Editorial: County should keep hands off drinking water protection funds

Do the powers that be in Hauppauge know something about the laws governing land preservation that the Town of East Hampton missed?

In 2006 and 2007, East Hampton officials illegally withdrew money from that town’s Community Preservation Fund, which is fed by a special 2 percent real estate tax, to plug holes in the general budget. That action led to indictments against town budget director Ted Hults, who pleaded guilty to official misconduct and securities fraud and sentenced to a conditional discharge. Under the cloud of the district attorney’s continuing investigation, East Hampton supervisor William McGintee, who has escaped prosecution, resigned in October 2009.

Given that shocking example, it’s difficult to understand the Suffolk County Legislature’s Aug. 2 decision, backed by County Executive Steve Levy, to draw down funds from the county’s own Drinking Water Protection Program, also funded by a dedicated tax, to help close a $150 million budget shortfall.

It’s quite easy to understand environmentalists’ anger at that move. Opponents scheduled a Thursday morning press conference to announce a lawsuit seeking to overturn the Legislature’s action, which they say is patently illegal.

Attorneys will wage that battle, but the legal question aside, the vote is a clear example of bad government. The East End towns and the county took the extra step of setting aside a dedicated funding stream to finance open space purchases in order to insure that the preservation programs would remain free of political pressure and be financially self-sufficient. In both town and county programs, voters agreed to set the funds aside specifically for environmental protection.

Who do the West End lawmakers and a lame-duck executive think they are in thumbing their noses at their own constituents? It’s not an east vs, west dispute since the county program was approved in a countywide referendum and, as we all know, there are far more voters up west than there are out east.

Since the Legislature has finished its review, it’s now in the hands of the county executive and county attorney. They’ve got some explaining to do, and it looks like they’ll be telling it to a judge.

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