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Steve Bellone, Suffolk GOP, trade barbs after $9.2M bond fails

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, above in May,

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, above in May, accused county Republicans on Wednesday, June 20, 2021, of putting "personal interests ahead of teachers and students." Credit: Randee Daddona

Suffolk’s Democratic County Executive Steve Bellone and Republican lawmakers on Wednesday accused each other of playing politics after the GOP blocked $9.2 million in bonds the night before for capital projects, including a phone app to help schools deal with shooters.

“Last night we saw politics rear its ugly head,” Bellone said at a news conference at the H. Lee Dennison building. “What we saw was shameless, where lawmakers put their personal interests ahead of teachers and students.”

One floor up and immediately afterward, Republicans held their own news conference. Bay Shore Legis. Tom Cilmi, the GOP caucus leader, accused Bellone of orchestrating “a political stunt” after Republicans two weeks ago “made clear” they would not approve bundling of bonds for capital projects to assure “accountability and transparency.”

He said the caucus “would have probably approved” the school project if put before legislators separately.

Responsibility for its defeat “rests squarely on Steve Bellone’s shoulders,” Cilmi said.

The $2 million phone app project would provide teachers and administrators with an app serving as a panic button, officials say, and also improve communication links in emergencies — like an active shooter incident — for Suffolk’s 450 public schools as well as private and charter schools.

The stalemate arose after Bellone two weeks ago first bundled a $32.7 million bond for various capital projects into several resolutions, changing a 40-year-old process where bond resolutions were done for each project. Republicans blocked all of the projects.

Republicans said Bellone’s move had made it difficult to block bonding resolutions they opposed by putting them together with more popular projects. The seven-member GOP caucus can block bond resolutions, which require 12 votes, because Democrats have only a majority of 11. Until this month, Cilmi said the GOP has blocked only three or four projects.

“He’s made a decision he wants everything or nothing and is willing to put public safety at risk,” Cilmi said of the Suffolk County executive.

Bellone maintains the bundling is aimed at streamlining the process, which is used by most other municipalities and will save county money. Republicans maintain there is no savings because the bond counsel’s contract does not permit charging for preparing bond resolutions.

While Cilmi said the caucus would have probably backed funding for the school initiative, GOP lawmakers questioned why only 19 of 66 school districts have signed on. Bellone aides said the school superintendent association has backed the plan but commitments from school districts have been slow because of the end-of-the-year press of exams, proms and graduations.

Republicans also were critical of a separate project to remove invasive species from Canaan Lake in Patchogue, which officials originally estimated would cost $1 million but was defeated because they sought another $1.4 million to finish.

Officials say the extra money is needed because some lake bottom that needs to be cleaned out has been tainted with heavy metals that may have to be landfilled or shipped out of Suffolk and costs may still go higher.

Democrats say Republicans are hypocritical because they voted for the resolution to appropriate funds for the project, and then turned around and blocked the bonds to pay for it.

“It’s like an oxymoron. It doesn’t make sense,” said Legis. Susan Berland (D-Dix Hills).

Cilmi said Bellone’s actions were pre-meditated, noting he put out a press advisory minutes after the bond votes, which occurred at about 11 p.m. Tuesday in Riverhead.

“Bellone wants to take away every check and balance in our government,” said Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga).

But Bellone said he will not let teachers, students or parents be “held hostage” to GOP politicking.

“We will not stand for it and will not back down,” he said.

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