September 20, 2006

Sharks, Seahorses, Salad and Steve

Given the venue, he might have reported that things are going along "swimmingly." But, no. Speaking before the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce at a meeting at Atlantis Marine World, County Executive Steve Levy eschewed aquatic-related puns. Instead, he waxed optimistic and self-congratulatory reporting on issues both countywide and related specifically to Riverhead.

On the whole county front, Levy announced the release that day of a budget boasting a third consecutive general fund tax cut. Acknowledging that the county portion makes up a small percentage of the average homeowners' tax bill, Levy nonetheless espoused a desire to "lead by example." In general, he opined that taxes on Long Island are at a "confiscatory level," with levies used to support school systems now amounting for two thirds of the bill.

Since he took office in 2004, the county executive sought to offer an exemplar of smart management, by removing traditional perks, like county vehicles and junkets. He took a lower salary, laid off the county funded chauffeur, and pays his staff less than he might have. In fact, he laid claim to a 10 percent downward shift in the county tax bill over the course of his reign in Hauppauge.

Though his budgetary philosophies have been condemned by political foes as little more than smoke and mirrors, Levy pointed out that analyses by independent agencies led to the highest bond ratings in Suffolk history. That doesn't happen unless the budget is sound, he pointed out.

Moving to issues specific to the county seat, Levy touted a "wonderful partnership" with Riverhead Town Supervisor Phil Cardinale. Speaking of the supervisor's vision for revitalizing downtown, Levy praised, "What he's doing down here is cause for a lot of hope." Last Wednesday night, Levy reported, the county hosted a summit designed to help preserve downtown districts across Suffolk. A bustling downtown area depicts the economic vitality of a community and, he said, "it's where you get a sense of community. You are defined by your downtown."

Efforts at revitalization have a "contagious" effect, the county executive continued. Rehabilitating and renewing one dilapidated property often can spur other entrepreneurs to similar action.

The notion meshes well with his efforts to create a business friendly climate in Suffolk County, while staying true to a heritage of environmental sensitivity. Economic growth and environmental preservation are not mutually exclusive when pre-developed areas are redeveloped and revitalized.

In Riverhead, Levy said Suffolk County has made a panoply of financial commitments to aid in bringing the vision of Riverhead as the gateway to the East End to fruition. Funds have been allocated toward the new culinary institute on Main Street, as well as theater and arts initiatives and improvements to the local parks. The future of Riverhead's downtown is "much more on the upswing," Levy said.

Aside from helping to underwrite physical improvements, the county has also lent a hand with improving quality of life in downtown Riverhead. Undercover county cops have collaborated with RTPD on gang and drug related investigations. Levy predicted the successful collaboration, which he said resulted in dozens of arrests, will continue.

Continuing with the cop theme, Levy told Cardinale "the check is in the mail." His budget provides for an extra $500,000 to be shared among towns and villages that maintain their own police departments. Levy agreed with an audience member who opined that Riverhead has fewer resources to allocate to public safety and ought to receive more money than wealthier towns like East Hampton and Southampton. However, he explained that the distribution is based on sales tax revenues. "It should be more on need, but East Hamptonites and Southamptonites would argue they generate most of the sales tax," Levy said.

Asked to speak about his plan to enforce immigration through requiring contractors to verify their employees are legally eligible to work in the United States, Levy predicted the plan would pass the legislature. It was slated to be voted on yesterday, as The Independent went to press. Although opponents have received plenty of publicity, Levy said, "I can tell you 90 percent of the public is saying 'enforce the darn law.'"

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