Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone used his State of the County message to tout his proposed $1 per 1,000 gallon surcharge on water “as a reasoned, measured approach” to fight nitrogen pollution and also said he would fight against “those who would abuse their power.”
In his fifth State of the County speech and first since winning re-election last year, Bellone urged state lawmakers to put the water fee question to voters in November.
“This question should rest with the people, not the politicians,” he said. “The people should have the right to vote.”
The proposal has been called “DOA” — dead on arrival — by a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-Northport) and attacked by Republican county lawmakers as “Bellone’s water tax.”
He also called for state lawmakers to pass a law to fund local bus operations now facing service cuts, saying Long Island pays too much to New York City in MTA taxes.
Bellone ended his 70-minute speech by veering off his prepared remarks provided to the media in advance to take a swipe at corruption in Suffolk County government.
“The real rift in government is between those who would abuse their power, both governmentally and politically, to further their own agenda,” he said. “I want to be clear, anyone in the government, in the system, who abuses power I will fight. I will fight for reform. I will fight for transparency. And for justice. And I will work with anyone.”
The Republican response came from Minority Leader Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst). He said while Bellone touted staying under the state property tax cap, Bellone has instituted an alarm fee, increased vehicle registration fees and expanded red-light cameras. He also said Bellone had stood by Chief of Department James Burke, who pleaded guilty to federal charges earlier this year.
Bellone, after the speech, declined to identify the specific target of his reference to corruption but said, “Obviously, some of the issues have been reported in the paper.”
He has complained in news articles about the treatment from Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota’s office.
Spota, who was sitting in the front row for the speech, afterward said, “I don’t think that was directed at my office.” Spota said though his top corruption prosecutor, Christopher McPartland, was under federal investigation, he still had confidence in him.
Suffolk Democratic Chairman Rich Schaffer, also sitting in the front row for the speech, said he didn’t know who Bellone was talking about. “If you’re putting people on notice, I would think you’d be brave enough to name them or the groups specifically,” Schaffer said.
Outside the legislature, about 50 sheriff’s deputies protested not having a contract for six years and asked legislators not to attend. Only 10 of 18 legislators sat behind Bellone during his address, though it was unclear how many did not come because of the protest or because of other reasons.
Bellone, in his speech, said the police department was looking to restore confidence in the department, by placing a new police commissioner and putting internal affairs staffing in place.
Bellone spent 15 minutes of his speech talking about his initiative to add the water surcharge to fight nitrogen.
While he has said the typical annual charge would be $73 a year, water authority officials say the average residential customer uses about 126,000 gallons a year which would mean an annual surcharge of $126.
He also continued to tout the progress the county has made with its fiscal problems including the pending $15 million sale of the former Foley nursing home to Brookhaven Memorial Hospital, the transfer of all county health center to Hudson River HealthCare, saving $75 million and avoiding additional jail construction, which will save $300 million over the next 20 years.
The deputy sheriff’s union protest outside the Hauppauge legislative building came even though Bellone aides earlier in the day said the county will immediately move to return $4 million in back pay that was deferred and declare an impasse in 6-year-old contract talks and go to binding arbitration.
In the speech, Bellone cited a new pilot program dealing with fourth- and fifth-graders in Wyandanch and South Country school districts aiming to divert youngsters who are showing signs of gang involvement like using gang clothing or terminology.
The county executive said a new anti-drug hotline, 631-852-6272, in the first month has received 230 tips, spurring a 100 percent increase in narcotics search warrants so far this year, and 130 narcotics arrests, including seizure of assault weapons and kilo-sized drug busts. He also said a new Firearms Supression Team — FAST — aimed at cutting gun violence in high-crime areas has resulted in 67 arrests, including 24 who are gang members.
Bellone said that in many cases, progress has not come without prolonged debate before reaching consensus. “We have opportunity before us right now, to make historic progress on issues where we have been at a standstill for decades on water quality and our economy,” Bellone said. ”That’s why my definition of success is not what happens in the next election. My definition is whether or not the actions I have taken . . . will bequeath a better community to my children and yours.”