Advocates plan to sue Suffolk County after lawmakers raided an environmental fund to balance the budget for the second time in three years—while a lawsuit for the prior raid is pending.
The county legislature approved last week its $2.76 billion 2014 budget along with an amendment that repays debt with nearly $33 million tapped from the Suffolk Drinking Water Protection Program. But, the move is similar to a 2011 law capping one of the program’s funds—a law that environmentalists are challenging in appeals court.
“There’s a price to be paid for losing the public trust,” said Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, which moved to sue the day after the vote. “Once you’re willing to steal money from a lock box, you’ve lost any confidence.”
Voters in a 1987 referendum created the fund backed by a ¼ cent sales tax earmarked for preserving open space to protect from pollution the subterranean aquifers that serve as LI’s lone drinking water reserves.
The law has been amended by several subsequent referenda, including one in the ‘90s that earmarked 25 percent of the tax for a sewer assessment stabilization fund—a pot of money designed to counteract tax bill sticker shock in expanding sewer districts—which lawmakers raided Wednesday, the day after Election Day.
Presiding Officer Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon) said in a statement that the legislature’s Democratic majority gained the approval of County Executive Steve Bellone, also a Democrat, during the panel’s budget working group session. A spokeswoman for Bellone did not respond to requests for comment.
Horsley noted that the fund will still be left with a balance of more than $102 million, although that is even lower than the $140 million cap created in 2010 allowing the surplus be allocated to non-sewer-related budget items.
The legislature is expected to take up a bill at a later date that would further lower the cap to make the budget move legal. The lawsuit challenging the prior cap is awaiting oral arguments in the New York State Appellate Division, Second Department in Brooklyn.
“I’m absolutely opposed to raiding any fund,” Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), chair of the environmental committee, said while justifying her vote in favor of the move. “This here is using dollars in a fund that has excess when we’re going to replenish it.”
Legis. Thomas Barraga (R-West Islip), the panel’s most fiscally conservative member who’s most vocal during budget debates, cautioned against the move.
“I really don’t think frankly that any reserve fund…should be raided,” said the former state Assemblyman, the only lawmaker who believes the state legislature would help the county restructure its debt instead. “There’s a better alternative.”
Paul Sabatino, a Huntington-based lawyer who was council to the legislature when the initial law passed three decades ago, rejected the current panel’s notion that the funds can be redirected without another referendum getting voters’ OK.
“To be willing to break that promise on a whim…I think you lose your moral authority to govern,” he said. “Why would anybody believe a politician now after they basically pulled the ultimate bait and switch?”
Bob DeLuca, president of Group for the East End—one of the environmentalists warning against depleting environmental funds when Suffolk’s water has been showing increasing signs of pollution—isn’t holding his breath for the day the county repays the money.
“I don’t see it happening,” he said. “People will be gone, priorities will change. It will be very hard to get it to come back. Find another way. We all have to deal with tough budget decisions. Please don’t break the public trust as a part of that process.”