Suffolk County Required To Pay Back $29 Million To Water Quality Protection Program

Suffolk County must refund more than $29 million to its water protection program, according to a state appellate court decision last week.

The court ruled that former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy illegally transferred $29,409,109 from the county’s Drinking Water Protection Program to “plug holes” in the general budget, according to Paul Sabatino II of Shoreham-based Gordon & Juengst. The county is now required to pay it back.

Mr. Sabatino, who is representing the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, which initially sued the county back in 2011 over the budget maneuver, explained that the fund is part of a voter-approved program, established in 1987, to fund water quality improvement and land preservation measures through a quarter-cent voluntary sales tax. 

Mr. Sabatino explained that the fund’s revenues are to be split between water quality, land preservation, tax stabilization and sewer rate stabilization reserves. 

Long Island Pine Barrens Society Executive Director Dick Amper added that in order to redirect portions of those reserves to the county’s general fund, the former county executive would have needed additional voter approval.

Mr. Amper boasted that, since 1987, Suffolk County taxpayers have approved more than $2 billion to be used for land and water quality protection projects, noting that Mr. Levy’s actions “threaten the public support” for those programs. 

“The people on Long Island are leaders in protecting land and water,” he said. “You can’t have politicians saying, ‘April fools! We’re going to use it for something else.’”

In November 2014, State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Farneti ruled in the society’s favor, calling the transfer “illegal, null and void.” However, the county, which called the transfer a “mistake,” was not initially required to pay it back. Last week’s decision required the county to return more than $29 million to the fund.

Mr. Sabatino added that the fund was first established in 1987 after budget shortfalls at the county level led to a “financial collapse” of its Southwest Sewer District. The program was initially intended to last a total of five years; however, it was expanded, following voter approval in 1997, to 2030.

Mr. Sabatino added that the Long Island Pine Barrens Society brought a similar lawsuit against Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s administration in 2012, after an additional $32.8 million was extracted from the Assessment Stabilization Reserve to cover general expenses for the 2014 fiscal year. He said the county intended to do so annually through 2017.

However, that lawsuit was settled in November 2014 after voters approved a referendum allowing the county to borrow a total of $171.3 million, so long as it was paid back between 2018 and 2029, according to Mr. Sabatino.

By Valerie Gordon, Southampton Press

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