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Tom Cilmi

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. File photo by Kyle Barr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Steve Bellone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Rob Trotta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This has become the worst of our politics.”

— Duwayne Gregory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

File photo

By Kevin Redding

In celebration of Presidents’ Day, local elected officials weighed in on the occupants of the Oval Office who inspired them to do what they do.

Legislator Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) – Ronald Reagan/George H.W. Bush

“It would have to be Ronald Reagan. He was the first president that I became familiar with as a young adult, in terms of my interest in politics. He had such a unique ability to communicate a conservative message to the country in a way that wasn’t divisive, in a way that was inspiring and uplifting, and so I really admire him for that and so many other things.

And, of course, George H.W. Bush, who took over the Oval Office after Reagan. He was the first politician I ever helped campaign for and that was during his re-election effort in which he lost to Bill Clinton. That same year Rick Lazio ran for Congress against Thomas Downey and I got pretty heavily involved in volunteering. If it hadn’t been for that, honestly, I would not be sitting here today.

From that experience, I met a former county legislator I ended up working for for a short period of time and he introduced me to county government and lots of different folks in the party, so I would say: purely from an inspirational point of view, it would be Reagan and in terms of the one president that really motivated me to get actively involved in politics, it was George H.W. Bush.”:

Legislator Al Krupski (D) – George Washington

“I think he was someone that really believed in a cause. In his case, the cause was an independent America and he was willing to sacrifice his time and his family’s time to make that happen. He certainly took great personal risks as a general and, again, as president, he sacrificed his time and the rest of his life was dedicated towards the country.

The way he was able to handle power was admirable. The rest of the world thought he was going to become a dictator, and he could’ve, but he didn’t. He didn’t want to be the dictator. He wanted America to be a democracy; he believed in that. I’ve always liked history and I’ve always read about history and been [fascinated] by him pretty much my whole life. If you look at his cabinet, he surrounded himself with people with diverse backgrounds and ideologies and I’ve always listened to people with different viewpoints. I think that kind of mentality as a leader is important: to not just have a bunch of “yes men” but being able to listen to people with different viewpoints.”

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) John F. Kennedy

“Kennedy had a sense of humor, had a sense of history, and he learned from his mistakes. His mistake early in the administration was to follow through with Eisenhower’s decision that he did not execute well, with the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and he learned from that. I think that’s why he was so successful thereafter when, in 1962, a year and a half after, we had the Cuban Missile Crisis, and he was able to diffuse that despite the urging that we invade or bomb Cuba. He avoided that and avoided a crisis and potentially a World War.

I was also extremely impressed with his June 1963 speech at American University about how we all live on one planet and talked about peace being a much nobler goal while we were in the middle of the Cold War and he could see beyond that, so I think he had vision.

Obviously as a person, he had a lot of shortcomings, which a lot of people have dwelled on since the time of his death, but I think as a man and as a leader, people wanted to follow him and I think he was a good president. I knew if he had lived, we would not have been in the Vietnam War. He spoke against getting involved. It was sad to see him go, because in going, the policies changed dramatically, and when we changed leaders, we committed an entire generation to war and turned a lot of people into cynics against their government.

[Inspired by him], I try not to rush to judgment, I try to step back and put things in context and have a sense of history. As someone who has all my degrees in history, I try to put things in context and that helps a lot.”

Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) – Barack Obama

“I’ve been in the Legislature for six years, and got elected in 2011, which was then-president Obama’s third year in office. I had been a physician and I was a big participant in getting involved in the hope and change … Obama being the first Black American president was inspirational for me as one of the few Black American elected officials.

I appreciated the fact that he started out working in the community, was someone that had all the education and training, and was a community organizer. I believe he exhibited the qualities of service and compassion for our fellow man and for those who have the smallest voice, and I believe in hard work and education as well. He had a very clear message that resonated and it got a lot of people involved, and I think that was transformative.

I don’t want it to appear that just because he was black, he encouraged me because I’m black. That had some significance but what I appreciated most was his character. He was a slow and steady hand and he brought qualities of dignity and respect … I also admired the way he conducted himself personally with his family.”

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson) – Barack Obama

“I think Obama, who was a law school professor, intimately understood how to use the law to help others and he actually worked his way up through government, so he took all the steps and is a bottom-up leader. Obama being an activist and community organizer really impressed me. I think it’s important that we [as elected officials] are in the community, and talk to people face-to-face about their issues. I think that he is, arguably, the most eloquent, dignified, and diplomatic president of my time and I try to emulate his qualities.”

Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) – Ronald Reagan

“He was a fiscally conservative guy who was socially moderate; he would try to save money and have less government … and keep government out of things. That’s what I believe: we shouldn’t be involved in a lot of these things.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) – Harry S. Truman

“Harry Truman’s my favorite president. He was an ordinary man who did extraordinary things and demonstrated that you can reach the highest levels of our government while maintaining your integrity. More than 20 years ago, I read David McCullough’s book “Truman” and it was one of the best political biographies I’ve ever read. When I served on active duty in the U.S. Army, I was based in Missouri — which is the home state of Truman — and I visited his home and library in Independence.

What was inspiring to me, and it really represents what our country is about, was that anyone can be president and that you can reach the highest levels of our government and really maintain your integrity. Truman’s honesty really impressed me.”

Senator Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) – Abraham Lincoln

“If you were in my office, whether in Albany or here in the district, you would see lots of pictures of Abraham Lincoln. When you’re growing up and you’re reading about different presidents, the idea of Lincoln being kind of a frontiersman and the way he grew up and the stories about him are very exciting. As you get older and you start looking into Lincoln’s life, you see the kind of person that he is. He cared very deeply about people and if you look at photos of Lincoln, you could see the deep lines, as some people call “worry lines,” because he cared so much. During the Civil War, he visited wounded soldiers and was very touched by their lives.

I have great concern for people and try to be very helpful to people, and I think Lincoln certainly reinforces those goals.”

Brookhaven Town Councilman Kevin LaValle (R-Selden) – Ronald Reagan

“Reagan was the president I admired most. When you’re an elected official, I think you have to have two great traits: good decision-making skills and the ability to articulate the message you want to get across to people in an effective, understandable and inspiring way, [which he had]. Reagan came into office in 1981, a point in our country’s history where, internationally, we were in the middle of the Cold War, just got done with the Iranian hostage situation, and the economy wasn’t doing well and the morale in the country was at an all-time low — so he had a lot that he was getting ready to take on. He lowered taxes, attacked the problems we had, deregulated the government and opened up the economy, which triggered a boom throughout the decade. He stood up and brought pride back into being American.”

Legislator Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) – Abraham Lincoln

“First of all, he was honest, he truly preserved the unity of our nation and he freed the slaves. He was brought into office during what was probably one of our nation’s first economic crises, and he dealt with the Civil War, dealt with issues of taxation and imports and exports, and handled it in a thoughtful, intellectual way. Those were difficult times and he made our nation what it is.”

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) – John F. Kennedy

“His presidency changed America. I think so many presidents bring so many different skillsets, and Kennedy believed in America, was passionate about America, put people to work, held the line on taxes, and was a compassionate person. Then there’s the whole history of Kennedy and how he was raised and groomed, and how his life was tragically cut short, and I think that adds an air to his [legacy] as well.”

 

Committee created to start the process of creating family-oriented motorsports park

Suffolk County Legislator Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory discusses Long Islanders' desire for a drag strip in Suffolk County. Photo from Legislator Gregory's office

Suffolk County is putting the pedal to the metal in an effort to build a drag strip for its need-for-speed residents.

A large crowd of more than 100 drag racing enthusiasts filled the auditorium at the Suffolk County Legislature Feb. 7 and cheered on as Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) announced the formation of an ad hoc committee, consisting of a bipartisan group of legislators, representatives from the Department of Planning and the Suffolk County Supervisors’ Association, and members from the racing community, to start the process of bringing a family-oriented motorsports park to the county.

Long Islanders who wish to see a drag strip in Suffolk County created a Facebook page “L.I. Needs a Dragstrip.” Image from Facebook

“Long Island has thousands of families who are passionate about racing as a sport, and providing a legal outlet for drag racing could bring tremendous benefits to Suffolk County,” Gregory said during the press conference.

The ad-hoc committee was suggested by Suffolk County Legislator Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) after representatives from the “L.I. Needs a Dragstrip” advocacy group charged into the legislature auditorium in December to protest a resolution on the board’s agenda.

The board had been considering a bill for a master plan in Yaphank, but the racing community argued against accepting the master plan, claiming that the property would be better used as a drag strip. The group had been looking at some areas included in the master plan for a potential site to build on. Even though the Yaphank property wound up not being anywhere near large enough for what they were proposing, the passionate group had the board’s interest.

“I was really inspired by the passion of all those that came to the Legislature and we’re going to do all we can to try and make it a reality,” Cilmi said in a phone interview.

In terms of the crowd at both gatherings, Cilmi said, “it’s worth pointing out that in the room were young children, lots of women and lots of guys … it was a large group of very enthusiastic people and it’s not every day that you fill an auditorium with people all interested in one issue.”

The Suffolk legislators on the committee —Gregory, Cilmi, Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), and Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) — will explore potential locations in Suffolk for the drag strip, which is projected to occupy between 100 and 200 acres, as well as the economic boom a full-fledged drag strip could bring to the struggling county.

“Long Island has thousands of families who are passionate about racing as a sport, and providing a legal outlet for drag racing could bring tremendous benefits to Suffolk County.”

—DuWayne Gregory

Gregory said the committee hopes the drag strip will deter the illegal and dangerous street racing that’s been known to take place in areas like Wyandanch. Another task is to make sure the local community and neighboring towns are behind the project and understand their quality of life will not be disrupted by it.

In building the drag strip, the committee anticipates growth in the local racing-related industry, like shops that paint the racing cars and work on engines, and job creation in those fields. There will also be food concessions within the arena, and spectators who could potentially come out and spend money at surrounding restaurants and hotels.

Gregory said any large venue has the potential to attract thousands of people and effectively increase the county’s sales tax, which has been flat for the last few years — “Long Island is losing money in sales tax as residents and tourists flock to nearby states, including New Jersey, to use their drag racing strips.” He said estimates show that a drag strip could generate more than $100 million in revenue.

He proposed that this would be “a safe and enjoyable attraction that people [will] want to come to.”

Kruspki, who grew up in Cutchogue and remembers his grandfather taking him to the Riverhead Raceway when he was young, said the racing culture is still very much alive.

“A lot of people are really interested in this and enjoy racing and working on cars and so to most people it’s more than a hobby, it’s more of a lifestyle,” he said in a phone interview. “I give DuWayne Gregory credit for putting this together; it’s a nice bipartisan group and everyone sees the value in it.”

While still too early to confirm any serious location ideas, the committee and members of the advocacy group have areas like Enterprise Park in Riverhead on a list of potential sites to build on. One of the motorsports advocates has expressed interest in contributing a piece of their own property.

Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta said the proposed drag strip has the potential to bring in needed revenue for Suffolk County. File photo by Rachel Shapiro

“It’s going to be tough to find a spot to put this because a lot of people won’t want to hear it,” Trotta said in a phone interview. “It’s going to have to be somewhere far away from most people, but we’re going to try our utmost [best] to find a place.”

Trotta, who has been consistently vocal about Suffolk’s current economic state, said while he doesn’t necessarily believe the drag strip will be “a savior of Suffolk County,” there’s great potential to bring in needed revenue.

“There’s not a resort in Nassau or Suffolk, and Long Island is bigger than most cities,” Trotta said. “There’s an opportunity for us to make something and mix it with the drag strip. We need people from the city to come out here and spend money.”

During the press conference, John Cozzali, a Mastic resident and founder of “Long Island Needs a Drag Strip,” said he was happy to see the Legislature taking a serious look at his group’s long-dreamt project.

“We look forward to working on this initiative, which we believe will have a positive economic impact for Long Island and will create a safe place for the new generation to come and race,” Cozzali said.

According to Gregory, the full economic analysis, conceptual planning of the racetrack and location securing should take roughly nine months.