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Suffolk County Legislature

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.”

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Whew, that was close. We feared that a good ole game of Suffolk County partisan tug-of-war almost left us high and dry again.

Suffolk County legislators voted down 14 bond-seeking bills for various projects that have impact on the day-to-day life of residents June 5 and 19 on a party-line basis. The reasoning given was the 14 items were lumped together in three resolutions, which Republicans argued didn’t allow them to individually vote against projects that they didn’t agree with or may regret funding later.

For nearly a month, both Democrats led by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) and Republicans headed by Minority Leader and Legislator Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) publicly bickered back and forth on how to approach county bonds. Each group held press conferences and made inflammatory statements as time kept ticking in the race against the clock to get federally matching funds for both the Wading River-to-Mount Sinai Rails to Trails project and repaving of Commack Road, among others.

It’s said all’s well that ends well, right? Luckily for North Shore residents, both the Rails to Trails and Commack Road bills received the bipartisan support — a supermajority 12 out of 18 votes — necessary to move forward at the July 17 legislative meeting. Most of the 14 bills were voted on individually this time around, the majority of which were approved.

Unfortunately, a few projects failed or were not voted on. Cries for funding repairs and upgrades to Suffolk County Police Department’s K-9 Unit facility in Yaphank failed despite the roof leaking, the floor having holes and the air conditioner and heating not working properly, according to Bellone. Republicans argued the planning should be done in-house rather than borrowing to pay for the project.

We couldn’t help but notice that a bill to fund $4.68 million for upgrades for the Suffolk County Police Department and county Medical Examiner’s office also failed. Another bill, one that would have given the Republican Suffolk County Board of Elections Commissioner Nick LaLota another term, as his time in office ends Dec. 31, also failed. The outcome of these votes seems to indicate that political partisanship is still afoot, alive and well, as all Long Islanders are aware that politics, too, affects our law enforcement offices.

A word of warning to our Suffolk County elected officials: While President Donald Trump (R) and our U.S. Congress play on sharp political divides to gain power and momentum, that’s not an acceptable way to act here. We beg, don’t take your political cues from Washington, D.C.

We — your residents, constituents and voters — expect you to rise above party politics and do what’s best for Suffolk. You must reach out across the aisle, discuss charged issues calmly and reach a compromise that best benefits all. It’s in the job description.

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.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone details plans to present un-lumped bonds at the July 17 legislature meeting during a press conference July 11. Photo by Kyle Barr

Though the fight over lump bonding in the Suffolk County Legislature is not over yet, both parties are looking to find common ground.

County Executive Steve Bellone (D) announced the county would be offering un-lumped bond resolutions for the next legislative session July 17, after a series of bond-seeking bills for various projects were voted down on a party-line vote last month.

“Unfortunately we have seen the creeping into Suffolk County of national style politics that has delivered abuse in Washington – which is a shame because we haven’t had that in Suffolk, particularly when it comes to funding of critically important and even routine capital projects,” Bellone said. “I want to move us back towards the way we have operated in the past where we treat these kinds of important bonds in a nonpartisan way.”

Bellone mentioned several bond resolutions that will be up for vote come July 17. One includes funding for repaving on Commack Road from Julia Circle to Route 25A and along Crooked Hill Road from Henry Street to Commack Road. Two other major projects include $2 million in funding for licensing the Rave Panic Button mobile app, a police and rescue emergency application for school and government employees, and $8.82 million in funds for the Rails to Trails project that will establish a trail from Wading River to Mount Sinai on grounds that used to host train tracks.

Ninety-four percent of Rails to Trails is funded by federal grants that will be paid back to the county after the project is completed. Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), the driving force behind the project, said if the bond doesn’t pass the county could miss the August deadline to get access to those federal grants.

“We have already invested $1 million with a design and engineering plan that we will have to reimburse if this bond does not pass,” Anker said. “We are ready to put a shovel in the ground, even at the end of this year.”

“I want to move us back towards the way we have operated in the past where we treat these kinds of important bonds in a nonpartisan way.”

— Steve Bellone

The legislature needs to vote “yes” on both an appropriations bill as well as one to approve bond funding to support capital projects, and for weeks the two parties in the legislature have battled over bundled bonds. Bellone has said the Republican minority was hypocritical if it voted for the project’s appropriations but voted against the funding. Republicans were against any lump bonds because they did not want to feel forced to vote on items they might disagree with in the future, lumped with items they were comfortable supporting now.

Because the legislature requires 12 of the 18 members to pass a bond vote, the seven-member Republican minority have joined together during the past two legislative meetings to shoot down any lump bonds.

Bellone said he would be going forward with legislation that would require both appropriations and bonding be included in one single vote, but Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) said the Legislative Counsel has questioned the legality of that idea, with appropriations requiring 10 votes and bonds needing 12.

Instead, Gregory said he instructed the county clerk to write up the next week’s meeting agenda to have bonds be voted on before appropriations.

“If the bond resolution fails then the appropriation doesn’t come up for a vote,” Gregory said. “It limits the opportunity for somebody to vote for it before voting against it … Hopefully it takes the politics a little bit out of it.”

Republicans in the legislature see the move away from lump bonding as a victory.

“We’re happy that the County Executive has agreed to go back to individual bond resolution for several bonds,” Minority Leader and Legislator Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) said. “We’re looking forward to working forward with the County Executive over the coming months to find some common ground.”

Though Cilmi said he and other Republican legislators are happy the bonds will not be lumped together, he still has misgivings about a few of the projects, especially when it comes to county finances.

“There are certain proposals where we agree with the project, but we believe the funding for the project should come out of operating funds rather than going out and borrowing money to do it,” Cilmi said. “The county is $2 billion in debt, and we have to exercise restraint in how we go out and borrow money.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone speaks during a press conference June 20 calling out Republicans for voting down three bond resolutions. Photo by Kyle Barr

Democrats and Republicans in the Suffolk County Legislature are at each other’s throats over funding for a series of bonds, including for public safety initiatives, that failed to pass at the June 19 legislature meeting.

“The Republican caucus put politics ahead of public safety,” county Executive Steve Bellone (D) said at a press conference June 20. “We saw a group of seven Republican legislators put their own politics over the interests of their constituents, of public safety, of teachers and students.”

At the June 19 meeting, three out of four bond resolutions failed to garner support from at least 12 legislators, which would represent the two-thirds support necessary to pass a bond resolution. The seven members of the Republican minority caucus voted against the resolutions. The three failed bonds included 14 items that would have provided funding for county parks, correctional facilities, public safety initiatives, road reconstruction and more.

Republican legislators said they voted against the bonds because they did not want to feel forced to vote on items they might disagree with in the future, lumped with items they were comfortable supporting now.

“We shouldn’t be paying these things off for 30 years because it’s just not fair to young people.”

— Rob Trotta

“The blame for the failure of this bond rests squarely on the shoulders of Steve Bellone,” said Minority Leader Legislator Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore). “Last month the county executive abandoned 40 years of history and precedence in Suffolk County… in an effort to bully the legislature into every one of his proposals.”

Bonds traditionally had not been grouped together by the Suffolk Legislature.

Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said he opposed the resolutions in part because bonding for each of the 14 projects would increase the country’s deficit.

“What we’re doing is increasing debt,” Trotta said. “We shouldn’t be paying these things off for 30 years because it’s just not fair to young people.”

Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) sponsored a bill that would allocate funds for a Rails to Trails project from Wading River to Port Jefferson. That bill was included in a larger bond proposal at the June 6 legislative meeting, and that too was voted down by the Republican caucus.

“I hope they can get this resolved soon because it’s basically hindering government,” Anker said. “The county has to bond for these sorts of projects – that’s why we have this sort of process.”

Anker said the $8 million Rails to Trails project was to be funded by that bond and then the county would be reimbursed by the federal government, but without the bond the county is now looking for different revenue sources so it would not have to push back plans to start building the trail by spring 2019.

The most contentious item amongst the recent three defeated bonds was $2 million in funding for licensing Rave Panic Button mobile app, a downloadable application that acts as an instant call to fire and emergency services as well as police in an emergency, specifically a school shooting, for school and government employees.

The Rave app is currently active in 95 percent of county facilities with 20 percent of county employee phones now equipped with the app, according to Joel Vetter, the county Emergency Medical Services coordinator. The program is already in place in 19 school districts with 10 enabled devices per building. The funding, Vetter said, would have put the app in the hands of all current school administrative and teaching staff in all county school districts.

“This means that if the cellular system is down, you could contact emergency services through WiFi,” Vetter said.

Bellone defended the lump bonding, saying it’s a practice used in town and local governments across the state. He said the public safety initiatives would have saved district schools more than $1 million since each would not have to pay for it themselves.

“This has become the worst of our politics.”

— Duwayne Gregory

“If we back down from this outrageous conduct now, they will continue to hold hostage every important investment on the environment, on public safety, on roads, on parks — and we’re not going to allow that to happen,” the county executive said.

Cilmi contended that bundling the bonds together does not save money because the county’s bond council, New York law firm Harris Beach PLLC, does not charge for bond preparation.

The contract between Suffolk and Harris Beach, signed by the county in 2014, reads that there shall be no fee paid by the county related to the preparation of county resolutions, which includes bonds.

Cilmi and Trotta both said they could come close to guaranteeing funding for the Rave app would be approved as a stand-alone measure.

Democrats accused the Republican caucus of being hypocritical as the bond vote was all for items those legislators have already supported in the recent past.

“This has become the worst of our politics.” Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) said. “Nobody gets 100 percent of what they want, and when they say, ‘we’re going to vote against a package to other bills regarding funding for our correctional facilities,’ saying ‘I don’t like one or two parts of the bill and I’m going to vote against,’ is just ridiculous.”

Bellone said he expects to put the bonds back up for vote in the next legislative meeting July 17, but he did not give specifics about whether or not the county would try and repackage the bills to be more favorable to the wishes of the Republican caucus.

Deputy County Executive Jon Kaiman (D) said if the bond vote fails again the app will not be available to districts until after school reconvenes in September.

“We have to regroup and think what kind of strategies we have going forward,” Kaiman said. “When you fail a vote the process takes a lot of time to come back.”

Sheryl Cohn stands in her home’s guest bedroom where the ceiling crashed and fell onto the bed during Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Kyle Barr

Though it’s been more than five years since Hurricane Sandy ravaged Long Island, many people, including Huntington Station resident Sheryl Cohn, are still feeling its effects like the storm only happened yesterday.

Black mold in the basement of Cohn’s home is an aftereffect of Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Kyle Barr

In an interview after the April 11 public hearing at Stony Brook University conducted by the Suffolk County Legislature’s Superstorm Sandy Review Task Force, Cohn said her roof was ruined in the wake of the storm, and her house is falling apart around her. The ceiling in her guest bedroom fell and crashed onto the bed, and black mold has sprouted in many rooms around her house. The masonry on the outside of her home — finished only a few months before Sandy hit — fell to pieces on her driveway. She lives in fear that a piece of ceiling will fall on her head while she sits or sleeps.

“My grandson, he turned five in March, he has never been here,” Cohn said. “I would never be able to forgive myself if, God forbid, he contracted something or a piece of sheetrock fell on his head. It makes me feel horrible. He lives a half an hour away, and he’s never been to Nana’s house.”

She first looked into a contractor to fix her roof, but the firm she hired disappeared with all of the money she had already given them. She said the NY Rising Community Reconstruction Program, the state program that was created to provide aid to people whose homes were damaged during the storm, has constantly told her wrong information and switched caseworkers with her multiple times. Now she says they have stopped returning her calls and emails. Five and a half years later she still has no progress on acquiring any financial aid.

As some of the effects of Sandy linger on, Legislator DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville), the Legislature’s presiding officer, helped to create the Superstorm Sandy Review Task Force, a 27-member committee of government representatives, scientists, engineers and other experts to make recommendations on how to deal with the lasting effects of Sandy as well as prepare Suffolk County for the next big storm.

“My grandson, he turned five in March, he has never been here. I would never be able to forgive myself if, God forbid, he contracted something or a piece of sheetrock fell on his head.”

— Sheryl Cohn

The task force is divided into four working groups including emergency response, resiliency, recovery and infrastructure.

“As we go and narrow down the issues they want to focus on, we want to look at what went wrong, what are the recommendations, what are the solutions,” said Joshua Slaughter, Gregory’s aide. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel, but we want to come out with things to make it better.”

The task force plans to have more meetings and come up with a document by December that will provide recommendations for the county.

While much of the focus of the task force is focused on the South Shore, where the damage was much more severe, problems from the North Shore not only deal with damaged property but the severe risk of beach erosion and property loss for people living close to the shore.

Professor of oceanography at Stony Brook University and task force member Malcolm Bowman said there is not enough solid data to say that “storm of the century” Sandy won’t be repeated in the near future and that rising sea levels will make each new storm do more damage.

“Five, 10, 25 years from now it will take less of a storm to do the same amount of damage,” Bowman said. “That is the challenge that we have to think about and be prepared for.”

Malcolm Bowman discusses ways to fix Long Island’s receding beachline at a Superstorm Sandy Review Task Force public hearing held April 11 at Stony Brook University. Photo by Kyle Barr

There are both natural solutions and engineered solutions up in the air for trying to fix Long Island’s receding beachline, according to Bowman. Natural solutions include planting seagrass and reestablishing oyster beds to hold the land in place, while engineering solutions include barriers and other human-made structures. Bowman said that both will come into play when preparing for upcoming storms.

Regarding aiding those who are still affected by Sandy navigate their recovery, Slaughter said the task force was thinking about recovery advocates, somebody who can be hired by the state to work with people on a consistent basis.

“I know it will be difficult, there are a lot of cases, but if you leave it to that one on one, people will be running forever, and not every consumer can get out as well as others,” Slaughter said.

“The vast, vast majority of our contractors did the best to their ability, but of course the ones we hear about are those who put people in a bad position or were unscrupulous,” chair of the task force Dave Calone said. “Our job as a governmental entity is to make recommendations to limit that as much as possible.”

Another task force meeting took place April 18 at the Southampton Town Hall. Two more meetings are scheduled for April 26 at Patchogue-Medford High School and May 2 at Babylon Town Hall.

By Peggy Olness

In 1968, the citizens of Suffolk County voted to adopt an amendment to the Suffolk County Charter that replaced the Suffolk County board of 10 town supervisors with elected legislators from the 18 legislative districts designated in the amendment. Among the major duties given to the Suffolk County Legislature was the duty of reviewing, amending and approving the annual budgets needed to allow Suffolk County to function.

A budget is a plan that looks at the revenue expected for the fiscal year and the best way to spend to provide the needed services during that fiscal year. The Suffolk County fiscal year runs from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31 of each calendar year. During each year the legislature must review, amend and adopt three budgets to allow the county to function during the next fiscal year. These budgets are:

•The capital budget covers major construction expenditures such as road and bridge repair and construction, most of which extend for periods of more than one year. The capital budget is reviewed during the spring and usually approved by May.

•The operating budget funds the day-to-day operations of the county departments and agencies and is reviewed in the fall and usually approved in November so that spending can begin Jan. 1 of the next fiscal year.

•The community college budget funds the county’s community college system and is reviewed during the summer and usually approved before the start of the community college fall semester. The college budget covers a period coinciding with the school year.

The operating budget generally receives most of the attention because it has the largest impact on our day-to-day lives and the services citizens receive. The operating budget process begins in the spring when the county executive tells the county departments and agencies what he expects the county financial situation will be in the next fiscal year and requests each department/agency head to submit a budget request for the coming fiscal year based on those expectations. 

The county executive’s budget staff reviews the requests and works with the departments/agencies to produce a budget with which the county executive’s office is comfortable. This budget request is then sent to the county legislature. Each legislator receives a copy, and the legislature’s Budget Review Office begins work on the review and evaluation of the facts and figures in the county executive’s budget request so that it can advise the legislators on any concerns or problems that may occur.

Suffolk County relies on sources of revenue to fund the county budget that are problematic. While the federal government and the states can tax incomes, the county is limited to sales taxes, property taxes and various fees such as the motor vehicle surcharge and the tax map certification. Unfortunately, both sales and property taxes are considered “regressive taxes.” When the economy is good, these taxes produce a sufficient amount of revenue. However, when the economy is bad such as during the recent Great Recession, the revenue from these tax sources is reduced and has not covered all the county’s expenses. 

There are limitations on the amount of revenue the county can draw from these sources. New York State caps the property tax increase each year (2 percent at present). To exceed this amount would require a 60 percent vote by the county legislature.

Currently, the sales tax provides about 60 percent of the general fund revenue. As a result of the sluggish economy, the county has been forced to borrow from several sources to balance the budget since 2008. These loans must now be paid back. Moreover, the sales tax revenue has not rebounded sufficiently to cover the budget. An underlying problem with the sales tax is the increase in internet sales at the expense of “brick and mortar” local store sales. These online sales do not return sales tax to Suffolk County.

In future columns, the League of Women Voters will review some of the problems Suffolk County faces in the future as a result of the changes in the local economy.

Peggy Olness is a board member of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org, email league@lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

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.”

Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim has approached Gryodyne LLC about a shared sewer plant on Flowerfield property in St. James. Photo by Heidi Sutton

Suffolk lawmakers have taken the first step toward preservation of nearly 41 acres in St. James as open space.

The county legislature voted at its Nov. 21 meeting to approve a bill introduced by Legislators Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) and Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) for an appraisal of part of the Gyrodyne LLC property in St. James, also known as Flowerfield, that runs along Route 25A. The property contains freshwater wetlands and adjacent wetlands that feed into the Long Island Sound, Mill Pond in Stony Brook and Stony Brook Harbor.

“I am greatly appreciative of my legislative colleagues’ support for our effort to preserve 41 undeveloped acres of the former Gyrodyne property,” Hahn said. “With the owner actively seeking to develop the property, this perhaps is the community’s last stand to preserve one of the last large undeveloped tracts remaining in western Suffolk County. I am hopeful that the owner will understand the property’s overall environmental significance and its potential to negatively impact surrounding ground and surface waters, traffic safety and overall quality of life should it be developed.”

The bill, which now goes to Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) for his approval, allows for the county’s planning division to assess the owner’s interest in selling the tract to the county for open space purposes. An interest by Gyrodyne would mean the county could follow its initial outreach by obtaining a real estate appraisal and additional legal and environmental reviews that are required for a potential sale from the company to the county. According to county law, if sale of the land parcel can be negotiated, funding will come from the county’s Drinking Water Protection Program.

“With the owner actively seeking to develop the property, this perhaps is the community’s last stand to preserve one of the last large undeveloped tracts remaining in western Suffolk County.”

— Kara Hahn

While preservation of the land is being considered, a conceptual development plan from Gyrodyne was approved by the Suffolk County Planning Committee Aug. 2 and was met with resistance from Stony Brook and St. James residents.

Over the summer, the property’s owner submitted an application to the Town of Smithtown to construct a 150-room hotel with restaurant and day spa, two medical office buildings totaling 128,400 feet and two long-term care buildings that would have a total 220 assisted living units on the property. Many in the area raised concerns about the amount of traffic that would empty out onto Route 25A and Stony Brook Road if an exit to the Brookhaven street was made accessible on the east side.

Trotta said he’s not completely against development as he realizes the community needs businesses such as the proposed assisted living facility. However, Trotta said he understands the community’s concerns about traffic and would like to see a good amount of the property preserved. 

“It’s always about balance,” he said.

Trotta said he believes Gyrodyne will be willing to work with the community.

“I don’t think it’s unreasonable to have it appraised and get into discussions with what the community wants, what can we put up with traffic-wise and meet somewhere in the middle,” Trotta said.

At a Nov. 15 Smithtown Planning Board meeting, Gyrodyne representatives said their own traffic studies proved residents had sound reason to be concerned about increased traffic and pointed to six local intersections that needed improvement. The results were submitted to the Town of Smithtown and New York State Department of Transportation in October 2017 but have yet to be reviewed. Conrad Chayes Sr., chairman of the Smithtown Planning Board, concluded the board would hold off on a decision until an environmental impact study is completed by the town, which he said may take up to a year.

Hahn said the commercial development of the land would “fundamentally change the character of the Stony Brook and St. James communities.”

“Each of us, regardless of which side of the Brookhaven-Smithtown border you reside on, is threatened by this project moving forward,” Hahn said. “For that reason, Legislator Robert Trotta and I put forward legislation to preserve these environmentally and historically important parcels from being destroyed.”

Legislator Leslie Kennedy (R) is being challenged by Democrat Kevin Hyms to represent Suffolk County’s 12th District. Photos by Kevin Redding

Two candidates vying to represent Suffolk’s 12th Legislative District Nov. 7 share a common ground on several key issues, making for a very respectful debate between a one-term incumbent Republican and her Democratic challenger.

Suffolk County Legislator Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset), a longtime nurse and former small business manager who was elected in 2015 to succeed her husband and now-county Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. (R), pledged to continue serving in her position “fulltime,” drawing businesses to the region and working to control as much county spending as possible.

Her Democratic opponent is Lake Ronkonkoma resident Kevin Hyms, a former environmental, health and safety engineer and prior Brookhaven Town board candidate who wants to put community ahead of politics.

“I want to protect and preserve our precious environment, provide incentives, career opportunities, workforce and affordable housing to keep our youth from migrating off here,” Hyms said during an Oct. 20 sit-down with Kennedy at the Times Beacon Record News Media office. “I believe in doing the right thing for Suffolk County and the community.”

Kennedy said she initially ran for office out of frustration seeing elected officials not doing what’s needed to improve Suffolk.

“It’s because I love where I live — I’ve lived in my district since 1958 and have no intention of ever retiring to Florida,” she said. “I don’t want to see this place destroyed, and more and more I see it becoming impossible to live here. We have to make drastic changes and have to start by developing the ability to say ‘no’. Now that we do not have a penny left to our names, I think the majority is getting it.”

Since being elected, Kennedy said she has voiced her concerns over the county’s financial problems by voting against all fee hikes introduced in the budget from mortgage fees to false home alarms which have been labeled “backdoor taxes.”

“I don’t lie to people,” she said. “We keep spending other people’s money and it makes me crazy. I don’t think a majority of people can afford this … and it’s our job to smack people into living within their means.”

Hyms, who has served on a number of community groups including the board of the Ronkonkoma Chamber of Commerce and Sachem PTA Council, agreed with Kennedy. He proposed further consolidating services within the county to minimize budget shortfalls and debt. The Democratic candidate wants to control the cost of the police department; provide overtime to younger officers instead of older, higher-salaried ones; and hopes to tackle the county’s drug problem by providing better prevention and treatment programs to elementary school students.

“We have to impact the children when they’re younger because by the time they hit middle school, that’s when the real problems occur,” Hyms said. “I don’t think we’re doing as good a job today as we used to with the  DARE program.”

Kennedy acknowledged the opioid and heroin issue as well, pointing to her 30 years of experience as a nurse and medical experience treating gang members.

“With education on drugs, we definitely have to start earlier, but we also have to teach our kids self-confidence and self-esteem,” the legislator said. There’s more pressure on children today created by their parents and society, and they’re being taught they must be superachievers.”

Both candidates share similar views on the environment. Hyms addressed a need to install new types of sanitary systems to replace old concrete cesspools to greatly reduce the nitrogen contamination that enters the groundwater. Kennedy has pushed for projects that aim to clean up the county’s water supply. Both candidates strongly advocated for the importance of sewers as a way to improve not just the environment but the economy of downtown areas as well.

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