Tags Posts tagged with "Suffolk County Legislature"

Suffolk County Legislature

by -
0 275
Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn, third from right; alongside Richard Rugen, WMHO chairman; second from right; and, far right, Gloria Rocchio, WMHO president, check out conditions at Stony Brook Creek this summer. Photo from The Ward Melville Heritage Organization

Stony Brook Creek will receive much needed help in mitigating pollution from stormwater runoff after Suffolk lawmakers voted Sept. 4 to contribute $251,526 in funding toward installing new drainage systems, while the Town of Brookhaven will match an additional $251,526, totaling over $500,000 in funds.

The project would disconnect four discharge pipes that had carried stormwater from the Stony Brook community directly to the creek. A new drainage system will be installed where pipes will lead to bioretention and water quality units in an effort to divert runoff water away from the creek.

Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), who sponsored the bill in the county legislature, said the plan will improve water quality in the creek that had been polluted for decades from stormwater runoff.

“I’m really glad about this partnership with the town to help invest in Stony Brook Creek and improve its water quality,” she said. “We should be doing all we can to protect our intricate water bodies.”

Gloria Rocchio, president of The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, said the plan is a positive step forward in cleaning the creek.

“We are very pleased that these funds were approved, and we are looking forward to working with the county and town [on this project].”

Rocchio also mentioned the creek’s importance in Stony Brook’s history, saying the original logo of Stony Brook University was based on the water body.

Due to decades of stormwater runoff and silt being deposited into the creek, it has led to overgrown vegetation like phragmites. The invasive species plant has been known to choke many waterways on Long Island. In Stony Brook Creek, the debris caused by the phragmites has created silt buildup, which in turn has caused flooding along the waterway.

Another issue is when the creek overflows, water has been found to go into the Stony Grist Mill, which was built in 1751 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The continual water flow has caused damage to the lower parts of the structure.

In August Suffolk County awarded the organization a $10,750 grant that will be used for a program to remove 12,000 square feet of phragmites from the shoreline of the creek. WMHO and Avalon Park & Preserve decided to match the grant total. The total cost of the project is $21,500.

The new drainage system will be built through the Town of Brookhaven Highway Department and construction on the project is expected to begin this winter and is scheduled to be completed by summer 2021.

Red light cameras along Route 25A. File photo by Elana Glowatz
Since 2010, Suffolk County has been authorized by New York State to install red-light cameras at intersections. Today, 215 cameras operate at 100 intersections. The program is intended to reduce the number of cars running red traffic lights and by extension reduce the number of crashes and the severity of the crashes. The county has as its vendor for the red-light camera program Conduent, a divestiture from Xerox. Conduent receives from Suffolk County 42 percent of all fines as per contract terms, and its contract was set to expire December 2019. Graphic by TBR News Media

The next five years of red-light cameras’ survival in Suffolk County has finally been decided.

After lengthy debate and public comment period, Suffolk lawmakers voted along party lines to extend the program for another five years Sept. 4. The program was set to expire by the end of the year.

Legislators speak out on the red light camera program. Photo by David Luces

The issue of red-light cameras has been a divisive topic since its inception nearly a decade ago. Republicans, who unanimously opposed the program, have called it a ‘money grab’ for the county, which has generated $20 million in revenue annually. Democrats, on the other hand, supported the extension though acknowledged that it needs to be fixed.

Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), who co-sponsored a bill for a report on the county’s red-light camera program, said she remained frustrated with its findings but ultimately supported the program. She also called for more education on distracted driving prevention.

“There needs to be improvements [to the program], the program right now is not acceptable,” she said.

Legislators proposed the idea of payment plans for fines, waiving administrative fees for first-time offenders and the implementation of an annual report on all camera locations.

Republicans said the program has negatively affected driver behavior, as many drivers stop short at red lights to avoid getting a ticket. The county has seen a marked increase in rear-end accidents in the last few years.

Paul Margiotta, executive director of the Traffic and Parking Violations Agency, disagreed and pointed to the increased prevalence of distracted driving as the culprit. He said he believed the program has been working.

Republicans continue to disagree.

“It has become clear that the program isn’t working said Comptroller John Kennedy, who is running for county executive in the fall against Steve Bellone (D). “Suffolk’s residents realize it’s little more than a money grab,”

Supporters have said the program has saved lives by reducing red-light running and serious accidents on roadways.

“The minority caucus led by Rob Trotta and his band of conspiracy theorists were dealt a resounding defeat. This is a victory for common sense and effective public safety programs,” said Jason Elan, a Bellone spokesperson, in a statement.

Though before the vote, many of those who attended the Sept 4. meeting spoke negatively about the program.

“Red light cameras are disproportionately located in lower income neighborhoods.”

— Hector Gavilla

Hector Gavilla, a Huntington-based lawyer who is running for county legislature, said Suffolk is trying to come up with reasons to say the program works.

“Red light cameras are disproportionately located in lower income neighborhoods,” he said. “This red-light camera tax is placed on the most vulnerable people in our communities… we all agree that whoever intentionally tries to run a red-light should definitely get a ticket, however the vast majority of these tickets are on right turns on red.”

Previously, legislators proposed relocating red-light cameras to areas and intersections where the most serious accidents occur.

Other speakers said the program is failing in its original goal to improve public safety.

As one individual put it: “If it’s [red-light cameras] causing more accidents than it’s not safe,”

Another concerned county resident said it is a no-brainer to not extend the program.

“You can’t delay this to another five years, fix the flaws of this program, fix the quality of life in Suffolk County,” he said.

Legislators have already put in a request for proposal to find a new vendor for the program. They stressed the need for the new vendor to be either locally based or be required to have an office in the county. Also, Margiotta said county officials plan to look for a vendor that provides a payment plan.

Republican Gary Pollakusky is running again to represent Suffolk County's 6th legislative district. File photo by Alex Petroski

By Leah Chiappino

A Republican challenger for Suffolk County legislator for the 6th District is a face that should be familiar to local residents, having run for the same office two years ago.

“I’ve always appreciated where I was from and what this area could become,“ said Gary Pollakusky, a Rocky Point resident who is running for legislator as a Republican challenger. “Giving back has always been the cornerstone to why I wanted to go into public service.”

Gary Pollakusky, the president of the Rocky Point Sound Beach Chamber of Commerce, helps put up a new tent May 4. Photo by Kyle Barr

As a Rotary member, Freemason, North Shore Community Association founding member, once a Goodwill Ambassador to Russia and the president and executive director of the Rocky Point Sound Beach Chamber of Commerce Pollakusky has been involved in public service since childhood. A graduate of Cornell, he has a degree in industrial labor relations. He is also the owner of multiple small businesses including Media Barrel LLC, a media advertising agency; Travel Barrel LLC, a company that holds microbrands, which conduct travel tours; and a nationally syndicated sports talk entertainment network called Sports Garten. His latest endeavor is the race for Suffolk County legislator for the 6th District, against incumbent Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), after an unsuccessful bid for the same seat in 2016.

His biggest policy platforms are supporting small businesses as well as fiscal responsibility for the county. 

“To be able to expand the tax base and reduce the residential tax burden we need to support business,” he said. “We’re seeing seniors and college graduates, and businesses leave Long Island. Long Island is an incredible place to live but it’s very difficult to afford.” 

Pollakusky said he believes he has put this notion into practice as a board member of the Brookhaven Industrial Development Agency, which he says brought in three-quarters of a billion dollars in new investment, as well as over 5,500 jobs. 

“We are cognizant of the fact that we are giving public benefits to private entities, but in turn we expect workforce projection,” he said, adding that the “county is hemorrhaging in debt. Our residents are being taxed out of house and home. I want to reduce taxes and spend responsibly.”

He also calls for the termination of “illegal fees to our residents,” such as the red light camera fees, park fees and mortgage recording fees, the latter of which has increased from $65 to over $600. 

“If we don’t stop the bleeding, people are going to want to leave,” he said. 

In terms of the opioid crisis, he supports holding “big pharma” accountable for its role in the crisis, but he said he feels a combination of solutions needs to occur in order to solve the problem. For one, he called for an increase in preventative education about the dangers of substance abuse in schools. He said the county has been moving backward on addressing it, calling for additional policing.

“We do not have enough officers on the streets,” he said. “We need to support law enforcement to address all of the drug-dealing homes in our community. In terms of treatment, we closed down a perfectly good treatment facility in the Foley Center. It’s disheartening to see how we could be addressing the opioid epidemic, but the county is not.”   

He also called for preventive education in schools for vaping and drunk driving. 

“Vaping has been shown to cause popcorn lung and terrible health ailments,” he said. “Kids doing that clearly don’t understand the repercussions, so constant reminders through education is very helpful to continue exposing the issue,” he said. Pollakusky added that he thinks it’s “unconscionable” to address marijuana legalization in the middle of an opioid epidemic, but sees its benefits when used medicinally. 

As far as the rise of MS-13, which Pollakusky says is tied to the opioid epidemic, he has met with the consulate general of El Salvador in Brentwood through the North Shore Community Association, with whom he worked to attempt to expand prevention education in 2017. 

“We have many law abiding, good citizens in our community that are here legally,” he said. “We don’t want to cast the light that MS-13 represents them in any way, but through the unaccompanied minor program MS-13 was recruiting.”  

Despite most MS-13 activity occurring in the towns of Brentwood and Central Islip, he cited Gordon Heights MS-13 activity as a main reason for the drug flow into the North Shore. 

When it comes to immigration policy, he said “those that break those laws should be sent home,” though dealing with children who were brought to the U.S. by their parents is “a very difficult problem.” The Republican challenger added that those children who have already lived here, such as the Dreamers, immigrants who came to the country before the age of 16 and have lived here since 2007, is a different circumstance. 

He acknowledged Suffolk’s poor water quality, including high nitrogen content in coastal waters and the presence of other chemicals like 1,4-dioxane in drinking water in high degrees across the Island. As a solution, he believes sewer districts should be funded through grants and business investments, which he feels can create revenue for the county. He supports introducing legislation that would prohibit certain kinds of pesticides and fertilizers, such as Roundup. 

“We have a duty to protect people from contaminants and certain types of cancer,” he said. 

The Republican challenger promises that he can work in a bipartisan matter if elected. 

“To be in politics you can’t have an ego,” he said. “We’ve elected the same people over and over again, and we still have the same problems.”

Pollakusky recognizes the challenges to winning his seat, noting Anker’s years in the Legislature and support from existing political action committees, but said he supports both labor and law enforcement. 

“I don’t need this job, I want it because I know I can lead well,” he said. “I am passionate about supporting our residents in an impactful way, so we can all stay here and enjoy Long Island.”

While the U.S. women’s soccer team waits to enter mediations regarding the discrepancy between their pay and the men’s team’s earnings, Suffolk County women, as well as racial and ethnic minority workers, are about to enter a more even playing field when they decide to apply for a new job starting June 30 thanks to a new law.

We say it’s about time.

Historically, women along with racial and ethnic minority workers have earned lower than average wages. Before passing the law, the county Legislature used an April 2018 New York State Department of Labor report that found women in the county earn 78 percent for what their male counterparts earn. The statewide percentage is 87. The same report cited that in New York African American or black women earn 64 percent and Latino or Hispanic women earn 53 percent of what men earn.

The Legislature recently decided to do something about the injustice by creating a local law, called the RISE (Restrict Information Regarding Salary and Earnings) Act, to restrict divulging earnings history during the interview process. County Executive Steve Bellone (D) signed the legislation into law in November.

This means when a Suffolk County resident searches for a new job, they will not be haunted by their last salary. Now, employers and employment agencies cannot ask for salary history on applications or during interviews.

In addition to women and minority workers being offered less in the past, there are also cases where people have been out of work for a long time — whether due to layoffs, taking care of children or a sick relative — who take the first job they are offered, regardless of pay just to get back on track careerwise.

This can cause problems when they apply for a job and the company asks for their salary history. The job applicant might be offered a salary below the range the employer was originally thinking. The employer may see it as an opportunity to save money, thinking if the applicant got by on their last wage, why would they need much more.

But no more. Now employers have to decide how much they believe a job is worth, then offer that salary. And while it makes sense that there may be a salary range based on experience, it also makes sense to pay people similar pay for doing the same job.

And the law benefits more than women and ethnic and racial minority workers; it even helps those who are leaving a high-paying position. In the past, if someone wanted to travel down a different career path, they may have been willing to accept a lower salary. But a company may not have called them for an interview when they saw how much they made at previous jobs, thinking they wouldn’t take a lower salary.

In the end, the new law may even help the local economy. With more money in women’s bank accounts, they will have more buying power or the opportunity to escape from dysfunctional relationships and get a place of their own.

Confirmed with a bipartisan, unanimous vote, the Suffolk County Legislature apparently believes the RISE Act will help break the cycle of wage discrimination in the area. We agree, and we say to those who have felt stuck in their financial situation that now is the time to RISE and shine.

Forsythe Meadow County Park. Photo from Suffolk County

Soon a walk in the park could turn into park stewardship for interested Suffolk County residents thanks to a Ward Melville High School student’s love for a Stony Brook park.

East Setauket teen Jake Butkevich inspired a pilot park program in Suffolk County. Photo from Maryann Butkevich

Recently, county legislators approved a plan to create a parks stewardship pilot program that will be rolled out in 10 unstaffed Suffolk parks. The idea began when East Setauket resident Jake Butkevich, 17, approached Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) about volunteering in Forsythe Meadow County Park in Stony Brook.

Butkevich said in an email that he was inspired to propose a program after volunteering in the Adirondacks where he was assigned a trail to maintain. He chose Forsythe Meadow because he wanted to give back to his community.

“Nonstaffed parks like Forsythe Meadow are perfect for stewards to take care of,” he said. “Much of the work that I have done while taking care of this park throughout the fall of 2018 and this spring is menial like trimming back bushes and picking up fallen branches, both of which make walking the trails a much more enjoyable experience.”

Hahn, who sponsored the bill to create the stewardship program, said she’s excited about the program, and while Scout troops and other groups have adopted parks in the past, she said the new initiative will allow individuals to become park stewards.

Butkevich said he’s excited about the pilot program, and he was appreciative of Hahn working with him on the idea.

“I hope this program will be effective in keeping our county parks better maintained and inspiring young people like myself to give back to the community and to be passionate about the outdoors,” he said.

Hahn said she hopes neighbors of unstaffed parks will volunteer to walk it once a week, pick up small pieces of trash and report back to the county about trees that need to be trimmed, branches that have fallen or any kind of vandalism. She said stewards will enable the county to be more on top of what is going on at the unstaffed parks, and in turn staff workers can then be dispatched to mow grass or trim trees. The legislation doesn’t name specific parks, which allows for 10 stewards to work on a park they choose.

“It would give us real eyes on the park,” Hahn said.

According to Hahn’s office, there are more than 63,000 acres of county parkland.

The pilot program will run for one year to determine the program’s feasibility for possible expanded use within the county, and after the year is up, the parks department will make the decision about fully implementing and continuing the stewardship program.

In a statement, Philip Berdolt, commissioner of Suffolk County Parks and Recreation, said the program would help to engage residents in the conservation of local parklands.

“By becoming a steward of Suffolk County Parks’ green spaces, you will help ensure that our county’s natural resources are cared for and kept safe for future generations,” he said.

The bill now awaits County Executive Steve Bellone’s (D) signature.

Stock photo

By Donna Deedy

Tobacco continues to hold a top spot as the number one cause of preventable death throughout the world, according to Suffolk County. And county lawmakers have now voted 16-2 to ban the sale of tobacco products in pharmacies. 

“Tobacco harms every organ in the body and is the only legal product sold in America that when used as directed, kills up to half of its long-term users,” said Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport), who co-sponsored the bill.  

The bill’s passage emphasizes that pharmacies are health-focused businesses and aligns with the county’s other efforts to decrease tobacco use. It recently raised the age to purchase tobacco products to age 21, for example, and prohibits smoking in county parks, beaches and Suffolk County Community College.

“This law decreases the bombardment of colorful tobacco displays meant to entice children and it reduces the influence on adults trying to break the addiction to nicotine,” said Lori Benincasa, retired director for health education for Suffolk County.

The new law applies to all tobacco products, including cigarettes, loose tobacco, cigars, powdered tobacco, shisha, herbal cigarettes, electronic cigarettes, electronic liquids, rolling paper and smoking paraphernalia. Consumers will still be allowed to purchase FDA-approved nicotine replacement therapies in pharmacies such as skin patches, nicotine gum and lozenges. 

The ban will take effect 180 days after its filing with the Secretary of State’s office, likely before the end of 2019. 

Narcan, a drug that stops opioid overdoses. File photo by Jessica Suarez

By Donna Deedy

New York State Attorney General’s office announced March 28 that it has expanded a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers, distributors and members of the Sackler family, whose company Purdue Pharma made and marketed OxyContin.

The lawsuit, originally filed in Suffolk County, has now become the nation’s most extensive case to date to legally address the opioid crisis.  

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D)applauded the move.

“It is our hope that our lawsuit, and ones like it, will bear fruit that forever changes the way destructive—but profitable—drugs are marketed and sold across the nation,” he said.

“As the Sackler Family and the other defendants grew richer, New Yorkers’ health grew poorer and our state was left to foot the bill.”

— Letitia James

The lawsuit alleges that six national prescription opioid manufacturers, four prescription drug distributors and members of the Sackler family are largely responsible for creating the opioid epidemic through years of false and deceptive marketing that ignored their obligation to prevent unlawful diversion of the addictive substance. 

The amended lawsuit includes Attorney General Letitia James’  findings from a multi-year, industry-wide investigation of opioid market participants, which alleges that manufacturers implemented a common “playbook” to mislead the public about the safety, efficacy, and risks of their prescription opioids. 

“Manufacturers pushed claims that opioids could improve quality of life and cognitive functioning, promoted false statements about the non-addictive nature of these drugs, masked signs of addiction by referring to them as “pseudoaddiction” and encouraged greater opioid use to treat it, and suggested that alternative pain relief methods were riskier than opioids, among other grossly misleading claims,”  the attorney general’s office stated in its summary of the amended suit. The office claims that manufacturers used a vast network of sales representatives to push dangerous narratives and target susceptible doctors, flood publications with their deceptive advertisements, and offer consumer discount cards and other incentives to them to request treatment with their product. 

The manufacturers named in the amended complaint include Purdue Pharma and its affiliates, members of the Sackler family (owners of Purdue) and trusts they control, Janssen Pharmaceuticals and its affiliates (including parent company Johnson & Johnson), Mallinckrodt LLC and its affiliates, Endo Health Solutions and its affiliates, Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc. and its affiliates and Allergan Finance, LLC.  The distributors named in the complaint are McKesson Corporation, Cardinal Health, Inc., Amerisource Bergen Drug Corporation and Rochester Drug Cooperative, Inc.

“As the Sackler Family and the other defendants grew richer, New Yorkers’ health grew poorer and our state was left to foot the bill,” James stated. “The manufacturers and distributors of opioids are to blame for this crisis and it is past time they take responsibility.” 

“This company and company’s owners knew the addictive quality and used it for financial gain.”

— Kara Hahn

The opioid epidemic has ravaged families and communities nationwide and across New York. Suffolk County has been particularly hard hit statewide. When the county originally filed its lawsuit, legislators reported that the region suffered the highest number of heroin deaths statewide.  Between 2009 and 2013, 418 people died of a heroin overdose. Many people turned to heroin when their prescriptions ran out.  The opioid related death tolls have continued to rise.According to New York State Health Department data for 2017, opioid pain relievers, including illicitly produced fentanyl, caused 429 deaths in Suffolk County. Over six thousand people were admitted for opioid addiction, including heroin, into the counties Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services. 

“I applaud New York State Attorney General James for joining in our efforts to recoup untold amounts of public funds that were spent to assist those afflicted by this epidemic,” Bellone stated. “Suffolk County is taking a page out of Big Tobacco’s playbook to hold the Sackler family and others accountable for their role in connection with the opioid crisis.  

The Suffolk County legislature is proceeding with their lawsuit as it was originally put forward, but officials agreed with the state’s initiative.

“The pharceutical companies opened the flood gates,” said county Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mt. Sinai). “I agree the Sacklers should be targeted for a lawsuit.”

County Legislators Anker, Kara Hahn (D-Port Jefferson) and William Spencer (D-Centerport) originally co-sponsored the bill.

“It’s an incredibly important that all responsible be held accountable,” Hahn said. “This company and company’s owners knew the addictive quality and used it for financial gain.”

Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

A proposal for Suffolk County sue former  police chief James Burke over the $1.5 million settlement it paid out to his victim was tabled by the county Legislature as legal advice on the best approach to seek reparations differed.

The county’s Ways and Means Committee held a public hearing Dec. 13 on Legislator Rob Trotta’s (R-Fort Salonga) resolution to have Suffolk District Attorney Tim Sini (D) initiate a lawsuit against Burke for the settlement the county paid out to Christopher Loeb in February 2018.

Legislator Bridget Fleming (D-Sag Harbor),the chairwoman of the committee, cited a memo from county attorney Dennis Brown that advised Trotta’s proposed lawsuit “would likely be unsuccessful but could expose us to [court] sanctions and attorney fees.”

“As the committee has discussed, there is no way to recover or recoup the settlement dollars paid in that lawsuit.”

— Dennis Brown

“There is no basis for it,” Brown said when questioned. “As the committee has discussed, there is no way to recover or recoup the settlement dollars paid in that lawsuit.”

In the federal civil lawsuit, Suffolk agreed to pay the $1.5 million settlement as Burke’s employer at the time for the civil rights offenses and the actions of six other police officers who participated in covering up the ex-chief’s actions. Burke retained his own private attorney and settled Loeb’s civil case against him for an undisclosed sum, according to Fleming.

Howard Miller, a Garden City-based attorney with the law firm Bond Shoeneck & King, presented a case for the county suing Burke for his wages and compensation paid by the county under the faithless servant doctrine. This doctrine, according to Miller, dates back to the 19th century allowing employers to seek compensation back from disloyal employees.

“Here, the facts are egregious as you had not only beating of the suspect but systematic coverup of that,” he said. “This doctrine is designed to create a deterrent to future acts like this, of corruption and misconduct.”

Attorney Howard Miller speaks before Suffolk County Legislature. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

Miller stated doing so wouldn’t necessarily require further court litigation, given Burke had pled guilty, but could help Suffolk to claw back wages and any benefits paid to the former police chief from the date of the incident with Loeb, occurring in 2012, through Burke’s resignation in October 2015. While he admitted a lawsuit to see back the $1.5 million settlement was iffy, Miller said he has successfully represented clients at the state level who have been successful in similar lawsuits, including the William Floyd school district.

“What would be a successful lawsuit in my opinion, a plainly meritorious suit would be to go after the compensation [Burke] was paid while he was covering up his misconduct,” Miller said.

Fleming called for the county attorney to research the county’s legal possibility further and received a vote to table the discussion. Trotta has promised to submit an new resolution seeking to sue Burke for repayment of his salary.

Several Suffolk residents and former police department members asked the Legislature to further investigate what its legal options were for seeking repayment of the settlement, Burke’s salary or pension.

“You as the legislative body of our county have a fiduciary responsibility to Suffolk residents to go after the employees whose actions harm their employees, thus harming Suffolk County residents,” Pam Farino, of Smithtown, said. “Disgraced ex-chief James Burke did just that.”

Huntington resident James McGoldrick complimented Trotta for his intentions but asked the county’s officials to consider the cost of any legal action, considering the total funds Suffolk stood to regain might not be enough compared to the expenses of further litigation.

by -
0 1558
Dean Jones, a resident of the Concern for Independent Living facility in Amityville which is constructing a new project in Port Jeff Station, speaks during a press conference on affordable housing in Suffolk County Oct. 2 flanked on the left by Richard Koubek, chair of the Welfare to Work Commission, and on the right by Legislator DuWayne Gregory. Photo by Kyle Barr

It’s already difficult for both the young and old to find affordable housing in Suffolk County, but according to a recent report, the lack of low-cost homes and apartments is forcing some people to live without roofs over their heads entirely.

The Suffolk County Legislature’s Welfare to Work Commission, which advises the legislature on issues related to poverty in the county, released a report Oct. 2 that detailed the holes in affordable housing and government programs. Many of those homeless in Suffolk have some sort of job or income, according to the report.

“There has been some progress on public acceptance for affordable housing especially for working people, and especially for young people and senior citizens,” said Richard Koubek, the chair of the commission. “There still remains obstacles for creating affordable housing for two groups of residents: one is working poor families … the other are people who have mental illness which often leads to homelessness.”

The commission spent two-and-a-half years studying the issue of affordable housing and other related problems, including the county’s capacity to aid the homeless and those suffering from mental health issues. The final report showed high home and rent costs, along with government programs unable to handle the current numbers of people suffering from mental health issues, among its conclusions.

“There still remains obstacles for creating affordable housing for two groups of residents: one is working poor families … the other are people who have mental illness which often leads to homelessness.”

— Richard Koubek

Need for more affordable and supportive housing

As of January 2018, the advocacy group Long Island Coalition for the Homeless reported there were 3,868 homeless individuals in Nassau and Suffolk counties. Not all homeless are considered chronically homeless, or individuals who have a disability and have been homeless for more than 12 months, or have had at least four stints without a home in the last three years. About 500 families are homeless, or 2,500 individuals, in Suffolk County, of which half have a source of income but are still unable to afford housing or rent costs, according to the report. The report said the county spends more than $19 million annually feeding and supporting this population.

The report noted the 2017 Suffolk County area yearly median income is $110,800, while the median price of a home in 2017 was $376,000, according to census data. If an individual or family spent 30 percent of income on housing costs, the national and suggested average, they would have to earn $125,000 a year to afford the median home price.

If a family wanted to rent, only 18 percent of available housing is rental, compared to the national average of 37 percent. Market rate for monthly apartment rentals in Suffolk was $1,589 in 2017, according to census data, meaning families in that market would have to earn $57,204 — 52 percent of the area median income — a year if they spent 30 percent of their income on the apartment costs. New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli (D) said Suffolk was ranked 57th out of 62 New York counties in rental affordability.

Greta Guarton, the executive director of the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, said among government entities there is more of an emphasis on removing people from poverty rather than aiding people in poverty.

“The thinking used to be 20 percent of those who are homeless use 80 percent of emergency services,” Guarton said. “A fresh look at homelessness shows 80 percent of homeless families do not have disabilities. … In places like Long Island these people are homeless because they cannot find an affordable rental unit in this region’s tight, extremely expensive housing market.”

The LICH director added the most effective approach to combating homelessness is the Housing First Model, which tries to provide stability in a person’s life through housing, in addition to treatment and supportive services. With housing secured, those suffering from chronic homelessness can focus on stabilizing other parts of their lives, the report said.

“In places like Long Island these people are homeless because they cannot find an affordable rental unit in this region’s tight, extremely expensive housing market.”

— Greta Guarton

It is especially difficult for those suffering from mental illness to find affordable housing. Koubek said the emphasis has been moving away from asylums since the 1960s and toward community care facilities, but those smaller-scale places have not been financially supported, and there simply aren’t enough of them. The Suffolk County Department of Health Division of Community Mental Hygiene Services’ Single Point of Access program, which places people with mental illness into supportive housing, had a wait list 887 people long as of late 2017, according to the report. Those who wish to be placed on the list must attain a physician’s diagnosis, which the report calls difficult if the person is suffering alone or is already homeless.

People with undiagnosed mental illness also create a vacuum of funds — utilizing a huge chunk of the county’s money allocated for homeless programs. The report noted as much as $8 million of the $10 million in grants for homeless programs awarded to Long Island’s federal Department of Housing and Urban Development funded Continuum of Care program went to serving those with undiagnosed mental issues.

The study also pointed to incidents where people suffering from mental health issues were discharged from hospitals before they could receive the proper care. This puts more of an emphasis on requiring local government to funnel these people into supportive housing, which is difficult if they are released onto the street or remain undiagnosed.

The commission named a number of countywide solutions to address these issues, including increasing funding for the SPA program and improving the number of placements, prioritizing homeless families on the Public Housing Authority waiting lists, addressing substandard housing, improving Suffolk hospital discharge policies for the homeless and creating a coordinated county response to address low-income housing.

Current affordable housing projects trying to meet demand

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced May 10 $25.6 million had been awarded to four housing developments on Long Island to create 239 affordable homes.

On the state level, the report requested New York increases financial supports for capital construction and operating costs of supportive housing, and that it turns over unused state property to the county for the construction of more supportive housing.

Legislature Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) and Legislator Tom Donnelly (D-Deer Park), who also chairs the legislature’s Education & Human Services Committee, each said Oct. 2 a need exists for public-private partnerships to create more affordable housing options.

“Homelessness is not imagined — it exists here in Suffolk County because of government policies which create instability,” Gregory said. “If people are spending a greater percent of their income on housing costs it leads to difficult choices. Will they buy food and clothing for their children or will they pay for their own home?”

“If people are spending a greater percent of their income on housing costs it leads to difficult choices. Will they buy food and clothing for their children or will they pay for their own home?”

— DuWayne Gregory

In 2007 the commission issued another report, “Affordable for Whom? Creating Housing for Low and Moderate-Income People in Suffolk County,” which noted a public opinion poll showing 70 percent of Long Islanders seeing the need for more affordable housing while two-thirds of the same population not wanting it near their own communities. Koubek said this attitude is changing somewhat, but getting projects like these approved remains a tall task.

Roger Weaving Jr., the president of the Huntington Township Housing Coalition, said the lack of affordable housing is a major reason why so many young people are leaving for other states. Many Long Islanders express concerns about having affordable two- to three-bedroom apartments in their communities, despite obvious demand for such dwellings.

“On the North Shore you can either have a single-family house or you can leave,” Weaving said. “While some of this is affected by state and county actions, a lot of action is at the town level, because they control zoning.”

Out of the money Cuomo helped set aside for affordable housing, $8.1 million was tabbed for construction of six two-story buildings on vacant land off Route 112 in Port Jefferson Station, north of East Grove Street and south of Washington Avenue. The project is being constructed by Medford-based Concern for Independent Living Inc. The development came under fire from the community, during a Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association meeting in May for various reasons, including concerns about overdevelopment and costs to educate children living in the new buildings.

Ralph Fasano, the executive director of Concern for Independent Living, said a section of the development is dedicated to housing veterans as well. He said the company plans to break ground on the project by December.

“It’s going to look [like the company’s development in Amityville] – it’s going to be quiet.” Fasano said.

PJSTCA president, Sal Pitti, declined to comment, and said the association would be having a civic member vote Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. on whether or not to publicly support the project.

The Weiss family and friends place daisies into the waters off Centerport Yacht Club in memory of Ryan Weiss. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

Suffolk County’s newest boating safety law aims to prevent future tragedies like the one that claimed the life of a Greenlawn boy last summer.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) signed legislation July 28 at Centerport Yacht Club named Ryan’s Law that will require all boats used for instructing minors to be equipped with propeller guards. After the tragic death of their 12-year-old son, Ryan, Greenlawn resident Kellie Weiss and her husband, Kevin, led the charge calling for a law change.

“We stand here forever heartbroken,” Weiss said. “Although this can’t bring Ryan back to us today, we hope that we have the opportunity to protect someone else, some other child out there.”

Ryan died July 18, 2017, when he was taking part in a boating lesson at Centerport Yacht Club where the vessel was intentionally capsized in a controlled manner. An 18-year-old instructor operating a small Zodiac inflatable boat pulled him from the water and onto the inflatable raft. As the instructor started to move the boat forward, Ryan again fell into the water and became entangled in the propeller.

“This is Ryan’s happy place,” Weiss said, wiping away tears. “I know in my heart he did what he loved to do.”

The Weiss family and elected officials look on as Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone signs Ryan’s Law. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

Under the new law, anyone who owns a boat used for instructional lessons that is registered in Suffolk or operates in county waters must install a propeller guard, a metal cage that surrounds the propeller of a motorized boat. The legislation was unanimously co-sponsored and then approved by all 18 members of the Suffolk County Legislature in June.

“This is a family that has really had to bind together over the last year,” Suffolk Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) said, crediting the Weiss’ advocacy in getting the legislation passed. “What they have done is nothing short of incredible, to take something that is so deep and painful, and turn it into something positive.”

The law will take effect in approximately 90 days, giving boat owners an opportunity to modify their watercrafts as necessary. Those caught operating an instructional boat without a propeller guard will be fined between $250 and $500 for first offenses and from $750 to $1,500 for subsequent violations.

Erik Rosanes, commodore of the Centerport Yacht Club, said his club is onboard with the legislation.

“As we continue in our club’s mission to encourage the sport of yachting and educate the next generation of sailors, we look forward to promoting any measures that may improve the safety of our children in and on the water,” Rosanes said.

The Weiss family and members of the yacht club were joined by New York State, Suffolk and Town of Huntington elected officials in placing white daisies into the waters of Northport Harbor in memory of Ryan. Flowers were also placed on a rock marked with his initials.

Kellie Weiss said she is hopeful that one day propeller guards will become mandatory under New York State law.

“We urge every parent who has a child, teen or young adult who is going to be operating a boat or wave runner,” she said. “Think about installing a prop guard to protect your kid. No one wants to get the phone call we got a year ago.”