Bellone seeks to fill budget shortfall with water protection funds

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s administration has proposed diverting millions of dollars from a drinking water protection program to fill budget shortfalls from the coronavirus shutdown. But an environmental group says the proposals could violate a court order and legal settlement from two previous lawsuits.

The proposals would divert $44.4 million from a sewer stabilization fund this year and reduce funding for land preservation by 16% through 2022, resolutions show. That money would instead go to stabilize property taxes.

But the proposals would violate voters’ trust and seek to evade the county’s legal responsibilities, said Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, which has previously sued the county for taking money from those funds.

Voters approved the program to protect the environment, not fill budget holes, he said. The proposals also seek to evade a court order and legal settlement that require the county to repay nearly $200 million it previously diverted from the sewer fund, Amper said.

“This is a problem we’ve had for several years,” Amper said. “We think it’s as illegal today as it was before.”

The proposals, which were up for public hearings before the Suffolk Legislature on Tuesday night, come as the county faces a budget shortfall of between $300 million and $350 million this year, the legislature’s Budget Review Office said.

“In order for the County to provide necessary services, decisive action is required to address the shortfall in revenues,” the proposed resolutions say. 

The drinking water protection program was established in 1987 after a voter referendum. It is funded by a 0.25% county sales tax, which is used for sewer stabilization, environmental protections and property tax mitigation, according to county law. 

The county took $29.4 million from the sewer fund to balance the budget in 2011. The Pine Barrens Society sued, and a state Supreme Court justice ordered the county to repay that money in December 2019. The state Appellate Division in 2012 ruled the diversion was “illegal, null and void” because the county did not get voter approval in a referendum.

The county also entered into a legal settlement with the Pine Barrens Society in 2014 that allowed Suffolk to borrow $171 million from the sewer fund from 2014 to 2017 and repay it through 2029.

One of Bellone’s proposals would move $44 million, including the $29.4 million the county was ordered to repay, to another fund to “reduce reliance on property tax revenues,” the measure says. The resolution states that the $29.4 million “is not needed in the fund, which enjoys a significant excess fund balance.”

The measure also would repeal sections of county law that were added to adhere to terms of the 2014 legal settlement, Pine Barrens Society attorney Paul Sabatino said.

Bellone spokesman Derek Poppe said the measures would be amended, “so it would be premature to discuss those bills at this time.”

The redistribution of money “is warranted to fund essential law enforcement, health and other services required to protect the health, safety and welfare of the people of Suffolk County,” one resolution said. 

Both proposals would require a voter referendum, the resolutions said. Another public hearing on the proposals will be held June 9. 

On Tuesday, the legislature also:

  • Accepted $2.5 million in coronavirus funding. $2.04 million in federal coronavirus aid will go to the county Board of Elections for coronavirus-related expenses of this year’s federal elections, including protecting poll workers and buying additional absentee ballot materials. A $381,000 state grant will be used to expand contact tracing, including funding six staff members, telemedicine services and supplies for residents in quarantine or isolation.
  • Approved a new three-year contract (15-3) for Suffolk County Community College’s Faculty Association, which would give annual raises of 1.6% to full-time faculty. 
  • Appointed Dennis Cohen as county attorney (10-7). Cohen previously held that position in 2012 and became chief deputy county executive in 2013.

By Rachelle Blidner, Newsday 

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