This year our daily routines and annual holiday season traditions look a bit different. 2020 has been unlike any we have faced before and the difficulties we’ve all endured will have a lasting impact on our lives and community. Sadly, some of our neighbors have lost family members and others their jobs. Some have lost the comfort of simple routines and others their businesses. Many of the joys in life that we cherish were paused. It has been a challenging year.
While our pain is very real, there is hope on the horizon and we can see light at the end of this long tunnel. Let me be absolutely clear, there is no challenge too great that can't be met by our wonderful community. We owe a great deal of gratitude to our doctors, nurses, teachers, firefighters, small business owners, faith leaders, and all the frontline workers who have given so much of themselves. I am convinced we will not only get through this together, but in the end will remain resilient and strong.
As we wrap up 2020 and look ahead to what we all hope will be a better 2021, I want to wish all residents of the Fifth District a happy and prosperous year ahead.
2020 was a Year of Challenges, but Help is Available
The pandemic has impacted all of us, but for some, the hardships cause by COVID-19 have made daily life a struggle. If you are having trouble managing emotionally or financially there is help available. For
2020 was a Year of Adaptation
By now, Zooming into class and Meeting up with colleagues, coworkers, family and friends has become part of our daily lives, but when the pandemic began, few were adequately prepared to transition to virtual interactions that became necessary to control the virus. Like many businesses, workers and students, the Suffolk County Legislature needed to implement plans that would allow us to continue our work while also protecting our staff and the public from COVID-19.
While the pandemic made in-person meetings impossible, the Legislature was able to fulfill our responsibilities, continue to engage residents and comply with all open meeting requirements through a creative mix of mail, email, voice mail and remote legislative hearings. The Legislature was especially involved in oversight of the County’s pandemic response, participating for many months in daily updates with the executive branch and most importantly by working day in and day out to keep our constituents informed. For the latest updates on the status of COVID19 in Suffolk County, visit: https://suffolkcountyny.gov/Departments/Health-Services/Health-Bulletins/Novel-Coronavirus and select COVID-19 Case Tracker.
2020 was a Year We Worked to Figure Out Why
The January 2020 freezing death of eight year-old Thomas Valva in the garage of his Center Moriches home came as a heart breaking start to the year. Thomas, who was on the autism spectrum, was allegedly confined to the home's unheated garage on a night when the outside temperature fell to 19 degrees Fahrenheit causing hypothermia and his death.
In the days and weeks following Thomas's death, Suffolk County worked to investigate why this tragedy happened and consider ways to protect against it ever happening again. As co-chair of the Suffolk County Taskforce to Protect Children, established by County Executive Bellone to review all Child Protective Services (CPS) policies as they relate to children with developmental disabilities, responded with a number of legislative reforms that became the CPS Transformation Act. The legislation:
- Created a CPS specialized unit overseeing cases of children with special needs;
- Established new training requirements for all CPS caseworkers;
- Increased scrutiny of reports from school officials;
- Adopted new caseload standards; and,
- Provided more transparency on CPS caseload and staffing levels.
In addition to the Taskforce's work, the Legislature also created a special committee that I serve on to investigate Thomas's death. While this committee's work was initially delayed due to the pandemic, we are now proceeding expeditiously with the appointment of a special counsel and are requesting members of the public with information about the case to contact the special legislative committee by emailing:
2020 was a Year the Mission was Accomplished
Despite a pandemic-related delay, the mission to updated four military memorial sites located in Port Jefferson, Setauket and Stony Brook in recognition of the sacrifices made by the latest generations of American service members was completed in time for this year’s Veteran’s Day ceremonies. In some cases, the sites selected for upgrades had not been updated in decades, and no longer adequately reflected the places and conflicts where veterans served.
The idea to renovate the memorials was suggested to me by veteran Jack Gozdziewski, a member of American Legion Post 432 and VFW Post 3054 during a 2018 Memorial Day ceremony. Following that meeting, I met with Mr. Gozdziewski, commanders of local American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts and the Long Island State Veterans Home to begin planning the three-phased project.
With the support of our community, we were able to raise the nearly $35,000 necessary for the upgrades to be made. Thank you to all who supported this mission and especially the men and women these updates honor.
2020 was the Year We Helped Combat Veterans Get the Care They Need
The Suffolk Legislature this year approved legislation I sponsored to provide combat theater and combat zone veterans employed by the County an additional five extra days of paid leave per calendar year to address service related health concerns. The idea for the bill was suggested by Jay Veronko, Commander VFW Post 3054 and it enabled the County to opt-in to existing New York State Military Law that provides this benefit to the State’s public employees and permits local governments to authorize similar provisions to their employees.
Eligibility for the additional benefit is based upon a copy of the employee’s DD214, certificate of release or discharge from active duty, or other applicable department of defense documentation and only applies to injuries sustained through tours of duty and deployments occurring during employee’s tenure with the County. “Exempt” class employees, which includes appointed and elected officials, are not entitled to this benefit.
2020 was the Year We Continued to Fight “Bureaucratic Red Tape”
The complicated process of connecting to Suffolk’s public sewer system will soon get an overhaul following the adoption of legislation I sponsored to streamline that procedure. The bill gives the County until April to evaluate and propose ways to simplify its existing redundant application and review process.
Currently, applicants seeking permission to hook into a County sewer district requires two separate application and review processes, one through the Department of Health Services and another through the Department of Public Works, which has been attributed to increased costs for communities and homeowners and permitting delays.
Sewers are widely regarded as being the most effective method of treating wastewater and reducing nitrogen pollution, which has impaired local waterways.
2020 was the Year We Modernized Suffolk's Sanitary Code to Protect Our Environment from Nitrogen PollutionPhoto Courtesy of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone - Steven Bellone's Flickr
The effort to update and modernize Suffolk County's antiquated sanitary code continued this year with the adoption of changes requiring new construction in unsewered areas to have Innovative and Alternative Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems (I/A OWTS) rather than traditional septic systems beginning in July 2021. Under the changes, advanced systems will be required in all new home and commercial construction, and for single family home renovations that increase the number of bedrooms to more than five and increase the building's footprint or floor area. The amendment also provides greater flexibility for the use of smaller sewage treatment plants in downtown business districts, a change intended to assist businesses that rely on cesspools to shift to systems that reduce nitrogen instead, allowing expansion of uses while better protecting water quality.
The update follows earlier actions by the County that include phasing out use of cesspools that have been banned for new construction since 1973 and adoption of the Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan last year. Nitrogen pollution from cesspools and septic systems has been identified as the largest single cause of degraded water quality contributing to beach closures, restrictions on shell-fishing, toxic algae blooms, and massive fish kills.
For more information about Suffolk County's effort to reduce nitrogen pollution through the "Reclaim Our Water" initiative, visit:
2020 was the Year We Began to Think Outside the Box...Store
This year, more than ever, it is important to look to the future and focus on how we can move our economy forward. With this in mind, I have been working with the Suffolk County Department of Economic Development and Planning, the Health Department, Suffolk's IDA, LIBI, Association for a Better LI, and the Town Supervisors Association to envision a new way to encourage mixed reuse of empty retail stores. Suffolk updated flow rates to encourage micro sized units and drafted model zoning code recommendations which local Town governments can adopt to enable the reuse of already developed retail and big box store businesses which are vacant. Recycling old large retail stores for new uses that can help mom and pop businesses and revitalize communities.
The recommendations were approved by the Suffolk County Planning Commission and next year we are looking forward to working with the Town Supervisors and Town Boards across Suffolk County to adopt these zoning code changes. The hope is that instead of building apartment complexes on our ever dwindling open spaces we can reuse these already developed vacant buildings for housing and other needed uses.
2020 was the Year We Worked to Include More Voices
This fall, the Fifth Legislative District's inaugural Youth Engagement Task Force commenced with 16 students from 7 different schools. The Task Force meets monthly and gives young people between the ages of 14 to 21 the opportunity to learn about Suffolk County government, develop research skills, present on important local and national issues, and become more engaged in policy decisions through assignments designed to allow their voices to be heard.
It is increasingly evident that young people are interested in having engaging discussions and developing strong leadership skills; it is imperative that we create space for them to have their voices heard. Working in small groups, the students are given the chance to focus on specific policy issues affecting Suffolk County, and come up with solutions.
2020 was the Year the Legislature Lost a Dear Colleague
This year, many families were touched by the loss of a loved one; so too was the Suffolk County Legislature's family with the death of Forth District Legislator Tom Muratore in September. Legislator Muratore was more than a colleague, he was a neighbor, sitting beside me for many years during legislative meetings and he was a friend. I am grateful to Legislator Muratore for his life of service to the residents of Suffolk County.
2021 Will be a Year of Building Back
The unexpected events of 2020 caused many of the plans and goals we had for the year to be set aside in order to deal with an unprecedented public health crisis. In the coming year, the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines will allow us to return to those temporarily displaced priorities, while also rebuilding the parts of our lives and community that have been impacted.
From rebuilding our local economy to revisiting past practices that inhibit our ability to adapt to a changed social and economic landscape, 2021 promises to be a year of critical decisions that will begin to shape our future.
I look forward to another challenging year and toward continuing our work, together, to make our community stronger.