Candidates for Suffolk County Legislature had a lively and at times combative discussion during a League of Women Voters debate at LTV Studios in Wainscott Monday night, when the incumbent Jay Schneiderman of Montauk faced off against Cornelius Kelly of East Quogue.
Mr. Schneiderman, a former Republican turned Independence Party member who was first elected to the Legislature in 2003, is also running on the Democratic ticket. Mr. Kelly is on the Republican and Conservative lines.
Mr. Kelly, 39, earned an M.B.A. from New York University with a double major in finance and economics and owns a title agency. He said the County Legislature needs to stand up to special interest groups, insisting he would not be beholden to any if elected. He says he is running for office because the “finances are in disarray, and they don’t need to be,” explaining that next year alone, Suffolk faces a deficit of $150 million to $250 million.
Mr. Schneiderman’s initial comments focused on his long experience in local government — his two terms as East Hampton Town supervisor and his work to create 11 consecutive budgets at the town and now county level without raising property taxes.
Asked about whether he would continue the county’s bus service on Sundays year round, Mr. Kelly said that while the bus, which runs from East Hampton to Orient Point, was supposed to be self-sufficient, it has been losing money — close to $20,000, he said. If elected, he would try to create more train service, which he believes would help the environment and the economy, bringing “folks out from the city without clogging our streets.”
Mr. Schneiderman explained that he has struggled to find a way to pay for this Sunday service because, while all public service is subsidized, there was no available state or federal money. Initially, he thought he could raise the rate from $1.50 to $2, but it wouldn’t cover the entire year, so the Sunday service ran from July through Labor Day. Next year, the S92, which he said transports a significant portion of the East End’s work force, will run on Sundays throughout the season.
Mr. Schneiderman also said that he has a bill in the works to fund an interconnected system of Sunday routes, linking 10 of what he believes are the most important routes in the county and joining up with the Nassau bus system. He said that if the bill does pass, it will give the county year-round Sunday service, at least on the S92.
The candidates then discussed the possibility of creating a Peconic County, which both men said would be wonderful in theory, but was unlikely to happen.
Mr. Schneiderman explained that there are 18 legislators for Suffolk County broken up by population and that this district is the largest geographically.
“It’s a constant battle,” he said. “They don’t understand that our buses and clinics are jammed. Our median income is less than the rest of the county and the cost of living is higher. And I’m fighting for us to get our fair share. We collect a third of the sales tax that funds the county and we collect about a third of the property taxes and we get back a very small percentage. It would be a lot easier if we had Peconic County, but I don’t see it happening.”
Mr. Kelly said Peconic County was “not feasible,” and called Mr. Schneiderman an “army of one,” insisting that he has failed to get initiatives passed because he hasn’t joined up with fellow legislators. “You’re going to get your head caved in if you go into the rugby field alone,” he said.
Mr. Kelly also accused Mr. Schneiderman of running an unethical campaign, taking money from the Association of Municipal Employees.
“My opponent’s campaigns are funded largely by special interest groups,” said Mr. Kelly. “He is charged on behalf of negotiating with these groups by taxpayers and I find that unethical.” When Mr. Kelly urged the audience to look at the campaign finance disclosure reports, Mr. Schneiderman countered that he was proud to take money from the municipal employees union and invited the audience to look at the reports as well.
“I’m proud that they want to support me. . . . I owe my allegiance to the people I represent,” Mr. Schneiderman said.
As for facing the budget shortfall, Mr. Schneiderman exlained that if the county went into next year and didn’t raise taxes or cut services, it would be as much as $200 million dollars short of paying the bills. He said that the county has been looking to sell things, but the recession, which stripped the county of nearly $100 million in sales tax revenue, has rendered the gap very difficult to close.
Mr. Kelly criticized Mr. Schneiderman’s recent bill that would move to sell off the county jail and then lease it back from a new owner. He cited a similar situation that occurred with Attica Prison in New York, quoting then-Gov. George E. Pataki, who said, “it was one of the worst gimmicks the state ever did, which led to the state having one of the highest tax burdens and lowest credit ratings.”
Mr. Schneiderman tried to explain that the county is in a fiscal emergency and it “might make sense,” insisting that the county will get the space back after 20 years and will still receive 90 cents on the dollar.
The candidates closed the debate with a short but fiery discussion on the preservation of open space on both the North and South Forks with Mr. Kelly saying again that he believes Mr. Schneiderman is costing the South Fork precious land because he has has not built coalitions in the Legislature.
Mr. Schneiderman said while he would agree that the county has to play a bigger role in land conservation, he has helped secure $48 million for preservation and has recently secured funding for a 140-acre plot in Quogue.
Mr. Kelly shook his head, implying this wasn’t enough.
“If we don’t fight for it now, it’s gone forever,” he said. “We have a small window here to get the job done. It’s the beauty that causes people to come here year after year and support our economy.”