Candidates to be the next Suffolk County executive sparred at a debate Monday night that included disagreements over water quality and how best to keep young people from leaving the area in search of better-paying jobs and cheaper places to live.
Democratic incumbent Steve Bellone, Republican county Comptroller John M. Kennedy Jr. and Libertarian candidate Gregory John Fischer made their cases before a Kings Park High School crowd that included many with a personal stake at the heart of the discussion on youth — campus students.
Bellone said the best way to attract and keep young people is to develop more transit-oriented downtown development, with access to restaurants, shops and housing.
“This is one of the most important issues we face,” Bellone said. “Our best play as a region is to build out those downtowns.”
Kennedy said those downtowns only make sense in certain areas based on community needs and development decisions should not happen “county down.” He said improving job opportunities on Long Island would keep young people here, especially as manufacturing jobs have decreased.
“We need to do a much better job in expanding the high-end tech opportunities, high-end career opportunities,” Kennedy said.
Fischer said regardless of plans for downtowns, “you’re not going to keep anyone here because the houses are not affordable.” He suggested creating a new finance model to prevent vacancies and keep rents down.
But the starkest difference of opinion came with how to address the county’s water quality.
Bellone said the county is facing a crisis from nitrogen pollution in waterways. He said he launched a septic improvement plan to incentivize homeowners to replace their aging cesspools and septic systems.
But Kennedy criticized Bellone’s plan, saying the focus should be on containing surface waters and recharging the aquifer.
“What we drink doesn’t come out of the Great South Bay,” Kennedy said. “We should be focused on what’s potable and what we consume.”
Kennedy said he would evaluate the Suffolk County Water Authority and ensure that treatment plans for 1,4 dioxane are comprehensive to also include treating other contaminants.
Bellone said Kennedy has “his head in the sand on this issue.” But Kennedy said outside studies do not show nitrogen to be the most concerning contaminant.
Kennedy and Fischer both criticized the county’s financial position, citing several bond rating downgrades, $883 million in operating debt over 10 years and a recent report by the state comptroller’s office that found Suffolk is in the most fiscal stress of any county in New York.
When asked how candidates would cut expenses if elected, Kennedy — who said he and Bellone have completely different views on the county’s financial state — said he would cut down about $13 million in spending on contract agencies.
Bellone said he has reduced the size of government through combining departments and moving some operations, such as county health centers, to the private sector.
He also defended a police contract, approved in May, that is expected to raise the pay of Police Benevolent Association members with more than 15 years on the job to $200,000, including overtime and other pay benefits. He said the deal cost taxpayers less than a contract that mandatory arbitration would have yielded and cited record low crime rates.
Kennedy said the contracts, with increased expenses, could lead to an outside regulator coming in and gutting the police department.
Other debate topics touched on school safety, vaping and opioid issues, declining retail and cutting expenses.
The debate was co-hosted by the Kings Park High School Student Council, Honor Society and the League of Women Voters.
Debate moderator Lisa Scott, president of the Suffolk County League of Women Voters, had to admonish the audience not to applaud after the crowd — in a largely Republican area — frequently interrupted Kennedy with clapping.