Public hearing this afternoon on drinking water agreement

06/17/2014 8:00 AM |
Pine Barrens Society head Richard Amper reads from the Suffolk County Drinking Water Protection Program in 2011, which states the law "may only be amended, modified, repealed or altered by an enactment of an appropriate Charter Law subject to mandatory referendum." (Credit: Jennifer Gustavson file)

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | Pine Barrens Society head Richard Amper reads from the Suffolk County Drinking Water Protection Program, which states the law “may only be amended, modified, repealed or altered by an enactment of an appropriate Charter Law subject to mandatory referendum.”

A public hearing will be held today at the Suffolk County Center in Riverside on an agreement made between County Executive Steve Bellone and environmentalists who had sued the county after they claimed Suffolk leaders illegally “raided” the Drinking Water Protection Program on two occasions to balance its budget. 

The accord, which both sides announced in early June, will put to rest both suits, though needs approval from both the Suffolk County Legislature as well as Suffolk County voters in a referendum this fall.

Under the proposed settlement, the county could still dip into the reserved fund until 2018 in order to fulfill its long term financial needs, however any money diverted would be paid back in full. The agreement would ban the use of Drinking Water Protection Program funds for alternate purposes beyond 2018 without voter approval.

The Drinking Water Protection Program was established via a voter referendum, establishing a 1/4 percent sales in the county. The tax, in place until 2030, has several components, one of which is the sewer stabilization fund — where the county took about $20 million in 2011 and another $33 million to balance this year’s budget.

Mr. Bellone called on the legislature to pass the measure when he announced the deal.

“It’s a simple principle: voters created the drinking water protection program, they voted to reauthorize it, and therefore, we should go to the voters when we seek to amend it,” he said.

The legislature meeting begins at 4 p.m.

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