Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman and his Republican opponent, Southampton Town Councilman Chris Nuzzi, debate county finances at Monday night’s League of Women Voters of the Hamptons debate.
By Kathryn G. Menu
The state of the county’s finances, and whether 10 year Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman has done enough in his tenure to protect taxpayers, was the central focus of a League of Women Voters (LWV) of the Hamptons debate between Schneiderman and his Republican challenger Chris Nuzzi Monday night.
The debate, moderated by LWV Voter Services co-chair Anne Marshall included questions from panelists — East Hampton Star editor and publisher David Rattray, LWV community leader Estelle Gellman and The Press Newsgroup copy editor and reporter Virginia Garrison, as well as questions from the audience.
Schneiderman, a native and current resident of Montauk, is a member of the Independence Party, also endorsed by the Democratic Party and the Working Families Party. Nuzzi, also born at Southampton Hospital, has the support of his own party as well as the Conservative Party. A member of the Southampton Town Board, Nuzzi and his family live in Westhampton Beach.
Touting his record, Schneiderman opened by noting that in his 10 years representing the South Fork as the 2nd District’s Suffolk County Legislator over 1,600 acres have been preserved by Suffolk County on the South Fork, equal to $100 million in preservation, including large swaths of farmland and open space. Schneiderman added that while in office property tax rates and sales tax have not been increased, and he has also been able to accomplish projects like the widening of County Road 39, adding a Sunday and holiday county bus route and closing the homeless sex offender trailers in western Southampton.
Nuzzi opened his remarks on the offensive, charging that Schneiderman — a member of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s budget working group — is a part of a county government responsible for what he said was a mounting $100 million to $180 million deficit, with programs like the drinking water protection fund essentially defunded. He added the county’s infrastructure needs to be something it is committed to, as well as revamping septic system regulations to help increase water quality.
“I think it is time for an independent vision with new leadership and that comes from more than party affiliation,” said Nuzzi.
Rattray asked Nuzzi to follow up on his opening, and offered Schneiderman the chance for a rebuttal.
Schneiderman said that Nuzzi’s $100 million to $180 million estimate on the county’s budget deficit was far beyond the reality of the deficit figures. Schneiderman estimated that at the close of 2013, the county deficit would be $8 million in the general fund and $4 million in the police department fund. Those deficits, he added, are expected to be wiped out in the 2014 budget.
“In one year we lost $100 million in sales tax revenue,” said Schneiderman. “We also saw mandated expenses rise by $200 million.”
The county had to take what he referred to as “drastic draconian action,” cutting the work force by 20 percent, a $200 million savings, among other cost saving measures.
“We have seen sales tax revenue growing — and that is important — by roughly seven percent in the last two years,” added Schneiderman.
Nuzzi countered by stating that according to the legislature budget review office’s analysis of the 2014 county budget, the county is planning to borrow money to pay for operating costs, something that would require state legislation which has yet to be passed. He added it also includes a number of one-time revenue sources, like $17 million for the sale of a county nursing home and the $70 million sale and leaseback of the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge.
Nuzzi noted that the Town of Southampton was also financially hurt during the economic downturn, but that it did not turn to one-time revenue sources to mend its own budget.
“That is how the county has been doing it and it is just not sustainable,” said Nuzzi.
Improving water quality on the East End and protecting estuaries and bays is an issue virtually every candidate on the Twin Forks has advocated for during this campaign season and the county legislator candidates were no different.
Schneiderman noted he was behind a county bill that created a setback for the use of fertilizers of 20 feet, and he is currently trying to get the pesticide methoprene, an insect growth regulator that can be lethal to lobsters and crabs, restricted from being used to combat mosquitos in county estuaries.
“One of the big stressors on the marine systems is nitrogen,” said Schneiderman, adding the county is now approving five new septic systems that lower the amount of nitrogen released from a system and into the environment.
Nuzzi agreed, but noted that the county has yet to approve a system that is not out of range for the average single-family homeowner, the demographic that makes up the vast majority of septic system users in Suffolk County. Nuzzi said the county health department should have long ago been tasked to come up with an affordable, nitrogen reducing septic system in an effort to deal with this very real problem.
He added environmental preservation was also key and said on the East End towns were lucky to have funding through the Peconic Bay Community Preservation Fund (CPF).
“That doesn’t mean we don’t need a partner sometimes,” said Nuzzi, adding while towns have looked to the county as a preservation partner, particularly for large tracts of land, the county no longer has funding for preservation — the monies now used to pay debt service on prior purchases and for staff.
Rattray wondered what and if farmland preservation initiatives were available on the South Fork in the near future.
“I think that goes back to addressing the environmental preservation program that is currently out of money,” said Nuzzi, calling for a reorganization of the program moving forward.
“Before the towns even had CPF the county preserved a lot of farmland in this area,” said Schneiderman, noting much of the preserved farmland along Long Lane in East Hampton was preserved by Suffolk County.
In terms of the current budget for preservation, Schneiderman said the county borrowed $300 million so it could purchase the pieces of property immediately rather than wait for the revenues to come in over time.
“Today unless we get a new revenue source we will not be able to partner the way we have been able to partner with the towns,” said Schneiderman, adding the towns’ CPFs are robust and should enable preservation to continue without pause.
Last summer a couple of car accidents — one fatal — shut down County Road 39 in Southampton for several hours, virtually cutting off the main transportation artery into the South Fork in the height of the summer season.
Garrison wondered what plans could be employed to eliminate some of those issues on County Road 39.
Nuzzi, who noted the widening of the roadway was a joint effort between the county and Southampton Town, said there are limitations in terms of infrastructure. The roadway cannot be widened anymore, he said.
“What I think we can do is have a better working relationship, with the county medical examiner, for example,” he said, adding alerting drivers to any accident with the potential to shut down an important roadway like County Road 39 would aid in keeping some drivers off the road. Working on alternative routes, he added, was also important.
“But I think communication and working on alternatives just to move traffic through so it doesn’t bottleneck as it did last summer is important,” said Nuzzi.
Schneiderman noted prior to the widening of the road, the daily bottleneck of County Road 39 was debilitating to the region’s economy.
Agreeing with Nuzzi that further widening of the road was not possible, Schneiderman said looking at timing of traffic lights, electronic traffic signs and perhaps an ambulance barn closer to County Road 39 could be ways to reduce the impact of serious accidents.
“It is never going to be perfect and if there is an accident, traffic is going to slow down,” he added.
Rattray noted that as the owner of a tremendous amount of woodlands the county should have a substantial role in the ongoing discussions about deer and vector control. He asked the candidates to address the culling of deer herds.
Schneiderman said he has recently passed legislation requiring the $2.5 million budget for vector control to also include a comprehensive plan to combat ticks and tick borne illnesses. He said the county can also look at maintenance to reduce tick populations, like keeping county roadways mowed as well as better trail maintenance. Looking to healthcare for better diagnostic tools, he added, is also important moving forward.
“I think we have to bring down the herd size,” he said in terms of culling, adding deer pose not just a public health issue because of tick borne illnesses but also impact road safety and landscaping.
“It’s an issue we have been struggling with for more than 30 years,” said Nuzzi, who advocates for a coordinated approach to dealing with deer, ticks and tick borne illnesses. Culling, he agreed is an important tool. He questioned why it took Schneiderman so many years to come up with his recent legislation. Nuzzi also said the county should provide financial resources to deal with the deer and tick issue on a regional basis.
“The county as the regional body is best suited to work on behalf of all of the East End towns, especially when it comes to funding,” said Nuzzi.
“These are important times in government here in Suffolk County and there is a lot to be done,” said Nuzzi. “I would ask are we better off in Suffolk County than we were 10 years ago. I don’t think we are.”
Nuzzi again pointed to county finances, water quality, the lack of affordable septic technologies and regulations.
“We might not always agree but you will always know where I stand,” said Nuzzi.
Schneiderman, who is running for his sixth and final term in the legislature, said his priority is protecting the character of the community and the environment. He has been endorsed by Southampton Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, Congressman Tim Bishop and New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr., among others, he noted.
“The one that matters is you — the public,” he said. “I hope people look at my record and see I am working hard for them.”