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Steve Bellone, John M. Kennedy Jr. battle over Suffolk finances, water quality

Suffolk county executive candidates Steve Bellone, John M.

Suffolk county executive candidates Steve Bellone, John M. Kennedy Jr. and Gregory Fischer debate at News 12 studios on Oct. 24 in Woodbury. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Suffolk county executive candidates Steve Bellone and John M. Kennedy Jr. were sparring over the state of county finances at a debate recently at Kings Park High School when they turned to the subject of who drives the plainest car.

“Yes ladies and gentlemen, I have a 2007 Ford Explorer with 120,000 miles on it that I drive from Hauppauge to Riverhead,” Kennedy, the Republican county comptroller, said of the county car he uses.

Bellone, the Democratic incumbent, who has criticized Kennedy’s use of a county vehicle, chimed in: “I have actually a 2005 car. It’s my own car.”

Gregory Fischer, the Libertarian Party candidate, said, "I might be embarrassed if I have a better car than these guys … It’s a hybrid.”

The age of the candidates' cars may seem like a minor issue, but it highlighted the biggest issue in the county executive campaign: Who can best manage the county's troubled finances.

As they have campaigned in the days leading up to the Nov. 5 election, the candidates have expressed widely divergent views of the county’s fiscal state.

Bellone said he has reduced a budget deficit that when he took office in 2012 was projected to reach $530 million by 2013. Since taking office, Bellone has eliminated 1,300 county jobs and privatized county health centers in an effort to reduce costs.

Kennedy blames Bellone for what he calls a financial crisis. Kennedy cites several bond rating downgrades during Bellone's nearly eight-year tenure, hundreds of millions of dollars in accumulated debt and a recent state comptroller’s report that said Suffolk had the highest level of "fiscal" stress of any county in the state.

In 2018, Suffolk had an operating deficit of about $26.5 million and a general fund deficit of $285 million, the report said.

Fischer, a semiretired business strategist from Calverton, criticized both Bellone and Kennedy for the county's financial state, saying Bellone agreed to police salaries that are too high and that Kennedy as comptroller has not performed enough audits.

Bellone and Kennedy are long-term county residents with lengthy records of government service.

Bellone, 50, was born in Queens and grew up in Babylon. He served two years in the U.S. Army and returned home to work as a Babylon Town aide. There, he met his future wife, Tracey, who also worked for the town. They have three children. He has a bachelor's degree from Queens College, a master's degree from Webster University in St. Louis and a law degree from Fordham University.

Bellone was elected to the Babylon Town Board in 1997 and served as town supervisor from 2001 to 2011. He beat Republican Angie Carpenter, then the Suffolk treasurer and now Islip Town supervisor, to become county executive in 2012. Bellone won reelection in 2015 against Republican James O'Connor. Bellone lives in West Babylon. 

Kennedy, 63, was born in Huntington and grew up in East Northport and Nissequogue. He met his future wife, Leslie, during high school. They have four children and live in Nesconset. Kennedy has a bachelor's degree from Stony Brook University, a master's degree from Adelphi University and a law degree from St. John's University.

Kennedy began government work with the New York State Office of Mental Health in 1976, where started as a ward aide and became a vocational rehabilitation counselor. After 10 years, Kennedy moved to Suffolk County government, working in various positions including examiner of title in the county clerk's office.

Kennedy was elected as a Suffolk County legislator in 2004, and held his seat for a decade. He beat Democrat James Gaughran, now a state senator, for comptroller in 2014. In 2018, Kennedy won reelection against Democratic challenger Jay Schneiderman, the Southampton supervisor. 

Fischer, 62, was born and raised in New York City. He has a bachelor’s degree from SUNY New Paltz and a master’s in business administration from the state University at Albany. The father of four previously ran unsuccessfully for New York State Senate and town supervisor, councilman, assessor and school board in Riverhead.

Over the past year, Bellone and Kennedy have attacked each other's government records in debates, candidate forums and in TV, mail and online ad campaigns.

Following are the key issues they have focused on in their campaigns:

FINANCES

Bellone blames the county’s fiscal state on deficits and other conditions he inherited when he took office.

He says he has made progress as county executive through actions including elimination of one-shot revenues, and says his 2020 budget will have no deficit.

“By any objective measure, it’s impossible to conclude we’ve done anything other than improved,” Bellone said.  

However, legislative budget analysts say there will be a deficit of about $35 million in 2019 and 2020. 

Bellone says he has kept the general fund tax levy at $49 million a year.

But property taxes have increased by about $80 million overall since 2013, the first year for which Bellone proposed a budget, county budget documents show.

That increase was primarily in the police district, which covers the five western towns. 

Salaries and benefits for county police are major drivers of police district costs. Bellone's most recent contract agreement with the Police Benevolent Association, a $192 million deal, will raise the pay of officers with 15 years on the job to $200,000 a year, including overtime and pay benefits, by 2024.

Bellone said police contract costs are lower than they would have been if the county had gone to binding arbitration. He also said Suffolk will save $40 million a year by requiring county union employees, including police, to pay into their health care costs.

Also during Bellone's tenure, county fees have increased — by about $80 million in 2016 and 2017 alone, according to the county legislature’s nonpartisan Budget Review Office.

Bellone said the fee hikes were necessary to avoid property tax increases, noting that Suffolk has not pierced the state 2% property tax cap.

Kennedy calls his campaign “The Fiscal Reality Tour,” and refers to the county executive as “Big Tax Bellone,” citing more than $150 million in higher taxes and fees since 2012. 

“I’ve pointed out the abysmal track record of my opponent,” Kennedy said. “Numbers don’t lie.”

Kennedy said he would combine redundant county departments and cut spending for outside contract agencies. Kennedy said as comptroller he also has worked to recoup millions of dollars owed to the county by state agencies and county vendors.

But Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer questioned Kennedy’s use of county financial problems as his a key campaign issue.

“Everyone thinks the comptroller is supposed to be keeping the eye on the books,” Schaffer said. “If the county is in such bad fiscal shape, where have you been?”

Kennedy said he has saved $35 million through refinancing $640 million in county debt, and recouped $15 million through audits.

WATER QUALITY

Supporters point to Bellone’s record on water quality issues as one of his biggest achievements.

To reduce nitrogen pollution that has led to fish kills and harmful algal blooms, Bellone created the Reclaim Our Water initiative. The plan includes expansion of sewer access, grants for lower-nitrogen septic systems and a $4 billion subwatershed wastewater plan.

Others have questioned how effective the plan can be — particularly since half the septic systems in a pilot program still do not meet county nitrogen standards.

Bellone said he will not give full approval to any systems that do not work.

Kennedy said he would halt the alternative septic system program to vet the technology more.

Kennedy said he would focus primarily on drinking water contaminants, and build sewage treatment plants in Huntington Town and North Brookhaven.

CORRUPTION 

Bellone has touted his efforts to reduce public corruption.

One of Bellone's campaign videos shows him calling on then-District Attorney Thomas Spota to resign in 2016. About a year later, Spota and his chief aide Christopher McPartland were accused of helping to cover up the beating of a man by Spota’s protégé, former Suffolk police chief James Burke.

Spota, who has pleaded not guilty to the federal charges, is scheduled to go on trial in U.S. District Court Nov. 12.

However, legislative Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague) noted that Bellone originally hired Burke, who was police chief from 2012 to 2015.

Gregory also criticized Bellone for not working with him on a recent whistleblower probe into a police promotion, which prompted a U.S. Department of Justice review. 

The Justice Department has a consent decree mandating racial diversification of the county police department, in response to complaints about the department's treatment of the Latino community. 

"He tends to get more credit than I think he should," Gregory said of Bellone's handling of the corruption issue. "He hired Burke."

Bellone said he hired Burke based on the best information he had at the time, saying Burke was recommended by others and had “amazing credentials.” He said he fired Burke before his reelection campaign in 2015 — against the advice of political consultants — because “I wanted to make it clear where I stood.”

Bellone criticized Kennedy for not calling out Spota's alleged corruption. Kennedy said defendants are innocent until proved guilty. 

Bellone also has attacked Kennedy for using a county car, hiring his wife as a legislative aide and taking raises. Bellone notes he takes a lower salary than he is entitled to, uses his own car and was the first county employee to pay into his health care. 

Kennedy said he has not taken $2,500 in annual longevity pay he is entitled to for the past five years, and earned the same as other county legislators. 

"In a 10-year time period, I received the same thing every other legislator received," Kennedy said. 

Steve Bellone

Democrat

Age: 50

Hometown: West Babylon

Education/career: Bachelor's degree, Queens College; master's degree, Webster University in St. Louis; law degree from Fordham University Law School. Served two years in the U.S. Army as a communications specialist. Babylon Town aide, 1995 to 1997; elected to the Babylon Town Board in 1997; elected Babylon Town supervisor in 2001 and served 10 years; elected Suffolk County executive, 2011.

2019 campaign fundraising: $1,626,194.

Spending: $2,287,471.

Cash on hand: $994,565

John M. Kennedy Jr.

Republican

Age: 63

Hometown: Nesconset

Education/career: Bachelor’s degree, Stony Brook University; master’s degree in business administration, Adelphi University; law degree, St. John’s University. New York State Office of Mental Health employee, 1976 to 1986; Suffolk County Office for the Aging, 1986 to 1987; county intergovernmental relations analyst, 1987 to 1996; official examiner of title for the county clerk’s office, 1996 to 2004; Suffolk County legislator, 2005 to 2014; Suffolk County comptroller since 2016.

2019 campaign fundraising: $521,390

Spending: $488,295

Cash on hand: $148,070

Gregory Fischer

Libertarian

Age: 62

Hometown: Calverton

Education/career: Bachelor’s degree, SUNY New Paltz; master’s in business administration, University at Albany; associate degree, City University of New York. Works as consultant for businesses, nonprofits and governments.

2019 campaign fundraising: (has not filed state campaign finance reports since January)

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