Outcry over new Suffolk traffic bureau
The ire of Suffolk lawmakers began to bubble when Bellone administration aides circulated a 3-foot-by-4-foot schematic of the H. Lee Dennison building's ground floor with lines drawn in with a marker pen.
After nearly an hour of largely unanswered questions over the county's new traffic violations bureau, slated to open by April 1, the ire came to a boil when aides would not even commit to giving recently laid-off workers a preference for new jobs.
The outcome was that the legislature last week blocked the emergency resolution that public works officials say was badly needed to have enough time to take over from the state.
Even the usually affable Deputy Presiding Officer Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon) could barely speak after the vote.
"I was surprised it was even a problem," a calmer Horsley said several days later. "People on both sides of the aisles are concerned about those people and if we can put some of them back to work, that's what we want to do."
Now legislative officials say Bellone aides will get a do-over Oct. 24 before two separate legislative committees to provide more definitive plans for the bureau and better numbers on how much it will cost and how much it will bring in.
In a county legislature that has lived through scandals from car leasing to a mammoth, over-budget sewer project, the lack of detail raises lawmakers' concern. "You're asking us to write a check today with no plan and no costs . . . what you have is a plan drawn with a Sharpie," said Legis. Lou D'Amaro (D-North Babylon), normally a Bellone ally who has concerns for public safety in a facility that is likely to draw 400 residents a day.
What confounded lawmakers was the dizzying number of changes made in renovation plans within a matter of days. At first, Bellone aides asked for $3.6 million to move civil service to the Dennison building and the new traffic bureau into a building now used by civil service in the north Hauppauge complex. After a Newsday story on the cost increases, the plan was cut $1 million and the new traffic bureau was moved to Dennison.
Other lawmakers questioned Bellone aides' estimates on how the new bureau, expected to bring in $8 million to $10 million, would only break even in the first year because of startup costs. When Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) sought a more detailed breakdown, little detail was forthcoming. "I'm very uneasy with your predictions. You've been all over the place," Cilmi said.
Legislative budget analysts said their initial analysis indicates that Bellone's budget projects $10.3 million in expenses and only $7.5 million in revenue, or a $2.8 million shortfall, for 2013. However, they said their review was not complete and later suggested Bellone may also be counting on $5.7 million from a new $30 administrative fee in the red light camera program to balance the books.
Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider defended their plan as one that "makes sense" and the changes only meant "we found a way to do it less expensively."
He added the administration would not make any hiring commitments because they have to comply with civil service rules and are looking at privatization. "The goal is . . . to generate revenue, and since we are building the bureau from the ground up, we want to make sure we are doing it as efficiently as possible, he said.
Schneider said they have already solicited two proposals from private firms, but rejected both on Oct. 7 because one did not include a price tag and the other company was formed the day the bid was filed. "We didn't think they have the experience required," he said. Schneider said they will decide within two weeks whether to seek new proposals.
Meanwhile, State Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), sponsor of the traffic bill in Albany, said Bellone aides had earlier indicated that "first consideration" would be given to state traffic court workers who might lose their jobs in the shift.
Both Republicans and Democrats say there was widespread support for using the bureau to ease the county's cash crunch, but they want the job done right. "No one wants to hear people screaming bloody murder because it took them two days to pay a traffic ticket," said Legis. John Kennedy (R-Nesconset), the minority leader.