June 14, 2006
Locals To County: Bring It On
The annual battle for bucks began in Hauppauge last week. In the East End corner, Legislators Jay Schneiderman and Ed Romaine. In the west end corner, pretty much everybody else on the legislature.
Romaine has submitted legislation looking to codify a formula that would guarantee East End municipalities receive their fair piece of a sales tax revenue sharing pie. Earmarked for public safety, the money is supposed to be distributed among municipalities that maintain their own police departments as well as the county police district. For years East Enders have complained they don't receive a fair share.
At the outset of his term, Romaine proposed developing a formula for the distribution based on population. Last week members of the committee reviewing the proposal expressed vehement opposition to the plan.
Legislator Cameron Alden (R. Islip) called for an audit to determine how many police services county cops provide to the municipalities. Schneiderman replied, "Bring it on." So did East Hampton Village Police Chief Jerry Larsen and Town Police Chief Todd Sarris. Southampton Town Supervisor Skip Heaney summarized the reaction of all three upon learning of the suggestion: "Though done for the wrong reason, the audit would only serve to benefit the East End." It would prove, locals believe, that the county doesn't give anywhere near what it gets in terms of police money. Said Romaine, "Any audit will demonstrate we're being shortchanged and paying for services we're not receiving."
Democratic majority leader Jon Cooper reprised an argument used last go round, when then-Legislator Mike Caracciolo of the North Fork proposed using a population formula for determining the distribution. Around this same time last year, County Executive Steve Levy said using a population formula could set a bad precedent. What if a population formula were used to decide funding in other programs such as open space preservation, he worried. Asked if he was threatening to curtail funding purchases on the East End, Levy made clear he wouldn't, "but west end legislators might."
Cooper, who hails from as west as it gets – Lloyd Harbor – appeared to do just that last week. Schneiderman likened it to "comparing apples to Chevrolets." Whole county funds are used to purchase open space, which benefits all of Suffolk and can be used throughout the county, as opposed to the revenue sharing money, most of which benefits only the county police district, he argued. The two programs defy comparison, he opined.
Dick Amper of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society agrees. Mother Nature doesn't draw a line between the east and west ends of Suffolk, he offered. Politicians shouldn't either.
"No politician should threaten a countywide land preservation program as a justification for not providing appropriate funds for police protection," he said.
The first role of government is protecting the health and safety of the people, the environmentalist reminded. Preserving open space protects health and adequate police protection protects safety. They can't do one or the other; they have to do both. Amper disparaged the warning against using a population formula as an idle threat. "Nice try," he said, adding "Why don't they just threaten to nuke the East End towns if they don't come along nicely?"
This week, East Hampton Supervisor Bill McGintee was more conciliatory in his comments. While he applauded the local legislators for advocating for the region, the supervisor said, "When we get into win-lose politics, everybody loses and nobody wins." He'd like to see politics stay out of the debate and favors a phased in program that would provide a full entitlement over time, without busting the county budget.
Heaney was less willing to make non-partisan nice. It appears to him that members of the legislature's Democratic majority "will make any kind of bad decision just because it hurts the East End," he said.
Both Romaine and Schneiderman are part of the body's Republican minority. Heaney extolled the pair for continuing to fight for the North and South Forks, adding, "to the Democrats I say 'Wail away, you'll only strengthen their support.'"
Romaine also spoke of political maneuvering coloring the debate. He said he was aware the majority would likely kill the measure, but vowed, "This is not an issue I'm going to give up. I'll keep trying because if I stop talking about it, it will die."
There was one last aspect of the debate that prompted laughter, not talking, locally. During the committee discussion Legislator Vivian Fisher (D. East Setauket) suggested it might be time to disband town and village police departments and use county cops to provide protection across Suffolk. Larsen, Heaney, and Sarris all chortled at the notion. That's not a decision county legislators can make, Larsen pointed out. If they did, it would be awfully costly. Sarris noted county cops make "tens of thousands of dollars per officer" more than local police.