The Suffolk County legislative plan to stop public campaign financing before it begins cobbles together many controversial issues.
Last week, the legislature voted to end the program, 11-4, with two Democrats and one Republican abstaining. County Executive Steve Bellone says he will veto the repeal, and it's unclear whether Presiding Officer Kevin McCaffrey can muster the votes to override him.
But McCaffrey has an ingenious plan to put pressure on legislators to help him ax the public campaign financing program, so despised by the Police Benevolent Association and other power players because it could level a playing field they prefer to tilt their way: Promise to dedicate the $2.6 million that would be saved to a host of other, highly popular ideas.
The biggest of these is ShotSpotter, which the county halted in 2019. District Attorney Ray Tierney, Police Commissioner Rodney Harrison and Bellone support resuming the program. Tierney argues it’s better technology now than previously, and he and Harrison say they had positive experiences with it while working in New York City. And, as Tierney recently told the legislature’s Public Safety Committee, shootings and gun homicides in Suffolk have grown significantly each year since the program ended.
Tierney wants to install the technology in eight crime-challenged communities, covering 22 square miles; he says this 1% of the county sees 50% of its gun violence. Tierney can’t fund it with his share of federal forfeiture money, he argues, because the funds have been frozen since the U.S. Justice Department began a probe in 2020 of how the office was using the money.
So, McCaffrey argues, take the $1.8 million that’s needed for ShotSpotter from the canceled campaign financing to fight crime — and save lives. And with what’s left, remove a hated red-light camera or two in every legislative district. And, with what’s left of what’s left, add incentive money for tough-to-fill positions: 911 operators and Department of Social Services caseworkers.
That's all misguided.
The county ought to try public campaign financing, which was passed in 2017 but would not have started until 2023, when it could be accessed by county executive and legislature candidates. Suffolk ought to have ShotSpotter technology, which has improved audio and notification features and has been found increasingly useful in conjunction with doorbell and business surveillance cameras now dotting every street. The county ought to incentivize hiring crucial workers. And if it can really show that a few specific red-light cameras have made intersections more deadly, it ought to take them down, revenue be damned.
Suffolk has the money, with coffers bulging from federal pandemic aid, surprisingly high sales-tax revenues, and 1,000 new video lottery terminals slated for Jake's 58, the source of the campaign finance money, to do all those things.
Suffolk can fund better elections and public safety and needed positions — and it should.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.