Constructing a budget is the sausage-making of politics. It's rarely pretty, especially when times are tough. That's been the case for several years now in Suffolk County. The administration of Steve Bellone -- which admittedly was dealt a tough hand by its predecessor and by the local economy -- has tried to balance the county budget in both traditional and creative ways. But in crafting a spending plan for 2014, the county executive and the county legislature cooked up a solution too hard to stomach.
They agreed to plug a hole in next year's $2.76-billion budget by taking nearly $33 million from a fund created by voter referendum specifically to stabilize sewer rates. By dipping into that honey pot, they violated a compact with voters and helped set a dangerous precedent.
The money grab was a triumph of expediency over principle. It arose because the legislature, to its credit, rejected as odious Bellone's plan to restructure the county's debt via more borrowing, through the state Dormitory Authority. But the solution -- to cover the resulting $33 million hole by raiding the sewer rate stabilization fund, and to consider similar raids in 2015 and 2016 -- is also noxious. The program that created the fund began in the 1980s when the public, in a referendum, agreed to an extra quarter-cent in sales tax to slow down rate increases for people living in sewer districts. The distribution of the money raised by that quarter-cent has changed five times since then, each time being approved by a public referendum. Currently, the money generated is split between the sewer rate stabilization fund, tax stabilization, drinking water protection and open space purchases. But the key is any change in the program must by law be approved by the public.
In 2011, the county under then-County Executive Steve Levy raided the fund for $20 million -- without a referendum. The Pine Barrens Society sued, saying the move was illegal; the case was dismissed, but not on its merits -- the judge ruled the society lacked standing to sue. That's being appealed. But the current administration cites the first raid and the dismissal of the suit as precedent for its own swipe. That's disengenuous.
Bellone says the diminished fund still will have enough money to function. And it swears it will repay the fund in 2017, citing the improving economy, rising sales tax revenue and other new funding streams, like the soon-to-be-installed video lottery terminals. That's a dubious promise.
The budget resolution is not binding and states only an "intent" to replenish the fund. The legislature not only would have to repay the $33 million it "borrowed," it also would have to plug the hole that the borrowed money was filling. On top of that, if the Pine Barrens Society's legal action succeeds, the county will be on the hook for the $33 million plus the earlier $20 million. Three legislators voted against the money grab. Several of the 13 who voted in favor said they were uncomfortable, talked about losing the trust of voters, and worried they were opening a Pandora's box in which other funds with dedicated purposes could be raided.
But they said the county's budget woes trumped the compact with voters, so they held their noses and said yes. That's regrettable.
There may be little logistical consequence if the money is promptly returned. But the issue here is the principle -- you can't use money the public set aside for anything other than what the public set it aside for -- and that has been violated.