Court case over county budget looming; green group could file this week

11/27/2013 12:00 PM |
ROBERT O'ROURK FILE PHOTO | Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.

ROBERT O’ROURK FILE PHOTO | Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.

Suffolk County could find itself being called to court as early as this week, as environmental groups consider if and when to take legal action after the county officially adopted its 2014 budget, which some say illegally pilfers from funds reserved in the county’s Drinking Water Protection accounts.

County Executive Steve Bellone signed a $2.7 billion spending plan last Monday, after the Legislature decided to use nearly $33 million from the county’s sewer stabilization fund, a reserve account created when Suffolk County taxpayers first approved the Drinking Water Protection Program via referendum in 1987. The fund comprises one of several dedicated revenue streams created by the sales tax — another being open space preservation, for example — which is one-quarter of one percent.

While representatives of some environmental groups said last week they were considering taking legal action, the only one that decidedly said it will litigate – the Long Island Pine Barrens Society – could do so later this week.

Richard Amper, executive director of the Pine Barrens Society, said he would be meeting with the organization’s legal team Wednesday, Nov. 27, to determine which of the county’s moves would trigger the legal action.

Suffolk voters last agreed to renew the tax in 2007 — approving a ballot measure to maintain the tax through 2030. The recent plan laid out by the county intends to start paying back into the sewer stabilization fund – which is used to offset spikes in sewer rates – in 2017.

Bill Toedter, president of the North Fork Environmental Council, said Monday that his organization’s board of directors will vote at its December on whether to join the litigation, and would be more likely to join with other groups than file suit on its own.

“Because of the wording on the referendum … voters never would have approved additional quarter-percent sales tax if they felt that legislators, on a whim, could change it,” Mr. Toedter said.

An opinion of the county attorney’s office, provided by a spokesperson for Mr. Bellone, pointed to case law — considered analogous with Suffolk County — that held that “The New York Court of Appeals has endorsed the statement that ‘laws proposed and enacted by the people under an initiative provision are subject to the same constitutional, statutory, and charter limitations as those passed by the legislature and are entitled to no greater sanctity or dignity.’”

jpinciaro@timesreview.com