Legislator Tom Cilmi: Leading the Nonpartisan Battle Against Substance Abuse in Suffolk County

June 11, 2014 5:33 am Last Updated: June 10, 2014 5:26 pm

When in 1982 then first lady Nancy Reagan famously advised Americans to “Just say no” to drugs, 50-year-old Tom Cilmi, the three-term Suffolk County Republican legislator of the 10th District, which covers a major portion of the town of Islip and a small section of the town of Brookhaven, was still a teenager. “I remember going from store to store with my mother, putting up the ‘Just say no’ signs,” he told me when I interviewed him in his Suffolk County legislative office recently.

Cilmi, who was appointed early this year by the Republican Caucus of the Suffolk County Legislature as chairperson of the newly formed Mental Health and Substance Abuse Task Force, said that, from those days 32 years ago that he was placing drug prevention posters on store front windows with his mother until the present day, the federal, state, and county governments have spent billions of dollars fighting drug abuse, but the problem has not abated.

“The government has spent an enormous amount of money over the last three decades to fight drug abuse among Americans of all ages. Yet it continues to be a huge problem,” he said.

The Suffolk County Legislator contends that while it is difficult to calculate the exact amount of tax dollars that goes to fighting illegal drug use in the complicated labyrinth of the federal budget, such spending on the state and county levels is a bit more transparent, but the results are just as disappointing. 

“Suffolk County roughly spends nearly 20 million dollars annually on drug prevention and related programs,” Cilmi said. “That is in addition to the hundreds of millions spent on law enforcement efforts. NYS spends nearly $800 millions dollars,” he said. “[Yet] despite the billions of dollars spent at the federal level or by state and county governments, these problems continue to grow. So many constituents have shared with me tragic stories of a family member or close friend whose lives were destroyed by drugs.”

Reinventing the Wheel

For Suffolk County, the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Task Force is not a new attempt to curb drug abuse. In 2010 the county Legislature established an ad hoc panel which in December of that year issued a report containing 48 comprehensive proposals on how to deal with the county’s mounting substance abuse problems. This panel’s prior work has opened up the lawmaker to criticism by some detractors who claim that the new task force is doing no more than duplicating the work of the old committee.

This is a criticism that Cilmi quickly rebuffed. “When from time to time people ask me whether I am trying to reinvent the wheel, I answer, ‘The world has changed in the past three years and so has substance abuse. If our efforts aren’t working, then maybe it’s now time to reinvent the wheel.’”

He was quick to add, however, that the task force would build upon, not discard, the findings of the original panel. “We realize that there was a lot of time and effort that was put in it (the original panel), which we will utilize when appropriate. But our focus will be different.”

That focus, he elaborated, would be to use “the platform of the task force to continue to inform the public that illegal drug use and the drug trade have resulted in the rise in crimes in our neighborhoods and the loss of life of young people who somehow became addicted to drugs. … [And the focus will be to use] the input from the community, law enforcement officials, drug and alcohol abuse and health care providers, and other interested parties to formulate new policies that will best and most efficiently address this horrible problem.”

The legislator also noted that the policies of the task force will be guided by its title. “We created the name ‘Mental Health and Substance Abuse’ for a reason,” he said. “Studies show that there is a high correlation between drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness. … This factor will be addressed by the task force as we move forward.”

While the new task force was established by the Republican Legislative Caucus, Cilmi pledged that it will be nonpartisan in nature. “Substance abuse,” he asserted, “is not a Republican, Democrat, liberal, or conservative problem. It is a problem that knows no political names or classifications. So any effort to combat the scourge of substance abuse must be nonpartisan in nature.”

Consistently Conventional Conservative

There are some Suffolk political insiders, however, who are said not to associate Cilmi with the term “nonpartisan.” A former small-business owner and former president of the Islip Chamber of Commerce, Cilmi burst into the Suffolk County political scene in November 2009 when he garnered 60 percent of the vote in winning his race against Democrat Patrick Nolan, the son of popular Islip Supervisor Philip Nolan. Cilmi significantly increased those margins in the 2011 and 2013 elections.

Using those victories as a mandate, Cilmi has compiled a consistently conventional conservative Republican record in the Legislature, sponsoring fiscal bills that lower personal and business taxes, require greater transparency in the budget, reduce spending, and, most controversially, require the annual vote on the county’s operating budget be held before election day—bills that were opposed by many Democrats. Still, repeating what he had earlier said about the nonpolitical nature of the mounting substance abuse problem, he was quick to dismiss any suggestion that as the chairperson he would allow the panel to act in a partisan way.

Cilmi went on to point out that he has a history of working cooperatively with Democrats. He cited as an example of that cooperation his recent teaming with legislator DuWayne Gregory and County Executive Steve Bellone, both Democrats, to create a program, which will enable the county to sell contaminated properties to private investors who will in turn clean them up for future sale or rental. This venture, he said, will result “in a cleaner environment, business and economic development opportunities, and the potential creation of many new private sector jobs.”

Cilmi, the married father of a son, 20-year-old Thomas, a college junior, and a daughter, 23-year-old Stephanie, a graduate student, told me that he believes that an elected official must always give primary consideration to how his or her actions will impact upon families—whether dealing with substance abuse or other important issues and concerns.

“As a husband and parent, I am always concerned about the safety and quality of life of families living in my district and throughout Suffolk County, and I keep that in mind when considering legislation,” he said. “Supporting efforts that create jobs through fostering a more transparent, business-friendly culture in government, and fighting against things like substance abuse which have tremendous negative impact on our quality of life, are always priorities for me. It is as simple as that.”

Robert Golomb is a nationally published columnist. Contact him at [email protected]

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