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Suffolk lawmakers approve referendum on tapping county sewer fund

The Suffolk County Legislature medallion hangs on the

The Suffolk County Legislature medallion hangs on the all at the Suffolk County Legislature, during the last legislative meeting of the year, on Dec. 17, 2019, at the Suffolk County Legislature, in Hauppauge. Credit: Heather Walsh

The Suffolk County Legislature voted 14-3 Tuesday to approve a ballot measure for this fall that would tap a county sewer fund to help plug massive budget holes stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.

Voters in November will be asked to approve the transfer of $44 million from the sewer fund to a taxpayer trust fund this year, and diversion of another $145 million through 2029, according to county officials and an attorney for the Long Island Pine Barrens Society in past lawsuits over such transfers.

The attorney, Paul Sabatino, on Tuesday questioned the legality of the ballot measure and indicated he would challenge it in court if voters approve it.

Legislators on Tuesday also cleared the way for a future vote on another ballot measure — to divert at least $75 million allocated for an open space preservation fund — to help close the county budget gap that County Executive Steve Bellone said could total up to $1.5 billion over three years.

The ballot measures represent the largest initiatives so far by Bellone to plug the county's projected deficit that opened in March as key revenues, including sales tax, cratered during the economic shutdown and resulting recession.

Bellone has said he wants to avoid layoffs and drastic spending cuts if the federal government does not approve more aid to local governments.

"This is an important step, but there is still much more work to be done to recover from this unprecedented natural disaster," Bellone said in a statement after the sewer fund measure's passage.

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Leaders of county public employee unions back the sewer and open space measures, saying the bills would prevent layoffs.

But environmentalists have expressed concern the measures would harm the county's drinking water protection program, established through a public referendum in 1987.

Under the program, revenues from a .25% sales tax are divided between funds for sewers land preservation, property tax stabilization and water quality.

The sewer fund is used to stabilize taxes for sewer district residents and fund sewage infrastructure improvements throughout the county, including installation of low-nitrogen septic systems, according to county law.

The county took $29.4 million from the sewer fund to balance the budget in 2011 under former County Executive Steve Levy.

The Pine Barrens Society sued, and the state Appellate Division in 2012 ruled the diversion was “illegal, null and void” because the county did not get voter approval in a referendum.

A state Supreme Court justice ordered the county to repay the money "immediately" in December 2019. The money has yet to be paid and the county is appealing the court order, Suffolk County Attorney Dennis Cohen said. 

Suffolk also entered into a legal settlement with the Pine Barrens Society in 2014 that allowed the county to borrow $171 million from the sewer fund from 2014 to 2017, and repay it through 2029.

Sabatino said Suffolk still owes $145 million under the repayment schedule, which was approved in a public referendum.

Sabatino, a former counsel to the county Legislature, said Suffolk lacks the authority to undo a court order and judicial settlement.

Sabatino said Tuesday that even if voters approve the sewer referendum, “it’ll be knocked out by the courts.” 

He continued, “What they did today will never see the light of day.”

Sabatino and other opponents of the transfers noted the county already has lost several appeals of the Pine Barrens Society lawsuit.

Cohen said the sewer fund referendum measure would adhere to the judge’s order. The county would repay the $29.4 million to the sewer fund before transferring it back out with the referendum, Cohen said.

Cohen said the referendum, if successful, would repeal the section of county law requiring the $171 million to be repaid.

Also Tuesday, the Legislature voted 11-7 to close a public hearing into whether to also divert $75 million to $100 million from land preservation program over a three-year period. Closing the hearing represented a necessary procedural step toward voting on the measure before an Aug. 3 deadline to get on the November ballot.

Legislators likely will have to hold a special meeting to vote on that ballot measure, as Tuesday's meeting was the last regular session until September, officials said. 

Opponents expressed concern that siphoning money from the land preservation fund ultimately would raise the cost of preservation efforts or effectively end the program.

Bellone said the county would make up for money diverted from land preservation would be made up in the capital budget or through borrowing.

The bill also would provide a fail-safe mechanism to redirect any diverted funds back to the open space program at the end of each year if such borrowing measures fail, according to Bellone spokesman Derek Poppe and the resolution. 

"We will not spend a dime less on existing environmental programs," Bellone said last week.

Since its inception, the 0.25% sales tax has funded $614 million in efforts to preserve more than 21,000 acres of land, officials said.

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