Suffolk County

Suffolk County legislators approved a $3.2 billion budget for 2020 Nov. 6. TBR News Media file photo

County residents got a glimpse of the county’s budget process as the operating budget working group held its first public meeting Oct. 17 when the 2019-20 recommended operating budget was discussed.  

The county operating budget funds employee payroll costs, county departments and a variety of other expenditures. The status of the budget has been in the spotlight since the New York State comptroller, Tom DiNapoli (D), said Suffolk was under “significant fiscal stress” — with Nassau — for the second year in a row. In 2018, Suffolk had an operating deficit of about $26.5 million and a general fund balance deficit of $285 million. 

The topic has been an important issue in the county executive race. The current incumbent, Steve Bellone (D), has stated that during his tenure he has worked to bring the county spending and finances back in check. John Kennedy Jr., the county comptroller and Republican challenger for executive, has stated that the county is in a “fiscal crisis.”

Here is what legislators discussed at the meeting. The proposed operating budget for 2019-20 will be $3.2 billion, an increase from last year’s $3.1 billion budget. 

The recommended budget would look to increase property taxes by $14.66 million (2.14 percent), according to the report. The increase is comprised of a rise in police district property taxes of $16.56 million (2.8 percent). 

The police district will face an $11.3 million deficit by the end of 2019. It is the fourth year in a row that the district will have a deficit. Overtime for the police department in 2019 is estimated at $30.9 million. 

In addition, the county’s general fund, despite seeing an increase of $318 million in revenue from 2015 to 2019, is projected to experience its fifth consecutive deficit in 2019. Combined with the police district, the county may face an operating deficit of some $20 million. 

Sales tax revenue is projected to increase an additional $48.5 million from 2019-20 or about 4.5 percent.  

Another area of concern is the county payroll. It has increased by $315 million in the last seven years, despite the workforce being reduced by 1,250 positions. From the start of 2019 through Sept. 8, the number of active county employees on the payroll declined by approximately 150, according to the report. The recommended expenditures for employee health care in 2020 is projected to increase by approximately by $22.2 million. 

The Budget Review Office also raised concerns in the report that property taxes in the Southwest Sewer District, which covers parts of Babylon and Islip, would decrease by $2.14 million. This could lead to less funds available for sewer projects and potentially increase borrowing. 

In terms of other revenue, the county is projected to see an increase in funds from video lottery terminals at Jake’s 58 Casino Hotel in Islandia. The revenue brought in will increase to $25 million in 2020 compared to $2.9 million in 2018 and $3.3 million in 2019. 

For homeowners, the proposed county property tax will yield an estimated average tax bill of $1,207, an increase of $25. Average taxes per homeowners will increase by $32 in five western towns, including Brookhaven, Smithtown and Huntington, and decrease by $2 in the county’s five eastern towns. 

 

Last week, Long Island was slammed and hit by an unexpected fall nor’easter which brought in heavy rains and gusting winds that exceeded 50 mph. 

The powerful winds from the storm caused downed power wires and felled large trees and branches. According to the National Weather Service, parts of Long Island dealt with moderate coastal flooding and about 2-3 inches of rain.   

More than 73,000 PSEG Long Island customers lost power during the storm. Within 48 hours, PSEG restored service to nearly 100 percent of customers affected by the storm on Wednesday and Thursday, Oct. 16-17, according to PSEG media relations. The rest were restored by that Friday. 

By the end of the nor’easter, crews had removed a total of 1,206 trees and large branches downed by the storm.

In Port Jefferson Harbor a sailing sloop named Grand Prix slipped her moorings and drifted aground in front of Harborfront Park, according to local photographer Gerard Romano who took a photo featured on the cover of this week’s paper. Another sailing vessel called the Summer Place washed ashore in Mount Sinai Harbor.

The Town of Brookhaven Highway Department responded to nearly 250 calls during the 24-hour storm. 

“We worked directly with PSEG as they dispatched their crews to areas where trees had fallen on wires so we could safely remove the debris after the power lines were de-energized,” town Highway Superintendent Daniel Losquadro (R) said in a statement. “Crews worked throughout the night to clear the roadways swiftly and efficiently.”

 

Police are looking for a man who robbed a Sound Beach gas station. Photos from Suffolk County Police

Police said a small Sound Beach gas station was robbed at gunpoint Saturday, Oct. 19.

According to police, a man allegedly approached the attendant at CND Automotive on Echo Avenue, displayed a silver handgun and demanded money at around 8:45 p.m. The attendant, a 50-year-old man, complied and gave his own wallet and cash from the register to the suspect. The suspect then fled the scene on foot
southbound on Blue Point Road. The attendant sustained a minor injury and declined medical treatment at the scene.

The suspect was described as black, approximately 5 feet 9 inches tall with a medium build, wearing all black clothing, tan sneakers, black gloves and a black mask partially covering his face. He was carrying a black backpack with blue trim.

Detectives are asking anyone with information on the robbery to contact the 7th Squad at 631-852-8752 or Crime Stoppers at 800-220-TIPS. All calls will remain confidential.

 

The Commerdinger home in Nesconset, as seen today, was expected in 2006 to become a living museum.

Instead of selling their property to a developer for nearly $2 million, the family of Walter S. Commerdinger, Jr. sold to Suffolk County in 2006 their property on the north side of Lake Ronkonkoma with its historic home, circa 1810, for a reported $1.2 million. The idea, said Commerdinger’s heir, Paul Albert, was to turn the site into a living museum to honor the legacy of the family, regarded as one of Nesconset’s earliest settlers.

The home, which was in pristine condition when sold, has sat vacant for more than a decade now and has been repeatedly vandalized. Despite being awarded $100,000 in grant money for repairs from the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation, the county has allegedly not yet followed through with its end of the bargain.

The Commerdinger home in 2006, when the county purchased the site.

Both parties aim to renegotiate the agreement. 

Marie Gruick is a member of Nesconset Chamber of Commerce and she’s been helping Albert navigate the situation he’s facing with the government.

“They keep saying they’re broke,” Gruick said. “It’s been a bunch of empty promises. They just gave other communities $500,000 for a parking lot.”

The situation, though, highlights the challenges of preserving history on Long Island and in New York in general. Commerdinger Park and Marion Carll Farm, in Commack, are two examples of families hoping to preserve history with gifts of historic homes and properties to public entities. Both sites have historic homes that have fallen into a state of disrepair. 

Sara Kautz is the preservation director of Preservation Long Island. The not-for-profit organization works with Long Islanders to protect, preserve, and celebrate cultural heritage through advocacy, education, and stewardship of historic sites and collections.  The organization offers many services for free.  She said that more and more places are at risk.

John Kennedy Jr. (R) served as Nesconset’s county legislator in 2006 and helped facilitate the initial transaction for the Commerdinger site. Kennedy now serves as county comptroller and is running for county executive. His wife Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) now serves as county legislator for District 12. She said there are no new updates.

“There’s a contract that everyone is reading through, so Commerdinger can join up with Smithtown Historical Society,” Leslie Kennedy said. “But it’s all in the talk stage.”

Gruick said the park is the last green space in Nesconset and its trails stretch to Lake Ronkonkoma. If the county isn’t interested in maintaining the home, she said, they should give it back. The family formed a 501(c)3 nonprofit, W.S. Commerdinger Jr. County Park Preservation Society, in 2008 to serve as stewards for the site but have been unable to accomplish what needs to be done for the house and its buildings. They say they feel like they’re on a merry-go-round.

“How long is the county going to dangle carrots,” Gruick said. 

The most immediate task, Gruick and Albert said, is to get PSEGLI to hook up the electricity to the site, so they can install security cameras to prevent further damage and to get county water hookup. What Gruick doesn’t understand, she said, is why the county is telling them that hooking up to electricity needs to go to bid if PSEGLI is the business that connects electricity. 

The county said in response to our inquiries that the order is in with PSEG, which needs to schedule the work. They could not provide a time frame for electric hookup and could only say that the request has been in for a while. 

Albert said that he has collections of antiques, including pottery crafted in the first kiln brought to America. He had hoped to move the pieces into the site by now. Formerly a banker, Albert said that he needs a lawyer that specializes in preservation but is unsure who has that expertise.

Crolius family heirs hope to exhibit a rare pottery collection in the Commerdinger home museum.

Kathryn Curran is the executive director of the Gardiner Foundation, a philanthropic group that supports historic preservation projects for 501(c)3 organizations with an education mission, but not for schools. 

The foundation offers $5 million in grants annually and said that some projects go more smoothly than others. When a municipality owns a building, she said, they typically have a contract in place with a “friends” group to manage the property. 

“The money is allocated to the friends group, not the municipality,” she said. 

Because of the “friends” agreements with government, she said the group needs town approval for the work and the contracts it hopes to secure. For some reason, towns or government entities don’t always feel comfortable with the process.

“We’re trying to give historic educational experiences to enhance a community,” she said. “It’s a downtown revitalization gift.”

She said that local businesses benefit when these projects are completed, so she doesn’t always understand herself why governments are reluctant. She said that many people are willing to volunteer as part of a friends group. These people, she noted, are also a precious gift. 

“It appears they don’t want to be beholden to private money,” she said. 

Gruick and Albert said they are frustrated but remain hopeful. They plan to meet with officials in the Town of Smithtown in the upcoming weeks for help. 

A map showing where the SCWA expects to put the treatment systems, should they be approved. Images from SCWA

In an effort to eliminate 1,4-dioxane in county drinking water, Suffolk County Water Authority has proposed installing additional treatment systems at sites throughout the county, though costs could be high if plans see the light of day.  

An image of the proposed treatment system. Image from SCWA

In a presentation to Suffolk County legislators, SWCA proposed installing 31 new advanced treatment systems at a number of sites where the levels of 1,4-dioxane are higher than the New York State proposed limit, which is 1 part per billion.

Jeffrey Szabo, SCWA chief executive officer, said the authority is continuing to develop technology that will eliminate toxic chemicals such as 1,4-dioxane. 

“We have been working with the health department on our AOP (advanced oxidation process) systems and the results have been successful,” Szabo said. 

A concern of 1,4-dioxane is that it can’t be removed through conventional treatment methods and involves a complex process of mixing the contaminated water with hydrogen peroxide, treated with ultraviolet light, which then gets sent to tanks filled with carbon where the rest of contaminants are filtered out. The hamlet of Central Islip currently has the sole advanced oxidation process system capable of removing 1,4-dioxane on Long Island. 

The authority says that its systems can destroy 1,4-dioxane molecules to virtually undetectable levels. Szabo said there are close to 100 wells in Suffolk County that need to be treated for the toxin. 

The proposed plan could take five to six years to install all 31 treatment systems, according to the authority’s chief executive officer and it would cost between $1.5 and $6 million in capital costs alone for each system. 

“We are trying to get this done as quickly as possible, there are things still up in the air,” Szabo said. 

The authority is waiting on the state Department of Health to adopt an official maximum contaminant level (MCL) standard. According to officials, they expect to get confirmation sometime in early 2020. 

Szabo stressed that the authority and other water providers will need time to adjust to the new standards as well as to implement the new systems. 

“This will take time, each system has to get approved by the department of health before it can be installed,” Szabo said. 

In the case of the AOP pilot system in Central Islip, officials said it took over two years to get approval from the Department of Health. 

“We want to reassure the public that we are doing everything we can,” Szabo said. 

1,4-Dioxane has been designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a likely carcinogen associated with liver and kidney damage after a lifetime of exposure to contaminated drinking water. The chemical has been found in industrial solvents, detergents, shampoos and other products. 

In July, the state health department began the process of adopting the MCL of 1 part per billion. The department would become the first in the country to set a limit on 1,4-dioxane. Similarly, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has planned to offer $350 million in grants for treatment. 

At a forum in February, the Long Island Water Conference estimated the cost of treatment systems for close to 200 water wells contaminated by 1,4-dioxane to be at $840 million. 

The authority said it is hopeful it can begin to implement the plan sometime in 2020. In addition, two additional AOP systems are currently in development for pump stations in East Farmingdale and Huntington.

Scheme one of the state’s largest

Map of all illegal dumping sites. Photo from DA's office

Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini (D) was joined by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Suffolk County Police Department on Sept. 23 to announce the sentencing of a self-proclaimed “dirt broker” who was indicted as part of the District Attorney’s Office’s Operation Pay Dirt investigation into an illegal dumping conspiracy on Long Island.

“The defendant, with no regard for the safety and well-being of Suffolk County residents, facilitated the dumping of solid waste on residential properties, properties near schools, and other sites,” Sini said. “Many of the sites contained materials that were hazardous or acutely hazardous. This is a major issue for those individual homeowners who were affected and a major issue for the general public.”

“This sentencing should serve as a reminder that there is a cost associated for those who engage in illegal dumping for financial gain.”

— Geraldine Hart

Anthony Grazio, aka Rock, 54, of Smithtown, pleaded guilty on May 2 to two counts of criminal mischief in the second degree, a D felony; two counts of endangering public health, safety or the environment in the third degree, an E felony; conspiracy in the fifth degree, an A misdemeanor; and operating a solid waste management facility without a permit, an A misdemeanor.

Grazio was sentenced today by Suffolk County Court Judge Timothy Mazzei to two to four years in prison. He was also ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $500,000 for a crime that the DA has previously stated is the state’s largest illegal dumping case.  

In February 2018, the DA’s office, DEC and county police department began an investigation into a conspiracy to illegally dump solid waste in various locations across Long Island. The months-long investigation, known as Operation Pay Dirt, involved the use of electronic surveillance, including court-authorized eavesdropping, and physical surveillance. The investigation resulted in a 130-count indictment against 30 individuals and nine corporations for illegally disposing of solid waste at 24 locations. Grazio’s then 19-year old son Anthony was among the 30 people indicted in the case, which was unsealed in November 2018.

Some of the more than 24 identified locations contained acutely hazardous and hazardous materials including pesticides and the metals arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, cobalt, chromium, copper, lead, nickel, zinc and mercury and pesticides.

Between January and July 2018, as part of the illegal dumping conspiracy, Grazio would act as a dirt broker by arranging for locations where trucking companies could illegally dispose of solid waste. Grazio posted advertisements on the website Craigslist and on OfferUp, a marketplace app, for “Clean Fill,” or material that could be used for residential landscaping projects. He also solicited homeowners over the phone and in person for locations to use for dumping.

Grazio would then coordinate with the owners or operators of trucking companies and solid waste management facilities to have solid waste illegally dumped at those properties.

“This sentencing should serve as a reminder that there is a cost associated for those who engage in illegal dumping for financial gain,” Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said. “The Suffolk County Police Department is committed to working with our partner agencies to apprehend those who commit environmental crimes in our county and Operation Pay Dirt is an example of the success of our collaborative efforts.”

The commissioner also said that the department is not only committed to serving our residents but also dedicated to protecting the land that makes our communities a great place to live.

Operation Pay Dirt was part of a statewide DEC law enforcement initiative known as Operation TrashNet. To date, Operation TrashNet has led to the discovery of more than 100 illegal dumping sites throughout New York’s downstate region, including 44 in Suffolk County, and resulted in 582 DEC-issued tickets involving 40 trucking companies.

“Illegal dumping poses a serious threat to our environment, and New York will not allow businesses to continue to harm the state’s environment and its citizens while putting profits over public health,” DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said. “I commend the work of DEC’s officers and the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office in bringing this case to fruition.”

This case was prosecuted by assistant DAs Adriana Noyola and Laura Sarowitz of the Enhanced Prosecution Bureau and former assistant DA Luigi Belcastro.

September 2, 2019 - Sportime2 youth tennis program during an on court demonstration at the 2019 US Open. (Photo by Jennifer Pottheiser/USTA)

Sportime2, a youth tennis league in Kings Park, participated in a Net Generation “Kids on Court” activation at the 2019 U.S. Open on Sept. 2. Twenty-four kids from the program were part of an on-court tennis demonstration prior to the start of a match between Aidan Mayo and Shunsuke Mitsui on Court 12. Sportime2 member Diane Durante, tossed the coin prior to the match and then posed for a photo with the players. 

Kids On Court, part of the USTA’s youth tennis brand, Net Generation, is expected to give more than 1,000 youth tennis players from across the country the opportunity to play this year on the iconic courts of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. 

Kings Park kids on the court at U.S. Open

This year marks the first time American tennis has one unified youth brand for children to get into the sport. Net Generation will make it easier for kids and their parents to learn about tennis and get into the game in schools, parks and tennis clubs across the country. The movement embraces all aspects of youth play for kids ages 5 to 18. For more information, visit www.NetGeneration.com.

-Compiled by Donna Deedy

Red light cameras along Route 25A. File photo by Elana Glowatz
Since 2010, Suffolk County has been authorized by New York State to install red-light cameras at intersections. Today, 215 cameras operate at 100 intersections. The program is intended to reduce the number of cars running red traffic lights and by extension reduce the number of crashes and the severity of the crashes. The county has as its vendor for the red-light camera program Conduent, a divestiture from Xerox. Conduent receives from Suffolk County 42 percent of all fines as per contract terms, and its contract was set to expire December 2019. Graphic by TBR News Media

The next five years of red-light cameras’ survival in Suffolk County has finally been decided.

After lengthy debate and public comment period, Suffolk lawmakers voted along party lines to extend the program for another five years Sept. 4. The program was set to expire by the end of the year.

Legislators speak out on the red light camera program. Photo by David Luces

The issue of red-light cameras has been a divisive topic since its inception nearly a decade ago. Republicans, who unanimously opposed the program, have called it a ‘money grab’ for the county, which has generated $20 million in revenue annually. Democrats, on the other hand, supported the extension though acknowledged that it needs to be fixed.

Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), who co-sponsored a bill for a report on the county’s red-light camera program, said she remained frustrated with its findings but ultimately supported the program. She also called for more education on distracted driving prevention.

“There needs to be improvements [to the program], the program right now is not acceptable,” she said.

Legislators proposed the idea of payment plans for fines, waiving administrative fees for first-time offenders and the implementation of an annual report on all camera locations.

Republicans said the program has negatively affected driver behavior, as many drivers stop short at red lights to avoid getting a ticket. The county has seen a marked increase in rear-end accidents in the last few years.

Paul Margiotta, executive director of the Traffic and Parking Violations Agency, disagreed and pointed to the increased prevalence of distracted driving as the culprit. He said he believed the program has been working.

Republicans continue to disagree.

“It has become clear that the program isn’t working said Comptroller John Kennedy, who is running for county executive in the fall against Steve Bellone (D). “Suffolk’s residents realize it’s little more than a money grab,”

Supporters have said the program has saved lives by reducing red-light running and serious accidents on roadways.

“The minority caucus led by Rob Trotta and his band of conspiracy theorists were dealt a resounding defeat. This is a victory for common sense and effective public safety programs,” said Jason Elan, a Bellone spokesperson, in a statement.

Though before the vote, many of those who attended the Sept 4. meeting spoke negatively about the program.

“Red light cameras are disproportionately located in lower income neighborhoods.”

— Hector Gavilla

Hector Gavilla, a Huntington-based lawyer who is running for county legislature, said Suffolk is trying to come up with reasons to say the program works.

“Red light cameras are disproportionately located in lower income neighborhoods,” he said. “This red-light camera tax is placed on the most vulnerable people in our communities… we all agree that whoever intentionally tries to run a red-light should definitely get a ticket, however the vast majority of these tickets are on right turns on red.”

Previously, legislators proposed relocating red-light cameras to areas and intersections where the most serious accidents occur.

Other speakers said the program is failing in its original goal to improve public safety.

As one individual put it: “If it’s [red-light cameras] causing more accidents than it’s not safe,”

Another concerned county resident said it is a no-brainer to not extend the program.

“You can’t delay this to another five years, fix the flaws of this program, fix the quality of life in Suffolk County,” he said.

Legislators have already put in a request for proposal to find a new vendor for the program. They stressed the need for the new vendor to be either locally based or be required to have an office in the county. Also, Margiotta said county officials plan to look for a vendor that provides a payment plan.

Public Works Committee to vote on extending the program Aug. 29

Suffolk County's Public Works Committee will vote Aug. 29 to decide the future of red-light camera program. TBR News Media file photo

The future of red-light cameras in Suffolk County remains up in the air. 

Legislators took issue with a report on the county’s red-light camera program in a meeting Aug. 26. It left some with more questions than answers regarding the divisive program as they prepare for a vote that could extend the program’s lifespan this Thursday, Aug. 29.

The countywide report carried out by Brookhaven-based L.K. McLean Associates found that the number of total crashes at 100 intersections with red-light cameras increased by nearly 60 percent from 2015 through 2017, compared to the time period (2007-09) before the cameras were installed beginning in 2010. The study found that at red-light intersections the number of crashes exceeded projections by 42 percent in total. 

Also, it found that a total of 17 fatal crashes occurred at red-light intersections for the duration of the report. Crashes that resulted in injuries decreased by nearly 11 percent, while the number of rear-end crashes increased by 46 percent. 

Officials from the consulting firm presented the report, which cost the county $250,000, to the county Legislature’s Public Works Committee Aug. 26 and disclosed they estimated the red-light program had generated more than $5 million in savings by reducing serious accidents. 

Despite those findings, legislators on the committee took issue with the results and said it left them with more questions than answers. 

One criticism levied was the way the consultants collected their data and how they determined if an accident was linked to an intersection with a red-light camera.

Raymond DiBiase, president and chief executive of L.K. McLean Associates, said they based their parameters from the New York State Department of Transportation. 

“The DOT in their crash data analysis and summaries identify an intersection crash as one that occurs within 10 meters or 33 feet from the center of the intersection,” he said. 

The consultants for the report expanded the crash area to within 200 feet of the center of the intersection, but some legislators questioned that decision and argued it could have captured crashes that fall in line with the definition of an intersection crash.

Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said she was deeply disappointed in the report’s findings and criticized the firm with not looking at the link between distracted driving and crashes at red-light intersections. 

“What has not been mentioned at all during your report is distracted driving,” she said. “I have a traffic safety issue in my district; I have two of the most dangerous roads on Long Island —[routes] 25 and 25A.”

DiBiase responded by saying it is difficult to prove what exactly caused a crash from the data. Their goal was to make the study objective as possible and said distracted driving falls in a gray area as it is difficult to prove due to factors like lack of witnesses or evidence. 

“Distracted driving is why a lot of these accidents are happening,” Anker said. “We are here to try and understand how to make this program better. We know it’s saving lives, but we also know it’s also creating problems.”

The red-light program has generated more than $20 million in revenue annually for the county.

Legislator Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), who has long been a severe critic of red-light cameras, said the program is a money grab and a tax on the taxpayers. He also criticized the consultants for only mentioning that fatal accidents at red-light camera intersections were lower than projected, and not also including data on fatal crashes that occurred at intersections without red-light cameras. 

“You can take these reports and throw them in the garbage can, it’s a joke — literally embarrassing,” Trotta said. “Everything here is jaded to make this program look good, it is a $32 million sham on the people of this county.”

Despite the lukewarm response to its report, the firm recommended continuing the red-light program, pointing to a decrease in crashes resulting in injuries and fatalities as well as a reduction in left-turn crashes.

The Public Works Committee is expected to vote Thursday, Aug. 29, on whether it will extend the countywide red-light camera program for another five years. If it were to pass it will go to the Legislature for a vote that could take place as soon as next Wednesday, Sept. 4.

 

Deepwells Mansion on Route 25A in St. James held an outdoor music tribute to Woodstock Aug. 17 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the historic concert. An estimated 1,100 tickets were sold, earning roughly $10,000 for the Deepwells Farm Historical Society. Funds will be used to restore the mansion and to support other community events throughout the year, according to David Dircks, concert promoter and board member. 

The tribute show included six acts. Katie Pearlman opened the show performing Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Lisa Polizzi performed the music of Janis Joplin. The Kerry Kearney Band played the songs of Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane. Reckoning produced the sounds of the Grateful Dead. Dear Prudence rocked the stage with the music of The Who, Santana, Ten Years After, Mountain and the Beatles. Randy Jackson of Zebra performed Woodstock tributes as well as some of Zebra’s hits. 

Deepwells has hosted monthly music concerts for the last 14 years but has scaled back its music events. The next music event is an outdoor concert, which will feature the music of the ’70s, is planned for next summer on the mansion’s front lawn.