Suffolk's landmark program to acquire environmentally significant properties is nearly out of funds, leaving county legislators scrambling to find new money and maximize what's left.
Planning director Sarah Lansdale told a legislative committee last week that Suffolk's dedicated account for open space and farmland acquisitions -- funded by a portion of a quarter-cent sales tax -- has $3.1 million left for future purchases. About $22 million is earmarked to preserve parcels that are already under contract with a seller or in negotiations for acquisition.
"We don't have enough money left for what needs to be acquired," said Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), chairwoman of the Environment, Planning and Agriculture Committee. "We need to be spending it wisely and have to think about how we can get more money."
The drop in funding is largely due to Suffolk no longer being able to fund land purchases by borrowing against future sales tax revenue.
The county was one of the first in the nation to dedicate a portion of sales tax revenue for environmental protection, and since 1977 has spent $950 million on more than 60,000 acres of land, officials said.
In 2007, the program accelerated when voters in a referendum renewed the special sales tax and allowed officials to borrow against future revenue to make open-space buys. This year, the sales tax is predicted to generate about $5 million for open-space purchases.
When borrowing authorization expired in late 2011, Hahn asked the planning department to recommend ways to maximize the dwindling funds, prompting Lansdale's report.
County Executive Steve Bellone said Hahn's initiative strengthens Suffolk's preservation program by "prioritizing the best use of taxpayer dollars."
"The open space program is a critical part of protecting Suffolk's identity and our environment for future generations," Bellone said.
Lansdale said she's concerned that the county is reaching a point where authorized purchases can't be funded. But she stopped short of recommending a halt to approving new appraisals, offers and contracts as discussed last year.
Hahn said she's hoping to get recommendations from environmental advocates on how the county should prioritize future acquisitions. "These are big policy decisions the legislature needs to make," Hahn said.
"If something's a priority, you work out a way to keep it," Esposito said. "The job's not done, and I don't think the county has demonstrated thoughtfulness about sustaining this program for the future."
Lansdale told lawmakers that they'll need to choose carefully among 4,649 acres the county is recommending for a new master list of future purchases. She suggested a focus on stopping development on wetlands and in flood zones. The county also has access to $10 million left over from a previous open space fund.