Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Like a shepherd in search of a lost sheep, Suffolk Legis. Louis D'Amaro lately has been looking for "lost" laws.
The North Babylon Democrat has been trying to track down measures he sponsored and the legislature approved over the past few years that seem to have vanished into the bureaucratic bowels of county government.
"If I pass a bill," D'Amaro said, "ultimately, it's my responsibility to see it's enforced."
The lawmaker started last month by asking Suffolk Parks Commissioner Greg Dawson whether the county was carrying out his 2009 law requiring the parks department to market parks for potential corporate sponsorships and mandating an annual report to lawmakers on the progress of the effort and the money it was bringing in.
He also brought county attorneys in to the Ways and Means Committee to disclose what's happened to a 5-year-old lawsuit, mandated by the legislature, to force the Poospatuck Indian reservation in Shirley to pay millions of dollars in unpaid sales taxes.
When D'Amaro first raised the issue, Dawson, who has been parks commissioner for only the past year, admitted he was unaware of the law but promised to get back to lawmakers. In a report last week, Dawson presented a six-page memo, citing 53 separate park locations where the county might capitalize, including its golf courses, beaches, hiking trails, campgrounds and dog parks.
Among the sites he's suggested for ads were golf tee boxes, and perhaps even amending golf pro contracts to put ads on golf carts. With more than 300,000 campers annually using county parks, he also suggested seeking ads from recreational vehicle manufacturers. At dog parks, he envisioned ads on kiosks or fences for everyone from veterinarians to dog food companies. At county beaches, which draw a half-million visitors annually, he suggested targeting ads for tanning oils, bathing suits and surf shops.
While the Levy administration originally sent out a request for proposals in 2009, it yielded no results other than several news releases. In retrospect, Dawson said, "The most significant drawback may have been the economy . . . companies were closing down, filing for bankruptcy, laying off employees and probably had very little interest in . . . marketing." Dawson urged reissuing the request, seeing what other counties are doing, and setting baseline fees.
D'Amaro said he chalked up the recent lapse in enforcing the law to a change in administrations, but he said officials should have set up procedures to survive the transition. "I think what happened is the former administration did the [request] and thought they fulfilled their obligations," he said. "But the intent was to set up an ongoing program," which the cash-strapped county badly needs.
Meanwhile, county lawyers said their Indian sales tax lawsuit may soon bear fruit. Up to now, the attorneys say, Suffolk has allowed New York City to take the lead in the litigation. A federal judge has ruled that two smoke shops on the reservation -- which can sell tobacco to tribal members tax free -- are liable to pay taxes on all other sales, totaling $10.45 million. A more recent March decision also held the wholesalers liable.
County Attorney Dennis Brown said a penalty hearing is set for June 10 and the county is hoping to negotiate a settlement based on that ruling. While county attorneys would not estimate how much the case might yield, D'Amaro said the county could net nearly $5 million. "They were selling a lot of cigarettes for a lot of years," he said, "and that's the kind of money we need."
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