Environmentalists are charging county lawmakers “illegally raided” funds slated for open space preservation and drinking water protection programs to balance next year’s budget without getting voter approval in the form of a mandatory referendum.
But in defending the move, County Executive Steve Levy called charges by Pine Barrens Society head Richard Amper “outrageous lies.”
During a press conference Thursday at the steps of the Suffolk County Legislature’s offices — where he was joined by other environmentalists — Mr. Amper announced the groups are suing the county over its actions. The bill, approved by the Legislature in August and endorsed by Mr. Levy, allows Suffolk to draw 37.5 percent of surpluses over $140 million from the Suffolk County Drinking Water Protection Program for non-preservation purposes.
That money would be taken from a budget line for sewer tax rate stabilization to help plug the county’s $150 million overall budget gap. Other budget lines include land acquisition and water quality and land stewardship.
Mr. Amper said the county’s move was illegal because the program, created in 1987 to safeguard drinking water by purchasing land and preventing development, can only be altered or repealed through the adoption of a Charter law that’s subject to a mandatory referendum.
“Voters have approved hundreds of millions of dollars to protect their drinking water and Suffolk government raided it,” Mr. Amper said during his press event. “We want it back.”
But Mr. Levy said both the county attorney and the counsel to the Legislature agreed that a mandatory referendum was not required. In addition, Mr. Levy, who described Mr. Amper as a “gadfly” who doesn’t represent all environmentalists, said the bill was coauthored by environmental groups Citizen’s Campaign for the Environment and The Nature Conservancy. The executive had said the Group for the East End backed the bill, but later said that was in error.
Adrienne Esposito, executive director for the Citizen’s Campaign for the Environment, later said the organization believes the public should be given the chance to vote on the change.
County officials said the bill includes applying 62.5 percent of the surplus over $140 million to sewer capital projects, including septic tank upgrades near impaired bodies of water.
The rest could go toward helping to balance the budget.
During his own press conference in Hauppauge on Wednesday, Mr. Levy refuted Mr. Amper’s claims, calling them “outrageous lies.”
“The ultimate irony here is that Mr. Amper claims that this law that we are passing is going to hurt the environment [but] it is doing the exact opposite,” Mr. Levy said. “It’s his opposition to this bill that will hurt the environment because it will stop us from funding improvements to septic systems and sewer districts through out Suffolk County.”
Mr. Levy said the public vote clause in the water quality law is “not enforceable” because the state is the only entity that can mandate a referendum.
In addition, Mr. Levy cited a recent court decision when Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s term limits were challenged.
“It has been upheld time and time again that a law that was passed by referendum in the first instance does not need a mandatory referendum in the second instance to make tweaks or changes, which is what we’re doing here,” Mr. Levy said.
Ms. Esposito said that while she’s in favor of using some of the sewer tax stabilization monies to fund sewer infrastructure, she believes the public should have ultimately made the decision to use a percentage of it to help fill the budget gap.
“I wasn’t aware this wasn’t going up for a referendum,” she said. “If the Legislature and the county executive wish to do this, they must put it up for a referendum and Citizen’s Campaign for the Environment would oppose it.”
Kevin McDonald of The Nature Conservancy wasn’t immediately available to clarify his group’s position on the bill.
Jennifer Juengst of the Long Island Environmental Voters Forum, another litigant in the case against the county, said Thursday that “voters have been defrauded” through the government’s actions.
“We urged voters to support the Drinking Water Protection Program most recently in a 2007 referendum, so it’s our responsibility to prevent elected officials from committing voter fraud by ripping taxpayers off,” Ms. Juengst said.
The lawsuit was filed Sept. 15 in state Supreme Court in Riverhead.