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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Steve Bellone pulls back controversial bill after pressure mounts

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on Jan. 11,

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on Jan. 11, 2020 at A+ Technology Solutions in Bay Shore. Credit: Shelby Knowles

If you believe that nothing really is surprising once you know the back story, we have a tale for you from the fun house world of Suffolk politics.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone pulled a bill on Tuesday that would put before voters in November a plan to divert at least $75 million over three years from an open space preservation program to help the county’s coronavirus-battered budget. That he did so less than two hours before the county legislature was scheduled to hold a special meeting to vote on the proposal, after campaigning vociferously for it, seemed surprising.

But the move capped a flurry of activity over the weekend that saw labor and environmentalists align in opposition and create enough heat that Bellone realized he had to get out of the kitchen.

Sources told The Point that a representative from the Association of Municipal Employees, the county’s largest employee union, contacted environmentalists Friday regarding union concerns that the environmentalists were gearing up to run a vote-no campaign against Bellone’s proposition, IR-1413, if it passed the legislature. The union had a critical question: Would the campaign also recommend voting no on IR-1414, a Bellone proposal passed last week by the legislature that would divert about $190 million from a sewer fund, also to plug budget holes, and also set to be put before voters in the general election?

The answer was yes. And union officials quickly concluded that local environmentalists are good at running public education campaigns and that a public rejection of both proposals could translate to job layoffs for the union after the November election since the budget holes would still be there.

The union had another question: If 1413 was not on the ballot, would the environmentalists still campaign against 1414? The answer was no, because the green team was more vehement in its opposition to 1413 and what it saw as an unconscionable diversion of open space money. Another consideration for the greens was their resources, and they prefer to spend their dollars and time on their holy-grail campaign: getting the state’s $3 billion environmental bond act passed in November.

Whether that appears on the ballot is unclear in these coronavirus-addled times, but environmentalists are proceeding as though Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will not pull the measure. And, they conceded, it would be difficult to actively campaign for the statewide bond act and against the county’s 1414 resolution, essentially asking voters to approve one environmental-related resolution and reject another. “It’s a challenging message,” one local environmentalist told The Point, “to support one dedicated fund with a lockbox while the county executive is raiding another one.”

The environmentalists negotiated with Bellone over the weekend, but lacking a satisfactory resolution went to county legislators on Monday and told them that if they approved 1413, the greens would campaign against both it and 1414 and both likely would go down in flames. That’s when the tide began to turn.

“This one faced steeper challenges in terms of getting the votes here and steeper challenges getting the votes in November,” Legislative Presiding Officer Rob Calarco told The Point. “Everybody knows this was a controversial item and I think there was concern about moving too many difficult resolutions forward at one time.”

Unanswered question: If the state bond act is pulled by Cuomo, what would the environmentalists do then about 1414?