Suffolk County

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.”

Rocky Point VFW during a 2019 Veterans Day Event. The Rocky Point VFW has donated to the Joseph P. Dwyer project, but that same initiative may be losing funds without federal aid. Photo by Kyle Barr

County officials said the Joseph P. Dwyer program, which provides veterans with peer to peer counseling for post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, is under financial pressure amid the economic collapse caused by the pandemic.

Though at the same time, a local congressman who helped start the program has questioned whether the program could truly be defunded, even as local officials are facing a grim financial outlook.

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin said there is not much risk of the Dwyer program being defunded any time soon. File photo by Kevin Redding

A loss of the Dwyer program is especially problematic this year, as the need for these services on Long Island has more than doubled in the last six months, according to Marcelle Leis, program director of the Joseph P. Dwyer Veterans Peer Support Project.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) led a group of people focused on veterans affairs in the county, which has the largest population of veterans in the state, to ask for federal disaster relief.

The Dwyer program is “at risk because of tough budgets in the state,” Bellone said on a conference call with reporters. It is “critical that the federal government provide disaster aid to state and local governments so we can continue to function and provide critical services during the pandemic.”

Veterans commit about 20 suicides per day, which is a “national shame,” Bellone said. The county executive cited a recent report in Newsday that estimates that veteran suicides are up by 20 percent since the pandemic began.

“All of the challenges people have faced” have been exacerbated by the “unprecedented natural disaster that we are all living through,” Bellone added.

Domestic violence, mental health and addiction issues have all become more prevalent amid the threat to public health and the economic uncertainty caused by COVID-19, officials said.

Thomas Ronayne, Director of the Suffolk County Veterans Service Agency, said resources for veterans in Suffolk County were “stretched to near the breaking point.”

Ronayne suggested the virus that has changed the world during this challenging year has been no less an enemy than any combatant veterans faced on a battle field, in a jungle or in a desert city.

Veterans have struggled with the isolation created by calls for them to avoid social interactions, when agencies like Ronayne’s would normally encourage them to socialize and interact with the community and their peers.

Indeed, Joe Cognitore, Commander of the Rocky Point VFW Post 6249, who received the Bronze Star and the Combat Infantry Badge for his service during Vietnam from 1969 to 1971, said he has typically felt relief going out and feels much more pent up by being indoors.

“Staying in and [staring at] the four walls of your home takes a toll on you,” Cognitore said.

Cognitore said the Rocky Point VFW recently donated $2,500 to the Dwyer Program.

Leis said the Dwyer Program receives $185,000 in Suffolk County each year in state funding. Cutting or eliminating that funding would reduce the services veterans can access.

“We do save lives,” Leis said. “We cannot do it alone.”

Ronayne said veterans can reach out to the Agency by calling (631) 853-8387, adding that they are always available to support veterans, but that people who need help immediately should call 911.

Bellone said U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY1) has a “close, working relationship with the president and the White House,” Bellone said. “That’s a critical thing. We need the president to weigh in with [Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).] We need all parties to come to an agreement on disaster aid.”

Zeldin was a state senator when the Dwyer Program started and said in a phone interview Tuesday that he has continued to provide support.

While Zeldin has spoken with President Donald Trump (R) this Sunday by phone about the need for funding for Suffolk County, he has not heard about any imminent threat to state-sponsored support for a program he helped create.

The Dwyer Program is funded through the end of the first quarter of 2021, Zeldin said, adding he wasn’t aware of anyone inside the state executive or legislative branch who is planning to cut funding for this program.

Zeldin doesn’t anticipate that this particular program will be cut at the state level either.

State Sen. Jim Gaughran said he received more calls than any other time in his career from people who could not get to PSEG. Photo from Gaughran's office

Following the power outage caused by Tropical Storm Isaias in early August, State Sen. James Gaughran (D-Northport) conducted a survey of residents.

With 3,243 people responding, the survey indicated that people lost an average of $434.66. That compares with the maximum of $250 that PSEG Long Island said it would reimburse residents if they produced an itemized list and proof of loss.

Click here to see the full survey results

“I don’t keep my receipts,” Gaughran said in an interview after he publicly released the survey. “I throw mine out. I would imagine a lot of Long Islanders are keeping receipts” from their grocery purchases after their experience with the storm, the outage and the food losses, particularly amid the economic decline caused by the pandemic.

More than half the survey respondents, or over 58%, said they were not able to contact PSEG easily about their outage. At the time of the storm, PSEG recognized that its new communication system was ineffective.

Additionally, over two thirds, or 67 percent, of the residents in the survey said PSEG did not restore power before the estimated time.

In the two years he’s been in the senate, Gaughran said he’s never had this many responses to questions from residents about anything.

The Democratic senator highlighted how over 56% of residents were unaware of PSEG’s Critical Care Program, although those residents don’t believe anyone in their households would qualify. An additional 21% of the survey respondents didn’t know about the program and believed someone in their house might qualify.

The fact that more than half of the people who responded didn’t know about the program is “significant,” Gaughran said.

“Unacceptable” Storm Response

In response to a letter Gaughran sent to LIPA, CEO Thomas Falcone said he would “make sure that your survey results are appropriately reflected in the work streams for LIPA’s upcoming 90-day and 180-day investigative reports into PSEG Long Island’s storm response.”

Falcone called PSEG LI’s response to the storm “unacceptable” and said the LIPA Board has “insisted that the failures not be repeated.”

LIPA’s 30-day report said the computer system caused incorrect restoration estimates.

In its report about the storm response, LIPA concluded that “problematic management control issues,” combined with outside vendors who had “poorly defined service quality assurances” delivered an unsatisfactory customer experience.

A tree fell on a mail truck on Old Post Road in Setauket during Tropical Storm Isaias. Photo by John Broven

LIPA’s 2020 Internal Audit plan had previously scheduled a re-audit of the process to maintain customer lists to begin the fourth quarter of 2020. After reports of outdated customer lists during Isaias, LIPA accelerated that process, which started in September. The power authority will address that further in its 90 and 180 day Task Force reports.

The senator, who presented the results of his survey, also reiterated concerns he has about LIPA’s oversight of PSEG LI.

Gaughran said the Public Service Commission, which has considerably more direct oversight with other utilities around the state, doesn’t have the same authority with PSEG LI.

The PSC provides “recommendations” to LIPA and can “force them to pay money to their customers for lost food, lost business. [It] can do this with every utility except PSEG LI because the relationship is different.”

In responding to this concern, LIPA, in a statement, said the LIPA Reform Act provides the Department of Public Service with oversight responsibilities of LIPA and PSEG.

“LIPA’s storm oversight activities are in addition to DPS’s statutory role and DPS’s statutory role is the same for PSEG Long Island as it is for the state’s other utilities,” LIPA said in a statement.

The DPS provides independent recommendations to the LIPA Board of Trustees. The board has accepted every recommendation from the DPS, according to the statement.

LIPA said the only difference between the oversight of PSEG LI and other utilities in New York is that the DPS recommendations are to LIPA’s nine-member board, instead of the Public Service Commission.

The 30-day report includes 37 specific recommendations for PSEG Long Island to put in place by Oct. 15, LIPA said.

As for losses from the storm, LIPA said it secured direct reimbursement for customers through the customer spoilage reimbursement program. That could be as high as $500 per residential customer for food and medicine. PSEG LI is forgoing up to $10 million in compensation to fund this program.

LIPA “may look to pursue additional actions after [its] review and the Department of Public Service’s Investigation” is complete, LIPA said in a statement.

In his letter to Gaughran, Falcone said the 90-day and 180-day reports would have additional “actionable recommendations,” which the LIPA board would ask for independent verification and validation to make sure these recommendations have been implemented.

 

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.

 

By Melissa Arnold

It’s been a long year of Netflix binges and Zoom meetings for all of us, and these days, nothing feels better than getting out a little. You don’t have to go far to find interesting places to explore, either.

Most Long Island locals are probably familiar with the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum and Planetarium in Centerport, with its sprawling grounds, elaborate mansion and impressive collection of marine life. But be honest: When was your last visit? If it’s been a while — or even if it hasn’t — their 70th anniversary year is the perfect time to stop by.

“The Vanderbilt is unique, a don’t-miss slice of American history. When you take a guided tour of the mansion and its galleries, it’s a time machine trip to a remarkable era of privilege,” said Elizabeth Wayland-Morgan, executive director of the museum. “At one point in the past, there were more than 1,200 mansions on Long Island’s Gold Coast. This is one of the few that remains.”

The Vanderbilt Mansion as we know it today had relatively modest beginnings. William K. Vanderbilt II, a son of the famed Vanderbilt family, had just separated from his first wife in the early 1900s. “Willie K.,” as he’s affectionately known, was looking for a place to get a fresh start, away from the public eye. So he came to Centerport and purchased land, where he built a 7-room, English-style cottage along with some outbuildings.

The cottage, called Eagle’s Nest, was eventually expanded into a sprawling 24-room mansion in the Spanish Revival style. From 1910 to 1944, Eagle’s Nest was Vanderbilt’s summer hideaway. He and his second wife Rosamond hosted intimate gatherings of Vanderbilt family members and close friends, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, legendary golfer Sam Snead, and the Tiffanys.

Of course, that was just the beginning. According to Killian Taylor, the museum’s curatorial associate, Vanderbilt developed a fascination with all kinds of animals, the sea and the natural world from a young age. He had the opportunity to travel the world on his father’s yachts as a child, and longed to see more as he reached adulthood.

“Later, Willie K. inherited $20 million from his late father. One of the first things he did was purchase a very large yacht and hire a team of scientists and a crew,” Taylor explained. “With them, he began to travel and collect marine life, and by 1930, he had amassed one of the world’s largest private marine collections.”

With the help of scientists and experts from the American Museum of Natural History, Vanderbilt created galleries at the Estate to showcase his collections which contains more than 13,000 different marine specimens of all kinds and sizes, from the tiniest fish to a 32-foot whale shark, the world’s largest taxidermied fish, caught off Fire Island in 1935.

After Vanderbilt died in 1944, Rosamond continued to live in their Centerport mansion until her death in 1947. The 43-acre estate and museum – which remain frozen in time, exactly as they were in the late 1940s – opened to the public on July 6, 1950, following instructions left in Vanderbilt’s will. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

The museum also features a 3,000-year-old mummy, which Vanderbilt purchased from an antique shop in Cairo, Egypt, Taylor said. The mummy even had an X-ray taken at nearby Stony Brook University Hospital, where they determined the remains are of a female around 25 years old.

“She doesn’t have a name out of respect for the fact that she was once a living woman with her own identity,” Taylor added.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought its share of difficulties to every business, and while the museum has had to temporarily close some of its facilities, including the mansion’s living quarters and planetarium, they’ve also added new opportunities for visitors.

“Like many other museums, we had to get creative virtually very quickly,” said Wayland-Morgan. “Our Education Department created the ‘Explore’ series for children — fascinating facts about the lives of birds, butterflies, reptiles, and fish, with pictures to download and color. The Planetarium astronomy educators produced 11 videos on topics including How to Use a Telescope, Imagining Alien Life, Mars, Black Holes, and Fitness in Space. We’ve received very positive responses.” The planetarium also offers online astronomy classes.

The museum is also offering new outdoor programs on the grounds, including walking tours, sunset yoga, a popular series of bird talks by an ornithologist James MacDougall and are currently hosting the third annual Gardeners Showcase through September. On Fridays and Saturdays, movie-and-picnic nights are a popular draw at the outdoor, drive-in theater.

Even without a specific event to attend, the grounds are a perfect place to wander when cabin fever strikes.

“The best reason to visit right now is to stroll the grounds and gardens and visit the open galleries. We’ve also become a very popular picnic destination with a great view of Northport Bay,” Wayland-Morgan said. “We plan to reopen the mansion living quarters and planetarium later in the fall.”

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is located at 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport. As of Sept. 17, hours of operation are from noon to 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The mansion’s living quarters and the planetarium are currently closed. Please wear a mask and practice social distancing. Admission is $8 for adults, $5 for children under 12, and $7 for students and seniors. Children under 2 are admitted free. For questions and information, including movie night passes, visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org or call 631-854-5579.

Real Estate brokers said people from more urban parts of the state are on the hunt for rustic or suburban homes like this one for sale in Port Jefferson. Photo from Douglas Elliman Real Estate

Go east, homebuyers.

That’s the message people in Nassau County and New York City have heard in connection with home-buying decisions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘A number of people, because of the density of the population, decided they might like to move away from the city life and get to more open space.’

—John Fitzgerald

After the real estate market all but shut down during the worst of the lockdown in the spring, buyers have shown considerable interest in homes for sale in Suffolk County, driven by numerous factors including people leaving the higher-density areas of Manhattan. Additionally, prospective buyers working there have recognized that a remote working environment has given them options further from the city.

“Because of the pandemic, there was a slowdown in the request for housing and the market stopped for a while,” said John Fitzgerald, an owner and broker with Realty Connect USA, which is headquartered in Hauppauge. Once the market returned, “a number of people, because of the density of the population, decided they might like to move away from the city life and get to more open space,” he added.

With more buyers than houses available, bidding wars erupted. Prospective buyers also benefited from low interest rates, as people shopped for homes based on the monthly cost to build equity in their homes, rather than absolute price.

In some cases, within 10 minutes of a seller listing a house on the market, the phone started ringing for agents, Fitzgerald said. Prospective buyers and agents are calling or reaching out through the internet soon after some new listings appear on the market.

“It doesn’t matter the time of the day or the evening,” said Setauket-based Michael Ardolino, who is also an owner and broker at Realty Connect USA, which has offices throughout Long Island.

The prices for some homes have increased during the course of the year.

“If you’re selling something in February for one price, here we are in September, you can see a price difference,” Ardolino said. “Clearly, people are getting more money.”

Indeed, one home seller, who preferred not to use her name, said she put her house on the market in May but due to the pandemic nobody could come see it.

That, however, didn’t stop people from showing interest as numerous calls were made to her. She even received an offer from someone who hadn’t been in the house.

The offer that the seller eventually accepted was higher than the asking price. The sale closed only a few months after she put the home on the market.

With homebuyers expecting to use their houses for leisure and remote working, Fitzgerald said builders are already considering altering their architectural designs. Instead of a large den, some builders are exploring the potential for two private offices.

“In brand new construction, that will become more of a desired piece when people shop,” he said. Additionally, people may start looking for separate entrances, allowing them to minimize the noise and traffic that comes through their offices.

Some buyers are looking for an area where they are close enough to be in walking distance to town, but don’t want to be in the middle of town.

Catherine Quinlan of Coldwell Banker has also seen high demand for homes, particularly in Port Jefferson — one of her areas of expertise, where the inventory isn’t especially high.

Houses are “selling fast if they’re priced right,” she said.

While the supply-demand curve is tilted toward sellers, the pricing power isn’t extreme. She said sellers might get an extra $10,000 to $20,000, but that they aren’t collecting an additional $100,000.

Buyers are not only looking for office space to work at home, but are also interested in pools. If there isn’t a pool, buyers are asking if there’s enough room to build one.

In other markets, some folks may not want pools, but the current uncertainty about travel, vacations and even the availability of community pools has encouraged some buyers to add them to their shopping list.

Fitzgerald said the demand for pools is high enough that there is a waiting list to buy both in-ground and above-ground pools.

For one home she wasn’t showing, Quinlan was surprised to see a bidding war.

Houses that would have been on the market for months because of the condition are selling in a market in which buyers are willing to “work with a house” to accommodate their needs and to upgrade amenities or even rooms, she said.

Homes that are in the $400,000 to $500,000 range in particular are finding receptive buyers.

For prospective buyers who might be waiting for prices to come down, Fitzgerald suggested that the other side of the cost is interest rates.

“If the rates went up 1%, [buyers] could pay $40,000 to $50,000 more for the home,” he said, so they wouldn’t necessarily have saved by waiting.

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.

NAACP chapter President Tracey Edwards has criticized the county for not communicating well enough about the new police reform task force. File photo by Kyle Barr

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) announced the county was creating a new 30-member policing task force to develop a plan for police going forward.

The announcement came on the same day, Sept. 9, when advocates from all over Long Island protested on the steps of the county executive seat in Hauppauge over the need for police reform. Speakers also criticized Bellone for seemingly stalling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative. This executive order, originally signed in June, cites that every department must make a comprehensive review of police departments and their procedures, and address the needs of the community to promote “trust, fairness and legitimacy, and to address any racial bias and disproportionate policing of communities of color.” The governor released new guidance for these reviews, effectively saying municipalities need to understand the disposition of the community before drafting their final plan. Municipalities who do not create such a plan could lose state funding for their police departments.

Members of the Suffolk Task Force

● Deputy CE Vanessa Baird-Streeter

● Jon Kaiman, Deputy County Executive

● Retha Fernandez, Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer, Suffolk County

● Geraldine Hart, Suffolk County Police Department Commissioner

● Risco Mention-Lewis, Suffolk County Police Department Deputy Commissioner

● Stuart Cameron, Suffolk County Police Department Chief of Department

● Errol Toulon Jr., Suffolk County Sheriff

● Tim Sini, Suffolk County District Attorney

● Presiding Officer Rob Calarco

● Majority Leader William “Doc” Spencer

● Minority Leader Tom Cilmi

● Legislator Tom Donnelly, Chair of the Public Safety Committee

● Legislator Jason Richberg

● Legislator Sam Gonzalez

● Noel DiGerolamo, President, Suffolk PBA

● Tracey Edwards, NAACP LI Regional Director

● Theresa Sanders, President, Urban League of Long Island

● Christina Vargas, Chief Diversity Officer/Title IX Coordinator Suffolk County Community College 

● Daniel Russo, Administrator, Assigned Counsel Defender Plan of Suffolk County

● Rev. Charles Coverdale, First Baptist Church of Riverhead

● Bishop Andy Lewter, Hollywood Full Gospel Baptist Cathedral

● Kathleen King, Chair, Suffolk County Native American Advisory Board

● Pastor Angel Falcon, Faith Alive Ministries

● Sister Sanaa Nadim, Chaplain, Islamic Society of North America

● Cindy Reide Combs, Licensed Master Social Worker

● Serena Liguori, Executive Director, New Hour for Women and Children LI

● Jennifer Leveque, Huntington Leaders of the New School

● Girish Patel, BAPS Hindu Temple

● Rabbi Abe Rabinovich, Kings Park JC

● David Kilmnick, President & Chief Executive Officer, LGBT Network

Members of Long Island Advocates for Police Accountability, which was formed after the death of Minneapolis man George Floyd at the hands of police in May, were especially critical of Bellone’s handling of rolling out the task force at the Sept. 9 protest in front of the William H. Rogers building. 

Tracey Edwards, who is one of the people named to the new task force, is the regional director  for NAACP Long Island and spoke at the protest building Sept. 9. She said the NAACP and other groups wrote letters to Bellone in June, shortly after Cuomo signed his executive order, but did not hear back and have only seen movement on the executive order now.

As for the task force itself, Edwards said it’s not enough to go through the motions and see nothing of substance come out of it. Specifically, she said police need to increase diversity amongst dispatchers and department leadership, and increase the number of body cameras worn by officers, as just a few examples toward lasting change in Suffolk policing.

“We don’t want a predetermined process, we don’t want selective membership that makes everyone comfortable,” she said. “This is meant to be an uncomfortable process.”

Deputy County Executive Vanessa Baird-Streeter, also a member of the new task force, defended the county’s timing, saying officials were waiting for Cuomo’s guidance document, which was finally released Aug. 17. 

“We were looking at this prior to that date, but this is the guidance we were looking at that allowed us to form the task force,” she said. “For the county, we really want a collaborative process, one where they feel their voice is heard, their concerns are heard, their issues are heard, and then have an opportunity to address those issues.”

The task force is split in half between county and police officials and other community groups. Of the 30 members of the task force, nine are either Suffolk County legislators or work for the county in some capacity. Another six work in some kind of law enforcement capacity, including Suffolk Police Benevolent Association president, Noel DiGerolamo. The other 15 are from a variety of faith, minority or local advocacy groups.

Though in the case of the Suffolk PBA and its head DiGerolamo, some advocates criticized his involvement, especially since the PBA has been proponents and participants of Blue Lives Matter protests countywide, where participants have been strongly opposed to any kind of police reform.

DiGerolamo said in a phone interview that he appreciated being included on the task force and that he hoped other members “will enter into it with an open mind and be reasonable in their expectations” regarding what police reforms are applicable to SCPD. He instead said he hopes people see the need for a greater police and civilian relationship, “not a defund movement, which would only cause a greater divide.”

In regards to reforms such as defunding the police, a phrase which accounts for taking funds away from traditional law enforcement and putting it toward other social services in an effort to reduce the source of crime, the PBA president called it “completely misguided.” He cited changes the police have already done, including a limited body camera program, bias training and a civilians police academy.   

“I think any time you put people together who will share their thoughts collectively, there’s always a potential for growth,” DiGerolamo said.

Baird-Streeter said the guidance document effectively mandates who needs to be on the committee, including key police stakeholders in which the PBA president is one of them.

“Actually, looking for reforms within the police department, it’s important to have the entity that represents the police,” she said.

Suffolk County police and county officials have constantly touted recent reforms already made at the department. Officials cite its implicit bias training where 65% of the force, or 1,600 officers have been trained. Officials also cite their de-escalation techniques taught in the police academy and new diversity initiatives which have resulted in a more diverse department.

But advocates say it hasn’t been enough, and they would rather hear what police plan to do in the future rather than what it’s currently doing.

Irma Solis, director of the Suffolk Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union and longtime advocate has been on the side of police reform for close to 20 years. She said that while there have been recent strides on the side of police, the distance between department reform and the police enacting it is still too great. It’s especially apparent when considering communities with a high density of Black and Latino populations who have a greater sense of being targeted by law enforcement, even years after Suffolk police started its reform initiatives.

“Certain communities really receive the brunt of over policing and over surveillance,” Solis said. “If you have folks [on the task force] who are not willing to look further and begin to understand this is more of a systemic issue and not a case of a few bad apples, it’s difficult to say that we’re going to meet the purpose of this executive order.”

Suffolk County has also announced it would be releasing surveys to residents on their feelings toward police, both those who have had encounters with police and those who haven’t.

Suffolk is using the John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety, which is described as an independent nonprofit research group based in Albany, to conduct the more than 6,000 surveys. People will be randomly selected amongst residents as well as those who have had recent interactions with police, both victims and complainants, according to a news release. The surveys will be conducted over the next four months in both English and Spanish. Surveyors are also expected to perform a “targeted oversampling” of people of color, since generating a sample size from a population like Suffolk, which is over 67% white, would not relay how minority communities may feel they are treated differently by police.

“This is an important step to gain valuable insight into how we are doing as a department and how our members are interacting with the public,” Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said in a statement. “We need the support of our communities to continue to be a successful department. I encourage people to respond to the surveys because it will enable us to continue to move toward a more fair and equitable department.”

Officials said this survey will also inform whatever plan Suffolk later sends to New York State. 

Baird-Streeter said the task force will have its first meeting Monday, Sept. 21, where they will discuss how and where other meetings will take place. Though they have eight planned, they are not limiting themselves in how many they can conduct. All meetings, she said, have to be completed before the end of the year in order to have the county’s plans sent to New York State by next April.

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.”

Shoreham-Wading River senior mid-fielder Elizabeth Shields out maneuvers a defender at home against John Glenn. The SWR Wildcats would win their first title crown last year, but won't have another chance to play until January, 2021. File photo by Bill Landon

In a reversal from a decision made just a few weeks ago, Section XI, which manages Suffolk County high school sports, announced it would be delaying the start of all sports until Jan. 4, 2021. 

The decision, made after a Section XI athletic council vote this week, postpones the fall season and condenses all three seasons to run from January through June. In a post announcing the decision, Section XI said it will run three complete seasons for the varsity, junior varsity and modified levels. Each season will culminate in a championship event.

“While this was a difficult decision, we feel it was the best move for the health and safety of everyone involved,” said Section XI Executive Director Tom Combs in a statement to its website. “We still have a lot of hard work ahead in planning and executing on the three seasons across six months in 2021, but we look forward to the challenge and collaboration with our member schools and providing an impactful experience for our student-athletes and coaches.”

The decision was made based on what Section XI’s Athletic Council, County Athletic Directors, Safety Committee and Suffolk County Executive Board said was “the potential for increased positive cases of COVID-19, the health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches, officials and staff members, a reduced number of spectators, a lack of locker room and facility use, increased costs in transportation and security for school districts and equity among all school districts.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced he was allowing schools to certain sports deemed low to medium risk to start in September. Sports that were originally excluded from a fall start included football and volleyball, though cross country, track, or soccer would have been given the green light. Section XI originally said it would start with those lower-risk sports Sept. 21.

Nassau County school officials and Section VIII, which handles Nassau high school sports, have already made the decision this week to postpone all sports until the start of 2021. Some Nassau sports players have reportedly already protested having their seasons postponed. One school district, Massapequa, has already announced it is suing Section VIII to get sports back for Fall.

The seasons will run as follows:

Varsity and JV

  • Season 1 (Winter), Jan. 4 – Feb. 27
  • Season 2 (Fall), March 1 – May 1
  • Season 3 (Spring), April 26- June 19

Modified sports

  • Season 1 (Winter), Jan. 4 – Feb. 6
  • Season 2 (Late Winter), Feb. 8 – March 20
  • Season 3 (Fall), March 22 – May 8
  • Season 4 (Spring), May 10 – June 12