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Bellone pulls bill seeking to tap open space preservation money

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on Jan. 11,

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on Jan. 11, 2020 at A+ Technology Solutions in Bay Shore. Credit: Shelby Knowles

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on Tuesday pulled a controversial bill that called for a public referendum on whether to divert at least $75 million from an open space preservation program to plug budget holes from the coronavirus pandemic.

The bill envisioned changing the funding formula for the county's drinking water protection program for three years, shifting nearly 30% of money allocated to the open space fund during that period to cover the county's operating expenses.

Bellone withdrew the bill less than two hours before the county legislature was to vote on it in a special meeting during its summer recess.

The measure, which would have needed legislative approval by Aug. 3 to get on November's ballot, was one of his biggest proposals to date to help fill a deficit expected to reach up to $1.5 billion over three years. Legislators last week approved his other proposal, setting a public referendum on whether to divert about $190 million from a sewer fund to fill budget gaps.

Bellone, a Democrat, said he decided to withdraw the bill after discussions with legislators and labor leaders to focus on making sure the sewer fund measure passes by public referendum in November.

"While this resolution would not have any negative impact on the county's environmental programs, the taxpayer savings that the (sewer) referendum will deliver is too great to risk during this unprecedented financial crisis," Bellone said in a statement.

Bellone had said the proposal would not reduce overall funding for environmental programs and would help the county avoid layoffs and other drastic budget cuts. Nearly every county employee union expressed support for them during public hearings.

Daniel C. Levler, president of the county’s largest employee union, said the bill “represented a painless measure that would protect working families and in no way negatively impact open space or the environment.” The Association of Municipal Employees is focused on the sewer fund referendum, spokesman Michael Skelly said.

But opponents, including environmentalists and public officials, were concerned that siphoning money away from the open space fund would ultimately raise the cost of preservation efforts or effectively end the program.

“This is the most significant environmental program in the history of Suffolk County,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director for the Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “It would have been tragic to take a wrecking ball to it.”

The drinking water protection program was created by voter approval in 1987. It established a .25% sales tax, with revenues divided for land preservation, sewers, water quality and property tax stabilization. Since its inception, the program has funded $614 million in efforts to preserve more than 21,000 acres of land, officials said.

Several officials said Tuesday they believed there was not enough support for the bill to pass in the legislature and on November’s ballot. The Democratic caucus — which frequently supports Bellone’s proposals — was split on the bill, Majority Leader Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport) said Monday. Three Republicans also said they planned to reject it.

Several legislators — including Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), Bridget Fleming (D-Noyac), Leslie Kennedy (R-Nissequogue), Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), Anthony Piccirillo (R-Holtsville) and Presiding Officer Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue) — expressed concern about the impact on the program's future.

Some said they worried a three-year pause on the program could become permanent because of the county’s budget woes. Others noted that residents have repeatedly approved extending the program to protect drinking water and open space.

Hahn, the deputy presiding officer, said last week that she believed the bill was “dead on arrival” because of such concerns. She noted officials have had to hold off on land acquisitions this year because of the fund's low balance, which stems partly from $16 million owed each year for past borrowing on land acquisitions.

Bellone’s administration had said the bill would have made up for the loss of direct funding through the capital program and borrowing. A fail-safe measure would have redirected any diverted funds back to the program at the end of the year if borrowing efforts failed.

But opponents said borrowing would be unlikely to pass as officials have to whittle capital budgets and there might not be enough money to follow through on the fail-safe mechanism at the end of each year.

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