The Democratic incumbent and his GOP challenger for the Suffolk County executive job gave drastically different portraits of the county's financial condition during their first debate on Saturday.
County Executive Steve Bellone said that when he took office in 2012, “we inherited a huge financial crisis, a county on the brink of bankruptcy. We completely turned that around and are in an incredibly strong position moving forward today.”
John M. Kennedy Jr., the county comptroller, said “we are in very perilous and difficult economic times.”
“Our county government is broken and desperately needs someone to go ahead and tend to it and put it back together again,” he told the crowd of about 50 at the Bay Shore-Brightwaters Public Library.
Since he declared his candidacy in February, Kennedy has focused much of his message on what he calls Bellone’s mishandling of county finances.
Bellone said he eliminated a $500 million deficit, kept budgets below the property tax cap, created an operating surplus, merged departments, found new sources of revenue -- such as from gaming terminals at the Jake’s 58 Hotel and Casino in Islandia -- and oversaw a decrease of 1,300 employees.
“We have a significantly smaller government today, and more efficient, and we’re doing more than ever before,” he said.
Kennedy said the county is mired in debt, has seen a $150 million increase in the overall budget under Bellone and has suffered seven bond downgrades. Moody’s Investors Service last year cited Suffok's “deteriorated financial position” in downgrading county bonds, and a 2018 legislative budget report said the county accumulated $883 million in debt over the past decade for operating expenses.
Kennedy said there are duplicative functions in county government and called for an analysis of how key departments operate to make them more efficient. In addition, the county is missing out on significant revenue, he said.
“We have a thriving black-market economy here in Suffolk County, in that sales taxes are being forfeited and avoided on a routine basis,” said Kennedy, who vowed to ask Albany to push for a Long Island-based tax enforcement effort.
Both candidates called for significant changes in the police department.
“There is absolutely a need to go ahead and change the culture in this department. I would do it from the top down,” Kennedy said. Asked after the debate whether that would mean replacing police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, he said, “I would consider her, but I would consider other applicants as well.”
Kennedy called for a “critical analysis” of how the department is structured.
“Our police district is set up in the same configuration as when I came into county government back in 1987: seven precincts, 92 sectors,” he said. “It’s time for us to take a look at examining where do we have greater activity and what particular areas? How do we concentrate the focus of our patrol officers? How do we do management and deployment?”
No change is needed, Bellone said, “in the model we have for the precincts.”
“The most important thing we can do to strengthen this department is to diversify, to make sure it reflects the communities it serves,” he said.
Bellone touted the county’s record-low crime rate and how the lethal street gang MS-13 “is on the run.”
“We’ve arrested hundreds of MS-13 gang members,” he said.
The debate was sponsored by the Islip branch of the NAACP and the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County.
Another debate, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Smithtown and Huntington, is scheduled for 7 p.m. Oct. 21 at the Kings Park High School auditorium.
With Rachelle Blidner