Court: County has to repay $29M in water quality funds

09/02/2015 10:00 AM |

New York State’s highest court declined to hear an appeal by Suffolk County late last month that would have allowed further review of a case that will now require the county to repay $29 million it took from its Drinking Water Protection Program.

Under the administration of former County Executive Steve Levy, Suffolk “raided” $29 million from the DWPP in 2011, the Pine Barrens Society said in a statement last week. The program is funded through a quarter-cent sales tax; within that revenue stream are several specific uses, such as open-space purchases and a fund dedicated to stabilizing residents’ sewer rates.

The Pine Barrens Society proceeded to sue the county over its use of the funds — eventually winning the case last November — and on Aug. 27, the New York State Court of Appeals declined to hear Suffolk’s appeal.

When the county pays back the bonds it must take out in order to restore the $29.4 million it took from DWPP, it will cost Suffolk a total of more than $35 million including interest, according to deputy county executive Jon Schneider.

Richard Amper, executive director of the Pine Barrens Society, said he was “flabbergasted” that Suffolk would have appealed the court’s decision in the first place. Separately, the nonprofit based in Riverhead had reached a settlement with the county over a similar lawsuit after the administration of current County Executive Steve Bellone used $33 million in DWPP funds in 2013. Under the terms of that agreement — which were, unlike in 2011, voted on by taxpayers in a referendum — the county will have to repay the DWPP with the borrowed money.

Pointing to the agreement Mr. Bellone made with water quality advocates over the 2013 lawsuit, Mr. Schneider said the lawsuit over the 2011 budget move was “more of a matter of law” than a difference of opinion over whether the funds should have been taken. Technically, the county did not hold a referendum when taking the funds — which were created through a referendum in the first place.

The court’s decision not to hear an appeal confirms that the county broke its own charter, and that a referendum should have been held before taking the funds from the DWPP.

“This is a huge win for taxpayers and for good government,” said Mr. Amper. “Suffolk taxpayers are paying two-and-a-half times the national average in taxes, but they’ve repeatedly approved taxing themselves one-quarter penny more as long as it is used for water quality improvement. The Levy administration betrayed that requirement when it raided the fund and the courts have now said that’s not just wrong, it’s against the law

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