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Long Island Pine Barrens Society case ruling by judge disputed

Even though higher courts ruled that $29.4 million was diverted illegally from the county’s quarter cent drinking water protection program, a state Supreme Court justice has issued an order that plaintiffs in the case say makes no provision for the money to be returned.

Justice Joseph Farneti on Feb. 18 signed a version of the court order submitted by the county which acknowledged that the diversion of money between 2011 and 2013 was “illegal, null, and void and of no force and effect” because it was “adopted in the absence of voter approval” in a public referendum.

An order proposed by the plaintiffs, the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, called for the county executive and county legislature “immediately take all such actions and ... budgetary adjustments ... necessary to return the $29.408,109” to the county sewer assessment stabilization fund. The county’s proposed order made no mention of the financial restitution.

An appeals court had overturned a previous decision by Farneti in which he ruled for the county.

The court order is the latest turn in the fight over a pair of lawsuits that challenged former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy’s use of $29.4 million from the sewer stabilization fund from 2011 to 2013, and County Executive Steve Bellone’s use of $32 million from the same fund in 2014. Levy and Bellone used the money to plug budget deficits.

The case against Bellone has been settled, and under the agreement he can continue to borrow from the sewer fund through 2017 as long as he returns the money from 2018 to 2029. So far, Bellone has borrowed $93.4 million from the sewer fund and could borrow more next year.

Richard Amper, the Pine Barrens Society’s executive director, called Farneti’s order, “preposterous ... The appeals court made it perfectly plain that Levy couldn’t take the money.”

Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said that in the settlement of the case against Bellone, Suffolk agreed not to make changes to the drinking water program without a voter referendum, and that voters in 2014 approved restoration of $29.4 million to the program.

Schneider said all the money that Bellone is borrowing from the program through next year will be paid back over the next decade. “But we’re not going to be asking taxpayers to pay twice,” Schneider said.

Amper said plaintiffs will return to the Appellate Division Tuesday to seek an order that upholds the appeals court’s ruling against the county, and the Court of Appeals’ later refusal to take up the county’s appeal.

Paul Sabatino, attorney for the Pine Barrens Society, said the settlement of the Bellone lawsuit has no connection to the Levy litigation. The lawsuits cover different time periods, and the settlement states that the earlier lawsuit would continue in litigation.

He said the $29.4 million bond was a trade off to allow the county access to $70 million for various sewer capital projects.

Sabatino said if Farneti’s order if allowed the stand, “it would be an open invitation for municipalities to flout the law.”

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