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Rob Trotta

The Suffolk County School Bus Safety Program has drawn criticism from Republicans within the county government. Stock photo

The Suffolk County School Bus Safety Program has drawn scrutiny from Republican county officials targeting the program for alleged mismanagement.

Enacted unanimously by the county Legislature in 2021, this traffic safety program uses cameras attached near the stop arm of school buses to enforce the New York Vehicle and Traffic Law. The county has partnered with Virginia-based BusPatrol to operate the program.

Under state law, offenders caught passing buses while the stop arm is extended receive a $250 fine. The county code states, “net proceeds of any penalty … shall be expended for programs related to improving traffic safety and/or school district safety in Suffolk County.”

County Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. (R) recently announced his office is conducting an audit of the School Bus Safety program. He stated the program had captured his attention when numerous residents complained about receiving potentially erroneous violations.

“My interest in any program is always that a program is being operated as the laws that adopted it … sought to have it operate,” Kennedy said. “How is the revenue that’s being collected from the program being allocated? Is it being done under the terms of the contract? Is the vendor fulfilling all of their requirements?” 

He added, “That’s the audit function, and it is universal across the board.”

Legislative purpose

Marykate Guilfoyle, a spokesperson for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D), summarized the motive for developing the program in the first place.

“The goal of the School Bus Safety program is to protect children as they get on and off the bus and to reduce the number of drivers illegally passing stopped school buses, which endangers the lives of students,” Guilfoyle said in an email. “The program is completely violator funded, and county proceeds are used to support public safety, traffic safety and school safety initiatives.”

County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) defended the School Bus Safety program. She said her office’s most frequent complaints are related to roadway safety and other traffic concerns.

“Red light cameras and school bus cameras are a way to prevent death and injuries without needing a paid police officer at every intersection and following every bus,” she said. “It’s a very efficient way for providing the consequence for breaking the rules of the road.”

Before the program took effect, Hahn added, few violators ever got caught. Today, they receive a fine, incentivizing better roadway behavior and creating a safer traffic environment.

“Now people have to change their behavior to no longer do the illegal action that puts people’s lives at risk,” the county legislator said. 

Questions over potential misapplication

County Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said the School Bus Safety program is one of the few measures for which he wishes he could rescind his “yes” vote. He said the Legislature was misled when the program was pitched.

Figures obtained by Trotta indicate the program grossed $23 million last year, with $13 million retained by the county and the outstanding $10 million collected by the vendor. Kennedy estimated the county government netted approximately $11 million.

“We don’t have all the net revenue,” Kennedy said. “That’s been another consequence of the hack” against the county government in September. For more on this ransomware event, see story, “Suffolk County cyberattack offers a window into the dangers of the digital age,” Nov. 17, also TBR News Media website.

By statute, the net proceeds generated by the School Bus Safety program must support various educational programs related to school bus and traffic safety. Asked how the revenue is being spent, an administration official said the 2022 revenue figures are still being finalized.

Guilfoyle, however, cited specific examples of how the revenue supports countywide traffic education initiatives: “Examples of the county’s efforts include dedicating more than $1 million to school districts and $125,000 in [public service announcements] during the back-to-school months to educate drivers on the state law surrounding stopping for buses.”

Trotta viewed the school bus program as a lucrative moneymaker for the county and vendor rather than a measure promoting bus safety. He said the law is applied unfairly, ticketing busy multilane corridors in the same manner as residential neighborhoods.

“I’ve checked with all the school districts, and kids aren’t crossing major thoroughfares,” Trotta said. “I’m all for giving a ticket to someone who passes a school bus on a residential avenue because it’s dangerous. I’m not at all for 1,000 people on Jericho Turnpike getting tickets.”

While the county code imposes rigid reporting requirements regarding expenditures of revenues generated from the program, Kennedy said he has yet to see any reports to date.

Competing perspectives

Following an initial spike when programs such as this are first instituted, Hahn said offenses start to wane “because people begin to change their behaviors — they stop at red lights because they’re afraid of getting a ticket.” 

In time, the legislator added, drivers throughout Suffolk “will no longer go around stopped school buses,” but “if they choose to break the law, they will get tickets.”

Trotta said he is pushing to repeal the School Bus Safety program altogether. “The reality is it’s a sham, and it’s not what we were told it was going to be,” he said.

While Kennedy acknowledged the importance of traffic safety, he held that the audit is to determine whether the program is administered correctly.

“I never want to see somebody blowing a stopped school bus sign — it’s just heinous,” the county comptroller said. “But if [the program] is not being operated in a fair and proper and consistent manner by the school bus drivers and the vendor … then it’s a problem.”

Kennedy expects the audit to be finalized by the second quarter of 2023.

At podium, Legislator Anthony Piccirillo (R-Holtsville), chair of the newly-formed Cyberattack Investigation Committee. Photo by Raymond Janis

County legislators convened at the William H. Rogers Legislature Building in Hauppauge on Monday, Dec. 5, announcing the formation of a bipartisan special committee to investigate the recent cyberattack against the county government.

A confirmed ransomware event was first reported in early September. [See story, “Suffolk County cyberattack offers a window into the dangers of the digital age,” Nov. 17, TBR News Media website.] The attack crippled the county’s IT infrastructure, shutting down the system for over a month, with systems slowly coming back online.

The county press release relating to the new committee indicated that, “Information regarding the effects of the attack continues to be made public, including the admission that the personal information of as many as 470,000 residents and 26,000 past and current employees has been stolen by the hackers.” 

Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst), presiding officer of the county Legislature, announced the appointment of Legislator Anthony Piccirillo (R-Holtsville) as chair of the newly formed special committee. With these two legislators, the rest of the committee will comprise Minority Leader Jason Richberg (D-West Babylon), and Legislators Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), Jim Mazzarella (R-Moriches) and Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga).

“The purpose of this committee is to do one thing and one thing only, and that is to find out what happened and how we can prevent that from happening again,” McCaffrey said.

The presiding officer described the impact felt by county officials and residents alike due to the cyber event. He stated that sensitive information of county employees was likely accessed, with many details still unknown.

“There’s been an impact on each and every one of our residents,” he said, adding, “Employees, including myself, have now found out that our Social Security numbers have been compromised. We need to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”

‘The best disinfectant is sunlight, so we’re going to open the windows and let the sun in.’

— Anthony Piccirillo

Piccirillo outlined his priorities and intended goals as chair. He regarded the Legislature as a coequal branch of the county government with a constitutional obligation to conduct oversight activities. 

“We’re going to execute our constitutional duty of oversight,” he said. “We passed a procedural motion that we now have subpoena power to call witnesses under oath and bring them in if they refuse to come in.”

The committee chairman added, “I do expect full cooperation from anyone that we ask to come in, but we do have that tool in our toolbox, where if people start to refuse to speak to the Legislature then we can have them here under subpoena.”

Piccirillo maintained that openness and transparency would be necessary to restore government operations and public trust.

“The best disinfectant is sunlight, so we’re going to open the windows and let the sun in here to shine and make sure that we get the truth,” he said. “We’re going to follow the facts and conduct the thorough investigation that the residents of Suffolk County deserve.”

Richberg detailed the collective shock and disbelief experienced by county officials when reports first circulated of the cybersecurity breach. He said a proper diagnosis of the problems leading up to the attack would help thwart a similar scenario from unfolding.

“I think understanding and diagnosing the problem from the beginning and having a bipartisan approach to asking the questions in the sunlight … is really important,” the minority leader said. “Most importantly, we need full structures for us to move forward, so this doesn’t happen again and that we are appropriately protected from anything that could happen to us in the future.”

Above, Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai). Photo by Raymond Janis

In an interview, Anker discussed the gravity of the moment and the importance of the government coordinating its response correctly. “I know we’re spending up to $12 million to address this, if not more,” she said. “We need to get all the experts in the field to address what we’re dealing with and how to best deal with it.”

Anker also addressed the criminal nature of this cyber intrusion and the need to grasp cybercrime trends and criminal culture online.

“The dark web, that’s where all of this stuff is happening,” the county legislator said. “It’s the Wild, Wild West of our times, and if we don’t address that in a more aggressive way, it’s going to ripple throughout our country.”

While the committee’s work is just getting underway, McCaffrey said the process will culminate in a report detailing its findings. “We expect to be able to roll this out and tell a good story about what happened from beginning to end,” he said.

Photo by Julianne Mosher

Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) held a press conference last week, criticizing Democrats over the hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions made by the Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association.

Trotta made his case Oct. 21 with paperwork and news clips to back up his claims.

Photo by Julianne Mosher

This comes less than two weeks before the Nov. 2 election, where he attacked District Attorney Tim Sini (D) and County Executive Steve Bellone (D). 

“What we have here is New York State election law that’s being violated over and over again every single day — and it’s costing the taxpayers of this county millions of dollars,” Trotta said. 

According to the legislator, “New York State election law is very clear. All campaign contribu-tions must be voluntary. You cannot force an employee to give you money, but that’s exactly what’s happening here in Suffolk County.”

Trotta said that county union employees are being “forced” to give money and cannot get out of doing so. 

Photo by Julianne Mosher

“They write letters to the district attorney, they write letters to the county executive, the coun-ty comptroller and they don’t stop it,” he said. “And that’s wrong. It corrupts county govern-ment and why does it corrupt county government? Because the unions gain so much power by giving money to certain politicians. They can never be beat.”

A retired Suffolk County police officer himself, Trotta is also seeking reelection next week. 

He recalled that as an SCPD employee, he approved a $1 per paycheck deduction ($26 a year) to go to the PBA. However, he said he never authorized additional funds be given to political campaigns. 

Trotta also said he is just one of two elected officials in the legislature who do not take money from the police union. 

Photo by Rita J. Egan

Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) is running for reelection once again in the 13th Legislative District after taking his seat in 2014. Also on the ballot are Democrat Kevin Mulholland, who isn’t actively campaigning, and Michael Simonelli on the Conservative ticket. Simonelli didn’t respond to TBR News Media’s request to participate in the debate.

The 13th Legislative District includes Smithtown, Fort Salonga, Kings Park, San Remo, Nissequogue, Head of the Harbor and St. James, as well as portions of Commack and East Northport. The district is bounded by Route 25 to the south, Larkfield Road to the west, the Long Island Sound to the north and the Brookhaven town line to the east. 

Trotta said he wants to run again because he wants “to clean up.”

“I hate to say that I dwell on corruption, but I do,” the county legislator said. “I think you need someone like me who’s the thorn in the side to keep people straight because quite honestly they’re not straight.”

While fighting corruption may be at the forefront of his mind, Trotta said what he enjoys most about his position is helping his constituents, especially senior citizens, and acknowledging the good works of community members such as Eagle Scouts. 

Trotta said he takes exception with some of Simonelli’s campaign tactics where the Conservative candidate has called Trotta a “communist” and has said the county legislator wants to defund the police, which he said is not true at all. 

He said his opponent’s campaign is based on Simonelli being a police officer, but Trotta said his opponent has performed no police function in the last 10 years. Simonelli serves as treasurer of the Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association.

According to Simonelli’s campaign website, he is an active police officer in Suffolk and has been for 21 years. For nine of those years, he has also been a Suffolk PBA executive board member.

Suffolk County Police Department

Trotta, who was a SCPD officer for 25 years and on the FBI Violent Crimes Task Force for over 10, has been vocal about wasteful spending in the police department, but said he does not believe in defunding the police. His concern is about salaries, overtime and pensions. He said there are 16 people in the SCPD who taxpayers are paying $300,000 each a year even though they don’t perform an active police function and don’t go on calls.

He added this cost taxpayers millions each year and could be the equivalent of hiring 100 new officers. Trotta said he believes the police should be paid well, but increases shouldn’t be three times the cost of living. He said this has been done six out of eight years.

“How do you get that much in raises when [the county has] no money?” he said. “We borrowed $550 million from the pension fund, we drained the clean water fund for $250 million.”

He said he’s not against county police officers getting salary increases. 

“Just make it the cost of living,” he said, adding the police officers contract includes that if the cost of living goes up more than 5% they can reopen their contract.

“The roads and everything else suffers when you’re paying 2,300 people a third of your budget — a billion dollars,” Trotta said.

County budget 

Photo by Rita J. Egan

The 2022 county budget will have a surplus, and Trotta said it’s not the norm and is due to millions of federal aid, stimulus aid and unemployment supplement.

“I’m happy to see that the [Steve] Bellone administration (D) is actually going to pay down some of our debt with it,” he said.

But Trotta still has concerns as he said sales tax revenue was up 20% which led to millions of dollars, but the county is budgeting flat this year. He said no one can predict, though, if sales revenue would go down, and he said he would budget the same as in 2020.

Sewers

Simonelli’s campaign is saying Trotta is against sewers but the county legislator said that couldn’t be further from the truth. Long Island Environmental Voters Forum recently endorsed him.

Recently, Trotta has been advocating for current Kings Park sewer district residents and businesses impacted by an expansion of the Kings Park sewage treatment plant to vote “yes” on Dec. 14 for sewers for Kings Park’s business district.

He is in favor of working toward ensuring that Smithtown’s Main Street and Lake Avenue in St. James also are hooked up to sewer systems in the future. 

Election law

One of Trotta’s biggest concerns is election law. He said the PBA collects $1 a day from every police officer and probation officer, and village department members in Amityville, Northport and Ocean Beach. While the departments can opt out of this, an individual police officer cannot.

He said state election law 17-156 is clear in stating “all campaign contributions must be voluntary.”

He said county District Attorney Tim Sini (D) benefits from this procedure with contributions around $500,000 and County Executive Bellone around a million dollars. Trotta said he has a problem with his opponent Simonelli being the treasurer of the PBA, and therefore being responsible for transferring the money.

The county legislator held a press conference about the matter on Oct. 21. (For the full story, see page A5)

Fighting corruption

Trotta said he’s not afraid of fighting corruption, and he knows he works for the taxpayers.

“I don’t respond well to people bullying me,” he said. 

Former Suffolk County District Attorney Tom Spota. File photo

Jurors rendered the verdicts Dec. 17 for former Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota and the head of his corruption bureau Christopher McPartland.

On the charge of conspiracy to tamper with witnesses and obstruct an official proceeding against Spota and McPartland: “Guilty.” On the charge of witness tampering and obstruction of an official proceeding against Spota and McPartland: “Guilty.” On the charge of obstruction of justice against Spota and McPartland: “Guilty.”

The case revealed local corruption and cover-ups that required the assistance of the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI. Some officials, who have issued formal statements, say they are thrilled with the outcome, including current Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart and Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga).

“As we learned, the very people charged with upholding the law were the ones who were found guilty of assisting James Burke in his attempt to get away with his crime,” Hart stated. “Instead of being leaders and standing up for justice, they did their best to manipulate the system and everyone who stood in their way.”

Trotta, a former Suffolk County police detective and an often outspoken critic of the department, said he feels vindicated.

“It is unfortunate for the honest and dedicated cops that these men thought they were above the law and could get away with anything,” Trotta said. “Thanks to the great work of the United States Attorney’s Office and the diligence of the jury, justice will be served.”

“It is unfortunate for the honest and dedicated cops that these men thought they were above the law and could get away with anything,”

– Rob Trotta

Spota and McPartland were indicted in Oct. 2017 on federal charges for covering up the crimes of former police chief James Burke. In 2012, Burke, a St. James resident, was charged and convicted of assaulting Christopher Loeb, of Smithtown, who broke into Burke’s department-issued SUV that was parked in front of the former police chief’s home and stole a duffel bag allegedly containing a gun belt, ammunition, sex toys and pornography. Burke, according to prosecutors, beat Loeb inside the 4th Precinct station house in Hauppauge. After being sentenced to 46 months in prison, Burke was released Nov. 2018. He completed his sentence under house arrest in April 2019.

Both Hart and Trotta have suggested that related investigations continue.

“We have been monitoring this case closely and remain in contact with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District,” Hart stated. “We are also in the process of reviewing all of the testimony and evidence presented at trial, and upon further review will take appropriate action if warranted.”

Trotta is particularly concerned about rooting out further corruption, an issue central to his 2019 reelection campaign.

“Unfortunately, this trial exposed that corruption continues in Suffolk County and hopefully the United States Attorney’s Office will continue its investigation into Suffolk’s widespread corruption problem,” Trotta stated. “It’s embarrassing that the DA, chief of corruption, chief of police, chair of the conservative party have all been arrested and found guilty in the past few years.”

However, Hart holds a more positive outlook.

“We want to assure members of the public that the current leadership of this department is committed to integrity, honesty and professionalism,” she stated. “I am continuously impressed by the work and level of commitment by our police officers and residents of this county should feel proud of their police department.

 

Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta. File photo by Rachel Shapiro

Suffolk Legislator Rob Trotta confirmed he will throw his hat in the ring for county executive in 2019 — by launching a grassroots campaign, if necessary.

Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said he wants to run against incumbent Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) next November in an effort to tackle a series of what he called wasteful spending decisions, illegal fees and poor contract negotiations that have negatively impacted Suffolk taxpayers.

“No one can afford to live here anymore, kids are leaving in droves,” Trotta said. “I think I could make a difference.”

No one can afford to live here anymore, kids are leaving in droves. I think I could make a difference.”

— Rob Trotta

The representative of Suffolk’s 13th District denounced several of the county’s 2018 capital projects as “wasteful spending.” He rattled off examples including the approved plans for construction of a new fingerprint lab in Yaphank, a study for a guardrail outside Rocky Point High School and a resolution to spend $150,000 for the design of a new K-9 headquarters and kennel for Suffolk County Police Department — which ultimately was voted down in July. Trotta said significant taxpayer money could have been saved if the design work, planning and studies for current and future capital projects were performed in-house rather than hired contractors.

“Do you think we have architects capable of designing a dog kennel? Of course we do,” he said. “That is what’s wrong with the county. That is why I want to run for county executive, because it would never happen.”

The legislator alleges the county’s financial woes are a direct result of Bellone’s negotiation of the 2012 police contract. The eight-year contract gave approximately 400 of Suffolk’s top ranking cops a 28.8 percent pay increase, according to Trotta, over the course of six years costing taxpayers from $55.4 million to $72.3 million. Negotiations between Suffolk County and Police Benevolent Association for the next contract will start in 2019, with the next county executive to expected to play a main role.

“The reality is we can’t afford to pay them what we’re paying them,” said Trotta, who retired as a Suffolk County detective in 2013. “If they had gotten a cost of living increase — which everyone else on the planet would be happy with — we’d be in much better fiscal shape.”

Since the 2012 contract, the Republican pointed out that Moody’s Investors Services has lowered the county’s bond rating by five ranks from March 2012 to this September. The county has borrowed $171.3 million from its sewer fund and $384.4 million from the state pension fund in order to keep paying its contractual salaries and pensions — mainly the Suffolk County Police Department, according to Trotta.

“It’s unsustainable,” he said.

Trotta has spoken out against a number of county fees including the red-light camera program, the alarm registration fee, mortgage recording fee and cremation fees, many of which he alleges generate money Suffolk needs to pay its cops. He’s filed legislation to limit the county’s fees in 2017 and 2018, which failed both times.

If they had gotten a cost of living increase — which everyone else on the planet would be happy with — we’d be in much better fiscal shape.”

— Rob Trotta

The county-executive hopeful said he plans to launch a grassroots fundraising effort by creating a website where supporters can donate to his campaign, with a suggested contribution of $80 because it’s the equivalent of a red-light camera ticket — a program he’s called for to be suspended, if not shut down. Trotta said he cannot morally accept funds from any public sector unions he’d be expected to negotiate contracts with, such as the Police Benevolent Association, although not prohibited by campaign finance laws.

“I might not get elected because of that,” he said. “I might not be able to get my message out.”

John Jay LaValle, chairman of Suffolk’s Republican Committee, confirmed Trotta is a possible candidate for county executive, but the party will not make any official decision until January. The legislator wasn’t concerned about vying for his party’s nomination.

“I think competition is good,” Trotta said. “I think hearing different people’s views are good. Ultimately, the party will come together and pick someone, whether it’s me, [county Comptroller] John Kennedy or whoever else.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone speaks during a press conference June 20 calling out Republicans for voting down three bond resolutions. Photo by Kyle Barr

Democrats and Republicans in the Suffolk County Legislature are at each other’s throats over funding for a series of bonds, including for public safety initiatives, that failed to pass at the June 19 legislature meeting.

“The Republican caucus put politics ahead of public safety,” county Executive Steve Bellone (D) said at a press conference June 20. “We saw a group of seven Republican legislators put their own politics over the interests of their constituents, of public safety, of teachers and students.”

At the June 19 meeting, three out of four bond resolutions failed to garner support from at least 12 legislators, which would represent the two-thirds support necessary to pass a bond resolution. The seven members of the Republican minority caucus voted against the resolutions. The three failed bonds included 14 items that would have provided funding for county parks, correctional facilities, public safety initiatives, road reconstruction and more.

Republican legislators said they voted against the bonds because they did not want to feel forced to vote on items they might disagree with in the future, lumped with items they were comfortable supporting now.

“We shouldn’t be paying these things off for 30 years because it’s just not fair to young people.”

— Rob Trotta

“The blame for the failure of this bond rests squarely on the shoulders of Steve Bellone,” said Minority Leader Legislator Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore). “Last month the county executive abandoned 40 years of history and precedence in Suffolk County… in an effort to bully the legislature into every one of his proposals.”

Bonds traditionally had not been grouped together by the Suffolk Legislature.

Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said he opposed the resolutions in part because bonding for each of the 14 projects would increase the country’s deficit.

“What we’re doing is increasing debt,” Trotta said. “We shouldn’t be paying these things off for 30 years because it’s just not fair to young people.”

Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) sponsored a bill that would allocate funds for a Rails to Trails project from Wading River to Port Jefferson. That bill was included in a larger bond proposal at the June 6 legislative meeting, and that too was voted down by the Republican caucus.

“I hope they can get this resolved soon because it’s basically hindering government,” Anker said. “The county has to bond for these sorts of projects – that’s why we have this sort of process.”

Anker said the $8 million Rails to Trails project was to be funded by that bond and then the county would be reimbursed by the federal government, but without the bond the county is now looking for different revenue sources so it would not have to push back plans to start building the trail by spring 2019.

The most contentious item amongst the recent three defeated bonds was $2 million in funding for licensing Rave Panic Button mobile app, a downloadable application that acts as an instant call to fire and emergency services as well as police in an emergency, specifically a school shooting, for school and government employees.

The Rave app is currently active in 95 percent of county facilities with 20 percent of county employee phones now equipped with the app, according to Joel Vetter, the county Emergency Medical Services coordinator. The program is already in place in 19 school districts with 10 enabled devices per building. The funding, Vetter said, would have put the app in the hands of all current school administrative and teaching staff in all county school districts.

“This means that if the cellular system is down, you could contact emergency services through WiFi,” Vetter said.

Bellone defended the lump bonding, saying it’s a practice used in town and local governments across the state. He said the public safety initiatives would have saved district schools more than $1 million since each would not have to pay for it themselves.

“This has become the worst of our politics.”

— Duwayne Gregory

“If we back down from this outrageous conduct now, they will continue to hold hostage every important investment on the environment, on public safety, on roads, on parks — and we’re not going to allow that to happen,” the county executive said.

Cilmi contended that bundling the bonds together does not save money because the county’s bond council, New York law firm Harris Beach PLLC, does not charge for bond preparation.

The contract between Suffolk and Harris Beach, signed by the county in 2014, reads that there shall be no fee paid by the county related to the preparation of county resolutions, which includes bonds.

Cilmi and Trotta both said they could come close to guaranteeing funding for the Rave app would be approved as a stand-alone measure.

Democrats accused the Republican caucus of being hypocritical as the bond vote was all for items those legislators have already supported in the recent past.

“This has become the worst of our politics.” Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) said. “Nobody gets 100 percent of what they want, and when they say, ‘we’re going to vote against a package to other bills regarding funding for our correctional facilities,’ saying ‘I don’t like one or two parts of the bill and I’m going to vote against,’ is just ridiculous.”

Bellone said he expects to put the bonds back up for vote in the next legislative meeting July 17, but he did not give specifics about whether or not the county would try and repackage the bills to be more favorable to the wishes of the Republican caucus.

Deputy County Executive Jon Kaiman (D) said if the bond vote fails again the app will not be available to districts until after school reconvenes in September.

“We have to regroup and think what kind of strategies we have going forward,” Kaiman said. “When you fail a vote the process takes a lot of time to come back.”

Suffolk County district attorney candidate Tim Sini and sheriff candidate Larry Zacarese during recent visits to the TBR News Media office. Photos by Kevin Redding

Suffolk County District Attorney

A fresh start for DA’s office

It’s no secret that Suffolk County’s District Attorney office is in desperate need of a culture change. The allegations-turned charges against Thomas Spota (D), who held the position since 2001, have created public distrust in a position that requires it. The district attorney decides who gets charged with crimes, and a lack of confidence in the integrity of the person leading that position creates a tangled web of problems Suffolk County residents shouldn’t have to worry about.

To that end, Tim Sini (D) has dealt with a startlingly analogous situation as police commissioner, which ironically features many of the same players, and he’s handled it as well as anyone could have asked. Real progress is being made on the gang front, and we think his experience in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, coupled with his time as police commissioner are more than enough to put to bed concerns from people like his challenger about his age and relative inexperience.

On Ray Perini (R), we were mostly satisfied with his defenses of two scandals from his past brought to light during this campaign. However, at a time like this, the mere hint of possible wrongdoing in the position of district attorney is enough to continue damaging public perception of a position in need of a fresh start.

With all that being said, we’re endorsing Sini for Suffolk County district attorney.

Suffolk County Sheriff

A new sheriff in the county

With two new candidates boasting impressive work backgrounds running for Suffolk County sheriff, Republican Larry Zacarese and Democrat Errol Toulon, it was difficult deciding who to endorse. After much deliberation Zacarese gets our endorsement.

We believe Zacarese has done his homework when it comes to the job as sheriff and his experience at Stony Brook University as assistant chief of police and director of the Office of Emergency Management will be an asset. His position there is a well-rounded one. He is involved in operations, planning, mitigation, response and recovery and working with the installation of and maintenance of the electronic security system for more than 250 buildings.

He has also met with those on task forces dealing with the gang problems on Long Island to ensure that they are well staffed and good relationships between federal and local agencies are intact.

We hope that Toulon will continue to pursue a career in politics. With a great deal of experience in law enforcement including at Rikers Island, we can see him serving the county in the future, perhaps in a role such as police commissioner.

Suffolk County Legislator District 5

Hahn handles county business

Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) has the experience to take care of business in the 5th Legislative District of Suffolk County, and we endorse her in her run for a fourth term as a county legislator.

Approachable and accessible, Hahn listens to the needs of her constituents.

The chairwoman of both the Environment, Planning & Agriculture Committee and Parks & Recreation Committee, she supports the county’s program to update septic systems, which will reduce nitrogen in our waters. In the past she has sponsored initiatives authorizing appraisal of lands under the Suffolk County Drinking Water Protection Program.

She has been a steward for our local parks by tackling illegal dumping by increasing county penalties and creating programs for children to explore local public lands with her Parks Passport program.

We were impressed with her challenger Republican Edward Flood, and we hope he will continue to pursue a political career. A lawyer who is the chief of staff for state Assemblyman Dean Murray (R-East Patchogue), we believe Flood has the potential to serve in office, and as a supporter of the group Long Island Needs a Drag Strip, he has good ideas when it comes to bringing in more tax revenues while creating minimal disruption to residents.

Suffolk County Legislator District 6

Safe in Sarah Anker’s hands

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) is focused on local issues.

Although legislative issues may reach further than that of the town, we appreciate the incumbent’s care and concern for her district’s constituents and the challenges they face, not just the ones that the county does.

We think she works diligently and closely with her constituents, making her the best candidate in this race. We commend her track record on issues like parks creation; protecting drinking water by prohibiting the acceptance of wastewater produced by hydraulic fracturing; and her work with Father Frank Pizzarelli and Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson to try to quell opioid addiction.

Some of the points her Democratic opponent Gary Pollakusky made about the county’s lower bond rating, $2.1 billion debt and $200 million structural deficit are all causes for concern, but Anker is just one member of a larger group, and should not be held accountable for all of its ills or credited with all of its successes.

Pollakusky’s campaign style tends to be rough, even bullying. We are also concerned about the merits of his business ventures and nonprofit organization based on the odd mechanics of the website and social media.

Anker has shown leadership, being able to see the problem, recognizing who can solve the problem, getting in touch with the right people, putting them all together in a room and stepping back and letting the solution evolve. She listens to people and sees if she can help. We’re all for that.

Suffolk County Legislator District 12

Kennedy should keep at it

As her first full term in the Suffolk County Legislature comes to a close, we feel that Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) has proven to be a passionate, effective and caring leader for the 12th District.

Kennedy, a longtime nurse, is not afraid to go toe-to-toe with her colleagues from both  sides of the aisle, whether it’s regarding hikes in county fees or public safety projects, and seems to have the residents’ needs in mind with every decision she makes. It’s very clear she is rattled by the county’s current financial situation and is doing everything in her power to make sure families and constituents have the opportunity to grow and thrive. She has also done plenty of research on a wide variety of issues not only in her district but Suffolk County as a whole, and seeks to find a pragmatic solution to every one of them.

Suffolk County Legislator District 13

Trotta tackles Suffolk’s issues

It’s important, and rare, in politics to have a watchdog in the ranks —  a whistle-blower who’s not afraid to call out colleagues and issues for the greater good. And there’s perhaps nobody on the local level with a louder bark than Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga).

Trotta, a former county police officer, has for the last four years consistently fought in favor of making Suffolk County an easier and cheaper place to live for residents of all ages even at the expense of making enemies. He’s become the face of exposing corruption in the county, whether it’s egregious hikes in fees or the connection between campaign contributors and elected officials. He’s also on the front line of the debate against the Suffolk County Red Light Safety Program, which has been proven to increase accidents at busy intersections and seems to serve no other purpose than to collect more fees from residents.

His Democratic opponent Colleen Maher doesn’t appear to show any interest in campaigning and, as far as we know, is just a name to put on the ballot.

Trotta is brutally honest, a statistics and facts-based whiz and the very definition of a realist. He tells it like it is and actually backs up his accusations with ways to fix the problems.

As cynical as he is about the way the county runs, it’s apparent that Trotta still very much cares about the region and is rooting for it to turn around, especially for the sake of young people. He wants them to have an opportunity to grow and thrive here. And,  with him serving more terms as legislator, there’s a chance they will one day.

Suffolk County Legislator District 16

Bring Berland to the county

When it comes to Suffolk County’s 16th Legislative District, we believe that Democratic hopeful Susan Berland has the experience and community knowledge needed fill the seat of termed-out Legislator Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills).

Berland has shown her devotion to the Town of Huntington’s residents by working full time as a councilwoman for the last 16 years, despite it being only a part-time position. She demonstrates a fine-tuned understanding of the taxpayers needs on multiple issues: sticking to a tight budget while maintaining town services and supporting affordable housing projects while promising to fight for preservation of open space.

Her prior work experience as a state assistant attorney general will give her insight into tackling the area’s challenges of combating gang violence and drug addiction. Public safety remains another big task.

While we applaud the efforts of Republican candidate Hector Gavilla in his first run for political office, he needs to gain a better grasp of a county legislator’s role and how national issues translate the local level first. It’s difficult to understand his position on some issues. Gavilla said he was strongly in favor of cutting back on Suffolk police officers’ salaries while simultaneously stating that the government should spare no expense in protecting the public’s safety, also noting that he would increase police patrols.

The next individual elected to the county legislature will need a nuanced, detailed understanding of budgets, contracts and smart growth, and we think Berland fits the bill.

Suffolk County Legislator District 18

Doc Spencer can fix Suffolk

Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D) has served admirably in his role representing the northern portion of Huntington township in the county’s 18th Legislative District for the last six years.

Spencer’s background as a licensed physician has given him the insight and experience to successfully tackle several serious health issues. Spencer’s résumé includes raising the age to purchase tobacco to 21; banning the marketing of energy drinks to youth; prohibiting the sale of powdered caffeine to minors and more. In our conversation with him, Spencer demonstrated a nuanced understanding of the different challenges the county faces in addressing the opioid and heroin problem.

While his Republican challenger Dom Spada raises legitimate concerns regarding Suffolk County’s fiscal situation, it is a crisis that every elected official is aware of and has spoken about at length. No one is arguing against cutting costs, but the bigger challenge is reaching a consensus on where to make cutbacks and trim programs.

We believe that Spencer is an overall stronger candidate to address the county’s pressing health needs and build the consensus in the Legislature needed to fix the county’s budget woes.

Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta. File photo by Rachel Shapiro

After two terms at the helm of Suffolk County’s 13th District, Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) remains extremely critical of how the county functions — specifically its handling of finances.

The Republican incumbent has called the current system “broken,” “totally corrupt” and “horrible.” If re-elected Nov. 7, he said he plans to keep fighting to control spending and shed light on government mismanagement.

“I don’t want to see people struggling — I want this to be a prosperous place but it’s not a good situation we’re in,” Trotta said in a discussion at the TBR News Media office in Setauket, with the editorial staff Sept. 22.

Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta is running for his third 13th District term. Photo by Kevin Redding

He talked about his plans moving forward as the representative of his district, which encompasses Smithtown, Fort Salonga, Kings Park, Nissequogue, St. James, Head of the Harbor and portions of Commack and East Northport.

First elected in 2013, he is running for another two years as legislator against Democratic challenger Colleen Maher, who did not respond to a request for an interview.

Trotta said the legislative bills that he’s passionate about pushing through will ultimately “die in committee.” They include a law to limit Suffolk County “backdoor taxes,” or fee permits and registrations imposed on residents, to 2 percent per year — a reflection of the state’s cap for property tax increases — in order to make living on Long Island cheaper for residents; one that imposes justification for a fee increase; and a campaign finance bill to limit the amount of money in donations elected officials running for office can accept from contractors and public employee unions within the county.

Trotta said the campaign finance bill is the most crucial one because it will serve to clean up the “cesspool” of county government and curb money being tossed around in campaign contributions.

“Campaign finance is the root of all evil,” the legislator said.

A member of the Suffolk County Police Department for 25 years, Trotta pointed to County Executive Steve Bellone’s (D) 28.8 percent pay increase to the police department as a prime example of the county’s “out-of-control” spending.

“We’re in debt, we have to cut spending,” he said. “I see the county budget as a pie. Cops came in and ate everything and left the crumbs for everybody else. Why would you give them a $400 million increase? It’s because they gave him $3 million to get elected.”

“I don’t want to see people struggling — I want this to be a prosperous place but it’s not a good situation we’re in.”

  Rob Trotta

Trotta overall outlined a grim portrait of the future of the county, especially for young people looking to stay and start families here.

“If it wasn’t for Manhattan, we’d be dead — we’d be finished,” the legislator said. “I want young people to be able to buy houses here but … a third of the people in their 20s are moving. People always say, ‘Oh the beaches.’ How many times in the last year were you at the beach? Apartment buildings popping up are a last resort.”

He also spoke out against the county’s Red Light Safety Program, which he has long advocated against, chalking the system of cameras at traffic signals to ticket cars that run red lights up to a “money grab” by the county against residents that’s only causing more damage along busy intersections.

The day before the debate Oct. 17, Trotta publicly called for an investigation into the county’s annual report of the program, accusing it of purposefully, and illegally, eliminating data on car accidents involving pedestrians and bicyclists.

“Cameras are at 100 locations and accidents are up at about 46 of them, some as much as 100 percent,” he said. “Now, if it’s about safety, wouldn’t you shut those cameras down immediately? It’s not about safety. It’s about money … it’s not a happy place to live.”

The legislature approved hiring an outside contractor to perform a six-month study of the county’s red-light camera program at its Oct. 2 meeting.

The front cover of the 2015 Red Light Safety Program Report.
The front cover of the 2015 Red Light Safety Program Report.

By Victoria Espinoza

The results are in for the 2015 Red Light Safety Program Annual Report — the most recent report to date — but there are still questions to be asked. The report, released in April, showed in 2015 a total of $31 million in gross revenue was collected from the program for citations issued from the start of the program in 2010 but paid in 2015 — a drop of some $1.9 million from the previous year.

However, an entire section is missing on accident data, which in years past indicated how many accidents occurred from right angles, rear ends, accidents that involved injury, what intersections they occurred at and more.

“It’s a disgrace,” Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said in a phone interview. “They say it’s coming — but they won’t even tell us who prepares the report.”

Trotta is not the only person to raise this concern.

Personal injury lawyer David Raimondo, based in Lake Grove, agreed not knowing what company prepares the report is a red flag. He has worked on several injury lawsuits having to do with red light camera intersections and has filed a Freedom of Information Law request to discover what company creates the current annual reports on the program. Just last month he called for a federal investigation into the program.

Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta goes over legislation to suspend the camera program. Photo by Phil Corso

“We don’t know who makes the report, they [Suffolk County government] claim the data used is correct, but I’m challenging that right now because I don’t think their data is accurate,” he said.

The county executive’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Every annual report has the Suffolk County seal on the cover as well as the seal of the county’s office of Traffic and Parking Violations Agency. All services in maintaining, operating and managing the red light cameras are done by Xerox, a corporation that entered into a contract with Suffolk County. Xerox provides a monthly invoice to the county for contractual requirements, and according to the study was paid $9.4 million that year. But it’s still unclear which entity condenses the raw data and creates the annual reports.

Raimondo also took issue with an article from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety referenced in the 2015 report. “Red light cameras installed at intersections reduced the number of fatalities due to crashes at these intersections … there was a steep increase in fatalities at intersections that removed red light cameras,” the report stated.

The article also included data from 57 cities throughout the country between 1992 and 2014, comparing trends in fatal crash rates in those cities with trends in 33 cities that never had cameras.

The lawyer called the article “propaganda,” and said he has worked with many scientists and engineer experts who confirm red light camera programs do not reduce fatalities.

Another problem with the Suffolk County study, Raimondo said, is it does not include data on accidents involving bicyclists or pedestrians.

“Every single intersection with a camera and a crosswalk needs a report,” he said.

Red light cameras are placed in two types of intersections: New York State intersections, where a state road meets a state, county or town road; and non-state intersections, where a county road meets a county or town road. According to the report, intersections are chosen based on where the cameras would yield the highest safety result, but Raimondo doesn’t buy that.

“It’s an insult to the residents.” — Rob Trotta

“They’re putting them in areas with the highest volume of people who don’t want to go to court and can afford to pay the ticket,” he said. “They’re targeting middle class people. It’s a real racketeering operation, it’s enterprise corruption.”

Trotta echoed the sentiment.

“It’s a sham,” he said. “It’s the equivalent of a 63 percent tax increase on resident’s general fund tax, except this way the Suffolk County executive can say he didn’t raise it — but in actuality he did and it’s absurd. He [Steve Bellone (D)] thinks the people of Suffolk County are idiots. It’s an insult to the residents.”

According to the report released last month analyzing the 2015 data, 352,472 red light camera fines were paid in 2015, including payments immediately after first notice of a ticket and court-related fines. This has led to more than $17.6 million in gross fine revenues for the year ($19 million in 2014 on 380,809 fines paid). These fines and fees are deposited directly into a Suffolk County comptroller’s account, according to the report.

Some areas across Suffolk County saw more red light camera incidents recorded and tickets issued in 2015, but others stayed at a steady rate or saw a decrease.

The study details how many incidents a red light camera intersection tracks in a certain year, as well as how many tickets are issued from those incidents.

In 2015 in Huntington Station on Oakwood Road, a huge 73,217 red light camera incidents were noted, with 3,741 tickets issued, compared to 9,773 incidents noted and 602 tickets issued in 2014. Lake Grove had 86,343 incidents with 4,636 tickets issued in 2014, and the next year that number jumped to 106,145 incidents yet saw a drop in tickets to 4,435. In East Setauket on Route 347, more than 1,000 incidents were recorded than the prior year at 37,594, however 45 fewer tickets were issued at 1,838. On Miller Place Road, 117,016 incidents were recorded in 2014, with 7,055 tickets issued, and in 2015 there was a drop in incidents tracked at 113,915, with 6,088 tickets issued.