Pol: Return worker reimbursements to Suffolk’s water quality fund

Suffolk County health department workers have done extensive groundwater quality testing near the former Grumman plant in Calverton. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)
Suffolk health department workers have done extensive groundwater testing near the former Grumman plant in Calverton. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

In an attempt to further safeguard funding for Suffolk County’s Drinking Water Protection Program, County legislators have proposed a new law to ensure certain federal reimbursements for fund expenditures are deposited back into the program.

According to Legislator Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk), a portion of Drinking Water Protection Program money goes toward paying the salaries of certain county employees, positions that are also eligible for state and federal reimbursements.

Mr. Schneiderman said when reimbursed, those monies are deposited into the county’s general fund — not the portion of the Drinking Water Protection Program that funded them — which is known as Fund 477.

“I found out that when we’re getting the money back, that it was going to the general fund,” he said. “I felt as a matter of principle, if a position was funded with water quality money, any benefit that came back should go back into that initiative.”

The proposal was introduced at Wednesday’s Legislature meeting, one day after voters passed a referendum ending a more than three-year legal battle between county lawmakers and environmental advocates who were looking to restore $30 million which had been taken from the county’s Drinking Water Protection Program for other purposes to help balance the county’s budget.

Mr. Schneiderman said certain positions are eligible for up to a 37 percent salary reimbursement through state and federal grants, which nets an estimated $300,000 a year that should be put back in the fund.

“It is a significant amount of money that could fund all kinds of projects — reducing pollutants entering storm drains, helping fund updated septic systems, or funding scientific studies,” he said. “In my mind, the fund is entitled to the reimbursement.”

Robert DeLuca, president of the Group for the East End said “one of the things we really want to take a better look at is what’s going on with the 477 Fund.”

Mr. DeLuca said the majority of monies in the fund are used to pay for the salaries of county workers, many of whom are helping to manage water quality through testing and infrastructure maintenance.

Those positions are in the Department of Health Services, Department of Public Works and Department of Parks, Recreation, and Conservation, according to the proposal.

“Anything that we can do to restore the integrity of that fund makes sense,” said Mr. DeLuca, who sits on the 477 fund advisory committee. “What’s important for people to realize is how far that funding can go.”

He used the nonprofit’s East End Medication Disposal Program as an example.

With $45,000 provided through the county program, Group for the East End was able to install prescription drop-off containers at seven East End police stations.

Over the past year, just over a ton of medication was collected between the seven locations, helping to cut down on groundwater contamination while improving the safety of the community, according to a release from the nonprofit.

“In terms of the potential, that is a fairly small project that did a lot of good,” he said.

If passed, the law would take effect at the start of 2016, so it would not disrupt budget appropriations for 2015, Mr. Schneiderman said.

A public hearing on the legislation is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 18.

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