After environmentalists sued Suffolk County earlier this year for “raiding” more than $30 million dollars from the county’s Drinking Water Protection Program, environmentalists and county leaders announced an agreement that will replace the funds and safeguard the reserve in the future.
County Executive Steven Bellone and members of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society and Group for the East End announced the deal — which still needs approval from county legislators, as well as a voter referendum in November — on Wednesday.
Under the proposed settlement, the county could still dip into the fund until 2018, in order to fulfill its long term financial needs, however any money diverted would be paid back in full, according to the agreement. The agreement would ban the use of Drinking Water Protection Program funds for alternate purposes beyond 2018 without voter approval.
“This is a good faith effort on the part of the County Executive and County Legislature to right a wrong,” said Mr. Amper. “It was initiated by the County Executive. He called me and said this is contradictory to what we are trying to do. Lets fix it.”
The Drinking Water Protection Program is funded by a self-imposed tax that county residents voted to levy upon themselves several times since 1987. It is intended to protect groundwater through several specific uses, such as open space purchases and a fund dedicated to stabilizing sewer rates for residents. It would not otherwise come up for a vote again until 2030.
In 2011, and again in 2014, the county dipped into the fund, using it to help plug budget gaps which environmentalists say violates the terms under which voters agreed to tax themselves, making it illegal.
Under the proposed settlement, the county could still dip into the fund until 2018, in order to fulfill it’s long-term financial needs, however any money diverted would be paid back in full, according to the agreement.
Environmental advocates, led by Pine Barren’s champion Richard Amper, sued the county — twice — challenging that the funds raised through the program could not be diverted to other uses without a referendum voted on “by the taxpayers who created it.”
The Bellone administration has aggressively been targeting a goal of improving the county’s long term water quality, an effort the county exec has dubbed the ‘Reclaim Our Water’ initiative. Mr. Bellone has announced support for extending sewers on the west side of the county and fast-tracking the approval of denitrification systems. On the North Fork, the county threw its support behind a study exploring the use of such systems in Orient, spending $60,000 to see if the group systems would work in the un-sewered hamlet.
Mr. Amper said on Thursday that, “it would be inconsistent to say [the county is] fighting to improve water quality, while at the same time taking away money from the fund.”
Urging the legislature to follow suit and vote on the deal, Mr. Bellone agreed.
“It’s a simple principle: voters created the drinking water protection program, they voted to reauthorize it, and therefore, we should go to the voters when we seek to amend it,” he said.
The 2014 budget used $32.8 million from the program, specifically the county’s sewer stabilization fund. Under former County Executive Steve Levy’s administration, the county used about $20 million.
“The 2011 raids were conduced by the Levy administration, and they were not understanding or cooperative at all,” Mr. Amper said. “Bellone’s is taking a much more productive view.”
The settlement puts to rest a petition campaign initiated in February seeking a similar outcome.
Robert DeLuca, president of the Group for the East End, who helped hammer out the fund restoration deal said, “every resident of Suffolk County should feel good about this settlement,” adding that government can be “moved by an organized, mobilized citizenry that acts with purpose, passion and persistence.”
Legislator Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk), who voted against the 2014 budget which included dipping into the fund, said “I am certainly encouraged that there is an agreement, and I think we all need to work together on achieving water quality goals. I have to look at the details to say definitively whether I will support it.”
Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) stressed that the deal still needs to be approved by the county legislature.
“I think it’s a very complicated settlement that a lot of people are taking a careful look at,” he explained. “If it serves the taxpayers and help to give us a little more environmental protection, I will support it.”