On Nov. 8, Suffolk County voters will decide whether Steve Bellone, the Democratic town supervisor in Babylon, or Republican county treasurer Angie Carpenter will take the reins of a county facing an estimated $135-million deficit and more than 700 layoffs.
Last week, the two candidates for county executive sat down separately to discuss how they'd handle the major issues facing Suffolk, including the county budget, the economy, crime and a rapidly changing and more diverse Long Island:
"I don't think we can solve our [budget] problems by raising taxes," he said. "The only way to get out of this is to grow the economy in a significant way in Suffolk County."
Nonetheless, Republicans have attacked Bellone throughout the campaign for raising taxes in Babylon, citing a study by the conservative Empire Center for New York State Policy that said residents in the Babylon school district had the highest "effective tax rate" in Suffolk last year. Bellone responded that the bulk of the typical tax bill is due to school taxes, over which the town supervisor has no control.
Bellone acknowledged having raised taxes for the town garbage and highway funds, but says the money went to improving Babylon's roads and expanding the town ashfill.
"At this juncture, I don't think raising taxes is a consideration. People are strangling in taxes right now," she said.
While she would have no power over the largest portion of the typical tax bill -- school district taxes -- Carpenter said she would use her influence as county executive to help drive them down. For instance, she has suggested consolidating some small school districts into townwide entities.
"Instead of having a school superintendent in each and every hamlet . . . you'd have one superintendent instead of 15."
Carpenter said any savings should go into the classroom or to reduce school taxes, especially for seniors over 70 years old.
Meanwhile, at a televised debate on Wednesday, Carpenter did leave open the option of raising the sales tax to help Suffolk close its budget shortfall -- though she does not consider it "at the top of my list" of options.
"The single biggest impediment to growth is government. Government is failing to do the things needed to grow the economy," he said.
Bellone said he would take advantage of Brookhaven National Laboratory and other local research institutions to lure technology companies to Suffolk. He'd create "innovation zones" with tax incentives for the new businesses, and work with community colleges to train and retrain workers for jobs at the firms.
Bellone also said he would work to expand mass transit, arguing that existing roads could not handle the increased traffic that the employment bump would generate. For instance, Bellone favors creation of a bus-only lane on Route 110, using the existing right of way on the shoulder so no lanes are eliminated. "Anyone who drives the LIE knows we cannot add more cars to the roadway," he said.
She stresses the need to revamp Suffolk's permitting process and doing more to retain businesses.
"I'd like to look at aligning the economic development and planning departments," she said. "A lot of what they do really needs to dovetail." In the health department, which issues permits for sanitation, food safety and other business compliance issues, she said simple matters tie up permits for weeks, delaying the opening of businesses and hiring of employees.
Carpenter said she'd create an ombudsman's position in the county executive's office "who'd function as a customer service representative, if you will, to help people navigate the process and make sure they are not reaching obstacles . . . The name of the economic development is retention" of existing businesses, she said.
RELATIONS WITH IMMIGRANTS
Bellone tries to draw a sharp distinction between himself and County Executive Steve Levy, noting remarks by Levy after the 2008 killing of Marcelo Lucero in Patchogue that some Latino leaders considered insensitive.
"What I would never do is use overheated rhetoric designed not to solve problems but to raise poll numbers," Bellone said. "I'll be focusing on pulling people together."
She also called her "style completely different," than Levy's. Carpenter recalled that she participated in an event in Patchogue after Lucero's murder, at which community members expressed the sentiment that "the community is better than this incident portrays us to be . . . It was a very healing, meaningful experience for the community to come together.
"The country is changing; it's not just our community," she said. "The more we realize that people are entitled to be treated with dignity, we'll be better off."
Bellone said he would put more focus on community policing. "We have to involve communities as a full partner because a lot of people in communities where there are gangs are not willing to talk because there's not enough trust between the communities and law enforcement. I will build that relationship."
Bellone also said he would focus police resources based on where crime is occurring most. "I believe in data-driven decision-making . . ." he said. "You need officers on the ground building the networks and the intelligence necessary to strike at the heart of criminal organizations."
"It bothers me that people are paying taxes and yet their services are being compromised . . . They have a right to expect their communities to be safe, and that when they send their kids to school, they're going to be safe."
Carpenter said she would shift more officers into community policing. "Having cops in neighborhoods, having more foot patrols, having cops on bikes, having people see a police presence, that's an enormous deterrent," she said.
Having served as a town supervisor, Bellone said, "I'm the only candidate in this race who has experience negotiating contracts with public sector unions." He said he negotiated an agreement with Babylon's public unions six years ago requiring current employees to pay 15 percent of their health premiums, and to make hired employees responsible for 25 percent of theirs.
Bellone was noncommittal about whether he'd seek to get county employees to pay a share of their insurance. "I think that is the trend we are seeing [but] I think that needs to be negotiated at the bargaining table," he said.
She said she's aware "people are saying these people working for the county aren't paying a share of their health insurance."
But Carpenter noted that county employees four years ago agreed to $15 million in health care concessions, including higher copays and agreeing to use generic drugs.
"The cost of someone going to the doctor a couple of times a month paying $20, $30, $40 in copays -- that in essence is a contribution to their health care," Carpenter said.
She declined to say whether she'd push employees to pay more of their health care costs. "We have a lot of issues, a lot of problems to solve, and the county executive's office, working with the legislature, working with the representatives of the unions, we will all come up with some strategies. That is not something that will be unilaterally decided by the county executive."