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Long IslandPolitics

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone vetoes bill he once backed

This house in Medford is in limbo now

This house in Medford is in limbo now that County Executive Steve Bellone vetoed a measure he had asked county lawmakers to approve, which would allow the homeowner to buy it back from the county.  Credit: Johnny Milano

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, in an unusual move, has vetoed a measure he had asked county lawmakers to approve, saying it would allow a tax deadbeat to buy back a house in Medford that officials say has been the site of repeated illegal drug sales.

Last Monday, Bellone vetoed a legislative resolution that would have allowed Randall Leblanc to reclaim title to the house in exchange for $151,000 in unpaid property taxes, interest and penalties.

“Individuals currently living at 3102 Chestnut Avenue have been arrested more than once for selling illegal drugs — including hydrocodone and oxycodone,” Bellone said in his veto message. He said the administration had “learned that it is likely that the individual attempting to regain ownership . . . is aware of the illegal drug activity,” although aides declined to specify how they know.

Temple McDay, Leblanc’s attorney, said she was “completely shocked” by Bellone’s veto and was not aware of any arrests at the house.

“As far we knew it was a done deal,” McDay said. Leblanc has a buyer unrelated to those living at the house ready to close on a purchase so the county can be repaid, McDay said.

She said she was aware of the eviction notice, but, “I thought someone made a mistake and it was just a mix-up.”

About 80 to 120 such redemption resolutions go before lawmakers annually and are routinely approved unanimously without debate on the consent calendar. But Bellone said, “I believe it is clear there are serious reasons to reject the application to redeem.”

Bellone, a Democrat, has issued only 11 vetoes since taking office in 2012, an average of less than two a year.

Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said Bellone, in his veto message, failed to mention the bill was his proposal, not the legislature’s.

“He’s trying to blame the legislature for his mistake,” Trotta said. “You don’t often see a county executive veto his own bill supporting giving a drug house back to its owner, but it’s not surprising. . . . He is running out of ways to try to undo his litany of costly mistakes.”

What also makes the situation unusual is the fact that Suffolk County has owned the house since taking tax title to the property Feb. 26. Bellone aides say the county has not taken possession of the property or done any inspection in the past five months, while the owner’s redemption request was pending.

The Bellone administration originally requested the redemption legislation through the presiding officer, Legis. DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague), on June 16.

Amy Keyes, Bellone’s top legislative aide, said officials only became aware of two drug arrests at the house on July 17, the date the legislature last met, when the measure was approved unanimously.

Keyes said nothing was disclosed to lawmakers because it was possible that the owner “was completely unaware of what was going on.” Putting off a vote, she said, “could have been an unjustifiable delay” in getting his property back.

“We gave the owner the benefit of the doubt,” Keyes said.

Legis. Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue) said he was not aware Bellone aides knew about the arrests on the day of the vote. But he said they should have alerted lawmakers informally so the measure could have been pulled until more was known.

“There has to be a better mechanism” to ensure such redemptions are not put up to vote until fully vetted, Calarco said.

Gregory expressed concern the county also might be open to liability because there are no criteria in current law for turning down requests, although he said he expects no attempt to override Bellone’s veto.

Jason Smagin, county real estate director, said Suffolk is allowed to consider “all appropriate, relevant and equitable matters” in making a decision.

Smagin said the county started eviction proceedings July 23, but could not say how long it might take to remove occupants of the house.

If not redeemed, the house likely will be sold at county auction, a process that can take several more years.

Keyes noted that the house is close to both a school and playground.

“We’re doing our job to protect public safety,” he said. “Neighbors who live nearby would agree that it’s not responsible for the county to turn the house back in the hands of people engaged in dangerous drug activity.”

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