Editorial: Comptroller’s move endangers critical program

There was a great deal of optimism in eastern Long Island’s environmental community when, in the fall of 2017, a Flanders homeowner used a Suffolk County grant to replace an older cesspool with a state-of-the-art system.  

These new systems are desperately needed in large areas of Suffolk County that don’t have municipal sewers, and are designed to prevent nitrogen from polluting our groundwater and seeping into our bays. Nitrogen is the culprit behind environmental troubles including brown tide, which has in past years done major damage to shellfish such as scallops.

Suffolk’s Septic Improvement Program completed eight installations of new cesspool systems that first year, and 49 last year. So far this year, according to County Executive Steve Bellone’s office, 12 new systems have been installed — half of them in Riverhead and Southold.

This is very good news. But progress toward expanding the switch to better systems is now very much in danger of losing its momentum.

In January, County Comptroller John Kennedy informed those who received county grants, which helped pay for these systems, that the money is considered income and that they are responsible for paying federal taxes on those amounts — the very opposite of what Suffolk officials initially told them.

To say the least, this is a very late, and politically suspect, move on Mr. Kennedy’s part — one that will almost certainly discourage others considering applying for the grants.

The program awards grants of approximately $11,000 to offset the high cost — which can run well over $20,000 — of the modern wastewater systems. Letters from Mr. Kennedy’s office informing recipients of their tax exposure have shocked homeowners and fall into the category of “no good deed goes unpunished.”

One Flanders homeowner, who received a county grant plus a Southampton Town rebate totaling $25,000, said her federal tax bill will jump by “many thousands of dollars” if this stands. These very generous grants pushed this one homeowner into a higher tax bracket — not a welcome development as April 15 comes around.

There is a political context to this story. It makes the very bad news about tax liability for a critically important environmental initiative of the Bellone administration even more unsettling: Mr. Kennedy, a Republican, and Mr. Bellone, a Democrat, will face off in the race for county executive this fall.

By all appearances, Mr. Kennedy, who has said he will seek an opinion from the IRS on the matter, has injected an environmental program he should fully endorse into his campaign to unseat Mr. Bellone. He seems to want to politicize groundwater protection. That is a very unwelcome development.