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Push for Suffolk referendum on diversions from environmental fund

Environmentalists will seek a referendum on the November ballot so Suffolk County voters can decide whether the county should repay a total of $53 million it has borrowed or plans to divert from drinking water protection programs.

The effort to collect more than 10,000 signatures, to be kicked off Wednesday in St. James, follows a meeting between environmental groups and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone about restoring $33 million to a drinking water protection fund.

The county's adopted budget would use the money for general fund expenses.

Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, described the meeting with Bellone on Monday as "very promising." But Amper said, "I don't trust the government to do what they say they're going to do."

The Pine Barrens Society and Long Island Environmental Voters Forum sued the county last week over the planned diversion in the county's 2014 budget.

County spokesman Justin Meyers said Suffolk is committed to paying back any money taken from the fund, which is meant to stabilize sewer rates. The money from the sewer fund can't be spent for water-quality projects, Meyers said.

The fund gets its money from a 1/4 percent sales tax increase approved by voters in 1987 and extended five times. The $33 million diversion needs approval of the Suffolk County Legislature.

"This referendum is seemingly counterproductive as we have brought everyone to the table to work with all parties to address everyone's concerns," Meyers said.

The referendum would dissolve a sewer infrastructure grant program created in 2011, and mandate Suffolk pay back the $33 million with 9 percent interest.

Environmental groups also have sued for repayment of $20 million used in 2011 to help balance the county budget. That case is before an appellate court.

Bob DeLuca, president of the environmental organization Group for the East End, estimated it will cost the groups $50,000 to collect the signatures.

The petition process requires signatures equal to 2.5 percent of the last gubernatorial vote in each of the 10 towns.

If approved by voters, the law would take effect in January 2016, and require repayment of the money within six months.

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