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Suffolk's Bellone backs higher minimum wages but stops short on local rates

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone supports raising the minimum wage at the federal and state level, but balked at a labor proposal that would give local governments autonomy to raise wages during a community forum in Brentwood on Wednesday night organized by a coalition of progressive, labor and minority groups.

Bellone told about 100 people in the audience at the Brentwood Public Library that he would continue to try to make the county more inclusive of immigrants, though some attendees later expressed frustration that he wasn't more specific.

When he first came into office two years ago, he said, "I was frankly very disturbed our county had gained a national reputation for intolerance."

He cited efforts to open up county services to immigrants, including providing non-English language speakers access to services through a telephone interpretation line and increasing bus services. He said he wants the next class of police recruits to be the "most diverse in county history, by far."

But some attendees of the event said he didn't answer some questions, on deportation policing policies, changing the county law to strengthen against housing discrimination and the poor condition of parks in poorer communities.

Nelsena Day of Brentwood, who emceed the forum, said after the event: "We're going to have to keep pressing him to give more direct answers. It's nice that he sits here with us, but . . . "

The questions were selected in advance by the community groups, but not shared with Bellone, said Daniel Altschuler, coordinator of Make the Road New York.

Miriam Elaraby of Central Islip said, "We should've taken random questions from attendees."

Bellone was asked if he'd support fast-food workers in Suffolk organizing to make $15 an hour with a contract, similar to a proposal being pushed for in New York City.

Bellone said he worked for two years during college at Burger King. "I believe the minimum wages are way too low and need to increase," he said.

He said he supports efforts to raise the minimum wage law nationally, but his next preference would be at the state level. He said after the meeting that raising the minimum wage law in Suffolk County specifically would be "problematic" but it would be something he'd have to look at.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has opposed the effort, which has been pushed by labor groups.

The event Wednesday night was hosted by the Long Island Civic Engagement Table, Make the Road New York, NY Communities for Change, and the Islip Branch of the NAACP.

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