With a new year on the horizon, Presiding Officer Rob Calarco and the Suffolk County Legislature are looking back on not only the challenges of 2020 but also the legislative accomplishments.
“This has been a difficult year for everyone. However, despite the challenges, it was a productive year for the legislature and our county,” said Presiding Officer Calarco, who took the helm as the legislature’s leader in January of this year. “For the first time ever, we held our legislative meetings virtually and allowed for the public to share comments over Zoom. We implemented important legislative initiatives to help residents and organizations survive the pandemic, and we passed several pieces of landmark legislation in a bipartisan fashion. I am proud of the work we have done to keep our essential operations functional and make life better for our constituents.”
Suffolk County workers were the boots on the ground of the COVID-19 emergency response. Legislators worked tirelessly to ensure that residents received the services and attention required to survive these difficult times, from distributing personal protective equipment (PPE) to at-risk communities and communicating safety guidelines to holding food drives, working with the county’s emergency response teams, and advocating for the needs of their districts. Legislature employees added manpower to the county emergency efforts by training as contact tracers and staffing the county’s 3-1-1 call center.
The Suffolk County Legislature used the Zoom platform to hold its committee and general meetings remotely. As the legislature’s buildings have remained closed to the public since the onset of the pandemic in March, Presiding Officer Calarco implemented new ways for the public to participate in legislative meetings remotely. In addition to providing written comments, the public could testify by video conference and record testimony over the phone.
“Input from the public is critical to legislators’ decision-making process, and it was important to us to ensure that even in a pandemic, residents are still able to, quite literally, have their voices heard,” said Presiding Officer Calarco. “Making use of the technology of our day has provided the public with a way to participate in the legislative process while staying safe at home and has allowed government to continue to operate responsibly and openly.”
COVID-19 Response Legislation
Several legislative initiatives were aimed at helping cultural organizations, which were hit particularly hard during the COVID-19 pandemic due to closures and event and fundraising cancellations. Lawmakers approved a measure by Legislator Bridget Fleming to allow cultural, historic/museum and film-related organizations that receive funding in 2020 through the hotel and motel tax to use their funding more flexibly. This measure, co-sponsored by Presiding Officer Calarco, allows these organizations to use their funding for operating expenses instead of solely for programs and activities and waives for 2020 a provision that limits administrative expenses to no more than 20 percent of an agency’s total expenses. The legislature also approved a measure by Legislator Leslie Kennedy to temporarily aid cultural arts organizations that could not put on their programming this year due to the pandemic. A limited reserve fund was established to allow cultural and arts organizations that have been unable to expend their hotel/motel tax funds in 2020 the opportunity to reserve those funds and utilize them in 2021.
Legislators also approved a new law sponsored by Legislator William Spencer that prohibits the improper disposal of PPE – including face masks, gloves and gowns – in public areas anywhere other than in a waste receptacle. The requirement only applies when a disaster or state of emergency is declared during a public health crisis.
Two task forces will study the county’s response to the pandemic and the impact of the pandemic on residents. A measure by Legislator Rudy Sunderman created an internal task force to review Suffolk County’s initial response to the COVID-19 crisis and suggest improvements to the process for future public health emergencies, while a measure by Legislator Jason Richberg established a task force to study the economic, health, housing, social and labor impacts of COVID-19 in Suffolk County and make recommendations to remediate impacts and any identified disparities. Legislators also approved new procedures for the 215 redemption process, which provides residents with an opportunity to redeem property taken due to unpaid taxes. Under the new law sponsored by Legislator Richberg, applicants for 215 hardship redemptions have additional time to provide documents necessary for decision-making during times of crisis, such as a pandemic.
The legislature also made efforts to honor essential workers, including by designating June as “Healthcare Heroes Month,” sponsored by Legislator Anthony Piccirillo, and by designating October as “Postal Worker Appreciation Month,” sponsored by Presiding Officer Calarco.
Diversity and Inclusion
Lawmakers this year affirmed their dedication to promoting diversity and inclusion. One of Calarco’s first actions when he became presiding officer was to raise the issue of diversity to the committee level at the legislature. The legislature’s government operations committee was given jurisdiction over the issue, and the committee’s chair, Legislator Samuel Gonzalez, has led efforts to keep diversity and inclusion in the spotlight and ensure that important discussions are had on the floor.
“Diversity is one of Suffolk County’s strengths. Our residents come from many backgrounds, practice many religions and speak many languages, contributing to our county’s rich cultural experience,” said Presiding Officer Calarco. “As elected representatives, we are committed to fighting for fairness, and that includes dismantling systemic racism and making sure that Suffolk County government is working for everyone. Fair hiring practices coupled with fair housing initiatives will help ensure that every person has an equal opportunity to work and live here.”
In addition to supporting the County Executive’s plan to establish a new position in the Department of Human Resources, the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Suffolk lawmakers pushed forward several anti-discrimination laws. New laws sponsored by Legislator Jason Richberg prohibit discrimination based on certain visible characteristics such as protective hairstyles, braids, hair textures and religious garments, and prohibit individuals from making false allegations to a law enforcement agency due to their own animosity, antipathy or bias. Suffolk County’s “ban the box” law, sponsored by Legislator Susan A. Berland and co-sponsored by Legislators Gonzalez and Kevin McCaffrey, prohibits a criminal history checkbox from appearing on job applications and allows prospective employers to inquire about an applicant’s criminal history only after an initial interview.
Lawmakers also pursued initiatives to ensure fair housing. The legislature’s Fair Housing Task Force has been meeting and holding public hearings to conduct a comprehensive review of the county’s existing human rights law and provide recommendations on how to combat housing discrimination. The task force, chaired by Legislator Gonzalez, was created to address a Newsday report that found that extensive racial steering is occurring throughout communities in Suffolk.
Language access has been another legislative priority, with Legislator Gonzalez leading the charge to protect the interests of residents who speak languages other than English. The Suffolk County Legislature passed Legislator Gonzalez’s resolution that requires the Suffolk County Board of Elections to publish translated election notices in the Spanish-language newspaper with the highest circulation rate in Suffolk County and his bill to require that county correctional facilities comply with Suffolk’s language access law.
With eyes on Suffolk County as an employer, legislators passed a measure sponsored by Legislator Richberg to require diversity and inclusion training for all county employees annually. Legislators also passed Legislator Berland’s proposal to designate the month of June as “LGBTQ+ Pride Month” in Suffolk County and Legislator Richberg’s proposal to commemorate Juneteenth in Suffolk County.
Focus on Child Abuse and Social Services
In response to the tragic death of young Thomas Valva at the beginning of the year, legislators were engaged in investigations and task forces surrounding the case and instituted initiatives to improve the social services system. Presiding Officer Calarco and legislative leaders formed a special legislative committee to investigate the young boy’s death. The three-person committee, made up of Presiding Officer Calarco, Deputy Presiding Officer Kara Hahn, and the Minority Leader, Legislator Tom Cilmi, is conducting a thorough factfinding of the circumstances that led to the child’s death and the county’s interactions with the family.
“Without understanding the facts of this specific case, we cannot possibly address the potential shortfalls of the system,” Presiding Officer Calarco said. “There are still questions that must be answered. We need to understand what happened, when it happened, and what the response was in order to identify shortcomings and ensure that the recommendations we make will best prevent another tragedy.”
The committee’s findings will add to recommendations to improve Child Protective Services (CPS) after an internal review of the Department of Social Services and the formation of a task force by the County Executive. Lawmakers this year approved the County Executive’s CPS Transformation Act, which included measures to increase training for CPS workers assigned to cases involving children with autism spectrum disorder or other developmental disabilities; increase scrutiny for cases involving children on the autism spectrum or with other developmental disabilities; increase scrutiny for CPS reports received from certain school officials; require notice of the use of electronic surveillance in relation to certain Department of Social Services investigations; set caseload standards for certain employees within the Department of Social Services; and mandate that data on CPS staffing levels and caseloads be posted to the Suffolk County Open Data Portal.
Legislator Tom Donnelly spearheaded efforts to establish an internal working group to develop new policies and procedures to enhance communication between law enforcement and the Department of Social Services. Additionally, Suffolk lawmakers approved measures sponsored by Legislator Cilmi to fill all vacant senior and supervisory positions in CPS, co-sponsored by Legislators Sarah Anker and Tom Muratore, and to add a psychiatric social worker and eight new caseworker positions in the Department of Social Services. The legislature also approved Legislator Rudy Sunderman’s resolution to designate April as “Child Abuse Awareness Month”.
Legislators continued their support for environmental protection by approving Legislator Al Krupski’s proposal to create a 21-member Coastal Resiliency and Sea Level Rise Task Force that will develop coastal resiliency policies and recommendations to help the county and local municipalities protect coastlines from erosion and other environmental damage. Legislators also approved Deputy Presiding Officer Kara Hahn’s measure to protect county parkland by requiring that contractors doing work on a property that abuts county parkland complete an affidavit confirming that the work is solely within the bounds of the private property. Legislators also approved legislation sponsored by Legislator Steven Flotteron and co-sponsored by Presiding Officer Calarco to authorize the county to welcome applications for funding to create a comprehensive wastewater management plan on Fire Island, where nitrogen from wastewater has been identified as the leading cause of water quality degradation.
Support of Veterans
Demonstrating a commitment to ensuring that veterans are honored and appreciated, the legislature approved Legislator Bridget Fleming’s proposal to establish a task force to assist retired veterans in Suffolk County. Co-sponsored by Presiding Officer Calarco, the eight-member task force will assess the various programs and incentives currently available to aid retired and retiring veterans in Suffolk County and develop strategies for implementing new policies or programs to assist veterans who want to remain in Suffolk County throughout their retirement. Legislators also approved a law sponsored by Deputy Presiding Officer Kara Hahn to provide state-authorized benefits to county employees who serve in the military reserves.
Suffolk lawmakers also focused on female veterans through efforts spearheaded by Legislator Susan A. Berland, who sponsored a measure to celebrate “Women Veterans Appreciation Day” in Suffolk County every June 12 and hosted a virtual celebration honoring female veterans. Legislator Berland also worked to establish a voluntary registry for female veterans living in Suffolk County to be used to provide female veterans with relevant resources and to connect them with other female veterans.
Additionally, Legislator Sarah Anker unveiled a comprehensive Suffolk County Veterans Resource Guide that will make it easier for veterans and their families to search for available benefits and opportunities that may otherwise be missed. The Veterans Resource Guide is an informational book that supplies contact information to military veterans and their caregivers and was created as a direct result of legislation that Legislator Anker introduced.
Quality of Life
Suffolk lawmakers also approved measures that focused on improving residents’ quality of life. Legislators approved Presiding Officer Calarco’s proposal to lower county bus fares for children ages 5 to 13 and Legislator Rudy Sunderman’s proposal to create a task force that would develop strategies for reducing the number of zombie homes in Suffolk County.
Health and Public Safety
Health and safety were also at the forefront of legislative initiatives proposed this year. Lawmakers approved a measure by Legislator Jason Richberg to create a task force to address the disparate impacts of maternal morbidity and mortality in Suffolk County, with a focus on women of color and aftercare. Legislators also established a Youth Addiction Panel for residents between 16 and 25 years old in a measure sponsored by Legislator William Spencer.
In addition to designating the month of May as “Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month,” Legislator Susan A. Berland led efforts to require any store in Suffolk County with a pharmacy to post notices differentiating the proper use of different types of asthma inhalers. The legislature passed several other measures aimed at spreading awareness on various health-related issues, including: designating March 25 as “Cerebral Palsy Awareness Day,” sponsored by Legislator Tom Cilmi; designating October 15 as “Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance and Awareness Day,” sponsored by Legislator Sarah Anker; and designating a “Latex Allergy Awareness Week” in October, sponsored by Legislator Rudy Sunderman.
Legislators approved Deputy Presiding Officer Kara Hahn’s measure to require that the police commissioner notify the legislature when 5 percent or more of the budgeted public safety dispatcher or emergency complaint operator positions are vacant. Previously notification was required when vacancies reach 10 percent. Under a proposal sponsored by Legislator Kevin McCaffrey and co-sponsored by Legislators Sunderman, Tom Donnelly, Samuel Gonzalez, Bridget Fleming and Leslie Kennedy, the Suffolk Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office provide the legislature with quarterly reports on the effects of bail reform.
Two pieces of legislation passed this year pertain to animals. Thanks to a law sponsored by Legislator Gonzalez, animal shelters and rescues are now required to provide an animal’s behavioral history prior to adoption. Under a new law proposed by Legislator Cilmi, purposely feeding, baiting or providing food to any wild animal is now prohibited in Suffolk County.
Process and Taxpayer Protection
To help the county-owned Vanderbilt Museum become more self-sufficient and reduce its reliance on county funding, Suffolk County lawmakers approved a measure sponsored by Presiding Officer Calarco to create a Vanderbilt Museum Enterprise Fund that will provide dedicated funding for capital improvements or the reduction of debts incurred by the museum. The fund will draw a 2-percent disbursement every year from the museum’s endowment. Legislators also approved Presiding Officer Calarco’s measure to place the portion of real property tax revenues collected to support Suffolk County Community College on a line of the tax bill separate from the County General Fund.
“This change is about transparency,” said Presiding Officer Calarco. “It will give residents clarity on where their taxes go.”
To help the county address the budget shortfall caused by COVID-19, a mitigation measure sponsored by Legislator Steven Flotteron will divert funding from the Fair Elections Matching Fund to the County General Fund for two years. Legislators also approved a measure sponsored by Legislator Jason Richberg and co-sponsored by Legislator Rob Trotta to expedite the consideration of grant funding by the legislature by allowing for a single vote to pass all grant-related resolutions. Under a proposal by Deputy Presiding Officer Kara Hahn to streamline the consideration of sewer connection applications, the Department of Health Services and the Department of Public Works will examine their sewer connection application processes and study the feasibility of establishing a single application and review process. Thanks to Legislator Anthony Piccirillo’s measure, the county code now provides specific requirements for the transition of power between county legislators.
The COVID-19 pandemic may have put many activities on hold, but it did not stop nearly 30 college and high school students from interning in Suffolk County government over the summer. The Suffolk County Legislature Page Program went fully remote this year, giving college and high school students the unique opportunity to intern through an online platform at a time when half of the internships in the U.S. were cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak, according to job website Glassdoor.
The Suffolk County Youth Anti-Bullying Task Force, made up of residents ages 16 to 18, released a set of recommendations for stopping bullying in schools. The task force of teenagers, which worked over the past year, built a comprehensive list of steps that can be taken at the state, county and school district levels to help prevent bullying and cyberbullying in schools.
Legislators mourned the loss of the more than 2,000 Suffolk County residents who died from COVID-19, as well as those who died of other causes at a time when traditional services could not be held. The Suffolk County Legislature lost one of its own when Legislator Tom Muratore died in September. He was 75.
“History books around the world will recall 2020 as a year of shared loss. Though unrelated to the COVID pandemic, the unexpected loss of our friend and colleague, Legislator Tom Muratore, left another scar on the heart of the Suffolk County Legislature,” said the legislature’s Minority Leader, Legislator Tom Cilmi. “Tom and I were both elected in 2009, both Republicans, both of us serving in elected office for the first time, both of us keenly aware of the awesome privilege and responsibility bestowed upon us by the voters. We were kindred spirits. Tom was a true public servant through and through, from his early years as a police officer to his final moments as a Legislator, always putting the interests of those he served above his own. He was a partner, a sounding board, a gentleman by any definition, and a friend. His quiet, distinguished presence is missed by us all.”
A former Suffolk County police officer and union law enforcement official, Legislator Muratore had given over 34 years of service to the community. He secured open space for ballfields, parks and walking trails and sponsored a law to provide dedicated parking spaces for veterans at county facilities. He was instrumental in getting a bill adopted to monitor the use of drones in county parks. He also sponsored legislation for bus safety awareness.
“For 10 years, Legislator Muratore served the constituents of the Fourth Legislative District with passion and unwavering dedication,” said Presiding Officer Calarco. “He was a kind and humble person, a man of his word, and a quiet warrior around our horseshoe. As a legislator, he was committed to protecting and serving the people of Suffolk County. Our hearts are with his wife and family this holiday season.”
The Suffolk County Legislature on Jan. 4, 2021 will hold its organization meeting, at which the legislative rules for the year and meeting dates are set, new legislation is laid on the table, and legislative leaders are chosen.
“After a year of challenges, let us come together to celebrate the peace and joy of the holiday season,” said Presiding Officer Calarco. “As we leave 2020 behind and look ahead to a brighter tomorrow, my hope is that we remember our resiliency, how we came together to support one another, and that each moment spent with family and friends is a moment to cherish. I wish everyone a happy holiday season and a healthy and prosperous New Year.”
Caption for above photo: Presiding Officer Rob Calarco runs a socially distant legislative meeting earlier this year. The Suffolk County Legislature adapted its operations during the pandemic by enforcing social distancing and moving many of its meetings to an online format.