Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone outlined an ambitious plan to keep young people on Long Island, highlighted the county’s work over the past year on water quality issues, and committed his administration to blocking the construction of phase two of a new jail in Yaphank in his State of the County address Thursday night.
In his speech at the County Legislature’s meeting room in Hauppauge, Mr. Bellone called the flight of young people from Suffolk County the “fundamental issue of our time.”
“We’ve had a two-decade trend of this region and this county losing young people at a higher rate than anywhere else in country,” he said.
He introduced a plan called “Connect Long Island,” which would focus on five factors that he says are driving young people away: high cost of living, lack of transportation options, lack of quality affordable rental housing, lack of high paying jobs, and the fact that most housing that is affordable isn’t where young people want to live.
To solve these problems, he said, Suffolk County will need “walkable, transit-oriented downtowns with strong public transportation links” to one another and to universities and public spaces.
“We need to build a quality-of-life ecosystem that will be attractive to young people,” he said.
Mr. Bellone said many downtowns in Suffolk County lack the ability to grow because of the lack of sewers, and said areas like Sayville, Southampton Village, Flanders and Riverside, parts of Riverhead, North Bellport, Smithtown and Huntington could benefit from sewers.
He also suggested the county institute several north-south bus routes connecting the east-west Long Island Rail Road stops.
Both septic and transportation issues were also a focus of Mr. Bellone’s 2014 State of the County address.
Mr. Bellone said the county has “made more progress in the last year than it had in decades” on septic issues, and has received $383 million in state grants that will be used to expand the Southwest Sewer District, build sewage treatment plants at Calabro Airport in Brookhaven and in Patchogue and perform a costly repair to the outflow pipe at the Bergen Point sewage treatment plant.
The county is also installing a filtration system at the Riverhead sewage treatment plant to reduce the nitrogen discharge into the Peconic Bay.
But many rural areas out east don’t have the population density to make sewers economically feasible, and Mr. Bellone acknowledged that sewers aren’t the solution for those rural communities.
The county has received 17 alternative on-site septic treatment systems from four companies, which are being installed at individual homes as a pilot project to enable the Suffolk County Health Department to test the systems under local conditions.
Mr. Bellone also said one of his top policy objectives for this year is to not build phase two of a new jail in Yaphank, which was slated to begin this year due to a state-ordered court settlement due to overcrowding at the Riverhead county jail.
He said he’s in discussions with the state to lift that mandate and “save taxpayers $300 million over the next 20 years.”
The announcement garnered a standing ovation from the crowd.
Mr. Bellone praised County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco for exploring alternatives to incarceration, and praised the police department and commissioners for “double-digit declines in crime” and their focus on intelligence-led policing.
Mr. Bellone added that the county is instituting a new initiative called “Suffolk Saves,” to collaborate with school districts on intervention when young people begin to make bad decisions.
“We spend a huge amount on the back-end because we have failed our kids in some way,” he said.