The Suffolk legislature amended County Executive Steve Bellone's $2.76 billion budget Wednesday night including a plan to use $32.8 million from the county sewer assessment fund to help balance the budget, despite environmentalists' complaints that the move is illegal and will lead to future raids on the voter-approved program.
The legislature approved a pair of multipronged resolutions to make nearly two dozen changes to Bellone's spending package, but kept the executive tax freeze in the general fund and 2.34 percent hike in the police district. Other changes include restoring $1.6 million to nonprofit groups that provide various human services, and funding for the county treasurer and her aides, which the county executive had wanted to ax in a planned referendum, later thrown out in court.
The most controversial provision is a legislative plan to borrow from the county's $140 million sewer fund, which stabilizes tax rates for Suffolk's 22 sewer districts to offset the spike in the county anticipated debt service next year.
"In effect, we are giving a loan to ourselves to deal with a global fiscal meltdown," said Legis. Louis D'Amaro (D-North Babylon), a backer.
Supporters maintained the move will save the county $46 million in interest costs and avoid the need for special state legislation to allow the state Dormitory Authority to do the financing for the county. The move, they add, will not affect any of the existing county environmental initiatives funded by the quarter-cent sales tax authorized in several voter referendums. The plan, they add, also leaves the sewer fund with $102 million and the county would expect to start repaying the money in 2017.
However, critics say any change to the environmental program should come only after a public referendum that originally authorized the sales tax, and that the plans to pay back the fund are not mandated in the budget resolutions. "We are facing a major water crisis," said Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society. "If we break faith with the public they will never allow one dollar more."
Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said the administration "has a strong working relationship" with lawmakers and gave no indication if they will adopt sewer fund or other changes. "What's important, is that you need a mechanism to insure the solvency of the sewer fund," he said. Bellone has until Nov. 19 to approve or veto legislative changes.
Several Republican lawmakers were critical of Bellone's budget and the amendments put together by a bipartisan working group, saying the county is still relying too much on one-shot revenue, borrowings and proposals that require state legislation. "The budget we got was pathetic," said Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset), minority leader and member of the budget group. "We made an effort to make it less worse," he said, estimating the budget could have as much as a $75 million shortfall.
Lawmakers also rejected stand-alone amendments that would have increased by $3 million sales tax revenue sharing to East End towns and some villages with their own police departments. Lawmakers also failed to muster enough votes to provide full-year funding for the Vocational Extension and Education Board to run the county fire academy for all of 2014. Bellone, who originally wanted the county to take over the operation, has agreed to fund the agency for six months, while a new contract is negotiated.