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Suffolk County

From left: Nassau County Executive Laura Curran (D), Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) and former Congressman Steve Israel. Photo from Bellone’s office

Counties on Long Island are preparing for the worst should another government shutdown occur.

In response to the most recent federal government shutdown, Nassau and Suffolk county officials announced the creation of a bi-county working group Jan. 25 to help coordinate resources for federal workers on Long Island who were affected by the 35-day shutdown and any future shutdowns that may arise. 

Former congressman Steve Israel, a Democrat who served 16 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, will lead the bi-county working group. 

“This federal shutdown is a man-made disaster that is hurting Long Islanders and our regional economy,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said in a statement. “We can no longer wait on Washington to get its act together, which is why we are appointing Congressman Israel to lead this bi-county working group to coordinate an effective response with all stakeholders and help those affected. 

“This federal shutdown is a man-made disaster that is hurting Long Islanders and our regional economy.”

— Steve Bellone

The group’s focus would be to bring together government officials, nonprofit organizations, social-service agencies and others to collaborate on helping workers affected. Together they plan on creating a resource guide that federal workers can access during shutdowns, bypassing red tape that may normally hinder their efforts. 

“There’s a lot of finger pointing over the federal government shutdown,” said Israel. “County Executives Bellone and [Nassau County Executive Laura Curran (D)], on the other hand, have decided to roll up their sleeves and protect their constituents. I’m honored to volunteer to assist them.” 

The latest shutdown, also the longest closure in U.S. history, had approximately 800,000 federal employees furloughed or had them forced to work without pay. TBR News Media reported several businesses stepped up to help during the shutdown, but many were inundated with people seeking aid. Some businesses received 200 or 300 people over a single weekend.

The shutdown has also had a major impact on the economy, reportedly cost Long Island as much as $28 million per week in lost wages to federal employees, according to data from the nonprofit Long Island Association. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported the latest shutdown cost the U.S. economy approximately $11 billion.

Despite the news that President Trump (R) and congressional leaders reached an agreement to reopen the government for the next three weeks, Derek Poppe, Bellone spokesperson, said it doesn’t change anything for the working group. 

“It is almost more important now than ever since we know there is another possible shutdown looming in three weeks when the temporary agreement runs out,” Poppe said in an email. “This deal confirms County Executive Bellone’s point that we need to prepare for the possibility of future federal shutdowns that have a devastating impact on workers and taxpayers.”

Students at Earl L. Vandermuelen High School in Port Jefferson discuss the health effects of vaping. Photo from PJSD

By David Luces

With the rising use of e-cigarettes in schools, Suffolk County is looking to find ways to put the liquid genie back in its bottle.

County Executive Steve Bellone (D) signed legislation Dec. 20 to increase the fine for the sale of all tobacco products, including vaping products, to those under 21 years old. 

“The popularity of electronic cigarettes has exploded into mainstream culture to the point where school officials in Suffolk County have asked our public health officials for clarity and assistance in dealing with record numbers of students who are vaping on school grounds,” Bellone said in a press release.  

“Vaping has become a concern in many high schools throughout Suffolk County,”

— Paul Casciano

Along with the new legislation, in January Suffolk County officials have continued to pilot a new vaping prevention program called Vape Out. The program is currently being run in North Babylon, Hampton Bays, Port Jefferson and Bayport-Blue Point school districts. Each school district involved has the option of picking one or all three of the approaches as a way of customizing the program. 

The anti-vaping program, consists of three elements: peer-to-peer education, alternatives to suspension and  community education, according to county officials. 

Paul Casciano, the superintendent of the Port Jefferson School District, said the Suffolk County Department of Health approached them in piloting the Teens-Teaching-Teens peer education element due in part to the success of a previous peer leadership program that ran in the high school. 

Dozens of Earl. L Vandermeulen High School students took part in a full day of training Dec. 6 2018 about the health effects of vaping and nicotine. The students watched a presentation on the health hazards of vaping and were given advice on how to refuse a hit. From there, district officials said they shared the lessons they learned with other students in both the high school and Port Jefferson Middle School.

Despite being in the early stages of the program, Casciano said the response to the training from peer leaders has been positive. 

According to a 2018 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in five high school students use e-cigarettes. One in 20 middle school students use e-cigarettes as well. 

The popularity of e-cigarettes has risen in recent years, a CDC National Youth Tobacco Survey found that e-cigarette use among high school students increased by 78 percent between 2017 and 2018. 

“Vaping has become a concern in many high schools throughout Suffolk County,” the superintendent said. “Knowing the potential negative effects of vaping and developing strategies to resist pressure from others to vape is important for parents, staff, and especially students to learn.”

According to a report from BBC News, the global vape product market was valued as over $22.6 billion in 2016. 

“This is not just a phase or fad,” John Martin, supervising public health educator, Suffolk County Department of Health Services, said. “When I go to these presentations, I ask middle schoolers if anyone was curious enough to smoke a cigarette — nobody raised their hand. When I asked if anyone would think about trying a mango-flavored e-cigarette, some hands came up.” 

“This is not just a phase or fad.”

— John Martin

Martin said they were winning the game in curbing cigarette use in youth but he acknowledged vaping and products like JUUL, one of the more popular brands of e-cigarettes and vape products, have led to new challenges. 

“We’ve had a long history with helping people with nicotine addiction,” said Nancy
Hemendinger, the director of Office of Health Education, Suffolk County Department of Health Services. “We need to work together to combat this issue.”

Other parts of the Vape Out programming include the alternative-to-suspension element which encourages school administrators to require students who have been reprimanded for vaping to attend a customized education intervention in lieu of school suspension. The community education element would connect parent forums with parent-teacher organizations, youth bureaus and agencies to employ a variety of educational tools .

“We need to get adults and parents to recognize these items as smoking devices,” Hemendinger said. “Also, we need to understand that these kids affected have a addiction and we need to help them — It is our job to spot these trends.”

This post was amended to correct the date of the Port Jefferson training day.

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A look inside the St. James General Store. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

Residents’ outcry over Suffolk County’s shortchanging of St. James General Store was met with an immediate reaction.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) made an internal budget transfer Jan. 23 to reallocate $100,000 from the Parks Department’s line for staffing to the funds for operation of St. James General Store, making good on his office’s promise to make the historic landmark whole.

“The hotel/motel tax came in better than we expected,” Eric Naughton, Suffolk’s budget director said. “We felt we could move $100,000 without impacting our operations.”

Alarm swept through the St. James community, residents and the store’s supporters last week after it was brought to light that the iconic store had its funding reduced by nearly 80 percent under the county’s adopted 2019 operating budget. Backers of the shop were concerned about its ability to keep its shelves stocked and continue operations.

“This is something that is near and dear to all of our hearts,” said Kerry Maher-Weisse, president of the Community Association of Greater St. James. “It’s a landmark that was the original post office of St. James. It’s such a huge part of our town that people come from all over to come to this place.”

Bellone only set aside $29,129 for the general store to purchase items for resale in 2019, down from a 2018 budget of $125,000. These funds were expected to stock the shelves of both the store and the Big Duck gift shop in Flanders, which is overseen by the same county staff. Naughton admitted the lowered funds would have only been sufficient through mid- to late spring.

Funding for the St. James General Store is taken from the proceeds of Suffolk’s hotel/motel tax, according to Naughton, which places a 3 percent occupancy tax on individuals renting rooms or lodging within the county that took effect in 2014.

Naughton said part of the reason the internal transfer was done is that the county executive did not want to delay funding to St. James General Store, which generally turns a profit for the county. Suffolk Legislature is expected to review and vote on allocation of the 2018 hotel/motel at its Feb. 13 general meeting for various organizations. To wait till then would have left St. James community wondering about the future fate of the landmark for an additional three weeks.

A look inside the St. James General Store. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

The St. James General Store is one of the longest continuously operating stores in the country, selling homemade goods and treats to visitors since 1857. Now, there is uncertainty and fear that its future is in danger.

Suffolk County, which operates the shop as a historic site under the Parks Department, has reduced its funding of the landmark by nearly 80 percent under the county’s adopted 2019 operating budget. St. James residents and supporters of the general store are concerned about its ability to keep its shelves stocked and continue operations.

“It’s a landmark that was the original post office of St. James. It’s such a huge part of our town that people come from all over to come to this place.”

— Kerry Maher-Weisse

“This is something that is near and dear to all of our hearts,” said Kerry Maher-Weisse, president of the Community Association of Greater St. James. “It’s a landmark that was the original post office of St. James. It’s such a huge part of our town that people come from all over to come to this place.”

Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone (D) only set aside $29,129 for the general store to purchase items for resale, down from a 2018 budget of $125,000. These funds are expected to stock the shelves of both the store and the Big Duck gift shop in Flanders, which is overseen by the same county staff.

“In 2018, the county had extra money left over from prior years and was able to appropriate additional funds to parks [including the stores],” Eric Naughton, the county’s budget director, said.

Despite the slashing of the stores budget, Suffolk’s lawmakers generally agree the St. James and Big Duck shops are moneymakers for the county. The stores turned over a profit of approximately $400,000 in 2018, which was returned to Suffolk’s general fund.

“As it does make money, it is in our best interest to increase its funding,” Naughton said.

As it does make money, it is in our best interest to increase its funding.”

— Eric Naughton

St. James resident Scott Posner, president of neighboring Deepwells Farm Historical Society, is familiar firsthand with the county’s fiscal issues. Roughly 14 years ago, the county walked away from running Deepwells for “budgetary reasons,” and he was part of a group there to continue to ensure the site’s operations. Posner said he’s ready to advocate for the general store.

“What we’re doing right now is making sure the county corrects its funding,” he said. “What we really need to do is lean on the county.”

Funding for the St. James General Store is taken from the proceeds of Suffolk’s hotel/motel tax, according to Naughton, which places a 3 percent occupancy tax on individuals renting rooms or lodging within the county. The budget director said once the tax is collected from businesses for last year and he’s able to reconcile the 2018 proceeds, there should be additional funding available to allocate to St. James General Store, Big Duck gift shop and the parks.

“I think we will be able to return it to the same level of funding,” Naughton said.

It is a living part of the past. It would be a shame to see it defunded.”

— Bev Tyler

Any additional funding recommended by the Suffolk executive’s office would need to go before the county Legislature for a vote and its approval before being appropriated. In the meanwhile, the county and the general store’s supporters agree the store’s limited budget will be enough to get it through the spring.

“The St. James General Store is one of the treasures of Suffolk County,” Bev Tyler, Three Village Historical Society historian said. “It is a living part of the past. It would be a shame to see it defunded.”

County Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), whose district covers St. James, said he will advocate for the store: “The oldest store in the country has survived the hurricanes, suburban sprawl, the Civil War and the Great Depression,” but not the county’s mismanagement.

Editor’s Note: The last name of Bev Tyler, Three Village Historical Society historian, was changed to its proper spelling. 

John Kennedy Jr. (R) in a 2014 debate at TBR News Media. File Photo by Erika Karp

Hot off an electoral victory from last November, Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. (R) spoke to TBR News Media on a number of topics including a new county online tax filing system, the need for more cohesion on how towns send their tax rolls to his office and the potential of running for Suffolk County executive in 2019.

Online tax filing for delinquent taxes

Kennedy announced a new online filing service that will be available to Suffolk County residents after the tax season ends May 31.

‘With this new software component somebody is able to pay taxes on a Sunday.’

— John Kennedy Jr.

The program, called Citizen Self Service, will allow residents to plug in their bank account and routing numbers instead of sending the county a paper check to pay late or delayed property taxes. 

“With this new software component somebody is able to pay taxes on a Sunday,” Kennedy said. “[People who don’t use technology] are something we, in government, have to be mindful to accommodate.”

Each township’s receiver of taxes mails out tax bills mid-December and are payable to the tax receiver from Dec. 1 through May 31. If a resident fails to pay their taxes on time, they become delinquent and must pay their taxes to the county comptroller with an additional 5 percent interest plus 1 percent for each additional month the taxes are late. Payments received later than Aug. 31 are charged an additional tax sale advertising fee.

Kennedy said the existing pay-by-mail system will remain in place. The comptroller’s office also hosts a pay-by-phone system that allows property owners to talk to a representative and pay the bill that way, but Kennedy said that system is limited in the amount of time it takes and the business hours of the comptroller’s office. 

“We always must make an ability for someone to go ahead and transact,” he said.

Need for consistency between towns

The comptroller said there have been issues in the past with how municipalities report tax payments to his office. Suffolk County towns must give lists to the comptroller’s office on which bills were paid and those persons or businesses that are tax delinquent. The issue, Kennedy said, was no two towns currently use the same system to file these reports.

“I have 10 town tax receivers to deal with regarding their individual software systems for the record of tax collection,” he said. “We have to drive uniformity amongst the towns — one way or the other they will have to pass muster through us.”

Some towns are more accurate than others, according to Kennedy, as he named the Town of Islip as the most consistently accurate and on-time with its tax reports. Most municipalities collect approximately 90 to 95 percent of their areas property taxes. The comptroller’s office must then spend time going back and forth between the towns’ tax receiver offices to work out those discrepancies. 

Kennedy said he’s soon planning to implement, on a prototype “scrubbing system” that will find mistakes on each town’s end and flag them to be fixed before the documents reach the comptroller’s office. The system will first start on a preliminary basis with Brookhaven and Smithtown townships this year. 

Potential run for county executive

‘Do I think I could do a better job than the current county executive? Yes, my answer to that is yes.’

— John Kennedy Jr.

Kennedy is only a few months out from his Nov. 6 victory against Democratic challenger Jay Schneiderman for his second term in office. It was close as Kennedy received only 50.88 percent of the votes. 

Still, the comptroller is now weighing the pros and cons of running for the office of county executive.

“I am weighing the possibility, but I have not made any decision yet regarding it,” he said. “Do I think I could do a better job than the current county executive? Yes, my answer to that is yes.”

Part of his decision-making process is figuring if he would trust another person to take up the duties and responsibilities of Suffolk’s comptroller. 

“Do I know of anybody that comes to mind, anybody who would embrace the position that I have? I don’t know.” Kennedy said. “The thing that allows me to be aggressive, is the time I spent in the Legislature, the time I was minority leader, my experience in government and my experience as an attorney.”

Read TBR News Media next week for Kennedy’s take on Suffolk’s financial status, how it could impact residents and the upcoming police contract negotiations. 

At center, Rebecca Sanin, president and CEO of the Health & Welfare Council of Long Island, speaks about WIC changes Jan. 10. Photo by David Luces

By David Luces

Suffolk County officials are working to partner with food pantries and nonprofits to help ensure low-income women and children keep access to basic food and health care in the months ahead as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children undergoes a major change in the months ahead. 

The county offices of the WIC program are closed Jan.14 for a week to upgrade to a debit card-based system, making the transition away from paper checks to electronic benefit transfer cards in accordance with New York State law. 

The facilities will reopen Jan. 22 in limited capacity only to allow time for employee training and EBT card distribution to clients. 

“WIC sites are not only providers, they also serve as powerful community centers.”

— Rebecca Sanin

Suffolk officials expect the WIC program to be back up and running in April, but many are concerned that its recipients should have ready access to food and health care during
the transition.

The officials viewed the new EBT system changes as necessary to modernize and streamline the program for its more than 12,000 Suffolk recipients.  

“I can’t think of no greater priority than making sure babies and children in their youngest years are well fed and never face nutritional insecurities,” Rebecca Sanin, president and CEO of Health & Welfare Council of Long Island, said during a Jan. 10 press conference. 

The council, Hauppauge-based Long Island Cares and Island Harvest of Bethpage have compiled a listing of food pantries in close proximity to WIC offices for families in need during the closure at www.hwcli.com/wic-closings. 

WIC provides more than food for low-income families, it also offers basic health care for children under age 5 including height, weight, blood tests and iron levels. The program provides women and children with access to nutritional counseling, breastfeeding support and peer counseling. 

“WIC sites are not only providers, they also serve as powerful community centers,” Sanin said. “Food security leads to lower infant mortality rates and safer pregnancies.” 

 Paule Pachter, president and CEO of nonprofit Long Island Cares, said he recognizes there are challenges ahead. 

“If the public doesn’t provide the food to the pantries, we don’t have them.”

— Paule Pachter

“When you are trying to provide food for mothers and babies, you are talking about some of the most expensive food on the market,” Patcher said. “Formula, baby food, diapers, specialized food — this stuff is not readily available at the local food pantries.” 

Many individuals rely on LI Cares and Island Harvest for these products. 

“If the public doesn’t provide the food to the pantries, we don’t have them,” he said. “We’ve been preparing for this day for quite some time.”

As part of the preparations for the months ahead, LI Cares has made sure that mothers can have access to these vital products at their satellite locations in Freeport, Lindenhurst and Huntington Station. 

The Hauppauge nonprofit also created mobile outreach units to go into the community to make residents aware of the ongoing closure and changes to the EBT system. They will be visiting Centereach, Bay Shore, Bohemia, Brentwood, Patchogue, Riverhead and Southampton.  

Sanin said WIC agencies have worked very hard to get in contact with clients to pick up  their checks in advance. 

In addition, part of the new system will include the launch of a new smartphone app, WIC2Go, that will let clients track their benefits, find vendors and items. 

“The new system will be much easier for clients,” Sanin said.

Suffolk County Legislator William "Doc" Spencer, center, stands with doctors, school officials and parents rallying in support of banning flavored e-cigarettes Dec. 13. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

A legislative proposition to ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes and vaping liquids in Suffolk County created a frenzy, packing the county Legislature last week to argue the pros and cons.

Suffolk Legislator Dr. William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) drafted legislation that would ban the sale of all flavored vapes and e-liquids, with the exception of menthol and mint, before the Health Committee Dec. 13 for a public hearing. His proposal drew more than 75 speakers including health officials, small business owners and students.

“This is a public health emergency,” Spencer said. “We are seeing an astonishing increase in vamping among those ages 12 to 17, and to wait for the FDA or state to take action is not acceptable at the expense of more children becoming addicted.”

This is a public health emergency.” 

— William “Doc” Spencer

The legislator said studies indicate the number of children vaping in the last year has tripled, and that up to 80 percent cite flavor as the main reason. Spencer said candy and fruity flavors such as cotton candy or Cinnamon Toast Crunch paired with flashy advertising on social media is enticing young people.

“The kids don’t even have a chance,” he said.

The proposed legislation has gained momentum with letters of support from Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, Suffolk County High School Principals Association, the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, according to Spencer.

“Studies show children try vaping and e-cigs because of the flavors and kids who use these products get addicted and are more likely to move on to combustible cigarettes, with all the health detriments we know are caused by smoking,” said Dr. Eve Meltzer Krief, a member and legislative advocate with New York Chapter 2 of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

In 2008, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the use of flavoring in cigarettes. Spencer said it’s his belief the FDA will take this step with e-cigarettes next.

Ibrahim Bal, co-owner of Cloud Vapor and Smoke vape shop in Smithtown, speaks Dec. 13. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

A number of small business owners spoke out against the proposed legislation stating the issues of children ages 12 to 17 vaping isn’t the flavors, but rather an issue of access and enforcement of Suffolk County’s limitation on sale of tobacco product to those over the age of 21.

“Fake IDs are the biggest bane of my existence,” said Ibrahim Bal, co-owner of Cloud Vapor and Smoke vape shop in Smithtown. “I’ve come to a point where I’ve had to turn away people who have actual IDs from [New] Jersey.”

Bal encouraged members of the Health Committee to strongly consider steeper penalties for businesses that sell e-cigarettes and vapes to those who are underage. The county’s current law states a first offense is punishable by a minimum fine of $300, with a fee of $500 to $1,500 for each subsequent infraction.

“We’re all on the same page, we don’t’ want kids vaping,” Bal said.

His brother and business partner, Semih, said the children will still be able to purchase e-cigarettes, like the popular JUUL online, and said the issue of access is a matter of responsible parenting.

“Parents need to stop buying it for their kids,” he said, citing it as a frequent occurrence.

I’m in America, you can’t tell me I can’t have a flavor.”

— Ron Diamond

His point was strongly seconded by Ron Diamond, owner of Ronjo’s Magic & Costumes in Port Jefferson Station, who said he has recently made the move into selling vape and wellness products in the last nine months. Diamond said his clientele are mature adults attracted to the diverse flavor choices available for use in larger vapor units, not the e-cigarette cartridges favored by teens.

“We have a bigger problem in America, and that’s flavored cereals,” he said. “We have a bigger problem because all the children are obese. If you are going to take away flavor from a vapor, let’s take the flavor away from luring in children to be obese with cereal and sugary, flavors in cereal.”

Diamond said he would support stricter regulation including mandating ID card scanners be installed in each store, locking down sale to vape-specific shops rather than convenience stores, and strict enforcement of identification to prevent underage sale.

“I’m in America, you can’t tell me I can’t have a flavor,” Diamond said.

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.

Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini announces charges related to illegal dumping scheme. Photo from DA's office

Long Island homeowners who thought they were getting free, clean fill for their properties off Craigslist may have learned if the offer seems too good to be true, that’s because it was.

Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini (D) announced a 130-charge indictment Nov. 26 against 22 individuals and nine corporations who allegedly cooperated in a massive conspiracy to illegally dispose of solid waste in 24 locations spanning Suffolk and Nassau counties.

“What we’re dealing with here is an epidemic of illegal dumping in Suffolk County,” Sini said. “It’s gone on far too long, and our message is very clear: We will not tolerate this criminal conduct in our county. We will do whatever it takes to uncover illegal dumping.”

Smithtown resident Anthony Grazio acted as “dirt broker” in the island-wide dumping scheme. Photo from DA’s office

The conspiracy was allegedly led by Smithtown resident Anthony Grazio, 53, also known as “Rock,” who acted as a dirt broker by arranging for locations where trucking companies could illegally dispose of their solid waste and construction debris, according to Suffolk prosecutors.

An investigation dubbed Operation Pay Dirt, which involved the district attorney’s office, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Suffolk County Police Department, launched in February 2018 revealed Grazio was allegedly posting ads on Craigslist and other websites offering “free, clean fill — free delivery,” in addition to stating it was “certified and approved for residential and commercial use.” Grazio allegedly worked with Vito Fragola, 44, of Commack, to also post a sign on a tree outside a home on Wilson Boulevard in Central Islip to advertise “free clean fill,” in February 2018, according to court documents.

When a Long Island homeowner or business expressed interest in fill for landscaping projects, Grazio and owners or operators of nine different trucking companies would discuss the potential of the site and the amount of material that could be dumped there from New York City construction and demolition sites, according to the district attorney.

“The bigger the property, the better for the defendants as this scam was all about making money,” Sini said. “When an ideal property was found, Grazio could often be heard directing his co-conspirators to ‘hit it hard.’ Grazio approved material being dumped at residential locations even when notified that the material smelled like diesel fuel or had pieces of wood, asphalt, concrete, large boulders or even glass contained in the material.”

Investigators claimed after dumping contaminated fill on a property, Grazio and his co-conspirators allegedly went as far as to provide the homeowners with false laboratory reports stating the material was clean or cover it with a layer of topsoil to ensure grass could grow. In other cases, the truck owners and operators were allegedly caught having phone discussions on how to cover up the hazardous materials being moved about to prevent detection of the illegal dumping.

Out of the 24 locations identified to be impacted by the scheme, the district attorney’s office said 19 were residential properties, four commercial and one school in Roslyn Heights.

“They did this to make money, they did this to save on operating costs, and they did it at the expense of the health of our residents,” Sini said.

Testing performed by the DEC found fill at six locations was positive for acutely hazardous substances, mainly pesticides, with 17 sites containing hazardous substances under the state’s Environmental Conservation Law. These hazardous substances included arsenic, lead, copper, nickel, mercury and other metals.

Map of all illegal dumping sites. Photo from DA’s office

“Illegal solid waste dumping poses a serious threat to New York’s environment and burdens communities across Long Island,” said DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos.

Among North Shore individuals charged alongside Grazio and Fragola for being involved in this alleged scheme were: Alix Aparaicio Gomez, 50, of Huntington; Anthony Grazio Jr., 19, of Smithtown; Michael Heinrichs, 48, of Port Jefferson Station; Robert Hirsch, 43, of Commack; Joseph Lamberta, 68, of Hauppauge; Steven Nunez Genao, 24, of Port Jefferson Station; Milan Parik, 46, of Centereach; James Perruzza, 18, of Northport; Frank Rotondo Jr., 47, of Miller Place; Thomas St. Clair, 51, of St. James; and Robert Walter, 31, of Nesconset.

The top count on the indictment is second-degree criminal mischief, which is a Class D felony, and, if found guilty, carries a maximum sentence of up to seven years in prison.

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.

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