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Suffolk County

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.

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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.

Candidates to meet again on the ballot in November

Theresa Whelan and Tara Scully discuss their Democratic primary race, which takes place Sept. 13, during an exclusive interview at TBR News Media in Setauket Sept. 6. Photos by Kyle Barr

Their first race is in the books, but the more important one is yet to come.

Family Court Judge Theresa Whelan defeated attorney Tara Scully in the Democratic primary Sept. 13 to secure a spot on the November ballot in the race to preside over Suffolk County’s Surrogate’s Court. Whelan received nearly 65 percent of the vote, besting Scully 38,674 to 21,040 votes.

“Last night was a great victory for Democrats,” Whelan said in a statement Sept. 14. “I want to thank the voters of Suffolk County and Democratic Chairman Rich Schaffer for having confidence in me and my credentials. I’m looking forward to presenting my 10 years of judicial experience and 30 years of courtroom experience to the voters in November.”

“Last night was a great victory for Democrats.”

— Theresa Whelan

A spokesperson for Scully’s campaign characterized the primary result as a win for the candidate.

“Tara scored her first victory in July, when her entrance into the race forced party leaders to scrap their plan to make a Conservative the candidate of the Democratic Party and scurry to find a Plan B,” campaign spokesman James Walsh said in a statement. “Today, more than 21,000 Democrats who voted to make Tara the candidate of their party sent a clear message to the party bosses that they are fed up with cross-endorsement deals. Tara is still the only candidate for Surrogate nominated by the people. No other candidate gathered a single signature to get into the race. We are confident that she will have broad support across party lines in the General Election.”

The nearly 60,000 voters in the closed primary represented a significant turnout jump from the last time Democrats went to the polls. On June 26, a little more than 32,000 Suffolk County residents registered as Democrats voted in Congressional primaries for the 1st and 2nd districts combined, though the Sept. 13 primary also featured New York gubernatorial, lieutenant governor and attorney general candidates.

“Today, more than 21,000 Democrats who voted to make Tara the candidate of their party sent a clear message to the party bosses that they are fed up with cross-endorsement deals.”

— James Walsh

The Surrogate’s Court race came under scrutiny after Newsday ran an editorial publicizing the political patronage and cross-endorsement agreements that highlighted the race. Newsday reported earlier this year District Court Judge Marian Rose Tinari, who is married to Suffolk’s Conservative Party Chairman Frank Tinari, and is a Conservative herself, had secured the Democratic Party line in the Surrogate’s Court race as a result of a deal with Suffolk Democratic Committee Chairman Rich Schaffer.
As a result, Scully said she gathered enough petitions to run on both Democratic and Republican lines in July to offer voters an alternative. When presented with Scully as a primary challenger, Tinari dropped out. The Democratic Party then nominated Whelan, who calls herself a life-long Democrat.

Despite Thursday’s primary defeat, Scully has secured the Republican Party line in the race for Surrogate’s court and will face off Whelan again at the polls in less than two months.

Judge John Czygier Jr., who currently oversees the county’s Surrogate’s Court, is nearing the mandatory retirement age, leaving a vacancy Scully and Whelan are competing to fill. The position, which yields a salary in excess of $200,000, carries a 10-year term, and the occupant may serve until age 70.

Surrogate’s Court is responsible for handling all issues involving wills and the estates of people who die. The court also handles guardianship hearings and some adoption cases for children whose parents are deceased. Each of New York state’s 62 counties has one surrogate judge except New York and Kings counties, which have two each.

This post was updated Sept. 18.

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When voters head to booths Thursday to participate in several statewide primaries, it is unlikely that the race for a judicial seat presiding over Suffolk County’s Surrogate’s Court will be at the top of their minds. We understand. The governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general races are likely what will drive primary voters to the polls, and deservedly so, as those are high-profile positions with juicy political implications for those who track things like the shifting nuclei of both parties.

So for those who haven’t paid close attention to what’s going on in a judicial race for a court most people probably never heard of, there’s a few things we think voters should know.

Tara Scully and Theresa Whelan are set to square off in the Democratic primary Sept. 13. Scully, a registered Republican, has already gotten the nod to secure that party line in the general election, meaning if she wins the Democratic primary, her name will appear next to both major political parties come November. Whelan, on the other hand, is an actual Democrat, though Newsday has reported that based on a deal cut by party bosses, if she wins the primary she’ll also be granted the Conservative Party line in the general election. Have we lost you yet? To summarize, on November’s general election ballot either a Republican will have both major lines or a Democrat will be listed as both a Democrat and a Conservative.

To try to get to the bottom of this mess, we invited the candidates in for a discussion with the TBR News Media editorial staff Sept. 6. While we are not endorsing a candidate, we have some thoughts we’d like to share anyway.

We admire what Scully did — stepping up and answering a call for a candidate unshackled by predetermined deals. She was able to earn enough petition signatures in a short window of time to run on both major party lines. However, if the result is she is representing both Democrats and Republicans on the ballot in November, it’s difficult to argue that voters still have a fair choice.

And while Whelan is a Democrat seeking a nod from her own party, rewarding backroom dealing designed to circumvent the will of voters is not a practice that should be encouraged either.

Having said all of that, after being in a room with the candidates for an hour, a few things became very clear. Both candidates are running with their hearts in the right place. They each expressed a desire to preside over a court that requires a touch of empathy and compassion, with fairness being of the utmost importance and politics divorced from the job. We also love to see political races featuring two accomplished and qualified women. Each has served as president of the Women’s Bar Association in addition to a litany of other impressive resume lines. Both seem to realize as well that they are essentially — no pun intended — surrogates having the political baggage marring this race imposed upon them. The discussion was respectful, truthful and honest, and each expressed that she had nothing bad to say about the other personally.

Regardless of the outcome of this race, we hope what voters glean from it is yet another reminder that citizen vigilance is not just important for a healthy democracy, but in reality, it’s the only thing keeping it alive. Research candidates. Figure out what these people stand for before you enter a voting booth or be prepared to live with the consequences.

Scully and Whelan face off in Democratic Primary Sept. 13, but they could meet again in the general election

Theresa Whelan and Tara Scully discuss their Democratic primary race, which takes place Sept. 13, during an exclusive interview at TBR News Media in Setauket Sept. 6. Photos by Kyle Barr

By Kyle Barr and Alex Petroski

Political races for local judgeships don’t tend to garner much attention, but the 2018 race to preside over Suffolk County’s Surrogate’s Court is breaking the mold.

Judge John Czygier Jr., who currently oversees the county’s Surrogate’s Court, is nearing the mandatory retirement age, leaving a vacancy candidates Tara Scully and Theresa Whelan are competing to fill. The position, which yields a salary in excess of $200,000, carries a 10-year term, and the occupant may serve until age 70. The candidates face off in the Democratic primary Sept. 13 for the party line in the general election.

The situation has drawn criticism far and wide, largely on the practice of cross-party endorsement deals. The candidates sat down Sept. 6 for an exclusive interview with TBR News Media’s editorial staff to set the record straight.

What is Surrogate’s Court?

Surrogate’s Court is responsible for handling all issues involving wills and the estates of people who die. The court also handles guardianship hearings and some adoption cases for children whose parents are deceased. Each of New York state’s 62 counties has one surrogate judge except New York and Kings counties, which have two each. The court’s rulings can involve large amounts of money, making it uniquely susceptible to political patronage.

Scully and Whelan both said they have the utmost respect for Czygier and seek to continue his legacy and practices.

“Surrogate’s Court is there to help families when they can’t really help themselves,” Whelan said. “It has to be fair.”

Scully stressed the importance of having empathy in Surrogate’s Court.

“It’s a sanctuary and it needs to be treated like that,” she said. “People there are dealing with extremely difficult issues.”

Family Court Judge Whelan vies for nod

“I thought that it was important that an actual Democrat represented the Democratic Party in this race.”

— Theresa Whelan

Whelan, 56, a Wading River resident, said she is throwing her hat into the ring for the Democratic nomination because of her qualifications and experience.

“I have the bench experience,” Whelan, a registered Democrat, said. “I thought that it was important that an actual Democrat represented the Democratic Party in this race.”

The nominee took the bench in Suffolk County Family Court in 2008, before becoming the supervising judge in 2016. There, she hears primarily abuse and neglect cases. Her responsibilities include overseeing nine judges and seven support magistrates in two courthouses.

“I have assisted hundreds, if not thousands of children to be successfully reunited with their parents,” Whelan said. “And if that’s not possible, we try to find them another loving option.”

Since 2009, Whelan has led Suffolk County’s Child Welfare Court Improvement Project, an initiative to address court practices when a child is removed from a parent’s care while trying to ensure their safety and well-being.

The nominee said she is an active member of the Suffolk County Bar Association and often lectures for them. She co-chaired Suffolk’s Family Court & Matrimonial Law committee for three years and is a former president of the Suffolk County Women’s Bar Association. Whelan’s husband, Thomas, is also a judge, currently serving as a Suffolk County Supreme Court justice.

Despite current calls for an end to party patronage, Whelan said the position she’s running for is not a tool to fix the political system. She hopes to win on her own merits.

“I have support of statewide judges, the chief judge, the administrative judge, the bar association, etc. [in my roll on the Family Court],” the nominee said. “I stand here as my own candidate.”

Scully cites her experience in elder law

Scully, 41, of Setauket, said she’s seeking the Democratic nomination after calls by Newsday and other elected officials to challenge the patronage system affecting this and other judicial races.

A registered Republican, she pointed to her years working in elder law as part of the experience she can bring to the Surrogate’s bench.

“I do recognize I have an uphill battle,” Scully said. “But I love the Surrogate’s Court, and I believe the sanctity of our courts has to be preserved.”

Scully started her career working in the executive chamber of former New York State Gov. George Pataki (R), before serving as counsel in guardianship proceedings for the state’s Appellate Division’s Mental Hygiene Legal Service. Like Whelan, she also is a former president of the Suffolk County Women’s Bar Association.

Scully began her Port Jefferson-based practice in 2011 focusing on elder law. She said she has extensive experience in estate planning and administration, asset protection and guardianship proceedings, all of which she said would be important knowledge for Surrogate’s Court. Like Whelan, Scully also has political connections in the family as her father, Peter Scully, has name recognition in Suffolk County. He previously served as the regional chief for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and currently works as one of County Executive Steve Bellone’s (D) deputies.

Tara Scully said she often provides free legal representation for indigent seniors, veterans and those with disabilities.

“I have a poor business sense in the amount of pro bono work I take on,” Scully said.

In 2015, Scully ran for Brookhaven Town District Court judge where she said she saw firsthand the way party patronage has entwined itself with politics after turning down a cross-endorsement deal. She lost by 173 votes.

“I was so green I didn’t realize at the point that in many circumstances it was business as usual,” Scully said. “I think a lot of people were upset with me that my gut reaction was revulsion.”

Political backstory

“Cross-endorsement deals are dictating who our judicial choices are, and the voter is unaware an individual without political backing, without a political upbringing or allegiance to political parties is never going to take the bench.”

— Tara Scully

Although judges are expected to set aside their personal beliefs, politics has marred the race, though not necessarily thanks to the candidates themselves. Neither Whelan nor Scully were involved in this race as of early summer. Newsday reported earlier this year District Court Judge Marian Rose Tinari, who is married to Conservative Party chairman, Frank Tinari, and is a Conservative herself, had secured the Democratic Party line in the Surrogate’s Court race as a result of a deal with Suffolk Democratic Party chairman, Rich Schaffer, which was one of many similar deals between Suffolk party bosses.

In June, Newsday ran an editorial in the form of a want ad, calling for a candidate “with a backbone to resist pressure from political bosses,” in response to the cross-endorsement of Tinari. Scully said she sprang into action as a result of the editorial to meet a tight deadline, and garnered enough signatures to run as both a Democrat and Republican. With a primary challenger stepping up to the plate, Tinari withdrew. Democrats then selected Whelan, who called herself a lifelong Democrat, as their candidate.

Scully has argued her decision to enter the Democratic primary — despite being a registered Republican — has provided voters with a more transparent choice than if a Conservative had remained on the Democrat line.

“I think the real point is six weeks ago, eight weeks ago, the Democrat candidate was a Conservative, and Democrats would go in and vote and not have any idea that the individual they’re voting for is not in line with their party philosophies,” Scully said. “Cross-endorsement deals are dictating who our judicial choices are, and the voter is unaware an individual without political backing, without a political upbringing or allegiance to political parties is never going to take the bench.”

Whelan argued that voters are equally in the dark with a Republican in a Democratic primary. If she loses Thursday, there will be one name occupying both major party’s lines come November, as Scully has already been penciled onto the ballot by the Republican Party. Whelan joked when voters enter booths Sept. 13 they’ll simply be deciding between two Irish last names with little knowledge of the politics. She also took issue with Scully portraying herself as “standing up for Democratic principles” on her campaign site.

“If I don’t win the primary, voters don’t have a choice, and I think that’s fair to say,” Whelan said. “I’m presenting myself as a Democratic Party member and the experienced judge, so that Tara and I can actually have a real election on Election Day, and I think that’s what she was trying to accomplish in the beginning.”

This post was updated Sept. 11. This post was updated Sept. 12 to clarify a quote from Whelan.

Members of the SCSSA Executive Board met with Suffolk County law enforcement officials and lawmakers to discuss its five-point Blueprint for Action to Enhance School Safety Aug. 27. Photo from SCSSA

Superintendents in Suffolk County are trying to get their schools all on the same page when it comes to safety.

Following the particularly deadly school shooting — though just the latest in a long line of similar occurrences — that took place in Parkland, Florida at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February, which resulted in 17 casualties, discussions about concrete steps to enhance safety for students and staff in buildings from coast to coast have been seemingly unending. In Suffolk County, school officials have teamed up to release a five-point blueprint of actionable steps, officially recommended by the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association Aug. 27 to local, state and federal lawmakers.

The superintendents are calling on lawmakers to invest in the School Resource Officer program, providing additional officers in Suffolk County schools; adopt legislation that enhances campus safety, including amending the New York State Criminal Procedure Law dealing with setting bail; make the New York State SAFE Act the law of the land; support the social, emotional and mental health of children through screening programs and education initiatives; and provide institutional support to finance school safety, calling for the state to initiate School Security Aid and to exempt school safety expenditures from the tax levy limitation.

“While school safety has always been a top priority, following the horrific massacre at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado, and the tragic events that followed, the importance of a strong working relationship between the police, mental health providers and public-school officials has become more important than ever,” the association said in a press release. “The SCSSA plans to continue to work together with Suffolk County law enforcement and local, state and federal legislators to turn these plans into actions that will improve school safety and the safety and wellness of all students in Suffolk County.”

In August, representatives from Sandy Hook Promise, a national nonprofit organization that was founded by parents from the Connecticut elementary school to carry out its mission of preventing all gun-related deaths, held a forum for the association and law enforcement officials. The purpose of the meeting was to share details about four programs they’ve created aimed at preventing violence in schools.

The four strategies, which fall under the nonprofit’s Know the Signs program, are taught to youth and adults free of charge in the hopes of fostering an environment that empowers everyone in the community to help identify and intervene when someone is at risk free of charge. Superintendents who were in attendance from several local districts pledged to further examine Sandy Hook Promise’s programs and to take steps toward implementing them.

During an exclusive interview with TBR News Media in July, Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. said creating countywide standards for school security is a priority for his department.

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