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William “Doc” Spencer

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker speaks during the Jan. 2 press conference. Photo by David Luces

The opioid epidemic has hit Long Island hard over the past few years, but according to an annual county report, fatal opioid-related deaths have decreased significantly over the past year. 

The Suffolk County Heroin and Opiate Epidemic Advisory Panel’s 2019 Report released Jan. 2 found that opioid deaths in 2019 were projected at 283, which was an approximate 25.5 percent decrease from the 2018 total of 380.

“We are moving in the right direction,” said Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), the chair of the panel, at the Jan. 2 press conference in Hauppauge. “The opioid crisis is costing Long Island upward of $8 billion a year in medical costs … that’s $22 million a day. Not only do we have to address the addiction issue, we have to also address mental health.”

“The opioid crisis is costing Long Island upward of $8 billion a year in medical costs … that’s $22 million a day. Not only do we have to address the addiction issue, we have to also address mental health.” 

– Sarah Anker

The 127-page report compiled by the 29-member panel highlights that the decreased numbers can be attributed to the increased use of Narcan, a drug that reverses the effects of overdoses. 

Other highlights from the previous year includes the panel collaborating to help open a DASH Center, a 24/7 resource center for individuals in search of treatment and resources located at 90 Adams Ave., Hauppauge. The officials also purchased a mass spectrometer, a device that detects and breaks down the chemical compounds of drugs. The device is used to help track where drugs are coming from, making it easier to identify dealers.  

Geraldine Hart, Suffolk police commissioner, said the force is focusing on addressing the drug dealer situation.  

“We have seen a decrease in opiate usage but that is not enough,” she said. “We have a strategy that is taking hold, it involves enforcement, prevention, education and treatment.”

The panel’s report also lists resources for residents, including a number of counseling programs, agencies, drug treatment courts and law enforcement initiatives like Sharing Opioid Analysis & Research (SOAR). 

The panel was created in 2017 in response to the growing opioid and substance abuse epidemic in Suffolk County and across the nation.

While deaths have decreased, the number of overdoses increased 140 percent from 71 to 170.

While members of the panel said the decrease in number of fatal overdoses is a great sign, the increasing number of overdoses not resulting in death is something that requires more investigation.

Jeffery Reynolds, president of the Family and Children’s Association, said the new data is encouraging but stressed that more needs to be done. 

“These gains can sometimes be precarious — it took a long time for opioids to brew in this region, we were slow to respond in the region and nation, and we paid the price for it,” he said. “We gave heroin a 10-year head start. The last thing we want to do is declare victory prematurely.” 

Reynolds said there is still a need for a DASH/recovery center on the east end of Long Island and that panel wouldn’t stop working until “the overdose number is at zero.”  

William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport), Suffolk County legislator and chair of the health committee, said it is also important to make sure the medical community is part of the solution. He mentioned there needs to be more research on genetic predisposition and environmental triggers relating to drug use.

“There’s a lot of work to be done but this is a major step [in the right direction],”Spencer said. 

Going into 2020, the panel will focus on addressing the following areas: the growing vaping epidemic, early education initiatives, childhood trauma intervention, possible marijuana legislation, the effects of recent bail reform laws, establishing a recovery high school, continuing overdose prevention discussions with the Metropolitan Transit Authority and Long Island Rail Road, increasing prescriber education, reducing the stigma of addiction and mental illness and collaborating with the Native American Advisory Board and establishing a youth committee. 

Anker said collectively the panel is trying to be as productive as possible. 

“It [the epidemic] is always changing and evolving,” she said. “The ability for law enforcement to work with the medical community, education [professionals] to work with advocates — this cross pollination is so vital in making sure this panel is successful.”

Contact the DASH Center at 631-952-3333

 

2019 boys and girls participants in Boys and Girls State from Greenlawn American Legion.

The American Legion Greenlawn Post 1244 each year selects  high school juniors to send to a weeklong summer camp called Boys and Girls State. The educational program’s instruction on government is regarded as one of the best for U.S. high school students. 

Last week, the organization received a $5,000 grant from state Sen. Jim Gaughran’s (D-Northport) office and has become a significant source of funding that expects to help grow the local program. 

“We’ve been receiving typically $50 and $100 from people to sponsor kids,” said Legionnaire Charlie Armstrong, who organizes the program for the Greenlawn post on a volunteer basis. It cost about $500 to send each student.

The post funded 22 kids last year, 20 boys and 2 girls from local high schools. They are currently in the process of talking with principals and guidance counselors at 10 to 12 local school districts and expect to identify candidates for the 2020 season in the upcoming months. The additional revenue means the post can likely fund more students to attend. 

“The American Legion Greenlawn Post 1244 is committed to ensuring students are exposed to how government is supposed to function,” Gaughran said. “These are critical teachings which allow students real exposure to the fundamentals of government and encourage young adults to be active, engaged citizens. I am proud to provide funding to allow them to expand this great program and thank the Greenlawn American Legion for their unwavering commitment to creating meaningful opportunities for our youth.”

William Floyd student Damian O’Malley participated in the 2019 session, which he said taught him about leadership and the benefits of teamwork. He said it was by far one of the best experiences he’s ever had. He engaged in county, city and party caucuses, which, he said caused him to speak out for which position he wanted. 

“I also got to step out of my comfort zone, when I stood in front of everyone in my county and ran for county judge,” he said. “During the week, I met so many people who I would have never gotten the chance to meet, had it not been for this experience.” 

The program dates back to the 1930s, but the Greenlawn Post has been running its program since 2009. Each year more and more students from the area are participating, though more opportunities are available for Boys State than Girls State, which is organized through the American Legion Women’s Auxiliary. 

“When we saw the positive effect this program had on the students we sent, it became our goal to give as many more young people as possible the opportunity to have this experience,” Armstrong said. “After all, they are the future of our country.”

The program aims to objectively expose students to the rights, privileges, duties and responsibilities of a franchised citizen and includes practical training with fictitious local city, county and state governments created by students who are elected and appointed to various offices.  Some of the program’s more prominent graduates includes U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, astronaut Neil Armstrong and television reporter Jane Pauley. Locally New York State Supreme Court Justice Jerry Asher and Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) are graduates of the program. Former President Bill Clinton, who famously shook the hand of then President John F. Kennedy as a Boys State/Nation candidate, is memorialized in an iconic photo that reveals the aspiring glance of a future world leader. 

In a telephone interview Asher said that the program for him was formidable and a very positive experience. Asher attended in 1958 and met two college friends during the training, one that became his college roommate and a lifelong friend. 

“It was a very structured environment, a bit like the military,” he said. “We learned about local governments and the issues of the day and held elections for town, county and state governments and had time for sports competition and music.”

He said the lesson to be learned is:  Be involved in your community and public service. 

The funding will allow 11 Long Island high school students to attend the program. It is the first year Greenlawn is receiving money from the New York State Senate for the program. 

Students interested in applying must be in their junior year of high school and should contact either their guidance counselor or Charlie Armstrong at 917-337-2234 or by email at kiitos@verizon.net.  

By Sara-Megan Walsh

Dozens of Huntington residents gathered in the shadow of Constitution Oak last Friday, to declare the intent to fight for the human rights of immigrant children across Long Island and the nation.

More than 100 residents gathered June 15 to protest President Donald Trump’s immigration policies at the Huntington Village Green Park, near the intersection of Park Avenue and Main Street. Many carried signs reading “Families Belong Together” alongside the Spanish translation, “Familias Unidas, No Divididas,” while others imitated children crying out for their parents calling out to passing pedestrians and drivers.

“We are all disturbed and outraged with this administration’s new policy of separating children from their parents,  parents whose only crime is to bring their family to safety,” said Dr. Eve Krief, a Huntington pediatrician who founded the nonprofit group Long Island Inclusive Communities Against Hate. “We demand an immediate end to this horrendous, cruel and unjustified policy.”

“We demand an immediate end to this horrendous, cruel and unjustified policy.”
– Eve Krief

In mid-April, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance” policy for immigrants who cross the border illegally, which means they can be arrested and prosecuted. There have been 1,995 children taken from 1,940 adults at the border from April 19 to May 31, according to reporting by the Associated Press.

Victoria Hernandez, an outreach coordinator for SEPA Mujer Long Island, a nonprofit organization that represents immigrant women, called for her neighbors and community members to take action against Trump’s policies. She suggested calling and writing to elected officials, as well as signing SEPA Mujer’s online petition at www.sepamujer.org.

“We have to take action to prevent Jeff Sessions from allowing this violence against women and children from occurring,” Hernandez said. “For the children, please, for the children take action.”

An immigrant couple with their young son from the Huntington area stood in the crowd, arms wrapped around each other as Hernandez spoke. The family was in court days earlier pleading their case for asylum, according to Huntington Rapid Response Network volunteer Renee Bradley, and will know within the next four months if they’ve been accepted or face deportation.

“They fear they could be injured or face certain death if forced to return to their home country,” she said, declining to release more specific details.

“I wasn’t asking for the opportunity or wonders of America, I was just asking for the Lord to give me one more chance to hug my mother again.”
– Dr. Harold Fernandez

Bradley works with other members of the Huntington Rapid Response Network to provide immigrant families with legal services and support as they face legal process and get settled. It is one of eight such groups across Long Island associated with Jobs with Justice, a Washington D.C. nonprofit that fights for equal worker’s rights, that provides immigrants with referrals to trusted immigration lawyers and free services, translation services, accompaniment to court dates and other social support. Bradley said she currently is aiding several asylum seekers with their cases.

“A lot of people are being caught up in a very wide net that’s all about MS-13, and MS-13 is being used to demonize the entire immigrant population,” she said.

Dr. Steve Goldstein, president of Chapter 2 of New York State’s American Academy of Pediatrics, said that the separation of children from their parents and detention can have life-long health impacts from the toxic stress it causes. Goldstein said it can lead to chronic anxiety, predisposition to high blood pressure, and cause detrimental changes in brain function and structure citing research done by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

One doctor shared his personal story of making his way to the United States as an illegal immigrant from Columbia with the protestors. Dr. Harold Fernandez said at age 12 he traveled to the Bahamas, where he and 10 others boarded a small boat at midnight to make his way into the U.S. and reunite with parents, who were already working here.

“Rob children from their parents, put them in cages and treat them like animals — they will be wounded and broken forever.”
– Rev. Marie Tatro

“The trip was only seven hours, but I can tell you it [was] the longest seven hours of my life,” he said. “I wasn’t asking for the opportunity or wonders of America, I was just asking for the Lord to give me one more chance to hug my mother again.”

Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) said he was appalled by what is happening across the nation and wants to propose an Immigrant Protection Act in Suffolk County. He referred to legislation approved by Westchester County lawmakers in March that limited the information the county shares with federal immigration authorities and bars employees from asking about a person’s citizenship in most circumstances. Spencer said he believed other Suffolk lawmakers would support such a bill.

“You want the perfect recruiting tool for groups like MS-13, here it is,” said Rev. Marie Tatro, with the Community Justice Ministry at the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island. “Rob children from their parents, put them in cages and treat them like animals — they will be wounded and broken forever.”

Tatro said several Long Island churches and religious organizations are springing into action to help immigrants affected by offering them sanctuary, providing them with safe haven from Immigration and Custom Enforcement officers.

“There are angels of mercy working tirelessly all across Long Island to provide help,” she said. “We are all in this together, we will, and we must learn from history.”

Supervisor Ed Romaine is taking a leadership role in trying to streamline town government services. File photo by Erika Karp

Town, county and state officials on both sides of the aisle agree that climate change poses a real threat to Long Island. That’s why they’re taking serious steps to address the issue, protect the environment and work to save the region from projected devastation.

In his March 24 State of the Town Address, Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) devoted more time to the environment than any other issue, outlining measures taken by Brookhaven to reflect the growing threats of climate change, and sea level rise especially — noting the town has the largest coastline of any in the state.

Romaine said the town will continue working to restore its wetlands and limit residential and commercial development to such critical floodplain areas, among several other initiatives to prepare for the challenges ahead.

“It’s a wake up call if we don’t sound the alarm now and come together,” Romaine said in a phone interview. “Whatever I can do, I’m on board. I wish more people in my party shared that belief … but I’m absolutely dedicated to this because I’m a human being living on this planet that’s being threatened every day. Five of the past six years have been the warmest on record. It’s time to wake up.”

Building on ambitious goals set in the past — like cutting the town’s greenhouse gas emission by 50 percent by the year 2020 as proposed in his five-year capital plan two years ago — he said the town plans to replace 35,000 streetlights with energy-efficient LED lights within the next two years to save costs and reduce its carbon footprint; will continue to replace aging cars with hybrid, fuel-efficient models; has already revised its solar code to prevent deforestation and clear cutting of trees; and has instituted wind, solar and geothermal codes, requiring new residential home construction to be “solar ready.”

Resources to help make homes energy efficient 

•Free energy audit:

Long Island Green Homes Initiative is a public-private partnership that offers homeowners a professional energy audit at no cost. It provides an easy-to-use website coupled with energy navigators that help answer any questions a homeowner has and schedule a free home energy assessment providing an in-depth analysis of a home’s energy efficiency. Visit www.longislandgreenhomes.org.

•Carbon footprint calculator:

Cool Climate, a program started at the University of California, Berkley, offers a webpage to help estimate  your carbon footprint. Visit http://coolclimate.berkeley.edu/carboncalculator to find out yours.


•No-cost energy upgrades:

EmPower New York provides free energy efficiency solutions to income-eligible New Yorkers. Whether you own your home or rent, a participating contractor will be assigned to you to assess if your home would benefit from free energy upgrades such as:

-Air sealing to plug leaks and reduce drafts

-Insulation to make your home more comfortable all year round

-Replacement of inefficient refrigerators and freezers

-New energy-efficient lighting

-Plus, free health and safety checks of your smoke detectors, appliances and more. Visit www.nyserda.ny.gov/All-Programs/Programs/EmPower-New-York.

•Solar energy incentives:

The NY-Sun Incentive Program provides financial incentives to help reduce the installation costs associated with solar electric systems. Incentives are based on building sector and size (residential, small commercial and large commercial/industrial), and within each sector, there are different incentives for specific regions of NY. Income-eligible households may qualify for a program that lowers the up-front cost of installing solar for a homeowner, double incentives for certain households and free home energy improvements. Visit www.nyserda.ny.gov/All-Programs/Programs/NY-Sun/About.

Neighboring towns Smithtown and Huntington are also investing in their community’s environmental future. Smithtown was named the first town in New York State to be a clean energy community, and Huntington soon followed. This means both towns completed several high-impact clean energy actions like saving energy costs, creating jobs to improve the environment and more, and are now qualified for grants to further clean energy improvement in the area.

Suffolk County Leg. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), who served on the county’s Climate Action Plan Committee, is no stranger to pushing aggressive energy and sustainability initiatives herself, like her seawater rise vulnerability bill introduced in 2013.

Although she feels as though there has not been a sense of immediate crisis when it comes to climate change among Long Island residents, she said it’s important for people to recognize the effects it will have on coastal communities and low-lying villages like Port Jefferson, Stony Brook and Setauket Harbor.

Hahn is passionate about increasing sewer districts and eventually switching to alternative on-site wastewater systems that remove nitrogen from wastewater altogether.

Only about 30 percent of Suffolk County uses a sewer system, she said, and the remaining 70 percent are antiquated septic cesspool systems, meaning “every time we flush, the nitrogen in most of our homes or businesses is going right into our drinking water … and eventually surface waters.”

Recently the county has followed the lead of states like Massachusetts in switching over to these new systems in pilot projects. Hahn, with the help of her colleagues and a funding stream to help with the costs, is working on a plan to make these alternative on-site wastewater systems a requirement in Suffolk.

Across the island in Huntington, Leg. William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) also wants to protect clean water from contamination. As the lead sponsor of the Long Island Commission for Aquifer Protection Act — a bi-county legislation that controls drilling into the aquifer and protecting the water for the next 50 years — Spencer said further damage to the water would be a tragic event.

“We have to be aggressive,” Spencer said. “We have a program at the Southwest Sewer District, where we’re trying to reduce fossil fuels and pollution by taking sludge from cesspools and reconstituting that into the fuel oil, instead of burning so much regular fossil fuels. We’re working on reducing nitrogen pollution within the ground, as well as working with Brookhaven National Lab looking for clean forms of energy.”

Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) said as a North Shore native her main concern has been erosion and stormwater management.

“So much here has to do with erosion from Superstorm Sandy and I’m always very concerned about these intense, ferocious storms we have and the damage created from them,” she said. “When we’re able to really significantly improve our stormwater infrastructure, the trickle down effect is that improved water quality helps not only recreation but people who derive their income from the bays and the sound.”

According to state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), the leading environmental voice in the Assembly, the superstorm and recent high tides gave Long Island residents a preview of what an elevated water table would look like in the North Shore’s harbor areas like Port Jefferson, Huntington and Nissequogue.

But as New Yorkers, he said, we have an opportunity to set an example for the rest of the country in demonstrating a strong push for climate change initiatives.

“New York can sometimes be relied upon as a model for our sister states to examine and, in some cases, to reflect similar initiatives in their own legislatures,” Englebright said. “If we can do it here, we can demonstrate that it’s doable. Fifty-three percent of the population of our nation lives within 50 miles of ocean water — half of the nation is coastal. Implementing a more widespread use of renewable energy is one of the strongest directions we should try to move our communities toward in order to basically save our island from the ravages of an ever-increasing level of the ocean around us and the shrinking of our shorelines.”

As chairman of the Committee of Environmental Conservation, one of Englebright’s first assignments was to organize a climate advisory task force made up of legislators and set up a series of hearings. Based on the testimonies he received, the assemblyman wrote the New York State Climate and Community Protection Act, legislation first introduced last year and re-introduced again this year.

The bill addresses and mitigates the impacts of climate change in the state. While it’s still a work-in-progress, it has already been heralded by many environmental voices as a significant national model for state action.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. Photo by Giselle Barkley

“It sets out goals and objectives to begin to reduce our greenhouse gas output, track it more effectively, and establish a series of greenhouse gas emission regulations … [as well as] focuses on disadvantaged communities that have suffered from the effect of the carbon-based economy in a disproportionate way,” he said.

Englebright added residents can probably cut energy usage in the state by as much as 30 percent just with insulation and utilizing thermal windows.

“That’s a thrust I think is prominent in the vision and reach of this bill,” he said. “It sets goals to establish implemental capacity levels for going to renewable systems, be it solar or wind or geothermal. We want to move toward having a 30 percent capacity by 2020 and a 40 percent goal by 2025, and a 50 percent goal by 2030. It’s a very ambitious goal but if you don’t start to move in that direction, then the status quo is likely to be the best you can hope for … and the status quo right now will bring us rising sea levels, increased storm frequency and invasion of disease-carrying insects [like ticks that didn’t used to live at this latitude].”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) is adamant to address the restoration of Long Island’s coastal and natural defenses, including coastal vegetation, which he said acts as a natural storm barrier. The vegetation has been decimated due to the nitrogen pollution being pumped into our waterways, the county executive said, but there is good news.

“We know ecosystems have the ability to restore themselves if you remediate the pollution,” he said. “We need to learn to live better with water and put in the infrastructure that adapts to climate change. Post-Sandy, we’ve been raising houses up so they’re not going to be vulnerable to flooding. We can no longer sustain a continual year-after-year decline in water quality in this region.”

Bellone, who has been working closely with Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and his team to fund wetlands restoration projects, said he’s concerned about the federal government’s retreat from addressing climate change.

“That’s just insanity,” Bellone said. “It doesn’t make sense to ignore the science on this. For all of us on Long Island, climate change can fundamentally change our quality of life and no one wants to see that happen. We need to do everything we can to address this issue.”

Kids signed up for Summer Youth Connection, a free summer camp hosted by Huntington along with other groups and nonprofits. Photo by A.J. Carter

Huntington Town is kicking off its second year of the Summer Youth Connection, a variety of free educational and recreational activities for kids in the community.

Started last year by Councilwoman Tracey Edwards (D), the camp runs five evenings a week through Aug. 19

More than 200 teenagers participated last year, and this summer Edwards said she is hoping to reach at least 300 kids enrolled. This camp is presented in conjunction with Suffolk County and a multitude of corporate, not-for-profit partners and volunteers.

“Summer Youth Connection is a remarkable cooperative effort encompassing government, not-for-profit groups, companies and community volunteers to help keep our youth engaged in positive activities during what could be a long, hot summer,” Edwards said at the opening ceremony last week. “I thank all of the participating groups and individuals, with a special thank you to the South Huntington school district for hosting us.”

The summer camp offers programs spanning from basketball and golf to creative writing, photography and robotics.

“Summer Youth Connection is a remarkable cooperative effort encompassing government, not-for-profit groups, companies and community volunteers”
— Tracey Edwards

Councilwoman Susan Berland (D) encouraged the kids to try an activity that is new to them.

“You are going to have so much fun,” she said to the kids at the event. “My suggestion is to take a class of something you have never done before, so that way you can learn something new, and it will be a great and exciting experience for you.”

The camp runs from 5 to 9 p.m., Mondays through Thursdays. Fridays from 6 to 7:30 p.m. are reserved for special needs youth sport activities.

Supervisor Frank Petrone (D) said he saw countless happy faces at last year’s program.

“Not every kid wants to go to camp,” he said. “They want to be in their neighborhoods. They want to be here and enjoy what we have to offer. I was here last summer. Everybody had a happy smile. Everybody was involved. Everybody was trying new things. We look forward to another great summer this year.”

Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) said at the event that the unity and the excitement shown in the kids participating in the camp is a crucial part of a successful community.

“You are our most precious resource,” he said. “We are invested in you. This has been an extremely tough week in this country, when we look at the violence and hate and the things that try to divide us. But this room is an example of what is great about this country.”

File photo by Victoria Espinoza.

The plan to reduce the use of plastic bags in Suffolk County has been modified with a 5-cent tax on plastic bags, replacing an original proposal for an all out ban.

County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (C-Centerport) updated a bill he submitted in March to reduce the use of plastic bags in retail sales after he saw how other areas found success with a small tax.

“My focus all along has been to improve the environment and reduce waste,” —William Spencer 

“My focus all along has been to improve the environment and reduce waste,” Spencer said in an email. “The decision to change course involved multiple factors, most importantly evidence from various municipalities with similar legislation that has proven to be effective.”

The new version would charge 5 cents per bag used by any customer, and all fees collected would be retained by the store. There would be no fee for customers who bring in their own bags, and a store cannot discourage them from doing so, the proposed law states.

A spokeswoman from Spencer’s office said the legislator looked to Washington D.C. as an example of a successful implementation of a 5-cent fee.

The Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Act went into effect in January 2010, and it requires all businesses that sell food or alcohol to charge a nickel for each disposable paper or plastic carryout bag. The bill was the first of its kind in the United States, and in a 2013 study of the law, researchers found that both residents and businesses reported a significant reduction in disposable bag use and a majority of residents and businesses supported the bag fee. In addition, both residents and businesses said they saw fewer plastic bags littering the area.

The study found that residents estimated a 60 percent decrease in household bag use, moving from 10 disposable bags per week before the law to four bags per week in 2013. Seventy-nine percent of residents reported carrying reusable bags when shopping and 74 percent of businesses saw an increase in customers bringing their own bags. And, perhaps most important for residents who are still wary of the tax, the study reported 8 percent of businesses and 16 percent of residents felt bothered by the law.

Spencer said this law is an important step in protecting the environment.

Suffolk County Legislator William "Doc" Spencer file photo
Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer file photo

“This is an opportunity to secure a win for the environment because it will form a consensus of necessary support among the legislature and key stakeholders,” he said.

The Citizens Campaign for the Environment said there is more plastic in the oceans than plankton, with 46,000 pieces of plastic in every square mile. Many marine animals are choked and strangled by these bags, or die consuming them. The CCE said plastic pollution negatively impacts 267 species of marine life.

Spencer said he intends to keep a close look on the progression of the bill, and that if a tax doesn’t reduce the use of plastic bags enough, he will reconsider an outright ban.

“We are moving in a positive direction, and I intend to look closely at bag usage, before and after implementation, to ensure it’s effective,” he said. “If it is not having a significant impact, I have every intention of working to strengthen the policy including revisiting the ban.”

T.J and Bella Manfuso sit with students from their recent trip to Costa Rica. Photo from Charlotte Rhee

Two kids from Fort Salonga are focused on giving back.

The Manfuso siblings, 12-year-old T.J. and 11-year-old Isabella, are credited as the founders of Gifted Hearts, a 501(c)(3) charity that provides medical care packages and school supplies to children in need, both locally and internationally.

Their website described it as an organization founded “by kids, for kids,” and the kids have been clearly steering the ship.

T.J. and Bella invited their friends to partake in packing parties throughout the year, where all the care packages Gifted Hearts donates to needy children are gathered and assembled. T.J. said there are usually about 20 friends helping out at these parties.

Bella and T.J. Manfuso smile while wearing their Gifted Hearts shirts. Photo from Charlotte Rhee
Bella and T.J. Manfuso smile while wearing their Gifted Hearts shirts. Photo from Charlotte Rhee

“The packaging parties are a lot of fun,” Bella said in a phone interview. T.J. added that it was most fun to be able to have a party while also helping people.

Recently, Gifted Hearts had a packing party at Ben & Jerry’s in Huntington Village, where Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) also paid a visit.

“I was so impressed with the giving hearts, vision and organization of these young people,” Spencer said in a statement. “It’s inspiring to see them taking the lead to provide for the needs of other children throughout the world.”

Parents Charlotte Rhee and Paul Manfuso have been taking their kids on adventures with them around the world since they were about 5 years old, and they said the kids were always encouraged to learn and give back to the places they visit.

“We want our kids to see that traveling isn’t just about ourselves,” Manfuso said in a phone interview. “We want to promote giving back to where we go and making connections with the kids they see, so we don’t just drop off supplies and go.”

The family has traveled to Ecuador, Costa Rica and more, stopping at schools to meet students T.J. and Isabella’s age and hand out school and medical supplies and backpacks.

“My favorite part is to see the smiles on everyone’s faces when we deliver the packages,” Bella said.

T.J. said he loves learning new things when he travels to these places and seeing how other people live.

“I’ve found it so different; people over there are less fortunate than us, but they are very happy,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s a different way than how we live, but they’re totally happy with it.”

Suffolk County Legislator Doc Spencer smiles with members of Gifted Hearts during a packing party at Ben & Jerry’s. Photo from Elizabeth Alexander
Suffolk County Legislator Doc Spencer smiles with members of Gifted Hearts during a packing party at Ben & Jerry’s. Photo from Elizabeth Alexander

Rhee said Gifted Hearts is also community-oriented, and the kids like to focus on helping their neighbors as much children abroad.

“There are so many needy kids in our own backyard,” Rhee said. “You don’t always need to go to other countries.”

Gifted Hearts donated winter coats, boots and Christmas gifts during the holidays this past year, which they gave to the Junior Welfare League of Huntington Inc.

Right now, the family is personally funding all the donations they give to children at home and overseas, however they said they are hoping to start organizing fundraising events in the near future.

T.J. said his future sights are also set on Bhutan, a country in South Asia. He said he and his family hope to travel there soon with supplies.

“They are really motivated and grateful for all they have,” Rhee said of her kids. “And their friends help out a great deal. They continue to help Gifted Hearts grow.”

Police Commissioner Tim Sini discusses housing issues happening across the county. Photo by Giselle Barkley

Housing fraud has hit home for some North Shore officials.

During Suffolk County Legislator DuWayne Gregory’s press conference on Monday, fellow legislators, local leaders and county and state officials addressed issues with squatters and unsafe structures cropping up across Long Island.

According to Gregory (D-Amityville), squatters are using foreclosed homes to take advantage of prospective residents looking for an affordable place to live. In many cases, the actual property owners have abandoned the property and some of the homes are becoming safety hazards.

Then there’s the problem of the houses becoming havens for criminal activity.

“A lot of these vacant homes are being used for drug deals,” Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said. “These vacant homes are a danger in our society.”

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Tim Sini added that the homes can also become magnets for prostitution and vandalism.

The neglected houses that become sites for criminal activity are commonly called zombie homes.

According to Sini, in each hamlet on Long Island there are dozens of zombie homes or houses that squatters are illegally renting out to unsuspecting tenants.

“We know homelessness is a major crisis for our veterans, for our seniors, for our working families,” Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) said. “When we see someone taking advantage of someone looking to rent or purchase a home, it’s very heinous because a lot of the times, we’re talking about people’s life savings … and this could really disrupt the family.”

Many tenants find the properties through Craigslist or similar websites. During the event, Gregory said a single mother was one of many people scammed when a squatter posed as a property owner and rented out a parcel to her. Although police were unable to arrest that particular squatter before the person fled, officials are working to arrest suspects in such cases.

They are also urging people to report vacant homes in their neighborhood. Those tips can help — according to Anker, the Rocky Point Civic Association keeps track of these homes and has reported more than 70 vacant homes in the area.

“This is happening all over the county. We want to make sure people are aware of what’s going on and that … when you’re going to rent a property, that you do your due diligence,” Gregory said. “There are people out there, unscrupulous people … who take advantage.”

Gregory will host an educational seminar on the issue on Tuesday, March 29, at the Copiague Memorial Library on Deauville Boulevard. The seminar runs from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Pols reopen beach after seven years

The shore at the Centerport Yacht Club is open. Photo by Rohma Abbas

The push to clean up Suffolk County’s water quality saw a major milestone on one Centerport shorefront Monday.

Lawmakers and community members gathered at the Centerport Yacht Club on Northport Harbor on a hot summer day to mark the reopening of the beach, which had been shuttered for seven years because of its poor water quality. The harbor is celebrating a cleaner bill of health thanks to multi-governmental efforts to reduce pollution — most significantly through recent upgrades to the Northport wastewater treatment plant.

“Today is unprecedented due to the efforts of many stakeholders,” Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) announced at a press conference inside the clubhouse. “…This is the result of a lot of hard work.”

Officials cut a ribbon to mark the reopening of the beach at Centerport Yacht Club. Photo by Rohma Abbas
Officials cut a ribbon to mark the reopening of the beach at Centerport Yacht Club. Photo by Rohma Abbas

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D), Spencer and a number of Huntington Town officials including Supervisor Frank Petrone (D) cut the ribbon opening the beach, and the county officials hand-delivered a beach permit to the supervisor.

The Suffolk County Department of Health Services, with oversight from the New York State Department of Health, conducted more than 600 tests in 20 locations at the beach since April, Spencer said. The results found that the quality of the water meets “required stringent standards,” Spencer’s office said in a statement.

Northport Harbor, once the “epicenter of red tide in the Northeast,” has seen a dramatic reduction of nitrogen, from 19.4 lbs. per day to 7.5 lbs. And there’s been no red tide in the harbor in the last three seasons, Spencer’s office said.

Officials said a significant upgrade to the Northport sewage treatment plant had a huge hand in turning the tide.

Bellone, who said the county is facing a “water quality crisis,” recognized Northport Village officials for being on top of the issue. He called the rehabilitation of Northport Harbor an “example of what we need to do around the county.”

Petrone and Bellone said Spencer had a big hand in making waves on the issue.

“The doctor’s orders worked,” Petrone said.

Young bathers dive into the waters of a newly reopened beach at the Centerport Yacht Club. Photo by Rohma Abbas
Young bathers dive into the waters of a newly reopened beach at the Centerport Yacht Club. Photo by Rohma Abbas

The issue of Northport Harbor’s water quality gained steam among Centerport Yacht Club members when Joe Marency, past commodore, was at the helm about five years ago. He praised the beach reopening at Monday’s press conference.

“There’s still a lot to do but this is a big step in the right direction,” he said.

At the close of the press conference, lawmakers gathered outside the club on the water. They excitedly uprooted a “no swimming” sign posted there, and Bellone and Spencer exclaimed, “Who’s going in?”

Assemblyman Andy Raia (R-East Northport) waded into the water, ankle-deep. It took a pair of bold bathers seconds to dart towards the shore and dive in.

“It’s beautiful and warm,” said Randall Fenderson, one of the swimmers who emerged from the water.

Fenderson, who presently lives in Santa Monica, California, said he grew up in the area and has a personal connection to the beach, and was sad to see it closed.

A group of children also made their way to the water, include Greenlawn sisters Paige and Madelyn Quigley. The girls, 6-years old and 10 years old, also said the water felt nice.

“Now we’ll be in here forever,” Madelyn said.