Suffolk voters approved a proposition authorizing the county to tap into a dedicated sewer fund created to protect drinking water in order to help plug county budget deficits, a county election official said.

The final vote was 348,357 in support of the proposition to 301,407 opposed, according to final results released by the county Board of Elections on Thursday.

"This is a victory for Suffolk taxpayers, our police and essential employees," County Executive Steve Bellone said in a statement.

Bellone said use of the sewer fund will help the county avoid layoffs and service cuts. The budget deficit has ballooned during the COVID-19 pandemic and the statewide economic shutdown that was imposed to help stem spread of the virus.

The Long Island Pine Barrens Society, a nonprofit advocacy group that opposes the transfer of money from the sewer fund, may challenge the proposition’s legality, said Richard Amper, the society's director.

"It is not clear to us that this was a legal proceeding of the county in as much as the language of the motion was incomprehensible," Amper said. "The requirement under state law is that it must be clear to the average voter."

The resolution on ballots read: "A Charter Law to Transfer Excess Funds in the Sewer Assessment Stabilization Reserve Fund to the Suffolk County Taxpayer Trust Fund and to Eliminate the Requirement that Interfund Transfers Be Made from the General Fund to the Sewer Assessment Stabilization Fund. Shall Resolution No. 547-2020 be approved?"

The proposition asked voters to authorize the county to transfer $44 million from the dedicated sewer fund to a taxpayer trust fund. The measure also sought to allow the county to avoid having to replenish the fund with $145 million owed under a previous borrowing plan.

Environmentalists including the Pine Barrens Society said the transfer would hurt the county's drinking water protection program that voters created in a referendum in 1987.

The program is funded by a .25% sales tax and divided between funds for sewers and land preservation, property tax stabilization and water quality.

The sewer fund is used to stabilize taxes for sewer district residents and fund sewage infrastructure improvements throughout the county, including installation of low-nitrogen septic systems, according to county law.

In 2011, the county under former Executive Steve Levy withdrew $29.4 million from the sewer fund to balance the budget.

The Pine Barrens Society sued. A court in December 2019 ordered the county to repay the money, but Suffolk appealed the decision.

The Pine Barrens Society says the county owes the fund $145 million that the county borrowed in 2014 and 2017.

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