The Town of Islip is facing a potential leadership void as it struggles with an $11.3 million deficit and a multimillion-dollar cleanup of tons of toxic waste in a town-owned park.
Town Supervisor Tom Croci, who was elected to the State Senate in November, departs on New Year's Eve. The town board has yet to name a replacement for Croci, a Republican, who left office in 2013 for almost a year to serve with the Navy in Afghanistan. During Croci's absence, Eric Hofmeister, a Republican and the town's commissioner of environmental control, served as the deputy town supervisor, but he had no vote on the board.
"We've been kicked in the gut a lot lately," Islip Town Councilman John C. Cochrane Jr. said. "The political fight is up next: Who's the best, who's the most popular, who's the best leader, who can get stuff done."
The GOP holds four seats on the five-member board, and there is no legal requirement to replace Croci with an interim appointment. If the board does not choose a successor to Croci, the top office would not be filled until next November's town elections -- a move that could give the Republicans more time to pick a strong candidate to run against a Democrat for a four-year term.
Frank Tantone, Islip's GOP leader, has acknowledged that Cochrane, along with council members Trish Bergin Weichbrodt and Steve Flotteron, Suffolk County Treasurer Angie Carpenter and Suffolk County Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), are possible interim supervisor picks.
He also has raised the possibility of the board not picking an interim supervisor who would serve until the November election. Foregoing an interim supervisor would give the party its best shot at claiming victory in November, he said.
Hofmeister would then resume his duties as the town's nonvoting chief executive.
Michael LoGrande -- a former Islip Town supervisor, Suffolk County executive and chairman of the Suffolk County Water Authority -- said it will take a major effort by a strong leader to address the issues now facing the town.
"It really needs a firm hand right now," LoGrande, a Republican, said of the town. "If someone would rise up that is good and honorable, and could serve the people right, that's what they should do."
LoGrande said an interim supervisor should not be a political pick from within the Republican Party, but should be someone from the private sector who could act more like a professional manager.
Politics a problem
"The politics in this case is putting the town in the problems it has now," LoGrande said. "They really need to head in a new direction. I think the whole political system should stand down and just take a backseat and allow the town and the professionals to unravel the mess."
Howard DeMartini, a former town deputy supervisor in Islip and former Suffolk County GOP chairman, said he understands the political attraction of keeping the supervisor spot open until the November election, but he foresees troublesome issues.
"That's probably a good political strategy, but there are so many problems now that it may not be a good governmental strategy," Demartini said. "There will be clearly a leadership void.
"Look what happened the last time Croci left," he said, referring to the dumping scandal that unfolded in his absence. "This would be like Croci going to Afghanistan again, except he's going to Albany."
LoGrande, however, dismissed the idea that the town could go without putting a supervisor in Croci's place, and emphasized the need for a strong pick.
"They shouldn't, during this time of chaos, go leaderless," he said. "They should have someone in charge. The financial part is going to be difficult. It's going to take some time and some austerity to handle that. The other difficulties can be overcome with dynamic leadership."
Fiscally, the town is facing a multimillion-dollar cleanup of the park -- estimates begin at $6 million -- even as it continues to grapple with lowering an $11.3 million deficit. In addition, revenue at the town-owned airport, Long Island MacArthur, has been falling and the town has promoted new features at the Ronkonkoma facility in the hopes of attracting new customers.
And taxes have been raised almost 34 percent since Croci became supervisor in January 2012, with the latest hike for next year at 5.8 percent.
Last week, former town parks commissioner Joseph J. Montuori Jr. and his former secretary, Brett A. Robinson, were charged with 12 counts each of various criminal charges for their alleged roles in allowing contaminated debris to be dumped in Brentwood's Roberto Clemente Park and lying to state and town officials to cover it up.
On Nov. 6, the town's Conservative Party leader, Michael Torres, pleaded not guilty to a felony when he was accused of concealing his arrest record on a town application for his $8,000-a-year post on Islip's assessment review board. He remains on the board.
Cochrane described Islip's situation as "traumatic" but said he is hopeful that the about 30 added employees -- in revenue-producing code enforcement and public safety -- in next year's budget will raise revenue, and the tax increase will send a message to the bond-rating agencies that they are taking their financial woes seriously.
For his part, Croci, in an interview, sounded an optimistic note: "The town's future will be fine. . . . There are always problems in government. . . . There's always going to be challenges. I think with good leadership and with an ability to be a problem solver, those solutions are possible."
Bergin Weichbrodt and Councilman Anthony Senft did not respond to calls for comment on this story.