Suffolk voters in November will decide whether to approve a...

Suffolk voters in November will decide whether to approve a ballot measure funding new sewers and advanced septic systems. Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

Suffolk voters in November will be asked to hike sales taxes by an eighth of a percentage point for construction of new sewers and septic systems, under a measure the Suffolk Legislature approved Tuesday.

Legislators voted 15-2 in favor of adding the referendum to the Nov. 5 general election ballot. Only two lawmakers voted no: Legis. Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) and Legis. Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga). Legis. Trish Bergin (R-East Islip) was absent.

Suffolk County Executive Edward P. Romaine has to sign the measure into law for the referendum to be added to the ballot. He is expected to do so on July 8, spokesperson Mike Martino said.

“Today we took another important step toward providing the voters the opportunity to support this measure that helps safeguard our environment and improve water quality for generations to come," Romaine said in a statement after the vote.

The hike in sales tax collections — equal to 12.5 cents on a $100 purchase — will fund about $4 billion over 50 years to implement the county's Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan.

If approved, Suffolk will see from $50 million to $55 million in new annual revenues to expand sewer systems across the county and replace outdated septic systems, officials have said. The new high-tech systems are designed to eliminate nitrogen and other contaminants that leach into the water supply and fuel harmful algal growth. The county refers to the high-tech systems as “innovative/alternative on-site wastewater treatment systems.”

The legislature's approval comes after a two-year political fight and gives Suffolk the tools county officials have said will stem prolific nitrogen pollution and protect Long Island's water quality. More than 75% of Suffolk residents are served by outdated cesspools that send nitrogen, which can feed algae leading to toxic algal blooms, into Suffolk's water supply.

Presiding Officer Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst), speaking before the vote, said legislators and staff “put our heads together and we figured it out … walking around the political land mines, trying to figure out how to get this done, and it was not easy. And there were some dark days.”

McCaffrey added, “We all agreed that we needed to fix the water quality here on Long Island, and the only way to do it was to find a sustainable source of revenue that doesn't have an adverse impact on residents.”

Legis. Rebecca Sanin (D-Huntington Station) said the hike is a “modest addition” to the current sales tax rate.

“This is a small price to pay for the immense benefits it will bring to our water quality, to our public health and to our local economy,” Sanin said.

Former Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat, proposed similar legislation in 2023 but Republicans in control of the legislature refused to call the bill as his successor, Romaine, a Republican, was running for county executive.

Democrats accused Republican lawmakers of stymying a key environmental initiative during an election year and trying to deny Bellone a victory in his last months in office. Republicans denied those charges.

Republicans said the former proposal dedicated too high a share of the funding stream — 75% — to the high-tech septic systems and too small a share — 25% — for sewers. They say the current measure splits the funding between sewers and the more advanced septic systems equally.

Trotta and Kennedy, the legislators who opposed the bill, said the county should have found other ways to fund new sewers and high-tech systems. Both said they opposed the county's diversion of $198 million in the past from a dedicated sewer fund to finance county operations, including to avert layoffs and service cuts during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Trotta said county lawmakers, and not voters, should be the ones approving tax hikes.

“People are just going to say, 'Oh clean water, I'm going to vote for that,' ” he said. “If we're really for clean water, why don't the 18 of us vote for raising the taxes? Because I guarantee you, the vote would be very different.”

Kennedy said she was flooded with calls from angry residents opposing the sales tax increase.

“My people have said, 'Please don't raise the taxes.' I have people that are having difficulty paying for their groceries,” Kennedy said before casting her no vote. “I have people that are having difficulty paying for their medications. I have a large number of seniors, and I do what my people ask.”

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