Suffolk Closeup: Eye on County Executive Race

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Karl Grossman

Facing each other in the top election race this year in Suffolk County — for county executive — are the incumbent, Steve Bellone, seeking a third, four-year term, and County Comptroller John M. Kennedy, Jr. who has served in various positions in Suffolk government for 33 years.

A big advantage for Mr. Bellone, a Democrat, is already having a campaign fund of $2 million. Mr. Kennedy, a Republican, has a fraction of that.

Mr. Kennedy is a former Suffolk County legislator who has also held posts in the offices of county executive and county clerk. He has been highly critical of Mr. Bellone, notably of Mr. Bellone’s handling of county financial matters about which Mr. Kennedy opened his campaign.

Mr. Bellone, a lawyer, was a member of the Babylon Town Board and that town’s supervisor before his election as county executive. He got off to a bumpy start. “Suffolk Exec’s First Year, Out of The Office,” was the front-page banner headline of Newsday in 2013. The article began: “Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone was absent from the office for days at a time or longer during his first year on the job and often was difficult to reach, said four high-level sources with direct knowledge of his schedule.” He “would spend hours at a time during workdays at restaurants, and aides who were searching for him even monitored Twitter uses for reported sightings.”  The piece quoted one source as saying: “He would not return phone calls, sometimes for five days; it was very challenging.”

Instead of being in his office in the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge, “Bellone spent hours at a time during the week at restaurants, primarily Panera Bread in North Babylon, not far from his home, all of the sources said.” During this period, the county faced a “projected three-year deficit of as much as $530 million.”

Mr. Bellone was quoted in the article as saying he felt “very isolated and the public doesn’t come in” to the Dennison Building. The piece went on that following Suffolk being hit by superstorm Sandy, he “has been far more engaged in daily operations.” In recent times, Mr. Bellone has been quite active generating news.

He has promoted diversity most recently calling for the Suffolk Police Department to be “more diverse…The world around us is changing,” he said in a presentation this month. On the environmental front, he had the county challenge the lawsuit brought by the Long Island Pine Barrens Society that would have crippled the nationally-renown Suffolk County Farmland Preservation Program. Big priorities have been development in Suffolk — such as the “Ronkonkoma Hub” project — to ostensibly provide an economic shot, and also wastewater treatment for the area.

Mr. Kennedy of Nesconset worked at nearby Kings Park Psychiatric Center while attending Stony Brook University where he received a B.A. in psychology. After graduation, he became a counselor and administrator at a New York State Office of Mental Health outpatient program. He went on to law school and in addition to being an attorney has a master’s degree in business administration with a concentration in capital budgeting.

Mr. Kennedy starting working for Suffolk County government in 1986, under County Executive Peter F. Cohalan, a Republican, in the executive’s Office for the Aging. Mr. Kennedy then served a succession of county executives, two Republicans and Democrat Patrick Halpin, and in 1995 held a high position in the county clerk’s office. He was elected to the Suffolk Legislature in 2003 and was its Republican minority leader between 2012 and 2014 when he was first elected Suffolk comptroller, the county’s chief financial officer and fiscal watchdog.

His online biography stresses his advocacy as a county legislator of measures “preserving local open space, groundwater and ecosystems.” In recent weeks, he, too, has hit a bumpy stretch, for sending out federal 1099 tax forms to Suffolk homeowners who have entered the county’s Residential Septic Incentive Program. It provides $10,000 to $20,000 grants toward installation of “advanced” wastewater treatment systems that substantially reduce nitrogen discharges which have caused serious pollution to bays and other water bodies. Homeowners fearing they may be liable for thousands of dollars in taxes have complained and so has the Bellone administration which says this would be contrary to a legal opinion it has received.

Mr. Kennedy was re-elected last year. As comptroller he has charged Mr. Bellone with “a complete absence of leadership” causing Suffolk to be “on the precipice of financial crisis.” He announced his candidacy for county executive in front of the Dennison Building last month declaring that Mr. Bellone “deserves an F” for repeated Wall Street downgrades of county bonds. “We’re saying enough is enough,” he said. “We will stop the hemorrhaging. We will stop the bleeding. We will cut up the credit cards. We will start to pay our debts…We will save Suffolk.”

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