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Hands off Suffolk's environmental funds

Two of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone's proposals

Two of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone's proposals to fix the county's budget could take much-needed money out of the environmental fund. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Suffolk County is in dire financial shape. Higher expenses and lower revenues from the coronavirus pandemic are expected to produce a 2020 deficit of $432 million to $590 million, with a three-year shortfall of as much as $1.5 billion. That’s not easy to overcome, especially for a county that struggles in normal years but has not made systemic changes that would give it long-term relief.

So we applaud the everything-is-on-the-table approach espoused recently by county officials — assuming that everything, including bloated police contacts, is indeed on the table.

One thing that should not be on the table is the latest attempt by County Executive Steve Bellone’s administration to play hanky-panky with environmental funding. The county has taken this road before, diverting money from a voter-approved drinking water protection program to help balance the budget. Now the administration proposes to renege on promises to pay back money already diverted from these funds, and then take some more.

For chutzpah, that’s hard to beat.

The first of two Bellone proposals would divert for three years some of the money set aside since 1987 by a 0.25% sales tax for open space purchases with a promise to repay it from the capital budget — a dicey proposition in good times — and if that doesn’t work, from a taxpayer stabilization fund. The second proposal involves ripping up a voter-approved agreement to repay as much as $171 million already borrowed from a sewer stabilization fund to plug earlier budget holes, take another $15 million from the same fund, and negate a recent court order to repay $29.4 million from yet another raid on the fund during the term of Bellone’s predecessor, Steve Levy. Bellone’s administration has tried hard to get out of paying that $29.4 million and has been rebuffed every time in court.

This emits a deep stench. One proposal promises to repay environmental money the county wants for non-environmental budget needs. The other asks that the county be allowed not to repay environmental money already taken for non-environmental budget needs — money the county previously promised to repay. The irony is unmistakable.

If approved by the county legislature, the second proposal would be put to voters in a public referendum in November, as would be required. But Bellone’s administration has squandered the voters’ trust that it will respect their wishes. Even worse, it’s hoping that voter approval will somehow overrule court orders on repaying the $29.4 million. Yes, a restored sewer stabilization fund will have more than it can spend on prescribed purposes. But the proper resolution is to ask the public to spend that money on other clean water projects, not to plug holes in the general fund.

Suffolk’s voters have repeatedly shown their willingness to vote for funding for clean water. But if Suffolk keeps making mischief with that money, it might find the public stops pulling that lever. Given Suffolk’s clean water problems, that would be the biggest loss of all.

 — The editorial board