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County Comptroller John Kennedy

Suffolk Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. hosted a press conference at the comptroller’s office Feb. 11 saying the IRS has agreed with him about taxing recipients of septic system grants. Photo by David Luces

After nearly a year of waiting, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service has ruled that Suffolk County homeowners should pay federal taxes on county grants that were used to upgrade septic systems. 

In a Jan. 15 letter from the IRS, the agency said the grants count as taxable income, regardless of whether homeowners received payments or not. 

Installation of the pre-treatment septic tank at the O’Dwyer’s home in Strong’s Neck. Photo from Tom O’Dwyer

The determination comes after Suffolk  County Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. (R) requested a private letter ruling on whether the grants should be counted as gross income. Beginning last year, Kennedy’s office sent 1099 forms to program participants, despite a legal opinion by the county’s tax counsel that advised that the tax forms go to the companies that received the funds, not the homeowners.   

At the time, the comptroller’s decision led to controversy and political fighting with Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D). The executive’s administration has cited the prototype denitrifying septic systems as a key piece of fighting nitrogen overload in coastal waters. Kennedy and Bellone ran against each other for county executive later that year.  

Kennedy said at a Feb.11 press conference that the ruling has upheld their approach to issue tax forms from the very beginning. 

“They [the Bellone administration] have chosen to simply claim that I’ve made an effort to politicize this issue,” the comptroller said. 

He added that while his decision may “not be popular,” Kennedy blamed the tax issue on how the septic program was set up. 

“There may be ways to modify this program but it’s not up to me, it’s up to them,” he said. “We’ll continue to do the job we’re supposed to do.”

Peter Scully, deputy county executive, who heads the county’s water quality programs as the titular water czar, said Kennedy continues to simply play politics with the septic program. 

“This program is too important; we are going to find a solution — this will be a temporary disruption,” he said. “The fact that the comptroller is essentially celebrating the ruling speaks volumes about his motives.”

“We’ll continue to do the job we’re supposed to do.”

— John Kennedy Jr.

Scully noted that since the comptroller’s initial decision last year, they have altered application documents to make clear to applicants that the grants they were applying for could be subject to income tax. 

While some individuals have decided not to move forward with the program, homeowners are still applying for grants. In January alone 111 homeowners signed up, Scully added. 

Since the program’s inception in 2017, the county has disbursed 293 grants and expended $3 million. In addition, the county received $10 million in state funding for the septic system program.

The Bellone administration has said there are about 360,000 outdated and environmentally harmful septic tanks and leaching systems installed in a majority of homes across the county. Nitrogen pollution has caused harmful algae blooms and can negatively affect harbors and marshes that make areas more susceptible to storm surges as well. 

In a statement, Bellone continued to call Kennedy’s decision political. 

“The comptroller’s actions have been contrary to the intent of the Suffolk County Drinking Water Protection Program, the legal opinion by the county’s tax counsel, and longstanding practices used by similar programs in Maryland and other municipal jurisdictions,” Bellone said. “He chose to politicize water quality and decimate a program that has been praised by environmental, labor, and business leaders alike … In the meantime, our water quality program is running full steam ahead.”

“This program is too important; we are going to find a solution — this will be a temporary disruption.”

— Peter Scully

The deputy executive said their main focus is protecting homeowners as they may now be exposed to new tax liability. They are also prepared to challenge the IRS ruling. 

Tom O’Dwyer, a Strong’s Neck resident and engineer, has enthusiastically installed one of these systems at his own home. He said while he was aware that the grants could be potentially taxable, he and others had been “optimistic” that they wouldn’t be required to pay taxes on the grants. 

“We got the 1099 in the mail the other day,” he said. “I have a lot of friends who also upgraded, nobody really expected this to happen … this is a blow to everyone.”

Despite the ruling, O’Dwyer still believes that he made the right choice in upgrading and thinks the septic program is still a good cost-effective option. He plans on talking to his tax adviser to discuss what his options are moving forward.  

The Strong’s Neck resident also acknowledged that the ruling could end up hurting the momentum of the program. 

“I think it could affect homeowners who want to voluntarily upgrade their system,” O’Dwyer said. “With the increased tax liability, they’ll have to pay more out of pocket and some might think it’s not worth it.” 

The county executive’s office has plans to work with federal representatives to reverse the IRS decision. They have already had discussions with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) and U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-NY3), Scully said.

Suozzi has already sent a letter to IRS Commisioner Charles Rettig, saying he strongly opposes the decision and that it undermines the program’s mission.

Steve Bellone (D) and fellow Democrats celebrate keeping the county executive position. Photo by David Luces

In the most profiled race of the year for Suffolk County Executive, Democrat Steve Bellone won handily over his challenger, County Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. (R) with 55 percent to Kennedy’s 43 percent. Libertarian candidate Greg Fischer gained just 1 percent of the overall vote.

John Kennedy Jr. (R) the night of Nov. 5. Photo by Kyle Barr

Bellone was greeted by enthusiastic cheers at IBEW.

“It turns out that the voters have decided that there is more work for us to do here,” he said. “This will be my third and final term as County Executive, I don’t know what the future holds but it entirely possible that this could be my final race for public office… If that is the case I must give one final thank you to the person who has been with me for every race that I have won.”

He also thanked his opponents John Kennedy and Greg Fischer.

“I look forward to working together to build a better future for Suffolk County.”

Kennedy blamed the incumbent’s near $2 million war chest for the loss, along with negative campaign ads he said targeted not only him, but his wife and children.

He promised he would continue to be a financial watchdog for the county, saying he thinks the county will entire a financial death spiral it may not be able to pull out of.

“The good news is, I get to keep doing the job I love, being comptroller,” he said. “There’s no lack of fraud waste and abuse in Suffolk County, which we demonstrated the past five years.”

After a heated campaign season, and while the vote seemed to be close as they were tallied, Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) defeated her Republican opponent Gary Pollakusky 54 to 41 percent. Libertarian candidate James Kevin, who was not available for comment, gained nearly 5 percent of the vote.

When brought up on stage, Schaffer called her “landslide Anker.”

The 5th time legislator said it was her strong base and work of her campaign that helped pull her through. She added there are numerous projects she hopes to work on in the coming years.

“We have so many projects in the works … We have the Rails to Trails, the park in Middle Island, continue working with the opioid advisory panel,” she said. “There is so much work to do.

I really want to focus on mental health/addiction treatment, tackle the financial issues with the county, be proactive with supporting local business and those mom and pop shops.”

Pollakusky remained gracious after his loss, saying, “I hope Sarah serves her constituents well for our legislative district.” He added he will continue to be active in the community by leading the Rocky Point Sound Beach Chamber of Commerce and serving on the board of the Rocky Point Civic Association.

Susan Berland takes a photo with staff and supporters Nov. 5. Photo by Rita. J. Egan

In the Port Jefferson-Setauket area Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) won overwhelmingly against her Republican opponent John McCormack 63 to 37 percent.

Kara Hahn said she is looking forward to continuing working on several projects including protection of the environment, public safety and the opioid epidemic.

“Those numbers have to come down to zero,” she said. “We cannot accept more opioid deaths. The numbers have fallen a little bit, but we have to continue to work on that. We cannot be losing our children. It’s senseless. It’s preventable. We have to be sure we do what we can on that.”

McCormack was not available to comment.

Thomas Muratore (R-Ronkonkoma) easily won over Democratic challenger David Bligh in the fight for the 4th district with nearly 60 percent of the vote. He thanked his wife and staff and said they would move on “stronger.”

While Bligh lost to Muratore for Suffolk County Legislator in the 4th district, he said he plans to stay in the political arena and to run again.

“Tom’s term limited after this year so there’s going to be an open seat in two years,” he said.

Bligh, an environmental engineer, said he has a long list of quality of life issues that he wants to address, including affordability and water quality issues.

Garcia announced Rob Trotta’s (R-Fort Salonga) 62 percent victory against Democrat Janet Singer, by mentioning Trotta’s propensity to stir the pot. Ever the firebrand, the Fort Salonga resident did not disappoint, getting to the mike and calling the Conservative party “corrupt,” adding “this is about honesty and integrity, and that party is clearly lacking.”

When asked to expand on that, Trotta said, “The entire Conservative party is corrupt, period.”

Singer said she was disappointed as she felt she would be a great legislator but enjoyed campaigning where she learned a lot.

She said before this election cycle she felt Rob Trotta didn’t pay attention to water quality issues. She feels it’s a non-issue for him and that suddenly it’s a “hot topic.” She was surprised water quality was included at the bottom of his campaign ad.

“I don’t really care what party you’re in, water needs protection, and it’s going to need money,” she said. “And he doesn’t want to vote for any expenditures, and we can’t do that.”

Rob Trotta the night of Nov. 5. Photo by Kyle Barr

Though her husband did not win over the majority of county voters, Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) still beat her opponent, Democrat Margot Rosenthal, 65 to 35 percent. She said, “We could not have done it without every single one of you,” adding, “while we didn’t get everything we wanted this time, we’ll get it next time.”

For the 16th District, Susan Berland (D-Commack) won out against several-time Republican challenger Hector Gavilla. The race became extremely heated towards the end, with allegations that Gavilla intimidated Berland at a local meet the candidates. Gavilla, on his part, claims Berland’s husband nearly assaulted him.

Schaffer spoke on the incident.

“If you wanted to see probably one of the most despicable races in Suffolk County, was the race that took place in the 16 LD,” Schaffer said. “Let me tell you something, it’s a shame when you happen to have a candidate, a legislator who has been in office for almost 20 years, tell you she’s frightened by her opponent.”

Susan Berland thanked her supporters, staff and volunteers.

“I’m grateful to the residents of the 16th district who have confidence in me to represent them for the next two years.”

William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) easily conquered the vote against Republican challenger Garrett Chelius with 11,998 votes to Chelius’ 6,599.

Chelius was brought up on stage for consolation, and Garcia lauded them for their work in campaigning.

Spencer spoke of his ideas and projects going forward.

“I’m looking towards the future — I want to still focus on our environment, our kids, the vaping/opioid epidemic,” he said. “I think there is a lot of work to be done there. Also, I want to finish some infrastructure projects like the sewers in Huntington Station.”

The lone upset of the night, Republican challenger Anthony Piccirillo won with barely a 1 percent margin against William Lindsay (D-Holbrook). The Democrats have asked for a recount, but if Piccirillo succeeds it would mean the Democrats 11-7 hold on the legislature would become a 10-8, just as partisan divide between officials seems at a near peak. Last year, Republicans and Democrats butted heads over lump bonding issues, with Republicans using their slim minority to block bonds they called were being pushed through by Democrats.

David Luces, Rita J. Egan, Leah Chiappino and Donna Deedy all contributed reporting.

Ed Romaine the night of Nov. 5, 2019.

The race for Brookhaven town supervisor was called before the final votes were tallied, with the night ending with Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) racking up 51,155 votes to Democratic challenger Will Ferraro’s 31,113 votes.

Romaine went on stage to thank the town for an “overwhelming mandate,” of the town board.

Jane Bonner (R-Rocky Point) the night of Nov. 5. Photo by Kyle Barr

“We are going to go back to work tomorrow,” he said. “The reason we ran is so we can govern, to move Brookhaven forward so we can fix its finances, help its AAA bond rating, get rid of the zombie homes and do all the things that are necessary to build a better town.”

In a phone interview after the night was called, Ferraro congratulated Romaine on his election, but urged the incumbent to listen to resident’s criticisms of the town’s recycling policies and road infrastructure. He added he will continue to be a community organizer in the local area and plans to get involved with his local school board. He added he did not plan on running for another office at least until after next year.

“I ran on 100 percent what I believe in, with every fiber of my being,” he said. “I have no regrets.”

Councilwoman Jane Bonner (R-Rocky Point) defeated her challenger, Coram Democrat Sarah Deonarine with around 62 percent of the vote to 38 percent.

Though last year’s referendum to give town councilmembers a four-year term, Bonner said it will mean elected officials can focus on long term projects, especially “environmental based projects.”

Deonarine said campaigning was strenuous and difficult.

“If I could pull it off anybody can,” she said. “So, I hope other people follow in the footsteps. I’ve met amazing people. We started something new and we’re really hoping for a better Brookhaven in the future.”

She doesn’t plan to run for office again but is interested in the behind the scenes work and helping future candidates, saying there’s no existing playbook.

“I learned so much that was not given to me when I started.”

Kevin LaValle the night of Nov. 5, 2019. Photo by Kyle Barr

In the battle of Port Jeff Station neighbors, with Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) against her challenger Tracy Kosciuk, a nurse running on the Republican ticket, the town board’s lone Democrat won with 57 percent of the vote.

Cartright said she plans to focus on completing land use plans in the Three Village area and Port Jefferson Station and working on the cottages at West Meadow Beach among other initiatives.

“I’m looking forward to completing the process on all of these initiatives that we’ve embarked upon in the community,” she said.

Kosciuk said that even with her loss, she “still won in many ways,” by “making my opponent more responsive to everyone in the council district, rather than specific pockets.” She added she hopes her opponent works toward revitalization efforts and on the zombie homes issue.

In the Middle Country area, incumbent Kevin LaValle (R-Selden) won with 65 percent of the vote against his Democratic challenger, social justice activist Talat Hamdani.

The incumbent thanked his constituents, and said he plans to continue bringing more business into the Middle Country area and finalize work on the Selden Park Complex.

Hamdani wasn’t available for comment.

In the race for town highway supervisor, Dan Losquadro (R) beat his Democratic challenger Anthony Portesy with 48,624 votes to the Democrat’s 34,514.

Losquadro thanked Garcia and said he was “overwhelmed by the mandate” of the voters.

“They see the progress we have made in Brookhaven,” he said. “They have seen the efforts and results that are possible when we work together. The results of this election will allow us to plan long term.”

Portesy said he ran a good race and thanked all his supporters who came out for him.

“Overall, we fought a good race … If anything, I’ve forced a level of accountable the highway department hasn’t seen in decades,” he said. “There was a level of energy in this cycle in 2019 that we didn’t see in 2017 and that’s really going to build going into 2020 as we go into the congressional and presidential races.”

Dom Pascual, a Democrat, took on Lou Marcoccia (R) for receiver of taxes, but voters went again for the incumbent with the Republican making near 60 percent of the vote.

“We cared, and we listened,” Marcoccia said.

Pascual said he thought they put on a strong campaign.

“I’m a [Democratic] district leader so I’m going to continue to recruit people,” he said. “We’re not going away no matter what. I ran in 2017, it was just me, and this time around we recruited over 50 people. Demographics are in our favor, there’s more Democrats moving into Brookhaven than Republicans, so I think eventually things will change.”

David Luces and Rita J. Egan contributed reporting.

Steve Bellone (D), John Kennedy Jr. (R) and Greg Fischer (L) are facing off for Suffolk County exec. Photos by David Luces

It is a three-man race for the Suffolk County executive seat this year. Incumbent Steve Bellone (D) is vying to secure a final term after coming into office in 2012. Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. (R) and Libertarian candidate Greg Fischer, from Calverton, are looking to unseat Bellone in this year’s election. 

Some topics discussed were the county finances, the opioid and MS-13 situations and Suffolk’s water quality. 

Suffolk County finances

The status of the county’s finances continues to be a pressing issue since Thomas DiNapoli (D), the New York State comptroller, released a report saying Suffolk was under the most “significant fiscal stress” of any county — with Nassau — in the state in 2018 for the second year in a row. Suffolk had an operating deficit of about $26.5 million and a general fund balance deficit of $285 million. 

“When I came into office in 2012 the county was on the brink of bankruptcy, we had a $500 million accumulated deficit.”

— Steve Bellone

Bellone touted since he took office seven years ago, he has made the county government more streamlined, fully eliminated the existing operating deficit and has helped achieve an operating surplus for two consecutive years.

“When I came into office in 2012 the county was on the brink of bankruptcy, we had a $500 million accumulated deficit,” he said. “The county government was completely dysfunctional. Everyone was saying we were heading in the same direction as Nassau County, we were going to have a control board. I told them that was not going to happen, and we made the tough decisions.”

Since Bellone took office, the county government has cut close to 1,300 municipal jobs looking to reduce expenditures. 

Kennedy, who has been the county comptroller for the past five years, said his office has been auditing aggressively, has saved the county upward of $56 million and helped refinance its pipeline debt. He said the county is currently $883 million in operating debt and has a $91 million general fund balance deficit. 

The longtime Suffolk politician argued that the county would probably have to cut back at least $50-60 million from the current operating budget. 

“There’s things in life, you have your wants and your needs — that’s where we are at [right now],” he said. “We have departments that are not running properly, we have to consolidate.”

Kennedy said he would look to implement percentage decreases across the board for contract agencies and in some cases suspend services, similarly to what the county Legislature did in 2008 in the midst of a recession. 

“I am running based on the 15 years of public service — I think I can put us back to balance,” he said.

Fischer put it simply that the county is no different than a big bankrupt company. 

“We are rated lower than Nassau County, which has financial control boards,” he said. “We can’t rely on the state for anything right now.”

If elected, Fischer would freeze further increases in spending immediately as well as freeze future hiring and begin cross-training county employees.

“This is something that has to be done now,” he said. 

Opioids/MS-13 

On opioids, Kennedy said the county has had an addiction issue long before oxycodone was ever cooked up, mentioning morphine, methadone and crystal meth that have been a concern since the late ’80s. 

He said treatment for addicts is one of his main concerns. 

“We have fewer treatment beds in Suffolk County than five to 10 years ago,” Kennedy said. “Availability of treatment beds is the most pressing need right now.”

“I am running based on the 15 years of public service — I think I can put us back to balance.”

— John Kennedy Jr.

Many Republicans have criticized the Bellone administration for the closure and sale of the Foley Center in Yaphank, which they contend would have helped in the fight against the opioid crisis.

The county comptroller said that the governor has to be more proactive in helping the county. In addition, he said law enforcement needs to be more effective. 

Fischer said he lost his brother to heroin and is acutely aware of what is going on in the fight. 

“This is horribly addictive stuff — I believe in ‘scared straight’ programs, bringing in junkies into schools and scaring the crap out of kids,” he said. “I do want more treatment and prevention not just more cops.” 

The county executive maintained a comprehensive approach is the only way to solve the opioids crisis. 

He agreed with Kennedy and Fischer that local law enforcement plays a big part, but that prevention is just as important. 

Bellone touted partnerships with community-based groups and schools and opening DASH, a substance abuse and mental health center in Hauppauge, that is seeing patients 24/7. 

“The inability to provide adequate treatment has been a failure of our country,” he said. “Once you become addicted it is very hard to extricate yourself from it. We have made progress — the state has helped us.”

He also mentioned that the county has decided to sue the people responsible for the opioid epidemic. 

“Though we can’t restore the lives lost, the Sackler family [which controls Purdue Pharma] should be made to pay,” he said. 

On MS-13, Bellone said the Suffolk County Police Department has led the fight against the gang and has helped in getting the lowest crime rate in the history of the county. 

Kennedy and Fischer contend that it is the federal government’s involvement that has swayed the tide in the fight. Though all three candidates agree that while strides have been made, there needs to be continued law enforcement efforts from both the local and federal levels. 

Suffolk’s water quality

Bellone called water quality “the most significant issue of our time in Suffolk County.” 

“Climate change will have certain impacts, but if we don’t address water quality, we are sacrificing the future of the county — we cannot sustain what this place is without protecting water,” he said. 

Bellone said water quality is not only vital for the county’s economy but also to local tourism which brings in billions of dollars each year. 

“It is one of the reasons why people live here and for the quality of life,” he said. 

The county executive defended his septic improvement program which he launched in 2017, saying it has allowed homeowners to replace outdated septic systems and cesspools. He also mentioned that it has helped reduce contaminants in the groundwater.

“We have departments that are not running properly, we have to consolidate.”

— John Kennedy Jr.

Kennedy said his main concern is to continue to identify any suspected contaminants in our groundwater. He supports the Suffolk County Water Authority’s efforts to identify and remove 1,4-dioxane. 

“We need to raise funding to install 31 wells [throughout the county],” he said. 

Another of his concerns is stormwater runoff prevention, which he said, to him, the jury is still out on the advanced septic system, adding that four to six systems are not working properly. 

Fischer said he would propose a “100 projects in 100 weeks” plan if elected, adding there are some things the county could implement right now. 

“I would put a sizable fee or ban on high nitrogen fertilizer — this is dangerous stuff,” he said. 

The Libertarian candidate criticized Bellone’s advanced septic system program, calling it a complete failure and needs to be put into moratorium until it is fixed. 

Fischer also proposed changes to water codes, mentioning gray water — or the water that comes out of baths, sinks and other appliances — and setting certain mandates for new construction.

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. 

 

Suffolk County demonstrates new denitrifying septic systems installed in county resident's homes. Photo from Suffolk County executive’s office

People enrolled in county septic program say it’s political

Suffolk homeowners, who received county grants to install nitrogen-reducing septic systems as part of the county’s septic program, are facing the reality of additional tax burdens and payments after they received IRS 1099 tax forms in the mail.

Participants in the Suffolk County Septic Improvement Program, which helped install prototype home septic systems that filter out nitrogen in participants homes, were told since the program’s inception in 2017 that only the contractors who did the installation of the systems would need to declare the grant money as taxable income because they received disbursement of funds from the county. 

This year, the office of Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. (R) sent tax forms to the program participants, and in many cases both homeowners and contractors received 1099s for the same job, despite a legal opinion by the county’s tax counsel that advised that the tax forms go to the companies that received the funds, not homeowners. 

SBU’s Christopher Gobler, with Dick Amper, discusses alarming trends for LI’s water bodies at a Sept. 25 press conference. Photo by Kyle Barr

In response, Deputy County Executive Peter Scully sent a letter to the comptroller’s office on March 14 requesting that Kennedy rescinds the 1099 forms issued to homeowners. After getting no response, Scully sent a second letter on March 26 asking Kennedy again to rescind the 1099s and mentioned since the first letter there had been new information that had come to light in the issue. 

Scully stated that the county’s Department of Health Services has confirmed that some of the homeowners who received 1099s have declared the grants as income and like the contractors will be paying taxes on the same grants. 

“It boggles the mind that anyone can believe that having both homeowners and installers declaring the same grants as income and having taxes paid by both parties on the same disbursement of funding is an acceptable outcome,” the deputy county executive said in a statement. 

In a Newsday article earlier this month, Kennedy said he planned to ask the Internal Revenue Service for a private letter ruling on the matter. Scully said that would be unnecessary, citing again the county’s legal counsel advice and other municipalities who have similar programs and are structured the same way. The letter ruling would cost close to $30,000 and could take more than a year, Scully added. 

Some residents who are enrolled in the program have claimed Kennedy, who recently announced he is running against County Executive Steve Bellone (D) in the next election, is politicizing the issue and potentially sabotaging the program. 

“I have no doubt in my mind,” Tim Sheehan of Shelter Island. “I don’t understand the rationale behind double taxing participants besides politicizing water safety and punishing homeowners for doing the right thing.” 

The Shelter Island resident was one of the early applicants of the program and had an advanced septic system installed in his home August 2018. He said without the help of county and town grants he and his wife would’ve not been able to afford the upgrade. 

The deadline to file taxes is April 15.

While Sheehan expected to pay taxes on the town grant, he didn’t anticipate the county liability. He said he is facing close to a $3,000 higher tax bill on the $10,000 grant and as a result has put him into a higher tax bracket and is required to pay a higher percentage on his income.

“Nowhere in the grant contract is there a mention of a tax liability to homeowners,” the Shelter Island resident said. “From the get-go we were told there would be no tax burden.”

Coastal Steward of Long Island volunteer Bill Negra checks the health of oysters in Mount Sinai Harbor. Oysters are one way in which Brookhaven Town hopes to clear up nitrogen in coastal waters. File photo by Kyle Barr

The Shelter Island resident was surprised when he received a 1099 form for the system and reached out to county officials for help. When they said they couldn’t help, Sheehan called the comptroller’s office hoping to speak to Kennedy directly. After numerous calls without getting a response, Kennedy finally called him. 

When questioned Kennedy blamed the current administration for mishandling the issue and told Sheehan that he never agreed with the county’s legal counsel decision. 

Kennedy has not responded to requests for comment.

George Hoffman, co-founder of the Setauket Harbor Task Force, said the tax form issue couldn’t have come at a worse time for a program that not only helps homeowners but improves water quality and waterways on Long Island. 

Hoffman said excess nitrogen, from homes with outdated septic systems or cesspools, seeps through the ground causing harmful algae blooms and can negatively affect harbors and marshes that make areas more susceptible to storm surges as well. 

“These people are pioneers, we should be applauding them for doing the right thing,” the task force co-founder said. 

Hoffman added he supports any effort to reduce excess nitrogen in our waterways and said many homes on Long Island have septic system that are in need of replacement. He is also concerned that the comptroller’s decision could stunt the progress the program has already made. 

Bellone has said there are about 360,000 outdated and environmentally harmful septic tanks and leaching systems installed in a majority of homes across the county, and with the issue of being taxed, dozens of applicants have dropped out of the program after learning of Kennedy’s decision to issue forms 1099 to homeowners, according to Scully. 

Officials in the county executive’s office are concerned it could endanger the future of the program and impact funding from the state. In early 2018, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) awarded Suffolk County $10 million from the Statewide Septic Program to expand the county’s denitrifying systems. 

State officials in Albany are aware of the ongoing situation and are similarly concerned, according to Scully. If the IRS were to side with Kennedy, he said they would turn to representatives in Congress for assistance, arguing that those funds shouldn’t be going to Washington but back into taxpayers pockets. 

John Kennedy Jr. (R) formally announces his campaign to run for County Executive on Feb. 12. Photo by Kyle Barr

Suffolk County’s newest elected officials have taken their oaths of office in recent weeks, and some are still learning the ropes of their new office. But now, voters need to shrug off any remaining 2018 election season fatigue. 

County Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. (R) formally announced his campaign to take on incumbent County Executive Steve Bellone (D) for the county’s top office. Kennedy already faces a challenge from county Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) who’s made it no secret he wants to take charge, while his fellow Republican party member Larry Zacarese is watching and waiting in the wings. 

The state’s Jan. 18 voting reform bills have already brought out a wealth of contenders for the 2019 county executive race, as the legislation pushed the state’s primary elections from September up to June. This effectively lengthens the campaign season by three months. For the sake of voters, we hope all candidates will use these additional months to talk about critical issues — not make it an extended political slugfest. 

This year’s county executive race is critical. Our next leader faces a never-ending series of challenges to ensure this part of Long Island remains a safe, affordable place we’re still proud to call home. 

The county’s financial status is delicate. One party cries we face fiscal ruin if spending patterns continue while the other claims despite sinking bond ratings, the future will be brighter. Everyone knows taxes are high, wages haven’t kept up with inflation and Suffolk’s cost of living already ranks among the highest in the nation. Our future county executive needs to be ready to tighten down, cut costs and keep life affordable. 

Key to that will be a successful negotiation of the Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association’s contract that pays the salary of our police officers. It is one of the biggest pieces of the county’s annual budget and it’s on the table — how much taxpayers dig into their pockets will depend on a successful contract. Not to mention many of the county’s other employee unions need new contracts at reasonable and fair rates as well. 

Both parties agree that a focus on infrastructure and securing economic growth will help to ensure the area’s future success and stem the “brain drain,” or the droves of the 20- and 30-year-olds leaving Long Island to keep their hopes of the American Dream alive. How to best do it is a matter for debate that should be addressed by all candidates. 

We’d also like to see promises kept to existing projects, some of which have been decades in the making, such as Wading River-Port Jefferson Rails to Trails and its commitment to help push forward with sewers in Kings Park. 

A lot of important tasks will fall to whoever wins the 2019 county executive race, so we encourage Suffolk residents to extensively question all candidates and demand concrete answers. Don’t settle for vague promises without a plan for execution.

To the candidates, don’t let this dissolve into negative campaigning, name calling and bullying. We expect you to have an open-door policy and intelligent discourse of your future plans, if elected. You are expected to rise to the challenge before you, not mire Suffolk in a cesspool of negativity.