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Thursday
Mar232017

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - Ending Bias And Discrimination In Suffolk County

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP

By Karl Grossman

The Suffolk County Human Rights Commission is among the most valuable of all Suffolk County agencies. Founded in 1963, its range in battling bias and discrimination has been vastly expanded through the decades while its staff, unfortunately, is now but a fraction of what it once was.

When I first covered the commission in the 1960s, its principal issue was racial discrimination. Through the decades, it has been tasked by successive Suffolk Legislatures and county executives to take on many other areas of bias. Its website states, “The primary objective of the Commission is to work toward the elimination of bias and discrimination in Suffolk County. This is achieved through public education and complaint investigation.” 

And what a list of issues it has been empowered to deal with!

Its website continues: “Call to speak with an investigator” (or people can file a complaint by email) “if you believe you have been treated unfairly because of your: Race, Sex, Gender, Disability, Military Status, Veteran Status, Arrest/Conviction Record, Religion/Creed, Lawful Source of Income, Status as a Victim of Domestic Violence, Age, Color, National Origin, Sexual Orientation, Pregnancy, Familial Status, Marital Status, Alienage or Citizenship Status.” And the agency “also accepts complaints of undue force or discriminatory treatment against the Suffolk County Police Department.”

The website adds: “There is no fee charged for our services! Call for confidential advice and assistance. Our professional staff will assess your allegations and your options will be explained.”

Dawn Lott (photo courtesy of Amistad Black Bar Association)Amazingly, the commission does its important work now with a full-time staff of just three investigators and an executive director, a Suffolk native, Dawn Lott, an attorney. Ms. Lott, a Smithtown resident originally from Wyandanch, is a graduate of Cornell University and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. This month marks her one-year anniversary at the commission. Further, there are 15 voluntary, unpaid commissioners, a diverse body chaired since 1992 by Rabbi Dr. Steven A. Moss of the B’nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale.

Its office is in the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge. It will also interview complainants from the East End at the Evans K. Griffing Building in Riverhead and conduct hearings there, too. The hearings are presided over by administrative law judges. They are based on the county’s Human Rights Law and can result in orders that the discrimination be stopped and civil penalties be paid.

This month, the Suffolk Legislature unanimously passed a new “Local Law to Change the Standard for Admission of Evidence at Hearings before the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission.”  Introduced at the request of the County Executive Steve Bellone, it notes the commission’s hearings have been modeled on the “rules of evidence applicable in the Supreme Court of the State of New York.” It says “easing the admission and use of relevant evidence from the type of restrictions applied in court to the more relaxed standard commonly applied at administrative hearings will facilitate the inquiry into whether an unlawful discriminatory practice occurred.”

Ms. Lott was at a Melville law firm (where she met her husband, also an attorney) and specialized in employment and civil rights law. In applying to head the Human Rights Commission, she considered it “a great opportunity. Being an employment and civil rights attorney, I felt I could do more in the area of discrimination.”  Moreover, it would be “nice” to work for the county “I’ve lived in.”

Discrimination is not a rarity in Suffolk County. “It is widespread,” said Ms. Lott, two-term past president of the Amistad Black Bar Association of Long Island. And discrimination in “employment has been ranked Number One” in annual reports of the commission for years. This discrimination often involves race and gender with a person not hired or demoted or fired. “Since 1996, it still is the highest category of complaints,” she said.

The Suffolk commission has also, historically, gotten involved in many burning social issues. Indeed, last month, it held a meeting at which recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, begun under President Obama, spoke along with community and religious leaders. If accepted into DACA, undocumented youth who arrived in the U.S. as children can register with the Department of Homeland Security and receive temporary work authorization and protection from deportation. This “has enabled qualifying students to attend college, work, pursue careers,” said the resolution passed by the commission unanimously. It asked the new national administration “to continue and expand DACA protections as a just and humane action.” The commission also unanimously passed a resolution supporting “the LGBTQ community” urging the administration “to reinstate all bathroom protections for transgender students.” And it unanimously passed, too, a resolution decrying recent acts of anti-Semitism in the U.S. and declaring “that diversity is our strength.”

 

Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books.


Thursday
Mar162017

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - Casino Gambling On LI 

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP

By Karl Grossman

Suffolk County suddenly has gotten a major gambling casino smack in middle of the county—indeed, there’s no missing the just-opened Jake’s 58 Hotel & Casino along the Long Island Expressway. It had been the Islandia Marriott Long Island, at 10 stories with 227 rooms, a huge hotel for Suffolk. Islandia is just south of Smithtown in northern Islip Town. 

It was purchased by Delaware North which describes itself as a “global hospitality and food service company” and will be running it with the Suffolk County Regional Off-Track Betting Corporation. Jake’s 58 gets its name from the nearest LIE exit, 58, and the Jacobs family, owner of Buffalo-based Delaware North. 

It is a high-stake gamble for Suffolk OTB. As Newsday’s article was headlined last month, “Suffolk OTB counts on a casino in Islandia to counter bankruptcy.” Indeed, Suffolk OTB officials are hoping the casino will generate $2 billion in gross revenue a year. That would get Suffolk OTB out of bankruptcy which it first filed for in 2011. “Suffolk County OTB executives say Long Island’s first video lottery casino is the agency’s last ditch effort to emerge from bankruptcy and save itself—if the Islandia betting parlor can meet projected revenues,” Newsday reported.

Suffolk OTB—indeed gambling in general in the U.S.—has hit hard times in recent decades. Much of this has to do with what is termed the “casino-saturation problem.” In 1978, only Nevada and New Jersey had commercial casinos. Today, they are in 24 states—and also, gambling on the Internet has been growing.  

Atlantic City was for a time the gambling mecca of the Northeast. But now nearly every state in the region has casinos. As for Atlantic City, which had a dozen huge casinos, now that’s down to seven with the latest one closing last year, Trump Taj Mahal.

“Atlantic City losing to Walmart-style casinos in Pa.” headed a 2013 article in USA Today. “The year 2005 was a very good year for this casino resort,” the piece began. “The eight years since? Awful! The latest figures show gaming revenue has plunged 44%, to around $3 billion.” It went on, “Convenience gambling and regional competition are driving the demise. Casinos with fewer amenities—dismissed recently by a Tropicana casino executive…as ‘Walmarts with slot machines and a bar and a restaurant’—have opened near major population centers.”

Jake’s 58, meanwhile, is not exactly a traditional casino. It is limited to video slot machines—265 of them now and an expected 1,000 by this summer. They are electronic versions of traditional casino games. Suffolk OTB plans to ask for the state’s OK to add an additional 1,000. But this set-up might be fine for Long Islanders seeking to avoid a drive to Atlantic City or Connecticut to bet in their casinos, or a trip upstate.

How Suffolk County got a casino is an odd story. In 2014, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo sought to “reform” the Long Island Power Authority and bring in a New Jersey-based company, PSEG, to be the main utility on the island.  But this was opposed by the island’s state legislators from both parties. According to sources in Albany, Mr. Cuomo pushed a deal, taken to legislators by his then top aide, former Deputy Suffolk County Executive Larry Schwartz. Under it, to aid Nassau and Suffolk’s financially-strapped county governments, they would get the governor’s go-ahead to set up facilities for video slot machines—in return for the lawmakers supporting his “reform” scheme. More than half then went for it.  Originally, Mr. Cuomo had sought to locate new casinos only in economically depressed areas upstate.

In the end, intense public opposition in Nassau County stopped the proposed casino there, but an arrangement was made under which Nassau would receive revenue from a video slot operation in Queens.

Suffolk OTB, in sharp decline, earlier had closed 10 of its 14 gambling locations and sold its Hauppauge headquarters. It faced strong resistance when it sought to site the video slot casino in Medford. Then the Islandia Marriott came on the market. Suffolk OTB officials say this was a top choice all along considering its central location and, unlike Medford, the construction of a new facility wasn’t needed. The hotel could be modified to become a casino.

Suffolk County government is, meanwhile, to receive at least $2 million in the first year, $3 million in the second and then $1 million for each of the next eight years.

The small village of Islandia, created in 1985, has been promised $47 million over 20 years by Delaware North, enough to cut village property taxes by about half for its 3,335 residents, says the village’s mayor, Allan M. Dorman, a big booster of the casino.

But there is a lawsuit pending brought by some area residents seeking to close the Islandia operation. It alleges the village’s approval was fraught with illegalities. They further complain the casino will lead to crime, increased traffic and lower property values.  

Opponents of state-sponsored gambling have also long charged that it hits low-wage earners the hardest, causing debt, broken families and other personal tragedies—that gambling is often addictive and government shouldn’t encourage it. Years ago I researched and wrote an article on the Gamblers Anonymous group. Members spoke of the thrill of gambling—as opposed to betting—the difference being, they explained, they couldn’t afford to lose the money when gambling and this danger caused a certain “high.” They spoke of losing jobs and relationships and becoming hooked on what became a compulsion. Gamblers Anonymous remains active on Long Island and with a new casino here can be expected to be yet more active. 

A recent article in The Atlantic magazine related: “A significant portion of casino revenue now comes from a small percentage of customers, most of them likely addicts, playing machines that are designed explicitly to lull them into a trancelike state that the industry refers to as ‘continuous gaming productivity.’”

 

Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books.


Thursday
Mar092017

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - Upgrading Cesspool Systems With County Help

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP

By Karl Grossman

The Town of East Hampton is moving ahead with a program to provide financial assistance to homeowners and businesses to upgrade their cesspool systems with new technology that drastically reduces nitrogen discharges.

It’s a program that should be county-wide—and could be through a bill authored by State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. 

Some 75 percent of homes in Suffolk use cesspools. The Town of Smithtown is heavily cesspool-dependent. This is problematic because the waste they discharge sends large amounts of nitrogen into the underground water table and are a major cause of what has raised havoc with surface water, causing brown tides and red tides and otherwise setting off eutrophication.

But in recent years there has been the development of new sanitary systems that limit nitrogen discharges to extraordinarily low levels.

The hitch is that they cost about $15,000 each. The Town of East Hampton is creating a program under which rebates would be provided—up to 100 percent of the $15,000. The money would be obtained by a change approved in referenda in the five East End towns in November in their Community Preservation Fund (CPF). Accepted in referenda by East End voters in 1998, it has raised nearly $1.2 billion so far to save farmland, open space and historical sites. The change  allows for 20 percent of money raised by the CPF to be used for water-quality projects including the new low-nitrogen sanitary systems. The basis of CPF is a 2 percent transfer tax on most real estate transactions. It is paid for by buyers. The CPF also last year was extended by 20 years to 2050. 

There’s no such program in western or central Suffolk, although there was an effort several years ago to establish one in Brookhaven Town.

Mr. Thiele, of Sag Harbor, whose district includes Southampton, East Hampton and Shelter Island towns and a piece of Brookhaven Town, too (East Moriches and Center Moriches and parts of Shirley and Mastic) has just introduced a bill to establish a county fund dedicated to water purity so assistance for the installation of the improved systems that would be available countywide. Mr. Thiele has been central to CPF since its outset. His measure is somewhat similar to a proposal advanced by County Executive Steve Bellone last year. It also is  predicated on a charge on the amount of water used. 

However, there was resistance to the Bellone plan by some state legislators who feared  the money might be used by the county for other purposes.

Mr. Thiele’s bill provides tight controls. The monies collected would be in a “lock box” for no other use and, as noted in the measure, monitored through an “annual audit by an outside independent agency.” There would be a 15-member board of trustees administering what would be called the Suffolk County Water Quality Restoration Act. The board would work with an advisory committee. Moreover, the program would only come into being if voters approve it in a countywide referendum. 

It would cover the entire county and on the East End be in addition to monies from the CPF. Mr. Thiele says that even with the CPF, the East End needs all the funding it can get too restore and preserve water quality. 

Also, he said, the state is “probably” going to allot several billions to back clean water initiatives so with the program “Suffolk would be in a position to leverage and attract those dollars.”

Under Mr. Thiele’s measure, there would be a “water quality restoration fee” of one-tenth of one cent per gallon of water usage. The first 125,000 gallons would be exempt. The amount of usage would be figured on the records of the Suffolk County Water Authority and other water companies, and for places where wells are used, a chart outlining estimates. “It is estimated the fee would generate $50 to $60 million annually for water quality improvement projects in the County of Suffolk,” says a state memorandum on Mr. Thiele’s bill.

The East Hampton plan, if approved by the town board, would provide 100 percent—up to $15,000—of the cost of new sanitary systems in the construction of new homes and businesses, mostly in areas designated as water protection districts. All new construction and any house or business undergoing substantial expansion would be required to have the low-nitrogen systems. “New construction, you’ve got to have new technology,” said Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell in a discussion of the plan at a board meeting last month. Outside of water protection districts, property owners replacing existing cesspools would receive half the cost of replacement and for those with modest income, up to three-quarters of the cost. .

Kevin McAllister, founder of the Suffolk organization Defend H20, who has long championed the new low-nitrogen systems, said he is “very pleased that East Hampton has taken the lead on this” and sees the county overall as “making great strides” in bringing the new low-nitrogen systems to Suffolk.

Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books.


Sunday
Mar052017

SUFOLK CLOSEUP - $8.1 Million For Signs That No One Seems To Want

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP 

By Karl Grossman

Leaving New York State and entering Vermont is almost like going to another country. One leaves the billboards and other signs that litter the New York landscape and go to a state that is billboard-free.

In recent times, adding to its sign pollution, New York State has erected—all over Long Island and upstate—signs boosting itself. “The New York State Experience,” reads one of the many signs. “New York Outdoor Recreation,” says another. And there’s “New York Attractions” and “New York History” and “New York Food & Beverages.”

They’re almost a state governmental version of the Burma-Shave signs which littered U.S. highways between 1925 and 1963 when they were removed after the Burma-Vita company, in decline, was sold.

And the New York State signs have been put up with our tax money. An Associated Press article last month said the state has spent $8.1 million on its “I Love NY” sign program.

The signs have not been loved by most people on Long Island, with some exceptions. “They make me think about the good things that New York State has to offer,” wrote Mick Du Russel of Lake Ronkonkoma in a recent letter-to-the-editor in Newsday. I’d say he is in a distinct minority. Out in Montauk, there was an uproar over the signs. “They’re ridiculous,” said East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell in July, a month after the program began. “They’re totally out of character in Montauk.” The state agreed to take down most in Montauk.

Similarly, after complaints from residents and elected officials, most of the state signs erected in Port Jefferson and Orient were removed.  Port Jefferson Mayor Margot Garant spoke of efforts at “cleaning things up” in the village and, of the state signs, “they’re ugly.”

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said the signs in Orient were “counterproductive” as they blocked scenic views. One state sign was posted “right in front” of a nature preserve—and the sign, instead of the preserve, should “not be the first thing” people see getting off the ferry from Connecticut, arriving in New York. 

The Federal Highway Administration jumped into the situation charging in November that the signs are a safety hazard, a distraction to drivers, and were illegal under U.S. and New York State laws. It threatened a cut in federal funding for highway and bridge projects if the signs weren’t removed. The state has “agreed that no more will go up while we’re in negotiations” with federal officials, a spokesperson for the state Department of Transportation said last month. A Federal Highway Administration spokesperson said a “moratorium” was put in place and the state “has agreed to not post any new signs, and we have discussed with them removing the existing signs.” 

Meanwhile, the state sign brouhaha has spawned a new Suffolk County anti-billboard effort. Good news!

Suffolk Legislator Al Krupski of Cutchogue has just introduced a “Local Law Prohibiting Billboards on County Highways.” His measure notes that “billboards are common along many major roadways throughout the county” and they “can be distracting to drivers navigating roads, limit sight lines and contribute to accidents.” They are “also unappealing on an aesthetic level, detracting from the natural environment.” His bill “concludes that the county should prohibit the placement of billboards on county road rights-of-way.”

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine earlier wrote a letter to the Suffolk Legislature asking that the county follow in Brookhaven Town’s “footsteps and adopt legislation that would phase out billboards along county roads.” Billboards “distract drivers” and take away from “the beauty of the area,” he says. 

New York State indeed has many “good things” to “offer.” But they don’t need to be pushed Burma-Shave sign-like with many hundreds of highway signs proclaiming it.

In 1968, Vermont passed its landmark anti-billboard law. An example of citizen action, its passage is credited as largely the result of extraordinary efforts by one person, Ted Riehle. He “believed strongly…that Vermont would benefit financially and aesthetically…Time has proven him right,” says the Scenic America website (www.scenic.org). Maine, Alaska and Hawaii now have their own anti-billboard statutes. As do “1,500 cities and communities,” Scenic America notes. Of course, entities led by the Outdoor Advertising Association of America fight this.  

New York State should get tougher on billboards. To have them blot the beautiful mountains of upstate New York and landscape of Long Island is wrong. For starters, the state should immediately end its part in causing sign pollution along our roadways.

 

Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books.


Thursday
Oct062016

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - SC Budget "Elephant In The Room"

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP

By Karl Grossman

It’s a record-high budget recommended for Suffolk County government for 2017 by County Executive Steve Bellone—$2.96 billion, 1.5% higher than this year’s. 

Mr. Bellone says the budget is “tight but fair.”

A critic of the Bellone administration’s financial management, Suffolk Legislator Rob Trotta of Fort Salonga, whose district includes a good portion of the Town of Smithtown, says: “Suffolk County’s financial situation is a sinking ship.”

Under Mr. Bellone’s recommended budget there would be no property tax increase countywide but a 3.6% jump in the taxes in county police district. The district is comprised of the five western Suffolk towns except for villages that have retained their own police departments. For an “average” household in the district now paying $1,164 yearly for county police services, this would add $43.

There would be new and increased fees. Among new fees would be a mortgage filing fee of $300, and nonprofit organizations given funding by the county will be charged a new 1% “surcharge” as an “administrative fee.” Also, a county “administrative fee” on traffic tickets for moving violations would be doubled to $60.

And, the county executive would be “authorized, directed and empowered to institute parking fees at LIRR stations where the county has an ownership,” and for the Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services to “increase fees for fire and safety inspections currently performed at public schools and school districts.” Further, the county executive would be “authorized, directed and empowered to increase such other fees and fines to offset increased administrative expenses as is appropriate and necessary.”

There would be the elimination of some county services including the public health home visiting nurse services program, smoking cessation program and the “ShotSpotter” program that is used by police to detect gunshots as far as a mile away to more quickly respond. Dropping the visiting nurse program is seen as saving $1.5 million, cutting the smoking cessation program $500,000, and eliminating the “SpotSpotter” program $390,000.

The Suffolk Legislature can amend the recommended budget. The executive can veto its changes and the legislature can override vetoes. 

Mr. Bellone in his narrative in the budget document blames the county government’s financial problems on lower sales tax receipts because of lower gasoline prices. “Stagnant sales tax revenues have continued to negatively impact the budget,” he says. “Sales tax revenues, the largest single revenue sources for Suffolk County, has experienced several years of below-average growth…Sales tax revenues continue to be impacted by lower prices at the pump.” 

Has bad financial stewardship by Suffolk government also contributed to the situation?  

For years there have been county legislators who have pointed to this. Among them were Legislator Joseph Rizzo of Islip Terrace who voted no on expenditure after expenditure even if he was a minority of one and similarly frugal Legislator Tony Bullock of East Hampton who each Thanksgiving announced his “Stuffed Turkey Awards” for cases of waste in Suffolk government.

These days, Legislator Trotta is a leading critic of the financial conduct of the county government administration. “If you told me two-and-a-half years ago it was so screwed up, I wouldn’t believe it,” Mr. Trotta said last week referring to when he became a Suffolk County legislator after being a Suffolk Police officer for 25 years, most of these as a detective. “It’s bizarre, really.”

The fiscal “elephant in the room,” said Mr. Trotta, “is the 28% pay increase in an eight-year contract” agreed to by the Bellone administration.  “I don’t blame the [police] unions. Their job was to get the most for their members.” But now increased annual pay hikes in the contract “are kicking in, sales tax revenue is flat” and the Bellone administration is “in a hole” and desperate. 

Mr. Bellone in his budget narrative defends his administration’s financial stewardship. He says “we have created new recurring sources of revenue, limited hiring, cut expenditures, and significantly reduced the size of county government. Suffolk government currently is the smallest it has been since 1993, and is nearly 1,300 positions less than the day I took office.”

As to the county’s financial situation, Mr. Bellone says the “only long-term solution is to invest in economic development.” Will that work? This is a big reason why Mr. Bellone has been pushing for sewering in Suffolk—to encourage development which he sees as bringing a financial shot-in-the-arm. Cesspools on which much of Suffolk is dependent—some 30% of Suffolk is sewered—limit commercial and housing development. But neighboring Nassau County is 90% sewered, has become heavily developed, Nassau’s property taxes are much higher than Suffolk’s and its government has been in financial shambles for years. That has resulted, since 2000, in the imposition of a Nassau County Interim Finance Authority, its seven members appointed by state officials, with the power in Nassau to “monitor and oversee the county’s finances.”

Mr. Trotta says a similar state oversight authority is now necessary in Suffolk.

 

Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books.