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Suffolk County, environmentalists fight over lawsuit payoff

The administration of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, which settled a 2014 lawsuit with environmentalists over the diversion of $37 million from the county’s drinking water protection program, doesn’t want payoff on an earlier suit over a diversion by former County Executive Steve Levy.

The dispute surfaced last month after lawyers for the Long Island Pine Barrens Society drafted a court order based on the environmental group’s victory in the Levy lawsuit. The nonprofit said Suffolk must return $29.4 million to the sewer assessment stabilization fund that had been diverted to the general fund to help plug budget deficits.

The county attorney responded with an alternate order, stating that the county is not required to make any repayment because the 2014 settlement over Bellone’s use of sewer money precluded the need to make any payments arising from the earlier lawsuit.

County Attorney Dennis Brown said in a Dec. 10 letter to acting state Supreme Court Justice Jack Farneti that “any further relief” was “rendered moot” by the adoption of the 2014 settlement.

An appellate court ruling in the 2011 case against Levy, Brown said, “did not contemplate entry of a judgment granting in blanket fashion all the relief sought in the complaint, without further inquiry and examination by this court.”

Richard Amper, executive director of the Pine Barrens Society, says the two suits are separate and that the county must pay off on both.

The Bellone settlement allowed the county to borrow from the sewer assessment stabilization fund between 2014 and 2017, as long as the county begins repayments in 2018 and completes them by 2029.

Paul Sabatino and Jennifer Juengst, attorneys for the nonprofit, said the administration’s settlement “has nothing to do with” Levy diversions from 2011 to 2013. They accused the Bellone administration of a “desperate attempt to evade responsibility” for returning the $29.4 million.

“There is no issue of mootness and the money judgment against the county is proper,” the lawyers argued.

Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider emphasized that in the settlement with environmentalists the administration committed to spending $20 million on land preservation and $9.4 million for water quality projects.

“With all the support we’ve given, we’d like to see if there’s a way for everyone to come together,” he said.

Amper said that after the exchange of letters, he and Bellone aides agreed to a “Christmas truce” until after the holidays and talks are likely to pick up shortly.

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