Bellone touts progress, says more must follow in State of the County

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Democratic Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone touted his record on taxes and spending in his annual State of the County address at Newfield High School in Selden Thursday evening.

Bellone said he's helped put the county's government -- which was once $500 million in debt -- on the path to fiscal responsibility.

And although the county has remained below the state's tax cap, he criticized the GOP tax plan's limiting of the state and local tax reduction, or SALT reduction.

MORE: See the full State of the County address

MORE: Q&A with Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone

MORE: Tom Cilmi delivers GOP rebuttal

Bellone said Long Islanders send billions more in tax dollars to Washington than they receive in return.

"If Washington is listening tonight, I have a message on behalf of all Long Islanders: We will not rest until you restore the tax deductions that make home ownership possible on Long Island," he said.

The county executive also said he is exploring ways to keep young people on Long Island.

"Too many of them have left for other parts of the country, where they are working to power their regional economies," he said.

Some of those efforts include recent downtown revitalization projects around the county, he said -- including the Uptown Funk development in Port Jefferson and the Ronkonkoma Hub project alongside its namesake train station.

Improving the Ronkonkoma LIRR station and the nearby Long Island MacArthur Airport would be critical to the county's economic future and reducing commuting times for residents, Bellone said.

The county executive also touted a county program to track and use data to save money and increase efficiency on county employees. He also said the voluntary pay cut he took when he came into the office seven years ago would save taxpayers $250,000.

He also took aim at rising health care costs.

"Since 2013, major medical, prescription and hospital costs have risen more than 40 percent," he said. "These costs are unsustainable."

Bellone's proposed solution is for the county to hire an expert to figure out why and find a solution to the steadily climbing costs.

Like his Nassau counterpart Laura Curran, he announced reforms to the county's process to award contracts.

"Government has spent years wrapping itself in red tape," he said. "Our procurement model on many fronts must be examined and ultimately reformed on many fronts."

And he lauded Gov. Andrew Cuomo's effort to get local municipalities from around the state to share services and described the county's own efforts to improve upon that cost-saving system. It's called Suffolk Share, and among the items it includes is the Suffolk School Recycling Program, which linked six school districts and around 6,000 students to a single recycling effort.

On the topic of education, he also praised East Hampton Middle School teacher Cara Nelson for running seven marathons on seven continents in just seven days to raise money for students.

"I have run four marathons in four years," he joked, before praising her dedication. 

Another teacher he singled out for praise was Christina Cassel from the Southampton School District, who was named the state's 2018 Agriculture in the Classroom Teacher of the Year. The county supported her district's East End Farm to School grant that funded her efforts to teach students to grow food indoors and outdoors.

Bellone said he chose to give his address in a school rather than the County Legislative Building to highlight the epidemic of mass shootings across the country.

"No child should have to stand in a classroom and think, 'Where is the best place to avoid being shot?'" he said.

And he praised the county police department for arresting 222 alleged MS-13 members last year.

"We have no intention of letting up on eliminating this violent gang from our county once and for all," he said.

Other items he mentioned were the renewal of the Zadroga health bill in Congress, the selection of the bike-sharing company Zagster to set up a program in Suffolk, the return of the US Open Golf Championship to Southampton this summer and an upcoming TV festival on the North Fork.

"When we focus on growing our economy, good things happen," he said, like increases in both sales tax revenue and home values.

He stressed the importance of the county's clean water initiative and noted its success thus far.

"Never before in our county have we seen such a unified effort among such a diverse group of stakeholders to address a problem that is of fundamental importance to our environment and our economy," Bellone said.

But he said the county could take its program further by expanding its sewer system and installing water treatment systems to remove nitrogen before it runs off into Long Island's coastal waters. That requires finding funding sources to help subsidize the costs for homeowners.

One such source, Bellone said, is a voter-approved grant program that first passed in 2014.

The executive closed his address with a call for bipartisanship, community bonds and a benediction for local military personnel killed in the line of the duty over the past year. Those included four members of the 106th Air National Guard unit, Major Andy O'Keefe, Major Christopher Zanetis, Tech. Sgt. DeShaun Briggs and Master Sgt. Chris Raguso.

In the Republican rebuttal to the address, Legislator Tom Cilmi, the county Legislature's minority leader, criticized Bellone's efforts on taxes and to stop young people from moving off Long Island.

He also said he opposed the executive's water initiative and said he favored exploring cheaper ways to achieve similar results.

And he blasted the Democratic executive's record of imposing county fees -- some of which are currently being challenged in court.

"Republicans have introduced legislation to cap fee increases," he said.

And he also criticized Bellone for hiring political appointees with six-figure salaries, which he blamed in part for the county's $2 billion debt.

"Abraham Lincoln once said "You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today,"' he said, invoking the nation's first Republican president. "We agree."

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