Suffolk group gathers signatures for referendum to recover $75M to protect water supply

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Lately Rosalie Hanson has been toting petitions wherever she goes.

The Medford community activist has gathered more than 200 signatures from family, friends and anyone she can enlist to force a public referendum aimed at recovering $75 million that county officials spent elsewhere instead of to protect Suffolk's water supply. It also would require a new vote any time a proposal approved in a county referendum was changed.

"I was at a Lions Club dinner at Coram Pond Diner last week and I must've got 20 signatures," said Hanson, 52, the club's secretary. "Trust me, politicians do nothing until you put your foot on their throat."

Hanson is one of about 25 volunteers working on the petition drive organized by the Long Island Pine Barrens Society. Since mid-March, they have tried to collect the 10,000 signatures needed -- 2.5 percent of the last gubernatorial vote in each of Suffolk's 10 towns -- to force a November referendum under the county's initiative and referendum law. Richard Amper, the society's executive director, said about one-third of the signatures needed had already been collected -- at supermarkets, post offices and downtowns. The group hopes to reach its goal by the end of May.

Suffolk, which has had a referendum law in place since 1978, and New York City are the only local governments in the state that allow voters to go around their elected representatives to enact laws through the ballot box.

Though no petition-driven referendum has ever directly made the ballot, environmentalists used the process in 1996 to gather more than 36,000 signatures, forcing county lawmakers to put forward a referendum to change Suffolk's environmental program and driving more money to water protection and less to tax relief.

"The law has had its effect," said Paul Sabatino, a former legislative counsel. "It not only gives the public direct legal power . . . but allows them to use petitions as cudgel to encourage elected officials to do the right thing."

The Bellone administration is not only facing the petition drive, but a pending appellate division ruling on a suit filed by Pine Barrens Society that challenges an earlier $21 million raid of environmental funds. County Executive Steve Bellone has made clean water a major priority and has asked the state for $100 million to expand Suffolk's sewers to protect the underground aquifers and bays.

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"We think there is a better way," said Jon Schneider, deputy county executive, noting that if the referendum proposal goes through, it will not only "create an enormous budget gap" but cause Suffolk to cut funding for four sewer projects financed by the county's sewer tax stabilization fund. "We're hopeful that we can all get on the same page," he said.

"The public deserves to have the money spent as promised," Amper said. "And the administration fundamentally agrees with us, but figuring out a way to do it is extremely complicated."

He added, however, "unless they assure us it won't happen again, the public has the right to solve the problem itself."

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