When Superstorm Sandy was on her collision course with Long Island, it was next to impossible to imagine what devastation the storm would bring.
There was a grim discussion, including a warning that people should be prepared to see the bodies of those who may not have made it through the event. It was going to be catastrophic, perhaps historic. Sandy was going to leave behind sights that nobody had ever seen before.
Thankfully, no lives were lost. But Jim LaCarrubba will never forget the images of what the surging waters brought to the City of Long Beach, where he was working as director of public works.
LaCarrubba is now the president and CEO of Suffolk Off-Track Betting (OTB), the most recent position in a long public service career. He has seen a lot of things throughout the years, and Sandy’s impact has left an indelible mark on the veteran government official.
“As the storm was getting worse, I was on the Long Beach boardwalk with (former) City Manager Jack Schnirman, and he was finishing an interview with one of the many media outlets that were there reporting,” LaCarrubba says. “I told Jack that if we didn’t leave right at that moment, we would not be able to get across town. By the time we got across town to City Hall, the water was up to our knees.”
So began days of working around the clock for every city employee. There was five feet of sand on some streets. The famous boardwalk was completely destroyed in some places. Residents were unloading their lives into the street, LaCarrubba recalls.
“That event, as much as I would never want to see it again, was an incredible learning experience for everyone,” he says. “It was a moment in time when everyone — government and community — came together. I wish we could see that spirit again.”
Long Beach came back. The boardwalk was repaired, and the beaches opened by the following summer. Millions of dollars in government aid went to rebuild the infrastructure.
“It was local government at its finest, helping the people and working toward the same goal,” LaCarrubba says. “I am proud to have been a part of it all.”
LaCarrubba is a lifelong resident of Ronkonkoma. He bought the house next door to the one he grew up in and is still there. His trajectory in public service began during his time as an employee for the phone company. He rose through the ranks, and in 2001 became a business agent. The position required a lot of political involvement, and his taste for government service took hold.
In 2005, he unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the Brookhaven Town Council. Brian Foley won the supervisor’s seat, and LaCarrubba offered to serve. He was appointed commissioner of the Aviation and Transportation Department. In short order, he put together a plan to disband the department to eliminate waste and duplicative services and save taxpayers millions of dollars.
“The department made no sense,” LaCarrubba says. “It was just costing the people money.”
He then became the town’s commissioner of parks and began new efforts to bring the community into the decision-making when it came to new projects and improvements.
“Who am I to tell a community what they need? Some want to see basketball courts. Some want playgrounds. But the people felt like they had ownership in their parks, and the result was they took care of them. There was less graffiti, less vandalism,” LaCarrubba says.
He then became deputy supervisor before heading to Albany when Foley won an election to become a New York State senator. Serving as Foley’s chief of staff, LaCarrubba continued to learn the tenets of good government. When Foley left the Senate, LaCarrubba headed back to Brookhaven as the deputy superintendent of highways. From there he served in Long Beach, then as chief of staff in the Town of Hempstead for former Supervisor Laura Gillen.
All roads now led to December 2020, when LaCarrubba was named the new head of the Suffolk OTB, a role that calls for all of his government and private sector experience to be an effective leader.
“I am so proud of what we have done in the short time I have been here,” LaCarrubba says.
OTB is coming off a disastrous 2020 when the COVID pandemic closed all OTB locations for five months. But 2021 has seen a dramatic turnaround. Having declared bankruptcy in 2012, OTB has now paid all of its creditors, dollar for dollar. The flagship location, Jake’s 58 in Bohemia, is doing well, and the future is incredibly bright. OTB recently purchased the hotel that houses Jake’s 58.
“We are saving money on fees, we are more efficient, and we have more control of the entire operation,” LaCarrubba notes.
One of his missions is to change the perception of OTB as a political patronage mill with little regard for the surrounding community and ensure that OTB is a partner.
“We are bringing change, adding appropriate staff and working really hard to provide the benefits to the public that have been promised.
This year, the agency is on pace to provide $125 million to New York State for education and has continued to generate much-needed revenue for Suffolk County taxpayers. The accomplishments and plans for the future are the results of a long road in public service.
“I have served in all levels of government, and it is a privilege,” LaCarrubba says. “It is hard work, and we have to protect the taxpayers. But we are the boots on the ground, the ones who do the heavy lifting, and it is all for the benefit of the people.”
Todd Shapiro is an award-winning publicist and associate publisher of Dan’s Papers.