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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Steve Bellone's new plan to divert money from environment fund

Congressman Thomas Suozzi, Congressman Peter King, Nassau County

Congressman Thomas Suozzi, Congressman Peter King, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone in Syosset on July 15. Credit: Howard Schnapp

It's all in the packaging.

And, oh, what a pretty piece of packaging this is:

"The Suffolk County Legislature will hold special meetings on Tuesday, July 28 to consider and vote on legislation to allow a voter referendum to increase the percentage of sales tax revenue that goes toward countywide property tax protection by decreasing the percentage that goes to the county’s environmental programs."

Let's see what's inside:

County Executive Steve Bellone and the Democratic majority on Suffolk's legislature want to seek voter OK to divert money from an environmental protection fund to pay bills elsewhere.

It's a tap Peter to pay Paul move.

And one that may sound familiar — because the Bellone administration, and that of former County Executive Steve Levy, have done it before.

Environmentalists sued.

And won.

The county appealed.

And environmentalists won — again.

During a committee debate on the proposed measure last week, Democratic lawmakers, along with representatives from the legislative and executive budget offices, stressed that Suffolk's budget was being slammed by fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

And that's not likely to change anytime soon, absent widespread access to some vaccine — yet to come.

But wait.

A long, long time ago — long before COVID-19 — there were similar arguments supporting moving some of that money around.

It first happened, under Levy, in 2011, when the county borrowed money from the sewer fund. In 2013, according to news reports at the time, the Bellone administration diverted almost $33 million from Suffolk's water protection program — which was supposed to be a one-time-pluga-hole-in-the-budget thing.

It would take years before the environmentalists' challenge to the move would wend its way through the courts.

Still, Suffolk learned something after losing the case.

If raiding the fund went against the wishes of voters who — five times — had approved a dedicated environmental protection fund as a way to protect drinking water and stabilize sewer district rates, then the solution would be simple:

Change the wishes of Suffolk voters.

And that's what Tuesday's legislative meeting is all about.

Should the measure pass — and given the debate last week, it would be extraordinary if it did not — voters in November will have a chance to change their wishes about how that money is to be used.

Hence, the proposed referendum to "increase the percentage of sales tax revenue that goes toward countywide property tax protection" — by decreasing the percentage that goes to the county’s environmental program.

Got it?

To be fair, the county doesn't want to empty the environmental fund, it just wants to effectively use it as a piggy bank.

And, unlike last time around, it wouldn't necessarily be a one-time-only thing.

Another difference: In 2014, the county said it intended to pay back the money it "borrowed." Later, after the case had been decided, a judge made restitution part of his order.

But the county, natch, has yet to repay it in full. (There already are rumblings of future lawsuits over the issue.)

Is Suffolk hurting financially?

Yes, there is no doubt about that.

Given the economic uncertainty on Long Island and elsewhere, who isn't?

But packaging shouldn't obscure what's really happening here.

If it's ends up being left to voters, that's OK — but take that darn bow off.

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