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Pay to pave

By David Winzelberg
Dolan Media

When Long Island was shortchanged by a lack of federal stimulus dollars for transportation projects, local roadway contractors and elected officials complained bitterly. And that’s no surprise, since cash from projects paid for with public money keeps both groups afloat.

There’s a lot of money in roads. They’re expensive to build, costly to maintain and a major chunk of most municipal budgets.

The town of Brookhaven’s highway department has a 2009 budget of about $64.5 million, nearly 40 percent of the town’s total expenditures of $165.2 million.

A handful of companies have received millions for paving Brookhaven’s roads in the last few years. And it’s those same companies that are the biggest contributors to the town highway chief’s campaign budget.

Since 2006, Glen Kazel, a Yaphank road contractor, has given more than $15,000 to Friends of John Rouse, Brookhaven’s highway superintendent. Kazel has gotten at least $6.4 million in town contracts since 2004.

East Moriches-based Rosemar Construction and its affiliate Garone Asphalt Paving are two other generous Rouse contributors, giving more than $10,000 to the highway chief’s campaign in the last few years.

Rosemar has received about $8.5 million from the town for its work on Brookhaven’s roads since 2004.

Rosemar principal Bob Garone and the companies he owns have given Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy more than $36,000 for his campaign since 2006. In 2007, Rosemar beat out five other contractors for a project to widen a 4-mile section of County Road 39 in Southampton.

Levy said Rosemar won the contract by being the low bidder. But though Rosemar’s winning bid was lowest at $12.8 million, bonuses earned the company closer to $15 million, about a million dollars more than the highest bidder offered to do the job for in the first place.
Garone didn’t return calls requesting comment.

While he denied any quid pro quo in giving the contract to Rosemar, Levy acknowledged that the county’s campaign contribution system is flawed and benefits mostly those already in office.

“It’s totally slanted in favor of the incumbent,” Levy said.

Lisa Tyson, executive director of the Long Island Progressive Coalition, said accepting campaign money from companies that elected official do business with is akin to legalized bribery and can make political contests extremely one sided.

“They legislate on what will make their contributions the largest,” Tyson said. “This system only strengthens the machine-type politics that we’ve been trying to get away from.”

Mitch Pally, an attorney with the Weber Law Group in Melville, said the pay-to-play system on Long Island won’t change until publicly paid campaigns are mandated by the government. Marc Herbst, the president of the Long Island Contractors Association, said his members are bombarded with requests from candidates running for public office, especially at this time of year. He said the incumbents end up with most of the trade group’s money because “the challengers rarely reach out.”

“We don’t advocate that our members contribute,” Herbst said. “We may tell them which candidates support our positions.”

LICA has given more than $332,000 to candidates and political committees since 2005.

Despite its prolific contributions, Herbst is quick to point out that road construction is “one of the most transparent industries” with municipal contracts going to the lowest responsible bidder. Herbst adds that his members don’t seek out politicians to finance.

“We only go where we’re invited,” he said.

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