Pine Barrens Society Blasts County Proposal To Cut Environmental Funding Amid Coronavirus Crisis

An environmental advocate has leveled harsh criticisms of a proposal by Suffolk County to trim environmental protection funding as it tries to balance mushrooming deficits from the economic impacts of the coronavirus epidemic.

The Long Island Pine Barrens Society blasted Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone this week over a county proposal to seek a temporary re-purposing of some sales tax money that goes into a voter-approved water quality protection fund, while the county tries to balance budgets reeling from mounting costs and revenue losses in the wake of the on-going epidemic.

The county has proposed two ballot measures that would ask voters to approve allowing the county to reduce the amount of sales tax money that goes into land acquisition programs from 31 percent to 15 percent for a period of three years — the money to instead be made available to fill other growing budget gaps — and to use millions in what it has said are “excess” funds in a sewer systems improvement fund for other means.

The Pine Barrens Society also says the county’s plans would rob the county’s Drinking Water Protection Program of tens of millions of dollars owed to it and that the propositions being put to voters are deceptively worded to mislead voters as to the county’s intentions.

“It’s disgraceful that the Bellone administration is trying to use a deadly pandemic as a guise to cover up nine years of fiscal mismanagement that has brought the county to its financial knees,” Richard Amper, the longtime executive director of the Pine Barrens Society, said in a statement attacking the county’s proposals. “We must oppose Bellone’s pandemic skulduggery.”

County officials said that the Pine Barrens Society’s heated response was unfortunate and noted that the county proposal does what the society has long demanded be done: ask voters for permission to use millions of surplus funds for desperately needed other uses.

“Setting aside the inflammatory rhetoric, the unfortunate reality is that the economic impacts caused by the COVID pandemic will force government on all levels to make very difficult decisions,” said Deputy County Executive Peter Scully, a former state environmental official who has spearheaded the Bellone administration’s water quality initiatives. “Allowing the voters to have a direct say on at least some of these decisions is an important way to make sure that the voices of the people are heard.

By Michael Wright, Southampton Press

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