Meet the new county majority leader


In some ways, you can call Legis. Rob Calarco the whip of the Suffolk Legislature, a term used for Congress that basically mimics his new post as Democratic majority leader.

“It’s to see to the needs of the Democratic caucus, that we’re working as a team united,” Calarco said in his Patchogue office. “It’s not an easy thing to do. We all have different perspectives and needs. When we can support each other we do, but on the important issues, we understand each other, so we can be as united as possible. Then we take the issues to the minority caucus to find common ground as we move forward.”

Calarco, 34, and in his second term, was voted in via a caucus meeting Dec. 20. Officially as of Jan. 1, he heads up 10 Democrats in the Legislature. Working Families Party Legis. Kate Browning and Independent Jay Schneiderman both usually caucus with the Dems. There are six Republicans.

In his role, he also interfaces with the county executive and his staff; Calarco gets no extra stipend or staff.

Some of the upcoming issues that will be tackled include the county’s fiscal condition, so that includes “reducing our overhead and finding additional revenue,” he said.

With the New York State video lottery terminals, the challenge will be where to install the machines, he said. The terminals resemble classic slot machines or simulated table games. They are linked to a centralized system maintained by the Gaming Commission that tracks the games and earnings of each game.

“It will be run through [Off-Track Betting] but we’ll have to figure the best place to put them, where they are best used, where it’s appropriate and won’t negate a neighborhood,” said Calarco. The goal is to keep game players in Suffolk County as opposed to heading to Foxwoods.”

“We’ll be looking for a single location,” he said. “OTB will have the capability to bet on horses also, but you also want to have a full-scale location with dining. Will it be a newly built facility or do we go into an underutilized building, that’s part of the search process. That will create a level of discussion that needs to be had, finding a suitable place for it that’s accessible but not competing with other entertainment venues and certainly not in residential area.”

The revenue is expected to bring in $20 to $50 million annually. “We’re hoping to get them up this year,” said Calarco.

There are nine video gaming operations right now in New York State; Saratoga Gaming & Raceway in Saratoga Springs was the first, in 2004.

Another piece of legislation expected to create a stir is Legis. William Spencer’s (D-Huntington) resolution to prohibit the sale of tobacco to those under 21, he said. Spencer, an M.D., represents the 18th District.

“I think at the end of the day, it will be a challenge,” admitted Calarco. “On the health side, the longer you prolong someone from picking up a cigarette, the longer you don’t do it. The reverse side is at what point do we give people responsibility for themselves? They can vote at 18 and enlist overseas, so is it appropriate to say, ‘you can’t buy this.’ They’re really important questions because when someone smokes all their lives and gets cancer, society has to pick up the tab. And there are health effects, not just for the smoker, but for the people around the smoker.”

Local health centers are transitioning to federally qualified health centers. That includes the South Brookhaven Family Health Center in Patchogue, contracted by the county right now to Brookhaven Memorial Hospital Medical Center. “We did it in Coram last year,” he said of the Elsie Owens Health Center, which was converted into a federally qualified health center run by Hudson River Health Care. Southampton and East Hampton Health Clinics were also consolidated into one federally qualified health center in Southampton, in a partnership between the county, Stony Brook University Hospital and Hudson River Health Care.

“One of the local challenges is relocating it off Main Street and bringing it towards Brookhaven Hospital and its campus,” he said of South Brookhaven.

“It alleviates a couple of things; they get better Medicaid and other reimbursements and it alleviates us of liability because the federal government becomes the insurer,” he said. “That’s the biggest savings, but the county exec sees it as a means of getting out of the business all together. The state was cutting $5 million out of our health program every year.

“If we don’t make the transition, we would have to close the facilities and we don’t think that’s a viable option. They’re needed.”

Calarco said the federal model offers services including dental and mental health, which the county clinics don’t. It also insures that the patients are part of the board of directors that make decisions, 51 percent of the patients across the system, he said. “They won’t all come from Suffolk County, but through the Hudson River services,” he said. “There is a board member from Coram.”

Calarco said respect for other points of view is needed to be effective. “I have a lot of respect for John Kennedy, the minority leader,” he said. “He has a lot of good ideas.”

“He’s young and has a lot of energy,” said Kate Browning of Calarco. “I know he is the majority leader but I know he will protect the legilature as an independent body, from how he has voted in the past. What I like is that our legislature has tried to be non-partisan and I’m hoping he will be able to continue to do that.”