Politics

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin said Suffolk County’s federal assistance is going to come down to closing the gap between each party’s proposed bills. File photo by Alex Petroski

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY1) has been in the thick of federal discussions about another program to support state and local governments.

He said the federal government is having “active talks with respect to there being a next coronavirus response bill … I have been advocating directly to the president and his chief of staff [Mark Meadows] and leaders in Congress about Suffolk County and our local towns and villages.”

The local congressman, whose district covers the North Fork and South Fork all the way west to most of Smithtown, said President Donald Trump (R) called his house last Sunday night and that he used the opportunity to talk about getting funding for local government. Zeldin brought up the MTA with the president.

“I’m trying to get top line numbers for our county, towns, villages, the MTA and Port Authority,” he said.

Zeldin suggested three factors affected a national funding bill. The first is that the Nov. 3 election is rapidly approaching.

“You have to have a willingness to allow your political opposition to also have a win when you have a government that’s divided between parties,” he said. “The only way for a next coronavirus response bill to become law is similarly to the way the past coronavirus response bill became law,” by Republicans and Democrats working together.

Passing another bill would give everyone, including U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Trump a win, the congressman said.

“That’s a problem for some, because there are people who really don’t want the president to get reelected,” Zeldin said. “If anyone wants to suggest that that’s not a factor, a political calculation and electioneering, they are incredibly naive to that absolute factor to these talks.”

Additionally, the Republicans and Democrats have been far apart in the amount of funding. The Democrats initially had passed a bill in the House for approximately $900 billion for state and local governments out of a $3.4 trillion total aid bill, but the congressman claimed Democrats are sticking to their highball number. According to Axios, Pelosi is now aiming for a new total aid package hovering around $2.2 trillion with local assistance reduced to $436 billion.

Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have offered a $150 billion package for state and local governments.

“You can’t stick to a state and local government funding number as high as $900 billion,” Zeldin said. “That’s far more than state and local governments are asking for. If you insist on $900 billion or bust, there’s not going to be any additional state and local funding.”

The additional dynamic that comes into play is that some Democrats who were elected for the first time in Republican districts have been putting pressure on Pelosi in the last few weeks, Zeldin said.

“They want there to actually be negotiations and compromise to get it over the finish line,” he said.

With talks restarted between congressional Democratic leadership and the Trump administration, Zeldin said he was “hopeful” that the discussions would result in a new bill.

He said the amount of money the states and local governments are asking for has also declined since the original request. Indeed, New York State has cut its request to $30 billion from $60 billion.

Any bill that passed wouldn’t likely indicate how county and local governments should spend the money, the congressman said.

“I’m not looking for Congress to break up every dollar being appropriated for Suffolk County,” Zeldin said. “The best thing to do would be to provide flexibility, so that county level elected officials can determine the best use of additional funding.”

County Executive Steve Bellone said there could be massive cuts to Suffolk bus routes if they receive no financial aid soon. Photo by Kyle Barr

County Executive Steve Bellone (D) has continued his calls for additional federal funds, now saying bus routes and bus drivers’ positions could be eliminated in the planned county budget to be released within the next week, officials said. 

Click the image to see which routes could be cut in your area.

Bellone held a press conference Friday, Sept. 25, saying that cutting 19 bus routes and 25% of paratransit bus availability would result in about $18 million in savings for the county’s 2021 budget. The non paratransit routes, officials said, are equivalent to 2,500 riders a day, according to the pre-pandemic ridership levels. Cuts would impact about 200 daily riders who use the Suffolk County Accessible Transit service, and could also potentially eliminate hundreds of workers’ positions.

The routes themselves are spread out throughout the county, and though officials said those chosen would be busses with overall less ridership, they represent some of the only public transportation for certain areas. The S62, which runs across the North Shore from Riverhead to Hauppauge and is the only bus for places like Shoreham, Rocky Point and Miller Place, would be axed under current plans. The S54, which connects the Patchogue railroad to the Walt Whitman Mall is also in the crosshairs. Together, those routes contain the highest ridership and represent 887 daily riders, according to the county. 

All Planned Route Cuts

  • S54 – 548 riders per day
  • 10B – 45 riders per day
  • S59 – 90 riders per day
  • S57 – 139 riders per day
  • S31 – 12 riders per day
  • S76 – 36 riders per day
  • S56 – 89 riders per day
  • 2A – 106 riders per day
  • 7A – 60 riders per day
  • 10C – 85 riders per day
  • 6B – 108 riders per day
  • S47 – 73 riders per day
  • 8A – 131 riders per day
  • S62 – 339 riders per day
  • 1A – 63 riders per day
  • 6A – 78 riders per day
  • S69 – 3 riders per day
  • 2B – 161 riders per day
  • S23 – 149 riders per day

Other nixed routes include the S76, which connects Stony Brook and Port Jefferson Village and has an estimated 36 daily riders, may also get cut. The S56, which runs in Smithtown from Commack to Lake Grove with around 89 daily riders, could be eliminated as well.

This is all part of an anticipated 2021 county budget that Bellone said will include cuts across the board.

“Washington has failed to act,” Bellone said. “We need Washington to do its job, to do what it’s always done in times of crisis when local communities are hit by unprecedented natural disasters that are beyond the scope and capability of local government can handle.”

The cuts to personnel could be especially devastating, he said, considering many were “essential workers” who did their jobs even during the worst of the pandemic on Long Island. Many hospital and other frontline workers take the bus to work as well.

These planned cuts are despite receiving close to $26.6 million earlier this year in federal aid specifically for public transportation services. Bellone said the money has already been spent or allocated for the current year.

The total operating cost of Suffolk Transit is over $85 million, with more than $43 million being funded by the county, around $29 million from New York State, more than $4.4 million from the federal government, and $8.2 million in fares. Suffolk County estimates it will lose $6.1 million in farebox revenue in 2020, alongside a 20% or $6 million cut in state funding. Bellone’s office reported that the $26 million in federal funds allowed the county to operate the buses as normal during the height of the pandemic. 

John Corrado, the president of Suffolk Transportation Services, a private company which operates all the buses used by Suffolk County, said they lost about 40% of ridership during the pandemic, and though numbers are coming back there is no way it can stave off the massive loss in farebox revenue.

In a repeat of last week’s press conference where Bellone announced major cuts to Suffolk County Police, Republicans in the county legislature held a retaliatory press conference of their own that same day. Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), a member of the legislature’s Public Works, Transportation and Energy Committee, claimed the county is only down $4 million in bus fees. The GOP members of the legislature have constantly attacked Bellone on its financial situation, with officials often citing a 2019 report from the state comptroller calling Suffolk the most fiscally stressed municipality in the state.

Legislator Rob Trotta joined fellow Republicans in denouncing Bellone’s planned bus cuts. Photo by Kyle Barr

“To blame the federal government is a cop out,” Trotta said. 

Though that aid that Suffolk received this year must be put towards current budget impacts due to the pandemic, Trotta said the numbers Bellone cited were off, and that the $26 million federal funds could be used now and all the savings could be rolled over into next year.

Though one will have to wait until the final 2021 budget is released before making any claims of what should or should not be cut, Republicans have claimed both this and other cuts to major services are unnecessary considering the CARES Act funding the county has already received to the tune of $257 million, not counting the additional public transit funds. This, they argued, should be enough to cover COVID-related expenses. Republicans said that new money is being used to pay for past financial mismanagement by the county executive. 

Though when asked what else could be cut instead of these services, Republican legislators said they would need to see the full budget before making that determination. 

Though some legislators admitted there is need for further federal aid, Legislator Anthony Piccirillo (R-Holtsville) suggested the federal government put a watchdog on the county executive to make sure the funds are spent correctly.

In response to the accusation the cuts are not needed, Bellone said since the county pays more than $40 million for the bus system, and though the federal funds have helped, they does not cover what will be a massive $800 million deficit for this year going into next year.

The planned cuts to public transportation would also impact the Suffolk County Accessible Transit buses, otherwise known as SCAT, which hundreds of residents with disabilities rely upon for service in doing things as simple as going to physical therapy or shopping for food. The service allows residents to schedule being picked up and dropped off, and represents one of the few tangible means for those lacking mobility and without personal transport for getting around.

Frank Krotschinsky, the director of the Office for People with Disabilities under the county executive, said “the county has gone above and beyond” in the offerings it has for disabled transport. He added the questions his office most commonly receives are from people asking about transportation.

“The day these cuts are made, people with disabilities will be disproportionately affected,” he said. “We need the federal government to step up to its role.”

The same day as the press conference, Bellone hosted a call with the county executives of Onondaga and Orange upstate counties, both of whom are Republican, in emphasizing the bipartisan need for additional relief from the federal government. 

“As we put forward this budget, there is not going to be a part of this budget that involves discretionary spending that will not be impacted by Washington’s failure to act here,” Bellone said.

 

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Progressive groups stood at the corner of Route 112 and Route 347, sometimes called “resistance corner” Sept. 20 to honor the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died Sept. 18, and protest Senate Republicans’ efforts to fill her seat.

At the rally called Our Bodies, Our Courts!, protesters said Republicans are hypocritically pushing a new candidate onto the bench despite those same members saying in 2016 that there should be no supreme court nominations in an election year. Rally-goers said they were concerned about the chance a more conservative court could end the ability for women to get abortions or overturn the Affordable Care Act.

The crowd of about 50 were joined by Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) and local Democratic candidates including Nancy Goroff, who is running for the New York District 1 House of Representatives Seat and Laura Jens-Smith, who is running for New York State Assembly District 2.

Suffolk Republicans Put Onus on County Exec over Police Cuts

Steve Bellone, along with Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart and Police Chief Stu Cameron, said Sept. 18 that without federal funds, they would need to cut the next police academy class entirely. Photo by Kyle Barr

*Update* This story has been updated to include a response from county Republicans.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said Friday that this year’s budget will cut about $20 million from police spending, which includes the loss of an entire police recruitment class of about 200 officers. 

Legislator Rob Trotta, a retired Suffolk County Police detective, claimed the police budget should be relatively stable due to its independent line on resident’s tax bills. Photo by Kyle Barr

During a press conference held at the Police Academy located on the Suffolk County Community College Brentwood campus, Bellone reiterated his plea for the federal government to pass additional aid for local governments. The cut to the police class is expected to save approximately $1.5 million and will shutter the academy for what amounts to a year and a half. 

“Six months into this pandemic, the federal has failed to deliver disaster assistance to state and local governments,” Bellone said. “My message to Washington is simple: ‘Don’t defund the police — don’t defund suburbia by your inaction.’”

The county executive used language very reminiscent of President Donald Trump (R), who has previously asserted that if Democrats win in November they will “destroy the beautiful suburbs.” While Bellone indicated he does not agree with the defund-the-police movement — which aims to take funds away from traditional law enforcement and put them toward other social services or create new, nonpolice response units — he said that is “essentially what the federal government is doing” by not passing any new aid bills.

Bellone added the county budget, which is expected to be revealed in the next two weeks, will also include cuts to the student resource officer program that has trained cops for work in schools. Those officers will be reassigned. 

Additional cuts include the community support unit, suspending promotions, and cuts in county aid to independent East End police departments. These cuts, and potential further cuts hinted in the upcoming budget, could mean less officers and patrols on county streets, according to the county exec, though by how much he did not say.

Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said during the press conference that the loss of the SROs and other specialized officers would be a great loss to the public. 

“They are instrumental in intervening, intervening and addressing gang violence, opioid addiction and active shooter threats, while serving as a visual deterrent to illegal and dangerous activity,” she said. 

Though Suffolk County received $257 million in CARES Act funding back in April, which Bellone said is used as part of the response to the pandemic, a financial report issued by Suffolk earlier this year estimated the county could be as much as $1.5 billion in the hole over the next three years. 

In response to Bellone’s thrust that the federal government has not given enough, Republicans from the county Legislature stood in front of the Police Academy Sept. 22, instead claiming Bellone has not been transparent on Suffolk County finances.

Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), along with other Republican legislators, swore there was a way to keep the trainee cops program rolling, insisting that police are funded by a separate line on people’s taxes, and that unspent CARES Act funds can help cover the cost.

“What it’s like is a guy who has a credit card and he’s maxed out and he owes millions of dollars, then all of a sudden the coronavirus happens, and what does he do?” Trotta said. “He pays a little bit off and now he wants more money to make up for what he did before anybody heard about this.” 

Legislator Steve Flotteron (R-Brightwaters), a member of the Budget & Finance Committee, said he and other legislators have asked the exec’s office to make a presentation to them about the county’s financial state but a person from Bellone’s office never showed.

Trotta insisted the county has only spent a relatively small amount of the funding it received from the federal government, and that the money should go to pay law enforcement payroll. Suffolk County has previously reported most of that money has already been allocated or spent. When asked where Republicans are getting their data, Flotteron said he and others have seen it in reports from places like the county comptroller’s office, but could not point to anything specific.

Republicans have consistently gone after Bellone on county finances, making it a cornerstone of then-candidate and current Suffolk Comptroller John Kennedy Jr.’s (R) run against the Democratic incumbent in 2019. Their assertion now is that Suffolk had long been in financial trouble even before the pandemic hit, citing the county’s Wall Street bond rating downgrades over the past several years. New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli (D) called Suffolk, with Nassau, the most fiscally stressed counties in the state last year. 

Other Long Island municipalities have also begged the federal government to send aid. On Sept. 14, federal reps from both parties stood beside several town supervisors to call for a bipartisan municipal aid bill. The Town of Brookhaven, for example, is requesting close to $12 million, as it had not been an original recipient of the original CARES Act funding.

At that press conference, Kennedy said the county is financially “on the verge of utter collapse.”

Suffolk, Bellone said, would need a $400 million windfall to stave off these massive cuts, and potentially up to $650 million to aid with economic hardship next year. 

“We have seen death and devastation … and we are moving forward, but we know we face years of recovery.” he said.

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One newcomer and one incumbent elected to Port Jeff Village Board

Ballots continued to be counted well into the night Sept. 15 in Belle Terre. Photo by Kyle Barr

In a contentious race between a slate of newcomers and longtime incumbents, it was the old guard who won out in the end.

Current Mayor Bob Sandak got 280 votes to challenger Enrico Scarda’s 169. Scarda is the president and founder of The Crest Group development agency which owns multiple properties around the Port Jeff area, including Danfords Hotel & Marina and The Waterview at the Port Jefferson Country Club. Sandak has been mayor since 2016, and has previously worked as a school administrator for multiple districts on Long Island.

The morning after the votes were counted, Sandak said in a phone interview he was glad the election is over, and moving forward he has already spoken to the other candidates “to arrange meetings and get their thoughts on what they wanted to accomplish — it’s always good to have new ideas,” he added. “We just want to move forward.”

In a statement, Scarda said he remains positive. He congratulated Sandak on his win and offered to assist the village should the admin want any help. He added regarding future elections that, “If the residents want me involved I will be there for them.”

“I will continue to stay involved with the village administration,” Scarda said. “Belle Terre needs residents to get involved and help Bob and the trustees to move the village forward.”

On the trustee side, incumbent trustees Sheila Knapp and Jacquelyn Gernaey won back their seats with 315 and 272 votes, respectively. Newcomer candidate Peter Colucci, a 12-year village resident, gained 128 votes. Fellow newcomer Lou Bove, the president and CEO of East Setauket-based contractor Bove Industries, gained 124 votes.

Poll workers the night of the vote Sept. 15 said this was the most attention any Belle Terre election has had in at least a few decades, especially for a village with just a little under 800 residents. Village Clerk Joanne Raso said they were up until midnight counting votes, which included two write-in votes and 73 absentee ballots.

Port Jefferson Village Elections

On the Port Jeff side, one incumbent and one newcomer trustee candidate have been elected to the village board. Both seats were uncontested after nine-year trustee Bruce D’Abramo announced this would be his last term on the board.

Rebecca Kassay, a local activist and owner of The Fox & Owl Inn in Port Jeff, gained 103 votes. Incumbent trustee Bruce Miller won 114 votes.

A total of 171 votes were cast, including 10 absentee ballots.

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Around 200 gathered at the 9/11 Memorial on TOB property in Port Jeff Sept 12. Photo by Steven Zaitz

On Sept. 12, the day after the 19th anniversary of 9/11, hundreds marched down Port Jeff’s Main Street to honor lives lost at the 9/11 memorial across from Village Hall.

Approximately 100 marchers started from the Port Jefferson Train Station where they sang the national anthem before coming down Main Street. Most walked but another group also came down the street on motorcycles. A large group Suffolk County Police were there to block traffic and lead the group down the road on motorcycles. Many of those marching were not wearing masks.

Most marched in good spirits and there were no reported confrontations between marchers and people on the sidelines.

After reaching the Brookhaven marina area, the crowd grew to about 200 before stopping in the small 9/11 memorial on Town of Brookhaven property. Once at the site, organizers, including former FDNY Lieutenant Daniel Dooley, who helped originally construct the 9/11 memorial, read off the names of those from Brookhaven town who died in the terror attacks 19 years ago. Other speakers included Vietnam Vet and PJSD alum David Mann.

Setauket Patriots, a local online right wing and pro-Trump group, organized the march through social media. While event organizer James Robitsek told TBR News Media before the event they wished it to be a-political, a small number of marchers bore flags, hats and other paraphernalia supporting President Donald Trump’s (R) reelection campaign. Others in the march sported thin blue line flags and other items that supported police.

The Village of Port Jefferson originally denied the organizers a permit to march at the end of August, citing a general moratorium on any new permits for marches and parades because of the ongoing pandemic. Village officials also said that the permit application the Setauket Patriots sent in was incomplete in the first place.

Organizers for the march previously told TBR News Media they felt the permit denial was a suppression of their constitutional right to assemble, and they announced they would be marching anyway.

All photos by Steven Zaitz

Absentee ballots, early voting or voting in person — voters this year have three options to cast their ballots, though two months before election day, some of these methods have come under scrutiny.

The Suffolk County Board of Elections commissioners say they have their hands full trying to make sure everyone’s ballot counts this November, but several advocacy groups on Long Island say Suffolk, New York State and the BOE should be doing more to spread the word.

Suffolk Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) and Suffolk BOE Republican Commissioner Nick LaLota disagreed over the locations of Suffolk’s early voting places. File photo

Experts nationwide anticipate numbers like never before will be asking for absentee ballots or doing early voting for this November election. 

The two commissioners for the Suffolk BOE, Nick LaLota, a Republican, and Anita Katz, a Democrat, were present at the Suffolk County Legislature’s Ways & Means Committee meeting Sept. 3. While there were multiple problems with the June primary, including that close to 25 percent of polling workers didn’t show up due to the pandemic, the two argued that even with limited resources, they have been making headway in increasing voting access. The number of early polling sites has been increased from 10 to 12 compared to 2019, and Katz confirmed they expect 90 to 95 percent of their poll workers will be on the job come election day Nov. 3.

Suffolk County has also issued an order saying any union employees who wish to work in polling centers for the election are allowed to do so, and will be compensated for doing so.

But the commissioners have also come under fire for where, and where they haven’t, put these 12 early voting locations. For one, Shelter Island, which had an early voting location in 2019, is not currently scheduled for one this year. 

Early Voting Issues

LaLota said the decision was based on “how do we do the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people,” arguing the numbers of voters in a place like Islip who would have a 20-to-30-minute drive to get to one of these places outstrips the small population of Shelter Island.

Those arguing for a Shelter Island location said the population there who would need to do early voting would have to take a ferry just to get to the mainland. Town of Shelter Island Supervisor Gerard Siller (D) has already sent a letter to the BOE, pleading them to reinstall the early voting place on Shelter Island. Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R), who once represented Shelter Island as county legislator, also sent a letter to the BOE asking for its return as well.

“Having no on-island early voting location will unfairly disenfranchise many of the voters on Shelter Island,” Romaine said in his letter. “Voting will be particularly difficult for the elderly and the infirmed. There needs to be an early voting location on Shelter Island.”

Suffolk Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) and Suffolk BOE Republican Commissioner Nick LaLota disagreed over the locations of Suffolk’s early voting places. Photo from Suffolk GOP website

For some officials on Long Island proper, the early voting locations still left something to be desired. Suffolk Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) was especially miffed about the decision for where the two early voting locations were placed in Brookhaven — one at Town Hall in Farmingville and the other in Mastic. She contended there was a “political reason” to put one on the South Shore in the Mastic/Shirley area, later stating in a phone interview that she was referencing U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY1), who lives in Shirley and faces a challenge by Stony Brook Democrat Nancy Goroff. 

“I feel like all of northern Brookhaven got screwed by that decision,” Hahn said during the hearing.

LaLota argued choosing the Mastic destination, along with focusing on other marginalized communities, was based on the number of low-income residents in those areas. 

“Equity is the number one issue that gets put to the top, economic hardship people face — people are working two jobs, needing health care or day care, and in the grand scheme of things early voting addresses those economic hardships,” LaLota said. “I would submit to you those economic hardships are best seen in places we chose to put our early voting locations.”

Hahn shot back saying, “There are those communities all over Brookhaven.”

In a phone interview, LaLota vehemently pushed back against the characterization of the decision to put the voting location in Mastic, instead arguing Democrats are focusing on affluent areas like North Shore Brookhaven and Shelter Island. 

“I think it’s sadly ironic that a Republican commissioner is the one advocating that we bring voting to people from lesser-off communities,” he said. “I think those legislators need to be a little more introspective and be a little more receptive to the economic needs of all Suffolk County voters.”

Numerous progressive groups from all around Suffolk County signed on to a petition sent to the Suffolk BOE and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D). The petition argues the location of some early polling places are “puzzling at best,” considering New York State law asks BOEs to consider population density, travel time, proximity of an early voting site to other early voting sites and whether the early voting site is near public transportation routes.

Shoshana Hershkowitz, the founder of left-leaning advocacy group Suffolk Progressives, said last year she and fellow advocacy groups lobbied Suffolk to expand its early voting options. She said at the outset last year, Suffolk’s approach was only the bare minimum with a single early voting site per town. They asked for closer to 21 early polling locations with longer hours at each. Now that Suffolk went up to 12, she said she was happy to see more available, but at the same time was disappointed at the one removed from Shelter Island.

“It’s what our budget priorities should be,” Hershkowitz said. “We should be looking to add another polling location or two — it’s a question of the political and financial will.”

In a phone interview several days after the legislative hearing, Hahn argued, considering the general geographic size of a town like Brookhaven, that it would need five early polling locations to be truly equitable, but that it could do with three. If the BOE truly needed more money for more early voting locations, Hahn argued they should have made that explicit to the Legislature before now, especially seeing the cost of one of these locations is about $50,000.

LaLota said the BOE approached Suffolk for more funding for more early voting locations last year and was rebuffed. According to budget documents, the board of elections requested $21,384,480 for 2020 but instead received $20,304,177.

Though the Republican BOE commissioner said in terms of any new early voting locations, “That ship has sailed.”

“It’s a matter of staffing,” he said. “I don’t have the employees to open up new sites. Even if somebody funded us with $100,000 tomorrow, I don’t have the employees to staff the polling place.” 

Getting the Word Out on Early Voting

With only a little over 17,000 people in 2019 taking advantage of early voting, more people are asking that officials work to get the word out.

The BOE has plans for a countywide mailing that will go to every household explaining the three ways that people will be able to vote: absentee, early or in person. That mailing should be out around mid-September, the Republican commissioner said.

Hahn was also critical over the positioning of the absentee ballot on the BOE’s website, saying one has to navigate through multiple links before coming upon the New York State’s absentee ballot form. She argued the BOE should look to put a larger, bolder text button on the BOE’s landing page that takes people directly to the absentee ballot form. 

Click on this image to see all the current early voting locations and times.

Katz, the Democratic BOE commissioner, argued they are somewhat constricted by having a page that works off Suffolk County’s template, and they’re not able to bring a set of buttons directly to the top of the page. In terms of a social media campaign, the commissioners argue they don’t have the resources to pull that off. There is currently no Facebook or Twitter page operated by the BOE itself.

The progressive groups’ petition also argues for a stepped-up communications campaign from both the BOE and other county officials. They point to Westchester County, which pledged to use the county’s communications team to publish information for people of when or how to vote.

Sue Hornik, a representative of Advocacy Group South Country Unites, one of the proponents of the petition, said she was disappointed to hear the BOE did not have any plans for instant communication with residents online. She said the whole of Suffolk government should make a concerted communications effort countywide to emphasize the availability of early voting.

“If they don’t get out the word on early voting and make people understand they have an option — and so everybody votes either absentee or on election day that would be unfortunate.”

Fellow activist Hershkowitz also advised the importance of letting people know their options.

“My hope is that people would really take advantage of it,” the Suffolk Progressives founder said. “There’s just a lot of mistrust in government, and the more transparent and accessible we can make it seem to the public, then we can perhaps regain that trust.”

There will be a significant reduction in the number of people who can commemorate 9/11 this year, with many like the annual event in Shoreham being closed to the public due to COVID-19. File photo by Kyle Barr

TBR News Media reached out to several local elected officials at the national, state and county level to let them share their thoughts as we head into another commemoration of the attacks on the World Trade Center.

*This post will be updated as more officials respond to our questions.*

Sen. Gaughran Shares his Thoughts on 9/11

State Sen. James Gaughran (D-Northport) spoke with the TBR News Media on the eve of the 19th year since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

TBR: What do you think of when you reflect on 9/11 today?

Gaughran: When I think of 9/11, I obviously think of the heroism and the number of people I know who died. I certainly think of the police officers and the firefighters and the first responders who, without hesitancy, ran right into those buildings. Probably, some of them knew they were going to get killed. Maybe others figured it was another day when they were going to try to save people.

TBR: Who is the first person you think of in connection with 9/11?

On Sept. 11, 2019, Gov. Cuomo signs 9/11 bill, sponsored by N.Y. State Sen. Jim Gaughran.

Gaughran: Since I have been in the senate, the first person that comes to mind more than anyone else is Tim DeMeo, who is a constituent of mine, who was working for the Department of Environmental Conservation. He was in charge of dealing with oil spills, other contaminated sites and other hazardous clean ups. He was in Manhattan, driving over the Brooklyn Bridge to Brooklyn, when the plane crashed. He got a call, “You should turn around, go back to Manhattan. This is something we’ll have to deal with.”

He turned around. The second plane crashed. He was permanently injured by debris. He stayed there. The next day and the next day, throughout [the clean-up] with all the other heroes…

He worked alongside police and firefighters and others working at the scene. He got very sick. He was not entitled to the same disability retirement benefits that everybody else was who was there. The way the state legislature wrote the bill, it was written so it would [be for] uniformed employees. He was not one of them. He was in the Department of Environmental Conservation. There were eight or nine other people like him. One of the first who came to see me in my district office, he came and told me a story … He said, “everybody else has been helped and I haven’t.”

He has significant medical issues. Attempts to pass a bill never went anywhere. I ended up writing a bill. We passed a bill last year, on 9/11. The Governor [Andrew Cuomo (D)] signed the bill.

It’s my proudest achievement so far. It didn’t help as many people as some of the other legislation I dealt with. I’m proudest of [that bill]. All these people were just as much heroes as everyone else. They were left out. New York was ignoring them.

TBR: How would you compare the heroism of first responders who raced to the burning buildings in Manhattan to the heroism of first responders and health care workers who have dealt with the ongoing unknowns and challenges from the pandemic?

Gaughran: I think it’s basically the same. A nurse or a doctor or a firefighter or an EMT who picks up somebody and puts them in an ambulance and brings them to the hospital are doing this knowing they could easily contract COVID and face the same issues that people they are trying to help are facing. The risks are the same. Running into a burning building is a more immediate risk. Dealing with a sick COVID patient, who may give you the disease, you’re facing a risk that potentially could cost you your life.

TBR: Do you think the divisiveness of today will ease during 9/11?

Gaughran: I would hope so. I remember on 9/11, watching George W. Bush at the site, that iconic image, with the bull horn and everything. That wasn’t that long after the election. My kids were young. They paid attention to everything. [They said] “dad, you didn’t vote for him.” This is a moment when we all have to stand behind him. It was a different world then. It’s hard to get people to agree to the same thing today. The president we have now is not going out of his way to try to create national unity.

I voted for Al Gore, but Bush did push for national unity after that, including visiting mosques, to make it clear that even though the terrorists who killed us were of a certain background, the folks who were living in the United States who happened to be Muslim are patriotic citizens like everyone else.

Rep. Lee Zeldin Shares his Thoughts on 9/11

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY-1) responded to questions from TBR News Media on the eve of the 19th year since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

TBR: What do you think of when you reflect on 9/11 today?

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin. Flie photo by Alex Petroski

Zeldin: The bravery, selflessness, fearlessness, and resolve of first responders, Americans, and our entire nation as a whole. When so many of us think about 9/11, we remember exactly where we were that day, when ordinary Americans became extraordinary heroes. We vividly remember what we heard, what we saw and how we felt. We remember first responders running towards danger at the greatest possible risk to their own lives.

While our memories of those moments have not faded, most importantly, neither has our resolve to rise stronger than ever before. New Yorkers remain committed, especially this year, to remember, honor and exemplify those Americans, who in the face of unconscionable evil, were the very best of who we are.

TBR:  Who is the first person that comes to mind in connection with 9/11?

Zeldin: It’s difficult to choose just one person who comes to mind, but with the full permanent funding of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund signed into law last year, one of the first people who comes to mind is Luis Alvarez. While he wasn’t with us to witness the legislation he fought so hard for signed into law, he spent his final weeks with us continuing the fight until the very end so other 9/11 first responders wouldn’t have to.

TBR: In the context of the pandemic, is 9/11 overlooked?

Zeldin: Even in the midst of a pandemic, the commitment of New Yorkers to Never Forget, as we’ve seen with the Tribute in Light and the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, underscores how dedicated New Yorkers are to the memory of those who died on that day and the so many who have passed since due to 9/11 related illnesses.

TBR: How would you compare the heroism of first responders who raced to the burning buildings in Manhattan to the heroism of first responders and health care workers who have dealt with the ongoing unknowns and challenges from the pandemic?

Zeldin: The same bravery in the face of clear danger and uncertainty that drove so many first responders on 9/11 to save countless lives at the expensive of their own, is the same bravery that has spurred so many of our local first responders and health care workers to serve throughout the novel outbreak of coronavirus.

Though the Setauket Patriots said their Fourth of July parade held in Port Jeff was an a-political event, a few cars like this military-style Jeep rolled down Main Street bearing “Trump 2020” paraphernalia. Photo by David Luces

The Setauket Patriots, a sometimes-controversial online conservative group, announced they plan to hold a 9/11 parade in Port Jefferson, even though this time they lack the village’s approval. 

The planned march, scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 12, would take people from the train station all the way down to the 9/11 memorial across from Port Jefferson Village Hall, next to the marina parking lot. The village has not granted a permit for the march, but the group plans to go anyway. 

“This is about trying to follow the mandates.”

— Margot Garant

The Facebook page for the event states the event is planned because New York City, along with Suffolk and Nassau counties, have declined to hold public 9/11 ceremonies because of the pandemic. The patriots, a known pro-Trump group, said the event “is not a Trump rally but a 9/11 never-forget-our-first-responders event.” Organizers said they expect anywhere from 150 to 200 participants.

This is not the first event the group has decided to host in Port Jeff. When hundreds marched down Main Street in Port Jefferson for a Black Lives Matter march in June, the Setauket Patriots hosted a Fourth of July car parade in response. Both the protest march and Patriots parade received permits after discussions with village officials, which created changes of time and place for both events. This time, the conservative group filed for a permit but they claim their request was denied Friday, Aug. 28.

Village Attorney Brian Egan said an executive order signed July 6 by Mayor Margot Garant effectively stopped the village from signing any new permits for marches or protests. The order was enabled by the village’s previous declaration of emergency because of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time it was signed, Garant said the permits for such protests and parades had been “a mistake” because of the ongoing pandemic.

In regards to any further action taken by the village, Egan said nothing would be enforced by Port Jeff’s constables, and it would instead fall on the Suffolk County Police Department. In response to whether the village plans any further action against the group if it does host its parade, he again reiterated that Port Jeff’s clerk would no longer be issuing permits for any kind of march.

Garant said that beyond the moratorium on permits, the application the group filed had been incomplete and was rejected for that as well. She added the purpose of no longer allowing groups of more than 50 to gather is an attempt to comply with state orders trying to reduce the spread of COVID-19. 

“It has nothing to do with who they are and what they’re doing,” she said. “This is about trying to follow the mandates.”

The mayor said the village has contacted Suffolk County police as well as state police about the planned march. They have also contacted the Town of Brookhaven, since the 9/11 memorial is technically on town-owned land. She advised that the group should try and communicate with the town instead to devise some kind of ceremony.

A spokesperson for the Setauket Patriots, who asked he not be named because of fear of being outed online, called the village’s decision to not allow any more parades unfair, considering the village has started hosting its Harborfront Park movie nights once again, though these are hosted by the village itself and therefore do not require permits.  

“We’re helping Mr. Dooley, and it’s the only reason we’re having it in Port Jeff.”

— Setauket Patriots

The Setauket Patriots leader reiterated that the planned march was planned to be apolitical. He said it was planned after conversations with Daniel Dooley, a New York City Fire Department lieutenant who helped construct the Port Jeff 9/11 memorial. Dooley normally hosts a vigil at the memorial site to commemorate 9/11. He was also described as a member of the group.

“We’re helping Mr. Dooley, and it’s the only reason we’re having it in Port Jeff,” the Setauket Patriots rep said.

Efforts to contact Dooley went unsuccessful as of press time.

A few other 9/11-based events usually happen within the village to commemorate that fateful day in 2001. The Port Jefferson Fire Department normally hosts its own ceremony, and last year the Order Sons and Daughters of Italy in America hosted a candlelight vigil in Harborfront Park. 

Tom Totten, the PJ fire district chairman of the fire commissioners, said they plan to host an in-house ceremony that’s not open to the public. Discussions are still ongoing whether the vigil will be recorded or livestreamed.

Other 9/11 events on the North Shore have been postponed or changed to meet the challenges of the pandemic. The usual Setauket Fire Department 9/11 event will not be open to the public and will instead be livestreamed. Other events, like the 9/11 memorial hosted in Shoreham by the Rocky Point Fire Department, are still up in the air.

Members of the Setauket Patriots group also took the lead in several controversial May protests in Commack calling for the end of the COVID-19 shutdowns. Their Facebook normally posts conservative and pro-president news, but their page also shares more posts that could well be described as inciting violence, such as videos of pro-Trump car paraders in Portland, Oregon, driving into and through counterprotesters and spraying them with pepper spray with captions like, “Bear spray is the new bug spray!” 

The Belle Terre village board. File photo by Kyle Barr

With two trustee seats and the mayoral position up for election in the Village of Belle Terre, three individuals have thrown their hats into the ring along with the three incumbents. 

This year, incumbent Mayor Bob Sandak is joined by Deputy Mayor Sheila Knapp and Trustee Jacquelyn Gernaey. Opposing them are newcomers Enrico Scarda, who’s running for mayor, along with trustee candidates Peter Colucci and Lou Bove.

The mayoral race has already started to heat up in anticipation for the Sept. 15 voting date. Ballots can be cast at the Belle Terre Village Hall from 12 to 9 p.m.

Mayor

Enrico Scarda

Enrico Scarda

Scarda, the president and founder of the Crest Group development agency, said he is running to help bolster local property values and update how the village communicates with residents. 

“We’re all getting up in age and want to sell our homes to downsize, and I believe we could do much better with property values than our [competing villages],” Scarda said. “The village has the opportunity here to get an attorney who has experience in the community for free.”

The Crest Group owns multiple properties around the Port Jeff area, including Danford’s Hotel & Marina and The Waterview at the Port Jefferson Country Club. Scarda is a 20-year resident of the village, having moved there with his wife to help raise his three children. With his two sons having already graduated from college they are helping him run the business, and with his daughter also graduating soon as well, he said he has more time to spend caring about local issues.

The village, he said, could do better with its communications efforts, including buffing up its website. He suggested Belle Terre should create a ticket system for things like road repair that can be submitted electronically, such as he has in his business. The village would give updates through the system for when a ticket has been accepted and when a project is complete. 

He added there could be small additions that would make the beach program more attractive, including more renovations to the beach pavilion. 

All these small changes, he said, would go to making the village more attractive, and thereby increasing everyone’s property values. 

His home on Seaside Drive is only one of several Sound-facing homes which are facing issues with eroding bluffs. Scarda said though he has already received permits from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation to begin revetment of those bluffs, the village should work with all property owners along that road to shore up the bluffs, especially because fixing one residents’ bluffs will still leave an issue for others all along the shore. It’s not to benefit him or any one person but creating some kind of initiative to do bluff repair would go a long way.

“If one home falls into the sound, the property values of the rest of the village are going to go down,” he said. “If we all did the work at the same time, we could protect that bluff, we would all be safe.”

Similar houses in Belle Terre compared to Old Field are going for a worse rate than their counterparts, he claimed, saying it’s because of small things that are leaving the village in the past.

Other issues for the candidate include safety, as he calls for more cameras including one by the village gate. He also said the village should do more to beautify the roads, including repair and garbage pickup.

Overall, he said his experience would make him a great pick to lead Belle Terre.

“The village is getting an experienced developer who has built communities as large as Belle Terre from the ground up,” he said.

Bob Sandak

Four-year Mayor Sandak has been a village official since he became trustee in 2004. He came on as trustee during Vincent Bove’s 25-year reign, and originally ran unopposed in 2016.

Sandak said he and fellow trustees have already made many strides since the time he’s sat on the board. The mayor is a former school administrator, having worked in districts such as Hicksville, Half Hollow Hills and William Floyd at times overseeing millions of dollars’ worth in construction along with other administrative tasks over 38 years. He said this work has translated well into administrating a small village like Belle Terre.

“We’ve tried to pass codes that make this a nice place to live for everybody,” he said. “Noise is something we deal with — there’s no construction on Saturday and Sunday — we try to make it a nice place to live.”

The village, he said, has done well in creating public/private partnerships to create municipal projects that are partly funded by both residents and Belle Terre. These include the restoration of the gatehouse and entrance wall, the design and construction of the children’s playground, the installation of the walking/cycling track, the reconstruction of the “Circle” at the end of Cliff Road, and most recently the reconstruction of the bathhouse pavilion at Knapp Beach. The latter was originally built in the 1930s and needed to be made handicap accessible. That project, which he said started in concept around two years ago, was done with volunteered architectural designs by a resident and donations from the community. 

The community also donated their time and money to help construct kayak and canoe racks at Knapp Beach. These proved so popular that the village plans to help construct additional racks in the future, along with some mats that people may walk down onto the beach.

In the future, Sandak said Belle Terre needs to be readier to handle potential storms. He said he wants to propose the community center should be turned into a shelter for residents, especially those who lose power in a storm. This would require backup generators for people to use the location as a refuge. 

“We’ve really noticed a real change in weather patterns — we’ve been hit by nor’easters — they really batter us,” he said. “It leads to a lot of road reconstruction.”

In terms of property values, the Belle Terre mayor said the noticeable loss in property values was due to a large number of people who inherited their homes from longtime residents all started putting homes on the market at once, many of whom had not been fixed up since the 1960s. To his knowledge, there are only four houses up for sale in the community, and he expects property values to increase up to levels comparable with similarly sized villages on the North Shore.

Sandak also agreed that erosion around homes on the edge of the Sound was a major issue, though he said he had two years ago proposed to property owners a special taxation area that could help pay back a bond that would be used to fix the erosion issues, but only two of 11 homeowners were interested in that.

“We certainly want to try and help stop the erosion there,” he said. 

Trustees

Sheila Knapp

Sheila Knapp

Knapp, who has spent a lifetime amongst the Belle Terre community, said she is running again to continue to make the village live up to her memories of spending time there as a child.

“A year before I was born my parents bought our home in Belle Terre. It was the most wonderful place to grow up,” she said in an email response to questions. “The beach, the friends, the belonging to a community that was like family … I want everybody to love this place as I do.”

Knapp has been beach commissioner since 1977, trustee since 1997 and deputy mayor since 2004. She said the best part of the village is the natural beauty and peacefulness, and that every board she has served on has had the goal “to keep everybody’s quality of life here at it’s best.”

Close to 70 years ago, when Harbor Hills Country Club was built, she said her father got the land for what is now the current beach, which she has long worked to take care of. Otherwise, she said the village has passed noise and construction ordinances to keep the village serene on the weekends. She said the new wall along the beach parking lot is a “dream come true” and their recently installed cell tower has allowed more reception range throughout the village.

The 43-year beach commissioner said that in the future she would continue on with Belle Terre’s current trajectory.

“Things are not broken here,” she said. “We improved communication and do our best to keep residents informed with the website, meetings, emails and letters. All of the trustees and mayor publish our private phone numbers. We want to be accessible.”

Peter Colucci

Peter Colucci

Colucci, who has lived in Belle Terre along with his wife for 12 years, said he is running because he deeply cares about the community and believes he can improve several aspects of the village.

Two things he’s running on are security and modernizing the village’s communication systems. In 2017 he and his wife were victims of a home invasion and burglary where police at the time said the perpetrators got away with several hundred thousand dollars in cash and jewelry.

“I would like to see modernization in all areas,” Colucci said in an email response to questions. “Simple things are easily done such as upgrading security cameras and increasing communication to all residents especially during times of weather-related emergencies.”

He said he would like to continue with current efforts to keep the beauty and quaintness of the village going, but he said he would also look forward to working on a plan to alleviate the issues with Anchorage Road, where people park all along the road making it dangerous for both cars and pedestrians looking to access McAllister County Park. 

Jacquelyn Gernaey

Jacquelyn Gernaey

Gernaey, who has been on the board of trustees for six years after she was originally appointed to the board, said the best part of being on a board like that in Belle Terre is that “trustees really don’t have a personal agenda, and I like being part of a group that can make changes for the village not personally focused.”

The trustee has lived in the village for 25 years, originally hailing from Kings Park. She said she came to love the community feel of Belle Terre, especially since it emphasized keeping trees and nature serene.

As the fiscal officer in the village, Gernaey said one of the big issues she said is that village residents will be losing out in taxes due to the settlement over the Long Island Power Authority power plant tax certiorari case. Over a 10-year glide path, LIPA’s property taxes will decline, which will necessitate village residents pay more in Port Jefferson School District taxes over time.

“We want to continue to get state grants, something we’ve been very successful in doing,” she said, adding they have gotten several hundred thousand for roads from the state and $800,000 in FEMA aid for storm damage.  

In addition, she said she wants to keep the pressure on Suffolk County to remediate the parking issues with McAllister Park on Anchorage Road. She said they have been working with more county park officers to deter any more parking along that road. 

Erosion issues for houses along the sound are also a major issue. While the village has received a small $100,000 grant towards stabilizing the beach, the issue may be in the near future the whole cliff could start to go, making the homes along the bluff structurally unsound. 

“In the last since we applied, we lost 30 feet,” she said. “That’s something we’re really working on.”

As a founder and CEO of two companies, one a human resource outsourcing company and a small business consulting firm, she jokingly said “she certainly doesn’t need this to keep me busy,” but that “she was always taught to give back.”

“We work hard for the village — all about the village, not about us,” she said.

Lou Bove

Bove is the president and CEO of East Setauket-based contractor Bove Industries and is now seeking a seat on the Belle Terre village board.

The candidate did not return several requests for comment through his company. If he does respond in time for the election, his comments will be put on the website version of this article at tbrnewsmedia.com.