While the race for Suffolk County legislator in the 18th Legislative District got off to a rocky start with contentious mailers sent by both candidates, the tone was civil during a TBR News Media Zoom debate with candidates Mark Cuthbertson (D), currently serving as Town of Huntington councilman, and Stephanie Bontempi, a newcomer to the political field.
County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) has served the district for nearly a decade, but decided not to run this year. He is currently facing charges for allegedly trading oxycodone for sex.
Meet the candidates
Bontempi, who grew up in Sweden and came to the U.S. for college and decided to stay in New York, is a fifth-grade teacher at The Green Vale School in Old Brookville. The wife and mother, of three grown children, has lived in Centerport for 30 years.
She’s the chairperson of Town of Huntington’s Beautification Advisory Council and has been a member of several local organizations. In addition to teaching, she has a degree in finance and two graduate degrees in education-related subjects.
She said with more time on her hands now that her children are grown, she decided to run for office and be a “voice for the people in our community.”
“I’ve seen a decline in our area,” Bontempi said. “Our taxes are going up, roads failing, the environment, water quality and so forth … rather than complain, I want to try to do something about it.”
Cuthbertson has been a town councilman for more than two decades. He grew up in Huntington Station and graduated from Walt Whitman High School. He’s a husband and father of three children. As a councilman as well as an attorney, he said he’s been involved in local government in a public and private capacity. He said he has “good grounding” when it comes to not only town issues but county issues.
“I really feel that I can bring the breadth of my experience to the county and work with the county executive, who has been a friend for 24 years, to do things for the 18th Legislative District.”
He added he’s proud of helping to preserve and protect more than 1,000 acres of land in the Town of Huntington and contributing to the town’s triple-A bond rating.
Cuthbertson said there are several things that are good in the proposed Suffolk County budget, including $125 million for wastewater infrastructure which he thinks is key. He also agrees with the $35 million for main street recovery to help businesses hit by COVID-19 and money put aside if the pandemic becomes an ongoing issue.
“I think the good parts of this budget are the reserve funds,” he said. “I think that’s been a key to our success in the Town of Huntington is when you have good years — not just squandering that money on spending — reserving it for things that you have to pay in the future. So, there’s money that’s going toward tax stabilization. There’s money that’s going toward debt service reserve fund and insurance reserve fund, pensions and payouts of employees which are important.”
Bontempi said one has to be careful when using the term surplus, especially since the county has additional funds due to federal government aid and not taxpayers’ money.
“We have to be very careful with how we utilize this money,” Bontempi said.
She added the county has pulled money from the budget for a long time and money has been taken out from the funds for sewer stabilization and environmental causes.
“I would suggest that we replenish the areas where money has been taken out, definitely,” she said. “I would suggest that we repay some of our debt to lower our interest expenses.”
Bontempi added the county’s Department of Social Services needs more attention. She said the department is overwhelmed and understaffed leading to not having the proper resources to serve the community.
Cuthbertson agreed that being able to staff social services at adequate levels is important.
“We have 7.2% of this county living in poverty, and there are outcomes there that are very difficult and beyond people in poverty, that are in difficult circumstances that need the help of government,” he said.
Suffolk County Police Department
Bontempi said after people’s physiological needs are met the next fundamental need to thrive is safety.
“We need to feel safe in our homes,” she said. “We need to feel safe dropping our children at the school bus. We need to feel safe walking our dogs. So, I am very much a proponent for law enforcement.”
She added because of this she feels police officers should be provided funding for adequate training and to be well equipped.
Cuthbertson said it’s well known that SCPD officers make good money and county residents know “a police officer joins the force and in a short period of time, with overtime, he’s probably making in excess of six figures.”
He added it’s important to continue giving police the resources they need but also to demand accountability. Cuthbertson said it’s important to evolve and embrace “the mental health piece of the police reform plan to embrace other issues.”
It’s important to look at issues in Suffolk County, he added, where studies show Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to get pulled over or be part of an escalated situation.
“Let’s compensate our police adequately and well, but let’s ask that they embrace change and accountability, and I think 99% of the police force do,” Cuthbertson said. “I think it’s a matter of just a cultural shift that hopefully is going on.”
He said with approximately $286 million from the American Recovery Plan, there’s a possibility that some funding will go to Huntington Station sewering. He said there has been a study of the area and the direction the town should go and the best alternatives to connect to an existing sewering system.
“I think by partnering with the county we could affect some really great change for the environment for economic development in one fell swoop,” Cuthbertson said.
He added they have to do a better job in talking to residents about replacing their septic systems with low-nitrogen units.
Bontempi agreed that sewers are important. She said in addition to Huntington Station, areas north of Route 25A need to be looked at, too. She said higher-density areas and elevated areas have more toxins seeping into the ground and making it to local waterways.
She added the new low-nitrogen septic systems need more work as they are expensive to install, even with the county grant.
“We have to protect our water,” she said. “There is no question about it.”
The two agreed there are difficulties with getting sewers in certain areas of the district due to topography.
William “Doc” Spencer
Both candidates said regarding Spencer they would like to continue his work to help save the environment such as the plastic bag initiative. Bontempi added she applauds his work in saving open space, such as Coindre Hall Park that overlooks Huntington Harbor. Both candidates said Spencer’s work regarding the opioid crisis is also important to continue.