad Harris said with a laugh that it’s more apt to call him “tight.” But Vecchio’s 40-year Smithtown legacy is rich and storied on a range of topics from open government policies to environmental conservation.

Under his leadership, Smithtown earned national recognition for many environmental and clean energy projects. The town pioneered a development rights program that enabled — at no cost to taxpayers — the preservation of important land such as the historic Harned Saw Mill site in Commack and the Saam wetlands at the headwaters of the Nissequoque River. Thanks to Vecchio, Smithtown was the first community in the nation to voluntarily convert its diesel-powered fleet of refuse trucks to run on compressed natural gas, which saved money and reduced noise and
air pollution.

“I’ve been here for 35 years; the Town of Smithtown never had a better friend than Pat Vecchio.”

— Russell Barnett

Smithtown was also an early adopter of wind generators and solar panels. Under Vecchio, the state awarded Smithtown in 2016 a $250,000 clean energy grant. Thanks to that award, solar electric projects are still underway at Smithtown Landing Country Club and town hall.

“I’ve been here for 35 years; the Town of Smithtown never had a better friend than Pat Vecchio,” said Russell Barnett, the Smithtown environmental protection director.

The community regarded Vecchio as a man with conviction. And people, whether they agreed with his position or not, said that they respected his opinion.

“He’s a feisty guy … ready to take on an issue or political opponent,” said Harris, after the town hall dedication ceremony. “He does battle for the people of Smithtown.”

People consistently note the leader’s commitment to the local community.

Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) said that he recognized Vecchio as a true public servant. “In his historic time in office, he always did what he thought was best for residents … that was always at the forefront of his every decision,” he said.

December 12, 2017 was Vecchio’s last board meeting as Smithtown supervisor. The occasion drew a crowd that filled the board room and trailed through the hallways and down staircases. People bid farewell and thanked the supervisor for implementing his vision on their behalf. Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) noted during the tribute that Vecchio was leaving Smithtown with a budgetary surplus rather than debt.

“This town is in such good financial shape, it is all because of you,” Trotta said. “You should be a model for every other town in the nation, the state and certainly the county.”

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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.