In a hastily called news conference in front of the picturesque store on Friday, Democratic county executive candidate Steve Bellone handed a $660 personal check to McKell so that he can continue to play Santa at the store.
The Babylon town supervisor said the gesture was not political. Asked why he held a news conference, Bellone said, "We have to let people know Santa will be here."
Bellone's news conference came after Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy's budget office decided not to approve a new contract for McKell to work at the county-owned store on weekends from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Levy and his chief deputy, Edward Dumas, said they would volunteer as Santa and were looking to the local chamber of commerce and fire department to find other volunteers.
Bellone said he and his wife, Traci, have brought their own children, Katie, 3, and Mollie, 1, to the store to see Santa.
"It's been a tradition for our family for the last several years and it has been a tradition for a lot of families in Suffolk County, and to see that tradition suddenly end because the county is facing budget problems doesn't make any sense," Bellone said.
Sporting his Santa hat, McKell, 83, told reporters Friday he was "very crushed" when he was told he was being let go. McKell has played the role for nine years.
Later, he took Santa's seat in the store's back room and apologized for not having his beard and costume. He said he had sent it to the cleaners now that he's coming back.
Bellone was asked if he had relayed any Christmas wishes, but he said, "I'll keep it to myself for now."
Bellone called the general store, which dates back to 1857, "a county treasure" that attracts people from all over.
"It brings people here. They spend money and bring in sales tax," he said. "It's smart to invest in Santa."
He bought two large, rainbow-colored lollipops for his daughters for $4.89 at the store.
Mark Smith, Levy's spokesman, had no immediate comment on Bellone's actions, but said others were also willing to step forward. He said WALK-FM called their office shortly after 9 a.m. to pick up McKell's tab.
Legis. Thomas Muratore (R-Ronkonkoma) also told several radio stations early Friday that he and his staff would chip in to pay McKell. "It is the right thing to do for the kids," he said.