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Suffolk OKs taking money from sewer fund to ease budget woes

The Suffolk County Legislature approved Tuesday taking $44 million from a sewer fund to plug county budget holes after voters approved a controversial ballot measure to help finance county operations.

The legislature approved the sewer fund transfer about a week after the county Board of Elections announced Proposition 2 passed 348,357 to 301,407. The ballot measure asked voters to authorize the county to tap the sewer fund and avoid repaying it to help balance the budget.

Legislators debated whether to carry out the transfer after the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, which has sued the county over past sewer fund transfers, questioned whether the measure had enough votes to pass.

Paul Sabatino, an attorney for the Pine Barrens Society, said in a legal opinion Monday that the measure needed a majority of voters to approve it. He argued that because 774,811 eligible voters cast ballots in the Nov. 3 election, the measure needed 387,407 affirmative votes to pass.

But Presiding Officer Robert Calarco dismissed Sabatino’s argument, saying that previous referendums that passed were not held to that requirement.

"This was put to the voters, and the voters approved it," Calarco said.

The sewer fund is used to stabilize sewer taxes and fund sewer and septic projects. It is part of the county's drinking water protection program, which was approved by voters in 1987 and uses a .25% sales tax to fund sewer, water quality, property tax stabilization and land preservation efforts.

County Executive Steve Bellone proposed Proposition 2 this summer as a way to avoid layoffs and service cuts as the county faces a projected coronavirus-related deficit of up to $1.5 billion over three years. His 2021 budget will cut 500 jobs, reduce bus services, cut community health clinic funding and halt law enforcement academy classes if the county does not receive more federal aid.

But the Pine Barrens Society had questioned whether the proposition was legal, saying it would violate a court ruling and legal settlement from previous lawsuits over the sewer fund.

A December 2019 court order required the county to immediately pay back $29.4 million it had diverted from the sewer fund in 2011 after the Pine Barrens Society sued.

The sewer fund transfer approved by legislators Tuesday first returns that $29.4 million to the sewer fund before transferring it back out with, another $15 million that was determined to be excess money.

County officials said the measure is legal because it was approved by referendum. The court had ruled against Suffolk because it took the money in 2011 without voter approval.

The county also owes the sewer fund $145 million that it took between 2014 and 2017, under a legal settlement with the Pine Barrens. Proposition 2 removes the requirement in county law to pay that amount back through 2029.

Also Tuesday:

  • More than 30 residents debated a proposal to amend a shellfish aquaculture program in Peconic and Gardiners Bay. The measure pitted shellfish farmers and environmentalists against recreational boaters.
  • Legislators allowed the Vanderbilt Museum to draw money from its $15-million endowment fund to finance capital projects and reduce its reliance on county coffers.

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