Suffolk Must Honor Voters’ Choice

Suffolk County whiffed again in its attempt to avoid returning $29.4 million it borrowed from a fund created to stabilize sewer district taxes.

That might sound like a bureaucratic snore, but bear with us. There is an important legal principle at work here that has to do with government properly spending the public’s money.

Former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy borrowed the $29.4 million in 2011 to help balance the county budget. His successor, Steve Bellone, has been unwilling to pay it back.

The money came from a fund established to tamp down sewer taxes in the Southwest Sewer District and a couple dozen smaller county sewer districts. Money for the fund was collected as part of the Drinking Water Protection Program, which was set up in 1987 by a public referendum. Suffolk County residents voted to approve a quarter-cent sales tax to fund specific environmental initiatives, including the sewer fund.

In taking the money to use for another purpose, Levy violated a basic legal tenet: Any law created by a public referendum can only be changed by another public referendum. In other words, you can’t use money approved by voters to stabilize sewer taxes for anything but stabilizing sewer taxes, no matter how noble the purpose, unless you get the voters’ permission.

By refusing to return the money after taking office in 2012, Bellone’s administration essentially has committed the same sin. The state Appellate Division twice rebuffed the county by overturning lower court decisions and instead ruling that diverting the money was illegal and that the county must return the $29.4 million to the sewer fund. Last month, State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Farneti, whose earlier decisions were the ones overturned on appeal, ruled that Suffolk must return the funds “immediately.” Last week, the Appellate Division denied the county’s bid to again reargue the case.

It’s high time the county returns the money. And Suffolk officials should understand there is more than the $29.4 million at stake. Most important is the issue of trust.

When a referendum is put before voters asking them to agree to tax themselves to raise funds for a specific purpose, the money must be spent for that purpose. The cash is in a lockbox, and voters hold the key. When politicians try to tap it for something else, they’re trying to take the key away from voters. When those same officials come to the public later with another referendum seeking money for a different purpose, it would be understandable if voters balked. Who would trust a promise from someone who has already broken their word?

If Suffolk County officials truly believe there is an excessive surplus in the sewer fund and the money would be better spent elsewhere — for example, on clean water projects — they should know by this point what they need to do. Go back to the voters who gave them the money in the first place and ask for their permission. That’s the law.

By The Editorial Board, Newsday

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