07/30/14 2:24pm
07/30/2014 2:24 PM
Dave Colone, Chairman of Suffolk County Planning Commissioner; Adrienne Esposito, Executive Director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment; Bob Delucca, President and CEO of the Group for the East End, County Executive Steve Bellone, Dick Amper, Executive Director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society and Deputy Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory. (Courtesy photo)

Dave Colone, Chairman of Suffolk County Planning Commissioner; Adrienne Esposito, Executive Director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment; Bob Delucca, President and CEO of the Group for the East End, County Executive Steve Bellone, Dick Amper, Executive Director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society and Deputy Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory. (Courtesy photo)

The Suffolk County Legislature OK’d the deal Tuesday, but voters will have the final say on an agreement that would drop two pending lawsuits environmental groups have filed against the county alleging a misuse of funds they say are reserved for protecting the county’s drinking water aquifer.

County legislators passed support for most of the deal 14-4 at their general meeting. First announced in June by County Executive Steve Bellone and the parties who initiated the lawsuits, part of the agreement maintained that after legislative approval, a public referendum would ultimately determine if the deal would go through.

The accord stems from what environmental advocates have called a “raiding” of a portion of the Drinking Water Protection Program, a quarter-percent sales tax that Suffolk voters have chosen to levy upon themselves through the year 2030. It is intended to protect groundwater through several specific uses, such as open space purchases and a fund dedicated to stabilizing residents’ sewer rates.

In 2011, and again in 2014, the county dipped into the sewer stabilization fund, using the money to help plug budget gaps. Environmentalists say that violates the terms under which voters agreed to tax themselves and is therefore illegal.

Under the proposed settlement, the county could still dip into the fund — which had a balance of around $140 million last year — until 2018, in order to meet long-term financial needs. However, any money diverted would have to be paid back in full by 2029. No interest would be attached to the repayment.

While the announcement in June required voter approval for any future changes in the Drinking Water program, legislators withheld support of that part of the deal on Tuesday. Deputy Presiding Officer Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk) said that because negotiations are still technically ongoing — the lawsuit has not been officially dropped — the legislature was advised to table support for part of the agreement.

North Fork Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) said he was at first “disturbed” by the agreement, since it contains no provisions guaranteeing the purchase of farmland in the future.

However, he said that Mr. Bellone and the Legislature’s willingness to preserve farmland on the East End in the past have eased his mind. And in the end, voters will still have the final say on whether or not this agreement suits their needs.

“I would have structured this a little differently, but I wasn’t at the table,” Mr. Krupski said Wednesday morning. “So I didn’t have that option … But I think if you look at this globally, this is the hand we were dealt. And past decisions have really made our options limited financially. This was, I felt, the best option to take.”

With county budget forecasts looking grim, Republican members of the Legislature — though split on the issue — expressed concern about the long-term viability of paying back the debt.

Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said he would rather see the dollars currently in the sewer stabilization fund — the section of the Drinking Water Protection Program that would be borrowed from — used to build sewers to revitalize the county’s downtown areas and update aging cesspool systems countywide.

“This is nothing more than kicking the can down the road with steel-tipped shoes,” Mr. Trotta said. “People are saying we cut a deal and fixed a problem. But we have beaches closing because cesspools are running into our water. Sewers would fix that.”

Legislator Ken Barraga (R-West Islip) voted in favor of moving the agreement to voters on the merits of giving the public the power to make its own decision. But he said paying the borrowed funds back by 2029 could end up being more trouble than it’s worth, a concern Mr. Krupski said the county would have to address before the payments come due.

Minority Leader John Kennedy (R-Smithtown), however, pointed out that if the lawsuits proceed, and the county prevails, it won’t have to replay the funds at all.

12/18/13 4:00pm
12/18/2013 4:00 PM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO

A measure by Legislator Al Krupski to amend how the county purchases farmland and open space failed to pass on Tuesday, even after the Cutchogue Democrat revised the proposed bill after it initially drew the ire of some environmentalists.

In June, Mr. Krupski proposed his original farmland preservation amendment, which suggested splitting the use of the county’s Drinking Water Protection Fund 50-50 between open space and farmland purchases. But dedicating a specific portion of the revenue stream to one use or the other proved too much to ask, and the legislator later altered his proposed amendment, pitching a watered-down version of the legislation in July.

Mr. Krupski’s amended bill made no mention of setting aside a certain percentage of land purchases for open space or farmland. It did, however, set a certain threshold that parcels must meet in order to be appraised by the county — a required step before legislators vote to purchase land.

“I find it surprising that in any way, we could find it controversial that we would spend our money more wisely,” he said before the vote at Tuesday’s general meeting.

But the added benchmarks concerned at least 13 legislators, who voted to table the bill in the final meeting of the year Tuesday, effectively killing it.

Attention to Suffolk’s land purchases through the Drinking Water Protection Fund have come to a fore in the past year after the county bonded out against future revenues and subsequently used nearly all of the funding. While land was able to be purchased for historically low dollar values, Suffolk County, Southampton and Riverhead towns were just a few municipalities that borrowed to buy now, rather than later.

Legislator Lou D’Amaro (D-North Babylon) said before the floor vote that he didn’t believe the appraisal rating system was designed to be considered a threshold for whether or not a particular parcel could ever be purchased.

Legislator William Spencer (D-Centerport) said the new regulations would likely favor the first and second legislative districts — the North and South Forks — as it would codify the process in appraising land parcels, and most parcels available for open space and farmland preservation purchases are located out east.

“To set a rule that would cause me to put my constituents at a disadvantage permanently — I have a very difficult time doing that,” he said.

Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), chair of the county’s environment, planning and agriculture committee, said last week that those thresholds, in effect, favor purchasing farmland over open space, as the new standards are harder to meet for open space buys.

“It’s not treating them equally, and we have a preference for open space because this is drinking water protection money,” she said. “And a wooded parcel that’s open space is protecting drinking water more than preserving farmland would.”

While the bill wasn’t rejected, since it was tabled on Tuesday it would have to be re-introduced next year in order to be considered once again. Mr. Krupski said he doesn’t intend to bring it back up immediately, and will look to see how previously approved alterations in the land-buying process, which go into effect next year, work out.

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