Editorial: Referendum on water-quality funds is the right move

County Executive Steve Bellone unveiled a whopping $410.3

County Executive Steve Bellone unveiled a whopping $410.3 million 2015 capital budget that will borrow $5 million to pay for new police cars in the depleted fleet and spend $207 million to replace an aging bay outfall pipe for the Southwest sewer district. Photo Credit: Johnny Milano

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Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and environmentalists have reached an important deal regarding the spending of water-quality funds. The essential element is this: They're going to let the voters decide how the money should be spent. That's exactly how it should be. Now the county legislature needs to sign on, too.

The agreement follows a months-long dispute over the county's habit of borrowing from its drinking water protection program -- specifically, the part of the program that stabilizes sewer rates. The administration of Steve Levy diverted $29.4 million and Bellone wanted to borrow $33 million to plug a hole in this year's budget, and additional amounts in succeeding years. The fund has $100 million more than it needs, county officials say, but environmentalists contend the moves were illegal because any changes in the program -- set up by a 1987 public referendum that approved a quarter-percent sales tax -- must be approved by voters.

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The deal removes any ambiguity about voter approval via a charter amendment stating that any changes must be done by public referendum. It also would put a referendum on the ballot in November asking voters to authorize a $29.4-million bond to repay the amount taken earlier, to allow Bellone to borrow from the fund for three years with a mandatory repayment schedule, and to begin spending $46 million currently frozen in a sewer infrastructure fund.

Instead of propping up a budget in structural imbalance, a better use of the $100 million surplus would be to build new sewers, an option when Bellone's borrowing is repaid. But the deal overall has its advantages. It means more money for water quality and, most important, reaffirms a basic principle: Only the public gets to decide how to use money the public has set aside.

The Suffolk legislature needs to approve the agreement and send it on to where it belonged in the first place: the voters.

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