In signing Suffolk County’s 2014 budget last week, County Executive Steve Bellone put his John Hancock on a plan devised by a majority of county legislators that calls for borrowing nearly $33 million from its sewer stabilization fund. This revenue stream was created as part of the Drinking Water Protection fund — a tax county residents voted to impose upon themselves for the purpose of preserving their underground aquifer in years to come.
With the county’s decision to dip into this reserve fund, environmental groups have raised a red flag . One is even ready to go to court on the issue, noting that the sewer fund, as part of the Drinking Water Protection program, was created with explicit uses — and that “balancing the county’s books” is not listed among them. The tax has been renewed by voters several times, most recently in 2007, extending it through 2030, indicating the public’s support for ensuring the future health of their drinking water.
While a court may someday rule on the legality of this issue, it won’t be anytime soon. A court case over a similar action taken by the county in 2011 is still moving slowly through the justice system, so it looks like the sewer stabilization fund will be down by $32.8 million come next year. Legal or not, it’s happening.
Until the day a court mandates replenishment of the fund — if that day ever comes — Suffolk County leaders have a chance to get ahead of the curve and mandate it themselves. The language in the approved budget states that “it is the intent of the Legislature to replenish the [fund] beginning in fiscal year 2017 with an appropriation in the General Fund.”
Legal questions aside, it’s encouraging to see a plan that could save county taxpayers over $40 million in interest payments as opposed to Mr. Bellone’s plan to borrow to close the budget gap in next year’s $2.7 billion spending plan.
But we all know what road is paved with good intentions.
If leaders truly intend to start repaying the funds in 2017, they should be comfortable passing further legislation, with teeth, that specifically mandates repayments from the general fund.
Such a requirement would protect the integrity and original goals of the sewer stabilization fund — and others dedicated for specific purposes.