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Suffolk sued for diverting $33 million in water funds

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone addresses legislators and

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone addresses legislators and constituents at the Suffolk County Legislative building in Hauppauge during the annual State of the County address. One of County Executive Bellone's major talking points was the necessity for increased water quality across Long Island. Credit: Johnny Milano

Environmental groups have sued Suffolk for diverting almost $33 million from its Drinking Water Protection Program to balance the county's budget.

The money from a voter-approved quarter-percent sales tax increase was sold to the public first in 1987 and approved five times by voters, most recently in 2007, as a way to protect drinking water and stabilize sewer district rates, according to the lawsuit.

Instead, the redirected money, which comes from the sewer stabilization portion of the sales tax, was a one-time way to cover operating expenses in the county budget. The move was approved by Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone and the Suffolk County Legislature.

Changing a tax earmarked by voters "is a violation of a moral contract with the people of Suffolk County that the government serves," said Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, Sunday. "If politicians want to change it, they have to get the public's permission. Otherwise, what little faith people have in government is degraded even more."

The Pine Barrens Society and Long Island Environmental Voters Forum filed the lawsuit on Wednesday in Riverhead against the county, Bellone and the legislature.

Bellone, who has made water quality a top priority of his administration's agenda this year, is negotiating with environmental groups to guarantee that the money is repaid.

County officials said a plan to eventually pay money back into the fund could be reached as soon as Monday.

"We agree with their concerns and think they're valid," said Justin Meyers, a spokesman for Bellone. He said the county is committed to paying back the money in future budget years, and there will be no practical impact on drinking water programs once that money is repaid.

It isn't the first time drinking water money has been diverted for purposes other than those for which voters signed up, environmentalists said. Under former County Executive Steve Levy, Suffolk moved $20 million from the Drinking Water Protection Program in 2011 to balance its budget. A legal challenge to that transfer is pending in the Appellate Court.

The sales tax money also has been used to pay for county staff positions, instead of going to new clean water projects, according to Bob Deluca, president of the environmental organization Group for the East End.

"The public trust is always at risk," DeLuca said Sunday. "The reason people came out to support this was to protect water quality, not to patch budget problems."

The sales tax has been extended until 2030. The tax has raised more than $1 billion over the past 25 years, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit asks a judge to void resolutions passed in 2013 that amended the county's operating budget and that future diversions of the drinking water money to the county's operating budget be declared illegal.

Meyers noted that even after the transfer of the $32.8 million, the fund would still have more than $100 million.

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