The debates this week between incumbent Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman and his Republican challenger, Cornelius Kelly, focused largely on Kelly’s criticism of Schneiderman’s effectiveness in the legislature.
The candidates squared off during two debates sponsored by the League of Women Voters, first at Rogers Memorial Library on Thursday evening and then on Monday night at LTV Studios in Wainscott.
The incumbent candidate, an Independence Party member who is also running on the Democratic line, spent time at the debates defending his job performance, which he notes includes a history of preserving land on the East End, as well as his overall record of serving the South Fork during two terms in office.
Both debates focused on the same issues, namely land preservation, the county’s spending and a $150-to-$180 million budget gap, as well as the effectiveness of services like Sunday bus service and the ongoing battle with the county over sex offender trailers in Westhampton and Riverside.
“I am running for office because I don’t like what is going on with the county’s finances,” said Kelly, a businessman from East Quogue during Monday night’s debate.
With a $2.7 billion budget, Kelly said Suffolk County spends more than most states.
“What are we getting for that out on the East End,” he asked. “A few plowed roads?”
In his opening remarks, Schneiderman countered that the county’s biggest issue is not spending, but a lack of revenue, citing that residents on the East End have not seen an increase in property taxes from the county in the seven budgets that have passed while he has been on the legislature.
“People have told me they want certain things of their elected representatives,” said Schneiderman. “Someone who would protect the character of the community, which I have.”
Schneiderman pointed to the “thousands of acres” that have been preserved during his time on the legislature, as well as during his previous position as East Hampton Town Supervisor. He also noted that he was able to have County Road 39 in Southampton expanded in an effort to reduce traffic issues and succeeded in bringing Sunday bus service to the East End during the summer.
Moderators at both debates asked whether or not that service should be expanded year round and how it would be funded.
Kelly said the last figures he looked at for the Sunday bus service, which was accomplished by raising bus fares from $1.50 to $2 on the S-90 bus line, showed running the extra day of bus service resulted in a $20,000 deficit.
“I do not think that it should continue all year,” he said on Thursday night. “It was a money loser. Instead I would advocate for additional train service. More trains means less cars on the road, less congestions, and less overall pollution”
“Sunday is a really critical day out here in the summer,” noted Schneiderman.
While the service may have not broken even this year, he added that was likely the case because it did not begin until July. He also noted that he has worked on a bill to provide interconnected Sunday bus routes throughout the county.
With Suffolk County facing a $150-to-$180 budget shortfall in the coming year, at Monday night’s debate, candidates were asked how they would close that gap.
“It is very hard to close a $200 million hole,” said Schneiderman, noting that in the past the county has looked at selling assets, but that is a short-term solution to a larger problem.
With 1.5 million people, Schneiderman added, Suffolk County is larger in population than most states, which is one of the reasons it boasts such a large annual budget. Facing a budget shortfall, he said, meant the county was unable to fund programs like the East End Hospice in order to ensure residents do not face a hike in property taxes. There are only so many people the county can layoff, he added, without threatening basic services.
“We lost $100 million in revenues when the recession hit and it has never come back,” said Schneiderman. “And the state has dumped mandate after mandate on us.”
It is those mandates, not increases in spending that have led to the budget shortfall he said.
“We don’t have a spending problem, we have a revenue problem,” he said on Thursday night, adding that he supports programming like the county-funded East Hampton Clinic, but would like to make it a walk-in clinic model in order to increase its efficiency.
According to Schneiderman, the clinic serves 1,500 patients through 7,000 visits.
“I do believe that the East Hampton County Clinic is necessary because East Hampton needs access to medical coverage,” said Kelly on Thursday night. “I think that money would be found in cutting the waste associated with the clinic.”
Kelly again blasted the county’s budget as “behemoth,” and said he believes that with restructuring the county could find $30 to $35 million in savings, although he was not specific where that savings would be found. A zero-based budget plan should be the model the county uses for its spending plans, said Kelly.
“I’m not looking to balance the budget on the backs of homeless children,” said Kelly. He said he wanted to cut spending but keep critical programs that help the most disadvantaged open.
Kelly then made an example of government waste that could be taken care of on day one. He charged that the county donates to an organization which has a director that takes a $600,000 salary, although he refused to divulge the name of that director.
After the debate, Kelly said the charity was the March of Dimes. On Wednesday, Schneiderman said the county does donate $60,000 to the organization for programming throughout the county, and that only 20 percent of the grant money can be used for administrative costs.
On Monday night, Kelly criticized Schneiderman for the introduction of a bill that he says moves for the sale of the county’s jail in Riverhead, with the concept of leasing the property back from a new owner.
“We are going to be paying rent to these folks,” said Kelly, calling the concept “a boondoggle, a gimmick and a short term game so we don’t have to make any cuts now.”
He also charged that the county was funding $1 million for the restoration of a mosaic at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum.
Schneiderman responded that the bill Kelly was referring to only calls for a study of the of the sale of the county jail, which would be leased back to the county. The county, he added, would take back ownership of the building after 20-years under this kind of plan.
Republicans in the legislature, said Schneiderman, have supported the idea.
As for the mosaic, while the county does fund building repairs at the Vanderbilt Museum, as it is required to do by law, Schneiderman said, “there is no million dollar mosaic.”
Schneiderman said he contacted the museum’s director and curator, who confirmed there is no mosaic that has been funded for repairs by the county. The art in the Vanderbilt is preserved and restored with endowment monies.
Kelly said the East End needs a legislator representing the South Fork that has a strong coalition of support within the legislature, calling Schneiderman “an army of one” and pointing to Schneiderman’s unsuccessful attempt to pass a bill requiring the county to give the East End its fair share of sales tax monies to fund local police forces.
“First of all, the bill he is talking about — it was a 9-9 tie vote,” said Schneiderman. “That bill would have been historic because it would have made it illegal for the county to treat any region unfairly.”
Schneiderman added that he works in coalition with the Democratic majority in the legislature. Being given the position of chairman of the public works committee, he added, is a powerful position given to a legislator not supported by the rest of the Suffolk County Legislature.
Schneiderman said he doesn’t believe people vote along party lines in the legislature, but rather for what is best for their district. Issues like western legislators agreeing to send more police monies east and out of their districts, or where to place sex offender trailers, are “difficult” and time consuming debates within the legislature.
“We have very informed people in the legislature that make bi-partisan decisions,” he said.
Kelly noted that this district “has the privilege of receiving every homeless sex offender from the county.”
On Thursday, Schneiderman said the district is housing 30 individuals and that he has passed a law that ends the sex offender program as it is currently run. Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, said Schneiderman, “continues to throw up road blocks. I keep pushing away the roadblocks.”
“My opponent blames everybody else,” said Kelly. “Well-articulated excuses are not getting it done.”
“I think that is what the people want, an independent legislature that works with both sides of the aisle,” responded Schneiderman.
Kelly also criticized Schneiderman’s record on the preservation of open space in East Hampton, stating $48 million has been spent in the town during Schneiderman’s tenure, while $100 million has been spent on preservation in Riverhead.
“Right now by any measure, we are getting dwarfed,” said Kelly.
Schneiderman said that preserving farmland on the North Fork is a benefit for the entire region, and that the North Fork and Riverhead happen to have more farmland left to preserve.
“The last time I looked at the numbers, we have preserved thousands of acres,” said Schneiderman.
“I believe we need to take Suffolk County in a new direction,” said Kelly in his closing statement. “One that benefits the South Fork in a more substantive way.”
“You know with me what you are getting,” said Schneiderman, pointing to his record on environmental issues, and in particular, preservation.
“I work hard and I will continue to work hard for you,” he said.