Suffolk County faces a lawsuit demanding the return of $198 million diverted from a sewer fund to help finance county operations.
The suit, filed Monday in Suffolk County Supreme Court by lawyers for the Long Island Pine Barrens Society and Kings Park Community Association, would invalidate a 2020 county law that authorized a $44 million transfer from the fund and repealed requirements that the county replenish $154 million it had previously borrowed from the fund.
That law was approved by voters. The repayments were to have been made under a 2014 settlement from a previous lawsuit by the Society, an advocacy group focused on protecting open space and drinking water. "The county attempted to unilaterally repudiate its obligations under that decree — that’s just illegal," Paul Sabatino, a lawyer representing the Society, told Newsday Friday. "Whether you do it with voters or without voters, you can’t unilaterally repudiate a court order or binding settlement agreement."
He called the settlement an effort "to restore the rule of law and preserve the integrity of voter-approved referenda."
The suit also would invalidate portions of a county resolution setting rates for a Kings Park sewer district the county plans to expand to serve that hamlet’s downtown. Voters there last month approved the expansion, along with sewer rate increases. The suit argues that sewer fund money should have been spent to stabilize rates instead of on general operating expenses. County officials have said the changes were needed to update an outdated billing system that kept rates far below what most other Long Islanders pay and would have meant some homeowners paid more than businesses.
The complaint also names individual plaintiffs including Richard Amper, the Society’s executive director.
In an email, a county spokeswoman wrote: "Dick Amper’s bizarre lawsuit seeks to thwart the will of the voters, undermine downtown revitalization in Kings Park and force homeowners there to pay higher sewer taxes while obstructing the historic progress the County has made in protecting water quality."
Amper told Newsday "the county has done a second-rate job of protecting water quality and probably shouldn’t be bragging about it."
In the teeth of the pandemic and a statewide economic shutdown in 2020, County Executive Steve Bellone argued the county needed to use the sewer fund to avoid service cuts and layoffs.
After voters approved the measure by 348,357 to 301,407, Bellone called the results "a victory for Suffolk taxpayers, our police and essential employees."
Sabatino and Amper had both warned they might challenge the results of the vote in court, renewing a nearly decade-old legal skirmish over the sewer fund.
Established in 1987 by the county legislature, the ¼% County Drinking Water Protection Program for Environmental Protection, was intended to use sales tax revenue for water quality protection, land acquisition, and stabilization of property taxes and sewer district taxes like those in Kings Park.
In 2011, the legislature and former County Executive Steve Levy withdrew $29.4 million from the sewer fund to balance the budget. The Society sued and in 2019 a judge ordered the county to return the money.
In 2013, the legislature and Executive Bellone withdrew $171 million to offset pension costs and bond payments, according to the complaint. The Society sued again. According to the complaint, after the 2014 settlement, the county in 2018 began what was to have been a series of annual repayments that totaled just $17 million. In 2020, it withdrew a $12 million payment, and last year it made no payment.
The civic group named as a plaintiff in the suit, the Kings Park Community Association, is not affiliated with the Kings Park Civic Association, whose leadership advocated for passage of the local sewer referendum.
Community Association president Mike Rosato, a staffer for County Legis. Rob Trotta, a staunch Bellone critic, told Newsday his group brought the suit after county officials "raided" the sewer fund and quadrupled local sewer rates. "It's that frustration over what transpired that forced us to make this move," he said. Rosato's group supported the sewer referendum, he said.