Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on Oct. 20, 2020 in...

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on Oct. 20, 2020 in Hauppauge... Credit: Howard Schnapp

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and county public sector unions urged voters Sunday to support a ballot measure to tap a county sewer fund to plug budget holes.

Proposition 2, they said, will help the county avoid future layoffs, property tax increases and health agency funding cuts as Suffolk faces a fiscal crisis due to the pandemic.

"Vote yes on Prop 2 to protect taxpayers, first responders, essential workers, and make sure we have the funds to provide critical services needed to fight COVID-19," Bellone, who proposed the ballot measure, said at a news conference inside the IBEW-25 union hall in Hauppauge.

Union representatives said the measure will ensure there is adequate funding for essential employee positions and personal protective equipment.

"Now is not the time to cut back on public health nurses, epidemiologists, emergency call operators, and the men and women of the police department," said Daniel Levler, president of the county's largest employee union, the Association of Municipal Employees.

Bellone’s news conference came days after Republican legislators and the Long Island Pine Barrens Society called on voters to oppose the measure, saying it will violate a court order and reduce funding for sewer projects.

Proposition 2, which is on the ballot Tuesday, asks Suffolk voters to approve the transfer this year of $44 million from the sewer fund to a taxpayer trust fund, which helps finance county operations.

The county is essentially seeking to avoid legal obligations to repay money it previously took from the fund, which currently has $35 million it.

The sewer assessment stabilization fund is used to stabilize sewer district taxes and can be used for sewer and septic infrastructure projects. The fund is a component of the county’s drinking water protection program, which uses a quarter of every cent in sales tax to fund sewers, land preservation, property tax stabilization and water quality.

The county took $29.4 million from the sewer fund to balance the budget in 2011 under former County Executive Steve Levy.

The Pine Barrens Society sued and a state Supreme Court justice last December ordered the county to repay the money "immediately." The county is appealing the court order and the money has yet to be paid, Suffolk County Attorney Dennis Cohen has said.

The ballot measure would send that $29.4 million to the taxpayer trust fund.

The measure also seeks approval to divert another $145 million from the fund through 2029. That is what the county still owes under a legal settlement with the pine barrens Society after borrowing money from the sewer fund from 2014 to 2017.

Voters have approved the drinking water protection program because they are "willing to pay for clean water and land protection," Dick Amper, executive director of the Pine Barrens Society, said Sunday. "But we're not going to simply fatten Bellone's wallet because he doesn't know how to manage the fiscal program in Suffolk County."

Bellone proposed the measure as the county faces a projected coronavirus-related deficit of up to $1.5 billion over three years. His proposed 2021 budget, which assumes the referendum passes, calls for eliminating 500 jobs, bus routes, police academy classes and funding for health agencies as he seeks more federal relief.

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