Suffolk County government’s touch on the East End has traditionally been light, which means that a deep budget shortfall will not be felt here as much as in the county’s population centers to the west. The county provides health clinics and low-cost buses, among other things, that some East Enders have come to rely on, but the paradox of a cash crisis UpIsland that will largely be escaped here does point to an unresolved question, whether the five East End towns are so different that their needs would be better served by breaking away and trying something new.
It has been a longstanding complaint among local officials that sales and hotel tax revenue generated on the East End never comes back dollar-for-dollar. During the coronavirus pandemic, the county has taken a somewhat higher profile, but largely it has been as a conduit for data and policy from state agencies. And when it has come to enforcing social distancing rules for public places, such as restaurants, again it has been state and local officers doing the heavy lifting.
Think about it: If a looming budget disaster and a pandemic make for only negligible effects on county services here, what is the point of being part of Suffolk in the end? Though it would be a costly and long undertaking, reviving the old idea of a Peconic County and seeing it through to becoming a reality would ultimately create a new cooperative government that would be uniquely responsive to the five towns’ needs in balancing a second-home economy with the concerns and the needs of its own residents — not having to compete for attention with the larger population centers. Local problems require local solutions.
In one example, the so-called trade parade of worker traffic that snarls roads all over the two forks is a regional problem that can be addressed only by the towns working together with the state authorities that manage highway spending and public transportation. Also, a greater interest on the East End in public spaces and environmental quality protection would be better served by a smaller, more responsive regional association of towns. And, as climate-caused problems such as erosion, invasive species, and tick-borne illnesses get worse in the future, having services closer to the ground will become even more essential.
For all the millions in taxes that the East End sends to fund Suffolk County it gets little in return. These twin crises of the virus and related budget disaster should be fodder for a renewed conversation about whether the time has come finally to break away.