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Lawmakers slam end of 'twilight' beach fee

Suffolk County legislator Kate Browning, whose district includes

Suffolk County legislator Kate Browning, whose district includes Smith Point Park, gives the crowd the "thumbs up" sign after hearing the county executive withdrew the proposed fee. (July 9, 2012) Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone's quick abandonment of a new "twilight" beach parking fee sends the wrong message as officials struggle to close a multimillion dollar budget hole, two key county legislators said Tuesday.

But others defended his action, saying it showed flexibility.

Bellone's office put the $4-a-car evening parking charge before the legislature for emergency approval on June 19, saying it was urgently needed in light of a shortfall estimated at $300 million through 2013. Lawmakers approved it by a 12-5 vote, with one member absent. Complaints from residents poured in, and as protesters gathered in Shirley on Monday, Bellone announced the fee's repeal.

"If we go back on one decision, it's going to make the ones later on that much tougher," said Legislative Majority Leader DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville), who supported the initial bill. "We have to realize we have no money, and we need to have the resolve to stick with our decisions."

Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said Bellone realized the fee was "adversely impacting" hundreds of Suffolk County residents. "While we're committed to closing the deficit, at the same time, we're going to listen to our residents," Schneider said.

From June 23 to July 8, the new fee raised $23,500 at Smith Point County Park in Shirley and Cupsogue Beach County Park near Westhampton, and was expected to bring in $90,000 this summer. But it also provoked the ire of many residents who regularly attend free evening events at the beaches.

Legis. Tom Barraga (R-West Islip), one of three Republicans to support the fee, noted that the about-face comes after the administration abandoned elements of an earlier deficit-reduction plan, including tobacco education program cuts.

"No matter what we do, there's always someone that's unhappy. You need to stick to your guns," Barraga said. "When you ask for my support and I give it, and then you back off as soon as there's opposition, I'm going to have some qualms the next time around."

Schneider argued that Bellone has held firm under criticism of higher-stakes decisions, including defunding health education programs and returning sewage treatment plan inspections to the state.

Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley) who fought to repeal the twilight fee, defended Bellone as able to show "significant strength" and flexibility. "He didn't back off when he had to lay off people. That was a significant amount of money in the budget," she said. "This isn't even $100,000, but it shows he's reasonable, and willing to admit when something wasn't the right thing to do."

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