In his annual State of the County speech Wednesday night, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone called for a “top-to-bottom examination” of the county charter to bring about “not only greater efficiency but . . . unwavering integrity as well.”
Bellone said Suffolk County needs an outside partner “with expertise on government reform and ethics” to hold public hearings and develop a series of changes that can be put before voters in a 2018 referendum.
“There has been a dark cloud hovering over government for several years now as a result of federal investigations into abuse of power and corruption,” said the county executive, in an indirect reference to the corruption convictions of former Suffolk police Chief James Burke and former Suffolk Conservative Party chairman Edward Walsh. “This is unacceptable and quite frankly an embarrassment,” Bellone said.
His proposal would resurrect the once-mandated review of the county charter every decade. The county legislature jettisoned the review in 2014, saying it was no longer necessary. The last charter review took place in 2009, but no recommendations were adopted.
Bellone delivered his 48-page speech before about 320 officials and community leaders at the Van Nostrand Theater on the Brentwood campus of Suffolk County Community College.
Bellone touted a drop in overall crime so far in 2017, compared with last year, but said the MS-13 gang remains a focus of his administration and Suffolk police.
“Let me be clear, these aren’t just statistics,” Bellone said of the falling crime rate. “These numbers represent real people whose lives haven’t been turned upside down, because of the work of the Suffolk County Police Department.”
He also said the county must not only combat gang crime, but invest in gang prevention as a way to keep MS-13 and other street gangs from recruiting “vulnerable children.”
In the audience Wednesday night was Evelyn Rodriguez, whose 16-year-old daughter, Kayla, was killed along with a friend in September, allegedly by MS-13 members.
When Bellone took a moment to pay tribute to Rodriguez, the audience broke into an extended round of applause as she dabbed tears from her eyes.
The county executive, in the midst of his second four-year term, made no mention of the county’s still looming $137-170 million structural deficit or any specific steps to close that gap. Bellone also didn’t discuss the status of efforts to get state approval for bonding $60 million in police retirement costs.
County Comptroller John M. Kennedy Jr., a Republican, said he “didn’t hear much that was new, and we didn’t hear anything about our structural deficit that is growing every day.”
Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague) said Bellone “outlined the challenges we face to keep the county going, and he addressed issues like MS-13 and our opioid crisis.”
Gregory added that he was interested in hearing more about Bellone’s proposals for government reform but said the speech didn’t provide many details.
Asked whether he was surprised that Bellone did not raise the ongoing problems with the budget deficit, Gregory said, “I thought he might do it, but I understand why he didn’t. I think he wants to wait until he has a full plan together before he makes an announcement.”
Bellone touted signs of economic recovery, noting that median home prices in Suffolk have increased 6.9 percent over last year and home sales have increased 15 percent since March 2016. He also emphasized the county has kept its property taxes below the state cap. He warned of the “elastic” nature of sales tax revenue that can offset rising costs in boom times, but can become an unreliable source of funding when the economy slows.
“Relying on a steady growth in sales tax revenue is a dicey strategy,” he said. “It’s pretty clear we need to . . . rethink and reinvent government [and] acknowledge these new fiscal realities.”
He trumpeted the development of a critical initiative called SuffolkSTAT, a computer data measurement tool to keep track of the effectiveness of county operations. Bellone’s aides said that system has been piloted for the past year in the police department and will be expanded in the coming year to other large county departments like social services, public works and health services.
In his televised response, Legis. Kevin McCaffrey, leader of the GOP caucus, blamed Bellone for raising county fees without making sufficient cuts.
“Suffolk County is racing off the edge of a cliff,” said McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst). “ . . . people are leaving this county every day, not because they don’t like the beaches, but because they simply can’t afford to live here.”
Bellone said that, as the nation’s 24th largest county, Suffolk “needs tools so a county of our size can function as nimbly as possible. Never before have resources been so scarce and demand for services so high.”
He also lauded Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s statewide initiative to spur counties, towns, villages and school districts to find new ways to merge services. Bellone pointed to county efforts at eliminating so-called zombie homes and toxic tax-delinquent properties through its land bank, including a partnership with Brookhaven Town over the next two years to bring back 1,908 foreclosed homes in North Bellport.
The most important work for Suffolk County lies ahead, Bellone said.
He added, “If this government is to reach its full potential . . . we must work together . . . to implement changes that will help make this government a national model for efficiency.”