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Lawmakers could restore sewer district funds

Suffolk lawmakers said Wednesday they may be willing to restore some projects eliminated in County Executive Steve Bellone's capital budget, including funds to design a new Mastic/Shirley sewer district.

Bellone's 2014 plan would cut spending by nearly 15 percent from 2013, to $129.6 million. Among the cuts is $1 million for design work for a new sewer district that proponents say is crucial to reducing pollution in the Forge River and revitalizing downtown Shirley.

Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley) has called the cut "foolish," since Suffolk has already spent $2.4 million to study sewer districts countywide.

But Deputy Presiding Officer Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon) said Wednesday he was "very concerned" the Mastic/Shirley project was cut. Horsley said that having design money in place would allow what's likely to be a yearslong project, costing up to $500 million, to avoid unnecessary delays.

"We've got to get the ball rolling, and this is making the ball roll," Horsley said.

County public works commissioner Gil Anderson said the county saw an opportunity to reduce immediate capital costs, since the project likely won't reach the design phase next year.

"My concern is we have been trying to reduce the capital program for 2014 and this can be pushed" off, Anderson said.

Bellone's proposed capital plan for 2014-2016 eliminates 13 projects. Nonetheless, spending over that period would still increase by 36 percent compared with the current 2013-2015 capital plan, primarily due to the $103.7 million cost of expanding the new, state-mandated county jail in Yaphank.

At a legislative hearing Wednesday, lawmakers questioned whether jail expansion funds should be included in the upcoming three-year plan, but Lipp said the state Commission of Correction wants the project to stay on track.

"It would not make sense to get them upset," Lipp said, noting that the commission had the ability to withhold crucial variances allowing Suffolk to exceed jail capacity limits. The variances allow the county to avoid the costly transport of inmates to other jurisdictions.

Lawmakers also questioned inclusion of $19 million over the next two years to improve county roads for the stalled $4 billion Heartland Square project in Brentwood. Developer Gerald Wolkoff wants to build a community including 9,000 apartments and an entertainment district on 450 acres.

Legis. John Kennedy (R-Nesconset) noted that other projects were cut from the budget while Wolkoff still doesn't have building permits. Public works officials said the money was needed in 2014 and 2015 to start the lengthy property acquisition process that will ultimately allow road widening and improvements.

"I'd love to see the project move forward," said Legis. Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk). "But logistically, is it realistic?"

Public hearings capital budget will continue today. The county legislature will vote on the final plan early next month.

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