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Suffolk leaders fight for credit over end of school-zone speed camera plan

Legis. Kevin J. McCaffrey, left, on Aug. 1,

Legis. Kevin J. McCaffrey, left, on Aug. 1, 2013, and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, on Oct. 28, 2014. Credit: Barry Sloan

He hasn't even officially taken over, but Suffolk's newly elected Republican legislative leader Kevin J. McCaffrey and his caucus are taking credit for County Executive Steve Bellone's sudden retreat last week as champion of speed cameras in school zones.

This first tussle between Bellone and McCaffrey of Lindenhurst likely signals a more highly partisan political landscape in the coming year as Bellone seeks his second term and McCaffrey and Republicans look to reverse a decade of Democratic control of the county legislature.

The seeds of the skirmish arose at the meeting where McCaffrey was elected Dec. 5. The six-member GOP bloc made plans for a news conference last Tuesday to take a strong united stand against the cameras, which have caused a political mess in Nassau County.

But shortly after Republicans announced their event in an email last Monday, Bellone scheduled a news conference for later that day to announce he was killing the camera program.

Bellone did not respond to questions about whether his hasty announcement was a response to Republicans, saying only that it was a "decision made together." However, he did not consult with GOP lawmakers, and only invited them to his news conference.

McCaffrey said he saw Bellone last Sunday night at a Christmas tree lighting and he never mentioned the issue. "I wouldn't say it was a cheap shot, but they were trying to beat us to the punch," McCaffrey said. "Next time, we'll be more careful."

Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, downplayed the GOP role in the demise of the cameras.

"I hate to burst Kevin's bubble, but Bellone and his aides were talking about suspending the program for a month," Schaffer said.

Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) said he also had told aides Sunday to prepare a resolution to drop school-zone speed cameras.

Yet Bellone aides late last month lobbied successfully against a resolution by Legis. Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk) to create procedures to avoid Nassau's problems. Earlier this year, Bellone had championed school cameras as "proven effective." He had budgeted $2.5 million from tickets for 2015 and had projected annual revenues of $6.8 million.

Behind the wrangling is the fact that school-zone speed cameras -- billed by officials as a safety measure, but according to critics mainly a moneymaker -- have become political nitroglycerin.

Bellone, girding for re-election, raised $500,000 this month, though no formidable GOP contender has surfaced since Brookhaven Supervisor Edward P. Romaine and State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) have demurred.

But Paul Sabatino, a former chief deputy county executive, said even a no-name GOP candidate could topple Bellone if he were to continue to back the cameras.

"It is a tsunami issue that could wipe any politician off the face of the Earth," Sabatino said. "In the past, we've had the Southwest Sewer District and 'Flush [John] Klein in 79,' and 'High Tax [Patrick] Halpin' in 1991 after property tax increases as high as 170 percent. This is just as deadly."

Republicans, buoyed by wins for Congress, the State Legislature and for Suffolk County comptroller, see a chance that a more unified GOP legislative caucus could make major inroads next November.

Though he's only a freshman, McCaffrey's new role as leader gives him a higher profile, boosting his own re-election chances. Democrats already have a potential challenger -- Bellone aide Tim Sini -- walking the district where the county executive himself lives.

Republicans see Democratic legislators Sarah Anker of Mt. Sinai, Rob Calarco of Patchogue, and William Spencer of Centerport as potential targets, along with the open seat of the term-limited Schneiderman, who caucuses with the 12-member Democratic majority.

Despite Bellone's new stance and Gregory's resolution, Sabatino noted that the state law authorizing the school-zone cameras remains in effect, and could be revived at any time. Republicans, he said, also still could go on the offensive to force a voter referendum to bar the cameras forever.

"Right now, it's still on the books," Sabatino said. "You need a charter amendment with ironclad language that is absolutely binding so no one after Election Day can foist it on the public."

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