Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Only days before Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone unveiled his landmark — but so far unrealized — idea for a $75 million water surcharge to pay for high-tech cesspools, he may have made the worst-timed donation of his political career.
Less than a week before the April 18 special election critical to Senate Republicans’ fragile majority, Bellone gave $5,000 to Democratic Assemb. Todd Kaminsky of Long Beach, who later won the seat once held by former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Skelos was convicted last year on federal corruption charges.
When Bellone late last month formally launched his bid for a November referendum on the water surcharge, which needs Albany approval, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-Northport) responded within hours through a spokesman that he was “unequivocally opposed,” calling Bellone’s proposal “DOA” — dead on arrival.
The donation, backers privately say, was just one of Bellone’s missteps rolling out his ambitious plan to reduce nitrogen levels in local waters, and the issue is unlikely to be taken up before the Albany sessions ends next month. They say that Bellone made his proposal too late, did too little groundwork to build support and underestimated the cost on homeowners, and that his plan lacked guarantees to assure funds wouldn’t be raided to shore up the county’s debt-ridden budget. State lawmakers also are wary of what amounts to a tax increase in an election year.
Rob Caroppoli, Flanagan’s spokesman, said the majority leader “feels that voters are already taxed enough. He doesn’t believe in taxing water.” He also dismissed talk of any retaliation: “The senator has a pretty good reputation for deciding all the issues on the merits.”
However, Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, said Bellone’s involvement in a Nassau race did not make sense, given the county’s ongoing needs in Albany. “It’s certainly not something I would have recommended,” said Schaffer, whose ties to Bellone are now frayed and who said he was unaware of the donation beforehand. “That district isn’t even in the county and Bellone in the past just worried about what happens in Suffolk.”
Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said, “John Flanagan has a record of doing what’s right for Suffolk County. No one questions his commitment ... or the leadership he provides in the State Senate.” Bellone’s support for Kaminsky, he said, was based on his years as a former federal prosecutor. “It would never dawn on me that professionals in the State Senate would ever seek retribution,” Schneider said.
However, he said there’s been no contact with Flanagan’s office since the surcharge plan surfaced.
What makes Bellone’s donation so curious is that the Republican Senate has backed millions of dollars in new revenue for Suffolk by authorizing higher auto registration fees, the county traffic court and red-light cameras, an Off-Track Betting slot casino and refinancing of the H. Lee Dennison building. Still pending in the final days of the Albany session is Suffolk’s bid for $31 million in extra bus aid, by using part of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority tax.
State Sen. Philip Boyle (R-Bay Shore) would not comment on Bellone’s donation, but said, “New York City taking over the State Senate, especially with [Mayor Bill] de Blasio, would be the worst thing to ever happen to Long Island for school aid and our taxpayers.” He would not say how it might affect Suffolk’s water.