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Suffolk County Legislature

Photo by Julianne Mosher

Almost a year to the day of the first reported case of COVID-19 in Suffolk County, elected officials joined mourning families to remember the lives lost. 

On Monday, March 1, Suffolk County Presiding Officer Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue) with his colleagues and officials unveiled a new county COVID-19 memorial in Hauppauge. 

“Over this last year, I don’t think anybody at the beginning would have thought that we would have had so many trials and tribulations, so many challenges and so many losses,” Calarco said.

Since March 2020, there have been more than 500,000 deaths nationwide from the virus, and just over 3,000 in Suffolk County. 

“That is a tremendous number of people,” Calarco added. “And it has left many of us mourning.”

The wooden structure, located outside the Legislature’s William H. Rogers Building at 725 Veterans Memorial Highway, was built and donated by Smithtown Boy Scout Troop 888, and will be on display throughout the month of March.

Families and loved ones are encouraged to write the names of those who have passed, tying the purple ribbons on the metal cords across the wooden planks. It’s a way, Calarco said, to memorialize them.

“Because especially for those who were lost early on, family members weren’t able to lean on each other,” he said. “They weren’t able to be with their loved ones in the hospital due to restrictions. They weren’t able to have the normal funeral and wake process for their friends and family. When we grieve, we need to have the community around us to support us.”

Deputy County Executive Jon Kaiman spoke on behalf of County Executive Steve Bellone (D) who was not in attendance. 

“Three thousand people in this county lost their lives … that’s more than 3,000 families grieving,” he said. “We in Suffolk County stand with them. We grieve with them. We know that we’re in the process of getting through it, we’re getting through it together.”

The first group of families able to share names tearfully thanked the county for honoring their loved ones. 

The family of Sgt. Keith Allison of Brentwood was the first to tie the ribbon. Allison, who spent 25 years in uniform with the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office, died in December after a 17-day battle with the coronavirus. 

“I’m humbled to be here and to accept this ribbon in his name,” said his wife Brenda. “I know that he’s looking down smiling.”

County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. (D) said of his former colleague that he was “not only just a friend of mine, but a person who was always smiling, always helpful and always energetic and passionate about his job.”

County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart came to support the Van Zeyl family. Lt. Robert Van Zeyl, of Selden, passed away from the virus on Jan. 20 after a two-week battle. He was the first active county police officer to succumb to COVID-19. 

“I think we all thought that we would be immune from this tragedy, and it really hit our family very hard, our police family,” Hart said. “Bob was out there every day. He didn’t stop. He didn’t back down during the most difficult of times in this pandemic. So, we were honored to have him in our family, and we will always be honored to have you with us. And we’ll never forget what he’s done for us.”

Van Zeyl’s ex-wife, Tina, joined their two children Hailey and Tyler in the emotional ribbon tying. Hailey had the honor of putting her dad’s name on the memorial. 

“It felt like I was honoring my dad,” she said. “I know he’s proud of me.” Anyone who has lost someone to COVID-19 may submit their loved one’s name for inclusion in the memorial online at scnylegislature.us/covid-19-memorial. The website also provides the option to share a photo and a memory about the person. 

After the county receives the submission, county staff will write the loved one’s name on a ribbon and affix it to the memorial. 

Ribbons will also be made available to those who wish to write their loved one’s name and tie the ribbon themselves, at both the memorial in Hauppauge as well as a temporary structure on the East End in the lobby of the Evans K. Griffing Building at 300 Center Drive in Riverhead. Any ribbons tied in Riverhead will be incorporated into the memorial. 

More information is available at the above website.

Photo from Kara Hahn

Before she gets to the long list of initiatives she wants to act on this year, Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) said combating the coronavirus is priority number one. 

After just four weeks into the new year, the deputy presiding officer for the county Legislature said that while she has a lot of goals to accomplish before the end of 2021, COVID-19 is the biggest hurdle to overcome. 

“The most important thing that anyone can be working on right now is COVID response and recovery for residents, for businesses, for communities as a whole,” she said. “A lot of things have been kind of put on the backburner because of the need to focus on COVID.”

Hahn said that while the pandemic has been ongoing for nearly a year now, she keeps reminding the county Department of Health Services that notes need to be taken and research must continue. 

“We have to be looking at this not only in the now,” she said. “What are we learning from this? How can the next time this happens — because there will be a next time, it’s just a matter of when — how can we have learned from this?”

Hahn said in order to move forward, the virus and the issues it brought on throughout 2020, like food insecurity and evictions, will have to be addressed even after the vaccine. 

“Getting through this from a health perspective, and then recovering from it for every person’s financial impact, mental health … people are just going to start to hurt even more,” she said. “We haven’t seen the full repercussions.”

Hahn made it clear that while the county recovers from the aftermath of COVID-19, she keeps busy with some of her other plans to help the environment, reduce traffic and keep people safe on Long Island. 

Infrastructure 

Hahn is hoping that the federal government with disperse funding to county infrastructure projects, she said, and two of the most prominent projects in her district include the electrification of the Long Island Rail Road from Port Jefferson Station, and an overpass on Route 347 going over Nicolls Road. 

The decades-long debate about electrifying the LIRR has been discussed by many and will continue to be debated, along with the possibility of EPA Superfund site, the Lawrence Aviation property, to become a rail yard for electric trains. 

“So that if that happens, it is the most critical thing that could happen for my district from an infrastructure perspective,” she said. “Right now, the electric train stops at Huntington and the time it takes to get into Manhattan to Penn Station more than two hours.”

With the electrification, she said, 20 to 25 minutes will be cut off the journey, with no switches in Huntington.

“They can go a little bit faster, they are much more efficient in energy and obviously less polluting,” she added. “Once you cut off almost a half an hour from that trip, the property values around those stations go up significantly, just being within that kind of vicinity to Manhattan.”

Hahn said that electric trains could help students at Stony Brook University, revitalizing the downtown, and allowing students to live in the village, close enough to hop on a train to class. 

“You can create different things with an electric line that would make for better movement of people between Huntington and Stony Brook, Huntington and Port Jeff, or Port Jeff and Stony Brook,” she said. 

And that could help eliminate traffic on Nicolls Road. The overpass there, which has also been heavily discussed for years, is another project she’d like to see through.

“The intersection of Nicolls Road and 347 is incredibly unsafe,” Hahn said. “There are accidents there all the time. I’ve witnessed more than one in my lifetime.”

The overpass would be federally funded and wouldn’t be completed for many years, she said, but it would be critical in alleviating traffic that comes from the university and the hospital. 

“Having that intersection function better is critical to a number of regional objectives,” she said. “So, having those funds would be terrific.”

Retail recycling

As chair of the Environment, Parks & Agriculture Committee in the county Legislature, as well as chair of the Economic Development, Planning & Housing Committee, Hahn hopes to see the launch of a recycling retail campaign called Reclaim Our Land.

“Every year the amount of land left to preserve and protect is smaller and smaller,” she said. 

So, in an effort to buy back land for greenery and parks, Hahn said the vision is to reclaim areas that have been built on and have abandoned. 

In terms of development, reclamation costs more than preservation, she said, so building on an empty acre is cheaper than buying a previously built building, demolishing and rebuilding something new. But now with constant bankruptcies and the fall of big-box stores, Hahn said the number of vacant buildings across Suffolk County, alone, is constantly increasing. 

“I’ve been noticing it in the last two years prepandemic, but COVID just really accelerated it,” she said. 

Bookstores, supermarkets and stores like Sears or JCPenney in the Smith Haven Mall have left huge spaces with nothing to fill.

“When JCPenney’s was going out of business, I thought, ‘This is great place to have some housing, have some maybe office space,’” Hahn said. “It’s large, it’s got parking, it’s got sewers, it’s got electric — it’s already there. There’s already a bus that goes to the university campus.”

With problems of students living in communities or causing issues with illegal housing, Hahn said there has been discussion on how to create a place that young people can live, that’s convenient and appealing.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we could encourage these stores that have been vacant for a long time to be recycled into something the community needs?” she said. By creating affordable micro apartments for single, young people, it could help smaller shops and reduce traffic. 

“That’s what was so important to me about the recycling retail,” she said. “Let’s try to incentivize developers to recycle what already exists, so that we don’t have to build on the green space.”

Kara Hahn takes the oath of office as deputy presiding officer administered by County Clerk Judy Pascale on Jan. 4. Photos from Suffolk County Legislators

The Suffolk County Legislature has officially started its new session, with new lawmakers sworn in this week for the body’s 52nd organizational meeting Jan. 4. 

Legislator Nicholas Caracappa (R-Selden) took his ceremonial oath of office as a new lawmaker, while Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue) and Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) were reelected to their leadership posts.

Calarco, legislator for the 7th District, was reelected to lead the body for a second year as presiding officer in a bipartisan vote, and Hahn, who represents the 5th District, was reelected deputy presiding officer, also in a bipartisan vote. 

Rob Calarco takes the oath of office as presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature. Photo from Suffolk County Legislature

“Important projects await us in the coming year, and we will confront the challenges of 2021 the same way we did in 2020 —in a bipartisan fashion with a shared commitment to cooperation and finding common ground,” Calarco said in a statement. 

In his remarks, he reflected on the challenges of 2020 and pointed to legislative progress on diversity and inclusion, open space and farmland preservation, and updates to the county’s wastewater code. 

In 2021, Calarco looks forward to building out sewers in Patchogue, the Mastic Peninsula, Deer Park, Smithtown and Kings Park, which will help protect Suffolk County’s water and provide an economic boost to downtowns. Additionally, he said the Legislature will soon be presented with a plan to reinvent policing in Suffolk, as required by an executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).

“The men and women of our law enforcement agencies work hard every day to do their jobs professionally and with a commitment to protecting all the residents of Suffolk County, yet we also know whole portions of our population fear the presence of police in their community, making officers’ jobs far more difficult,” he said. “We must put politics aside to ensure the plan addresses the root of those fears, and builds on the initiatives already underway to establish trust and confidence between our police and the communities they protect.”

Hahn intends to continue focusing on the global pandemic that has hit close to home.

“Looking ahead, 2021 will once again be a tough year, but with a vaccine there is now a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said in a statement. “We will focus our efforts on halting the spread of COVID-19, helping those in need, conquering our financial challenges and getting through this pandemic with as little heartache and pain as possible. There is hope on the horizon, and I know we will come back stronger than ever.”

After winning a special election in November, Caracappa will now represent the 4th District, filling the seat left by Republican Tom Muratore (R-Ronkonkoma) who passed suddenly in September. 

Nicholas Caracappa is sworn in as new legislator for Suffolk County’s 4th District. Photo from Suffolk County Legislature

A lifelong resident of Selden, Caracappa was a 34-year employee of the Suffolk County Water Authority. He was president of the Utility Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO, Local-393 for 14 years and previously served as a member of the union’s national executive board. 

He also served as a Middle Country school district board of education trustee for seven years and volunteered at Ground Zero. He said his goal is to keep his district’s quality of life at the forefront. 

“I am committed to the quality of life issues that make this community a great place for families to live, work and enjoy recreation,” he said in a statement. “My focus will be to eliminate wasteful spending, support our law enforcement, first responders and frontline health care workers, and protect our senior citizens, veterans and youth services.”

He added that he wants to continue enhancing Long Island’s environmental protection initiatives including critical water-quality measures and expanding the existing sewer studies in his district’s downtown regions. 

The Legislature’s Hauppauge auditorium is named after his late mother, Rose Caracappa.

Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) was sworn in last year. Representing the 6th District, she said she looks forward to continuing and expanding on the important work she’s been doing for the community. Specifically, for 2021, her top priority is working with the health department, along with federal, state and local governments to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

Anker said she wants to prioritize public safety and plans to continue to work with the county’s Department of Public Works and the state’s Department of Transportation to monitor and create safer roads. 

As the chair of the county’s Health Committee and chair of the Heroin and Opiate Epidemic Advisory Panel, she also plans to continue to collaborate with panel members to monitor the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the opioid epidemic on Long Island.

“Together we have worked to protect the integrity of this great community by addressing issues and improving our quality of life,” Anker said. “This year, I will continue to be proactive in dealing with this current pandemic and prioritize issues including stabilizing county finances, fighting crime and the drug epidemic, addressing traffic safety and working to preserve what’s left of our precious open space.”

Nicholas Caracappa is still set to be sworn into the Suffolk Legislature Jan. 4, 2021. Photo from Caracappa campaign Facebook

The man who is set to replace Tom Muratore on the Suffolk County Legislature, Nicholas Caracappa, was arrested Tuesday for alleged domestic violence-related charges. 

Suffolk County Police confirmed Caracappa was arrested at a little after 3 p.m. Dec. 8 for criminal contempt 1st degree and criminal obstruction of breathing related to a domestic incident. He was held overnight and released from First District Court in Central Islip on his own recognizance Wednesday. He is next due to be back in court Jan. 21, 2021. 

Caracappa was elected to the 4th district legislator seat this year with 60.7% of the vote compared to his Democratic opponent Joseph Turdik’s 39.3%. He is set to be sworn into office Jan. 4 next year.

Suffolk County Legislature Presiding Officer Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue) said in a statement that the arrest does not impact Caracappa’s ability to take up his seat.

“The arrest of and the allegations against Legislator-elect Nicholas Caracappa are very serious. I do not know the specifics of the case and cannot comment further,” he said. “He was not to be sworn in until January, but these events do not undo the election. He has a right to his day in court. At this time my prayers are with his family.”

Caracappa’s attorney, Thomas K. Campagna, of Hauppauge-based Campagna Johnson Mady, P.C, said Thursday that the allegations are “100% false” and that his client is looking forward to his day in court “so he can be fully exonerated.”

“The allegations by Mr. Caracappa’s wife are purely retaliatory against an order of protection that Mr. Caracappa obtained by court a week or so before,” the attorney said over the phone. “The order was against his wife protecting his children against the violent act of his wife … He is looking forward to continuing his passions as a dedicated father and dedicated public servant.”

Caracappa’s family has legacy within the legislature. His mother, Rose, held the seat until her death in 1995. The Rose Caracappa Senior Center in Mount Sinai was named after her. Nicholas’ brother, Joseph, held the seat until 2007. Muratore took up the seat in 2010, and passed away while still in office Sept 8. 

Once he is sworn in January, he will join two other legislators who are facing criminal charges. Legislator Rudy Sunderman (R-Shirley) was indicted in 2019 for alleged perjury, ethics violations and other offenses in connection with his work as the former district manager of the Centereach Fire District that continued after he became legislator in 2018. Legislator William Spencer (D-Centerport) was indicted in October over allegedly seeking sex from a sex worker using drugs such as oxycodone as collateral.

 

SC Legislators join Dr. David Fiorella, fourth from right, in congratulating the Mobile Stroke Unit’s efforts after it was launched last year. Photo from William Spencer’s office

In March of last year, Dr. David Fiorella went before the Suffolk County Health Committee chaired by Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) and announced the launch of Long Island’s first Mobile Stroke Unit program aimed at reducing death of stroke victims. Fast forward 18 months and Fiorella has reported to the same committee Oct. 1 that since deployment, the MSU has been on over 1000 total calls. Findings during the first-year show Stony Brook Medicine’s units have successfully facilitated the diagnosis and rapid delivery of time-critical therapies to stroke patients at the point of care resulting in substantially improved outcomes.

“We are also very grateful to all of the members for the Suffolk County Legislature for their help in promoting the program’s success and look forward to further improving upon these outcomes and expanding this program to service even more residents of Suffolk County in the future,” said Fiorella, a neurointerventionalist and Director of the Stony Brook Cerebrovascular Center and Co-Director of the Stony Brook Cerebrovascular and Comprehensive Stroke Center.  

Fiorella also mentioned their intent to locate two more stroke units to add to the current slate located at Long Island Expressway Exits 57 and 68. Each unit is equipped with telehealth capability to communicate with physicians at Stony Brook University Hospital. When a suspected stroke call comes in, the mobile stroke unit is dispatched and the team works quickly to determine the type of stroke the patient is experiencing using the features on board including a CT scanner and CT angiogram. Once that is determined, first responders in the unit can begin administering time-sensitive stroke treatments.

Data from the program further shows stroke patients transported by the MSU had much greater rates of discharges directly from the hospital to home after treatment, higher rates of independent clinical outcomes after stroke and much lower rates of death from stroke when compared to national averages, county average, and Stony Brook’s own data preceding the MSU program.   

“The work that Dr. Fiorella and his team are doing is extraordinary,” Spencer said. “The reduced time it takes their units to reach and care for stroke victims is yielding measurable improvements to the lives they touch.”

Spencer also noted the legislature’s goal in expanding the program. 

Strokes are a major public health concern nationwide. Every 40 seconds, someone in the United States suffers a stroke and every four minutes someone dies on one, according to the American heart Association.

Absentee ballots, early voting or voting in person — voters this year have three options to cast their ballots, though two months before election day, some of these methods have come under scrutiny.

The Suffolk County Board of Elections commissioners say they have their hands full trying to make sure everyone’s ballot counts this November, but several advocacy groups on Long Island say Suffolk, New York State and the BOE should be doing more to spread the word.

Suffolk Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) and Suffolk BOE Republican Commissioner Nick LaLota disagreed over the locations of Suffolk’s early voting places. File photo

Experts nationwide anticipate numbers like never before will be asking for absentee ballots or doing early voting for this November election. 

The two commissioners for the Suffolk BOE, Nick LaLota, a Republican, and Anita Katz, a Democrat, were present at the Suffolk County Legislature’s Ways & Means Committee meeting Sept. 3. While there were multiple problems with the June primary, including that close to 25 percent of polling workers didn’t show up due to the pandemic, the two argued that even with limited resources, they have been making headway in increasing voting access. The number of early polling sites has been increased from 10 to 12 compared to 2019, and Katz confirmed they expect 90 to 95 percent of their poll workers will be on the job come election day Nov. 3.

Suffolk County has also issued an order saying any union employees who wish to work in polling centers for the election are allowed to do so, and will be compensated for doing so.

But the commissioners have also come under fire for where, and where they haven’t, put these 12 early voting locations. For one, Shelter Island, which had an early voting location in 2019, is not currently scheduled for one this year. 

Early Voting Issues

LaLota said the decision was based on “how do we do the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people,” arguing the numbers of voters in a place like Islip who would have a 20-to-30-minute drive to get to one of these places outstrips the small population of Shelter Island.

Those arguing for a Shelter Island location said the population there who would need to do early voting would have to take a ferry just to get to the mainland. Town of Shelter Island Supervisor Gerard Siller (D) has already sent a letter to the BOE, pleading them to reinstall the early voting place on Shelter Island. Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R), who once represented Shelter Island as county legislator, also sent a letter to the BOE asking for its return as well.

“Having no on-island early voting location will unfairly disenfranchise many of the voters on Shelter Island,” Romaine said in his letter. “Voting will be particularly difficult for the elderly and the infirmed. There needs to be an early voting location on Shelter Island.”

Suffolk Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) and Suffolk BOE Republican Commissioner Nick LaLota disagreed over the locations of Suffolk’s early voting places. Photo from Suffolk GOP website

For some officials on Long Island proper, the early voting locations still left something to be desired. Suffolk Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) was especially miffed about the decision for where the two early voting locations were placed in Brookhaven — one at Town Hall in Farmingville and the other in Mastic. She contended there was a “political reason” to put one on the South Shore in the Mastic/Shirley area, later stating in a phone interview that she was referencing U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY1), who lives in Shirley and faces a challenge by Stony Brook Democrat Nancy Goroff. 

“I feel like all of northern Brookhaven got screwed by that decision,” Hahn said during the hearing.

LaLota argued choosing the Mastic destination, along with focusing on other marginalized communities, was based on the number of low-income residents in those areas. 

“Equity is the number one issue that gets put to the top, economic hardship people face — people are working two jobs, needing health care or day care, and in the grand scheme of things early voting addresses those economic hardships,” LaLota said. “I would submit to you those economic hardships are best seen in places we chose to put our early voting locations.”

Hahn shot back saying, “There are those communities all over Brookhaven.”

In a phone interview, LaLota vehemently pushed back against the characterization of the decision to put the voting location in Mastic, instead arguing Democrats are focusing on affluent areas like North Shore Brookhaven and Shelter Island. 

“I think it’s sadly ironic that a Republican commissioner is the one advocating that we bring voting to people from lesser-off communities,” he said. “I think those legislators need to be a little more introspective and be a little more receptive to the economic needs of all Suffolk County voters.”

Numerous progressive groups from all around Suffolk County signed on to a petition sent to the Suffolk BOE and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D). The petition argues the location of some early polling places are “puzzling at best,” considering New York State law asks BOEs to consider population density, travel time, proximity of an early voting site to other early voting sites and whether the early voting site is near public transportation routes.

Shoshana Hershkowitz, the founder of left-leaning advocacy group Suffolk Progressives, said last year she and fellow advocacy groups lobbied Suffolk to expand its early voting options. She said at the outset last year, Suffolk’s approach was only the bare minimum with a single early voting site per town. They asked for closer to 21 early polling locations with longer hours at each. Now that Suffolk went up to 12, she said she was happy to see more available, but at the same time was disappointed at the one removed from Shelter Island.

“It’s what our budget priorities should be,” Hershkowitz said. “We should be looking to add another polling location or two — it’s a question of the political and financial will.”

In a phone interview several days after the legislative hearing, Hahn argued, considering the general geographic size of a town like Brookhaven, that it would need five early polling locations to be truly equitable, but that it could do with three. If the BOE truly needed more money for more early voting locations, Hahn argued they should have made that explicit to the Legislature before now, especially seeing the cost of one of these locations is about $50,000.

LaLota said the BOE approached Suffolk for more funding for more early voting locations last year and was rebuffed. According to budget documents, the board of elections requested $21,384,480 for 2020 but instead received $20,304,177.

Though the Republican BOE commissioner said in terms of any new early voting locations, “That ship has sailed.”

“It’s a matter of staffing,” he said. “I don’t have the employees to open up new sites. Even if somebody funded us with $100,000 tomorrow, I don’t have the employees to staff the polling place.” 

Getting the Word Out on Early Voting

With only a little over 17,000 people in 2019 taking advantage of early voting, more people are asking that officials work to get the word out.

The BOE has plans for a countywide mailing that will go to every household explaining the three ways that people will be able to vote: absentee, early or in person. That mailing should be out around mid-September, the Republican commissioner said.

Hahn was also critical over the positioning of the absentee ballot on the BOE’s website, saying one has to navigate through multiple links before coming upon the New York State’s absentee ballot form. She argued the BOE should look to put a larger, bolder text button on the BOE’s landing page that takes people directly to the absentee ballot form. 

Click on this image to see all the current early voting locations and times.

Katz, the Democratic BOE commissioner, argued they are somewhat constricted by having a page that works off Suffolk County’s template, and they’re not able to bring a set of buttons directly to the top of the page. In terms of a social media campaign, the commissioners argue they don’t have the resources to pull that off. There is currently no Facebook or Twitter page operated by the BOE itself.

The progressive groups’ petition also argues for a stepped-up communications campaign from both the BOE and other county officials. They point to Westchester County, which pledged to use the county’s communications team to publish information for people of when or how to vote.

Sue Hornik, a representative of Advocacy Group South Country Unites, one of the proponents of the petition, said she was disappointed to hear the BOE did not have any plans for instant communication with residents online. She said the whole of Suffolk government should make a concerted communications effort countywide to emphasize the availability of early voting.

“If they don’t get out the word on early voting and make people understand they have an option — and so everybody votes either absentee or on election day that would be unfortunate.”

Fellow activist Hershkowitz also advised the importance of letting people know their options.

“My hope is that people would really take advantage of it,” the Suffolk Progressives founder said. “There’s just a lot of mistrust in government, and the more transparent and accessible we can make it seem to the public, then we can perhaps regain that trust.”

Tom Muratore passed away Sept. 8. File photo

Suffolk County Legislator Tom Muratore (R-Ronkonkoma), 75, died Tuesday, Sept. 8, leaving behind a career of public service both in police and in local government.

His passing was announced by Suffolk officials Tuesday afternoon.

“For the last 10 years, he served his constituents with passion and unwavering dedication,” said Presiding Officer Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue) in a statement. “Around the horseshoe, he was a quiet warrior. He chose his moments carefully, and when he spoke, people listened. During the COVID crisis, Tom was there for his constituents in every way – even if that meant putting himself at risk – because that is the kind of public servant he was.”

Muratore was born Aug. 19, 1945 and graduated from Central Islip High School in 1963, according to his bio on the Legislature’s website. He has resided in Ronkonkoma with his wife Linda since 1970.

The 10-year legislator served the 4th District, which runs from the Brookhaven portions of Ronkonkoma through Centereach and Selden and as far north as portions of Port Jefferson Station. Before his start, Muratore was a Suffolk County police officer for close to 35 years. He would also become an instructor at the police academy and vice president for the county Police Benevolent Association, a position that he held for 18 years.

“In a changing world with new dangers threatening our families, Tom Muratore was a continuous, experienced protector of those he served,” Suffolk County Republican Committee Chairman Jesse Garcia said in a statement. “He was a one-of-a-kind gentleman who made the world a better place for all of us and cannot be replaced.”

The Ronkonkoma resident was elected to the 4th District in November 2009. He served as vice chair for the Public Works, Transportation & Energy Committee, and also sat on the Environment, Parks & Agriculture as well as the Veterans & Consumer Affairs committees.

Brookhaven town Councilman Kevin LaValle (R-Selden) got his start in public office under Muratore, becoming his chief of staff before deciding to run for office himself. 

LaValle said the longtime legislator “had a heart of gold,” who would always put himself out to help both his friends and staff, though the line was often blurred between the two.

“He loved representing his district, he loved his residents — he absolutely was a dynamic man and great leader and more importantly a great mentor and friend,” LaValle said.

In 2014, he sponsored a bill to establish an Energy Utility Oversight Task Force. Among his other accomplishments, he was instrumental in helping get a bill passed to secure a 23-acre parcel on Boyle Road in Selden later developed into a Town of Brookhaven ballfield, park and walking trail called the Selden Park Complex. He also cosponsored bills to penalize illegal dumping and helped pass laws to monitor drones in county parks and to provide parking for veterans at county facilities.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) ordered flags at county facilities lowered to half-mast in his honor.

“Tom was the utmost professional, someone who was never afraid to reach across the aisle, especially when it came to working together to protect families, our veterans and our quality of life,” Bellone said in a statement.

In the community, he was known as a supporter of the Bethel Hobbs Community Farm in Centereach. The legislator was also known for his desire to secure funds for sewering in the Selden and Centereach communities. In his last election in 2019, Muratore secured his seat by almost 19 percentage points higher than his nearest opponent.

Hobbs Farm vice president Ann Pellegrino said that Muratore was more than supportive to the community farm that grows fresh produce for a network of food pantries and food programs.

“Without him being in our corner, I don’t know if it would have gone as far as we did, in fact I know we would have never gone as far as we did,” Pellegrino said, trying to talk through holding back tears. “I don’t know if anybody can fill his shoes, his passing is a great loss to our community … the flag has never flown half-mast at the farm, but today it flew half-mast.”

This post was updated Sept. 9 to include quotes from Ann Pellegrino and Kevin LaValle.

The southern pine beetle has been spotted in the Rocky Point Pine Barrens Preserve. Photo by Giselle Barkley

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) and the county Legislature agreed to withdraw a resolution that would have diverted money from the land preservation program over a three-year period to help to close the county’s budget gap. 

SBU’s Christopher Gobler, with Dick Amper, discusses alarming trends for LI’s water bodies at a Sept. 25, 2018 press conference. Photo by Kyle Barr

The ballot measure called for increasing the percentage of sales tax that is allocated to the Suffolk County Taxpayers Trust Fund and decreasing the percentage of sales tax that is allocated for the Suffolk County Environmental Programs Trust Fund. Bellone withdrew the bill an hour or so before the Legislature was set to vote on it in a July 28 special meeting.

Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, said that the decision was a good result for the people of Suffolk County. 

“It took him [Bellone] a long time to reach a simple conclusion,” he said. “It would have killed a program that has been around for over 30 years. It is a commitment to water quality and land preservation.”

In the past month, the county executive has criticized Amper during calls with press for what he said was a misrepresentation of what the bill would do, and that Suffolk County would need to cover budget gaps due to the pandemic or suffer dire consequences. 

The decision comes after the Legislature last week voted 14-3 to approve another ballot measure that would transfer excess funds from the county’s sewer stabilization reserve fund to the general fund in an effort to budget deficits from the coronavirus pandemic. That referendum will come in front of voters Nov. 3.

Amper said he felt the Bellone administration was so concerned with the possibility both propositions could be lost when residents voted on them in November that the administration chose to stick with one instead of being “left with nothing.” 

Bellone confirmed this assessment in a statement. 

“We have come to an agreement to withdraw this resolution in order to focus our efforts on ensuring the passage of the ballot referendum regarding the Assessment Stabilization Reserve Fund,” he said. “I am also pleased that several key players within the environmental advocacy community have indicated that they will not jeopardize the approval of this pending ballot measure and instead leave it in the hands of the voters.”

Environmental groups were concerned that taking away funds from the drinking water protection program would cause more harm than good. The program was established through a public referendum back in 1987.

Under the program, revenues from a 0.25% sales tax are divided between sewers land preservation, property tax stabilization and water quality funds. 

“This is one of the most important environmental programs in Suffolk County,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “[Water quality] is not a partisan issue, everyone needs clean water and they benefit from this program.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. File photo by Alex Petroski

Still, the loss of this potential referendum leaves Suffolk County in potentially dire straits. A report of both Nassau and Suffolk finances released in early July said Long Island lost 270,000 jobs during the peak of the pandemic. Total job losses could eclipse 375,000 compared to pre-COVID levels. County leaders have constantly petitioned people to reach out to federal representatives to beg for budgetary relief.

The subsequent withdrawal and earlier ballot approval on the sewer fund is the latest instance of the county attempting to divert money from environmental protection funds. 

Back in 2011, the county borrowed $29.4 million from the sewer fund in order to balance the budget under former County Executive Steve Levy. The Pine Barrens Society sued the county, and won. The move was deemed illegal by the state appeals court in 2012 because the county failed to get voter approval. 

The county appealed that decision and lost again. The Appellate Division in Brooklyn ordered the county repay the funds last year.

Amper said the county is using the environmental programs as its piggy bank and sees voters as a way to “legally” take funds away. 

“The county doesn’t manage its fiscal affairs very well, they’re billions of dollars in debt,” he said. “The public put that money aside for a reason.”

Suffolk Legislator Susan Berland was at the head of changing ban the box legislation. File photo

The Suffolk County Legislature voted overwhelmingly March 17 to pass a piece of legislation that “bans the box” and restricts employers from asking about criminal histories in job applications.

The new law aims to allow those with criminal convictions to have more employment opportunities without the stigma of past criminal history. In addition, supporters of the bill have said that it would help those individuals rehabilitate and reacclimate into society. 

“There were a lot of hoops that were unnecessary, though we all agreed that we wanted to take the question off the application.”

— Susan Berland

County legislators have been trying to pass ban-the-box legislation since last year, but the latest breakthrough came late last month when lawmakers announced they had reached a bipartisan agreement on a new amended piece of legislation. Legislator Susan Berland (D-Dix Hills) sponsored the bill, while Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) and Samuel Gonzalez (D-Brentwood) were co-sponsors. 

“This law allows applicants with criminal records to have the opportunity to get their foot in the door, have that face-to-face with an employer and get that interview,” Berland said. 

In addition, the law gives the applicant the chance to address their criminal history with a prospective employer earlier if they choose to and protects the employer’s right to investigate the backgrounds of its applicants after an initial interview.

Berland said the new amended legislation protects both sides. She believed previous versions of the bill placed too much onus on employers, requiring them to wait an extended period of time until they could inquire about an applicant’s arrest or conviction record, and disclose to applicants the reason why they were not hired. 

“There were a lot of hoops that were unnecessary, though we all agreed that we wanted to take the question off the application,” the legislator said. 

Advocates have said Suffolk County has one of the largest parole populations in the state and that one in three adults have a criminal record in the U.S. According to PolitiFact, a fact-checking website, the FBI considers anyone who has been arrested on a felony to have a criminal record, even without a conviction. Effectively, one in three adults in the U.S. have a criminal record, but far less have actually been convicted. 

Supporters of the bill have said the ban would afford people a second chance, instead of having their applications discarded on the basis of one answer. Also, it would reduce the stigma and bias associated with individuals with a criminal background. Suffolk County will join more than 150 municipalities and 35 states in the U.S. which have implemented ban-the-box laws. 

“You can’t help but be affected by their stories,” Berland said. “These people have made mistakes, but they want to turn their lives around.”

Co-sponsor McCaffrey said in a statement that individuals deserve an opportunity to put their best foot forward in a job interview without being automatically disqualified. He said the legislation “strikes a fair balance.”

Gonzalez, the other co-sponsor, said he believes access to gainful employment will improve the quality of life for people with criminal records and the communities in which they live, ultimately reducing recidivism and increasing public safety. 

“We have been working on this legislation for quite some time — it’s a good day,” Berland said. “These are people that want to better themselves as well as families. This will get them in the door based on their application.”

Advocates say businesses asking applicants if they’re convicted felons often leaves them jobless. Stock photo

A piece of legislation that would restrict employers from asking about criminal histories in job applications could be voted on by Suffolk lawmakers in the near future.

At a county Legislature meeting earlier this month, legislators said that they had reached a bipartisan agreement on “Ban the Box” legislation and plan to present the bill at a later date. 

County Legislator Samuel Gonzalez (D-Brentwood) along with Legislators Susan Berland (D-Dix Hills) and Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) plan on making amendments on the bill. 

“People makes mistakes in their lives, I’m sure each of you have made mistakes.”

— Melissa Bennett

More than 20 people came out in support of the bill at a Feb. 11 meeting. Those who spoke agreed that it would allow former convicts the ability to become better contributing members of a community while helping them rehabilitate and reacclimate into society. 

“I would like applaud the Legislature for making progress in supporting fair hiring practices in Suffolk County — it’s about time,” said Serena Liguori, executive director of New Hour, a Long Island nonprofit organization advocacy group that supports women, mothers and children impacted by incarceration. “We have worked with more than a thousand women across the county who have convictions. Most of them need employment when they come home.” 

The executive director of the nonprofit said she hopes a potential passage of the legislation could lead to making strides around other issues. 

Besides employment, “many of the women we help talk about housing and the lack of it, [and] transportation,” Liguori said. 

Melissa Bennett, Huntington resident, said she believed individuals deserved a second chance. 

“People makes mistakes in their lives, I’m sure each of you have made mistakes,” she said. “We’re human, it happens. Without banning the box, you are essentially [putting people] in a box.”

Elizabeth Justesen, community outreach director of the Legal Aid Society of Suffolk County, also stressed the need to eliminate the application question. 

“Last year this bill lost by one vote,” she said. “For those who came out here every month [to the Legislature] it was a blow. We sat in disbelief in the Legislature’s inability to vote on human dignity.”

The community outreach director pointed out that one in three people have a criminal record in the U.S. Other advocates of such legislation, such as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) have also made the claim in the past, though according to PolitiFact, a fact-checking website, the FBI considers anyone who has been arrested on a felony to have a criminal record, even without a conviction. Effectively, one in three adults in the U.S. have a criminal record, but less have actually been convicted. 

Though Justesen said with Suffolk County’s numbers of people on parole, people with convictions have it harder than it needs to be.

“In Suffolk County … with the largest parole population in the state, how can we expect them to get up on their feet and reintegrate to our communities if they cannot work,” Justesen said. “The time has come to do what is right and give people the chance to interview.” 

Supporters have contended the ban would give applicants a chance to explain their crimes, in turn increasing their chance of getting hired, reducing crime and the number of repeat offenders being sent back to jail. More than 150 municipalities and 33 states in the U.S. have implemented “Ban the Box” laws. 

Gonzalez spoke on the future of the legislation. 

“We have been fighting the fight on this bill for a very long time, and we have been continuing to come together to iron out our differences,” he said. “We all felt that we needed to get this thing put in. … I think we are headed in the right direction on this issue.” 

Local business owners are concerned about what the legislation could mean for them. The Suffolk County Alliance of Chambers encouraged members to voice their opinions on the issue. 

“It is imperative that you know what your elected officials are voting on and have a chance to share your concerns before additional regulations are forced on you which ultimately might make it harder to operate a business here in Suffolk County and New York state,” the organization said in an email. 

Last year, county legislators voted 9-8 against the measure. Lawmakers were concerned about putting too much onus on the employers. The previous version of the bill required employers to wait until after an initial interview to inquire about an applicant’s arrest or conviction record, and disclose to applicants the reason why they were not hired. 

At the time, Berland did not support some of the requirements. The legislator said she didn’t think people who have a criminal record should get more benefits than others, noting that people with no criminal records do not learn why they were passed over for a job.