Not once, but twice, this newspaper has wagged its finger at Suffolk County government for dipping into its Drinking Water Protection Program without just cause, using the voter-approved preservation dollars to balance its general fund books.
Environmental groups responded to the county’s actions with litigation.
Now, a proposed settlement to those lawsuits has emerged that would give the cash-strapped county the much-needed flexibility to borrow from the fund for the next few years and require it to repay the money from 2018 through 2029.
The county Legislature must approve the deal and, if that happens, it will go to a countywide vote via referendum.
The deal should be approved by both the Legislature and the general public.
Is it perfect? No. The county should not have taken the money in the first place. Should some punishment, in the form of some interest repayment to the fund, arguably be in store? And could environmentalists squeeze some more from the county through the agreement? Perhaps.
But as with any compromise, this one leaves both sides relatively satisfied, yet unsatisfied.
Most important, however, it allows the government to move forward and focus on the myriad other problems it faces.
Debt-laden Suffolk County has been up a financial creek for years. It’s used quite a lot of paddles and is starting to run out of them. It’s sold buildings to only start renting them back, dropped the prices of buildings currently for sale by millions of dollars and laid off hundreds of employees to try to balance its budget. So when one line within that budget is found to have a surplus of nearly $140 million — even though it’s a fund reserved for county residents’ most valuable resource — borrowing from it with the explicit agreement that it will be paid back beats plugging a hole with debt payments, plus interest.
The county’s projected deficit in 2015 is already expected to be lower than it was coming into this year, so this agreement could indeed be pivotal to getting back into the black.
On the other hand, it’s hard not to see where environmentalists came from when they filed the lawsuits. This deal simply returns all of the funds the county took from the Drinking Water Protection Program, while red-lighting any future changes to the fund without voter approval.
Both are actions environmentalists have called for from the start.
It might not seem that environmentalists are getting very much in the deal, but securing the county’s promise in writing to pay back every cent it borrowed is an achievement on its own. Keep in mind that last fall, the legislation county leaders passed to authorize more borrowing from the fund merely stated it was “the intent of the Legislature to replenish the [fund] beginning in the fiscal year 2017.”
If the county executive would start by proposing a modest increase in county property taxes — a small portion of the average homeowners’ tax bill — it might obviate the need for further borrowing and show real dedication to closing that budget gap and replenishing the Drinking Water Protection Program.