07/30/14 2:24pm
07/30/2014 2:24 PM
Dave Colone, Chairman of Suffolk County Planning Commissioner; Adrienne Esposito, Executive Director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment; Bob Delucca, President and CEO of the Group for the East End, County Executive Steve Bellone, Dick Amper, Executive Director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society and Deputy Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory. (Courtesy photo)

Dave Colone, Chairman of Suffolk County Planning Commissioner; Adrienne Esposito, Executive Director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment; Bob Delucca, President and CEO of the Group for the East End, County Executive Steve Bellone, Dick Amper, Executive Director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society and Deputy Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory. (Courtesy photo)

The Suffolk County Legislature OK’d the deal Tuesday, but voters will have the final say on an agreement that would drop two pending lawsuits environmental groups have filed against the county alleging a misuse of funds they say are reserved for protecting the county’s drinking water aquifer.

County legislators passed support for most of the deal 14-4 at their general meeting. First announced in June by County Executive Steve Bellone and the parties who initiated the lawsuits, part of the agreement maintained that after legislative approval, a public referendum would ultimately determine if the deal would go through.

The accord stems from what environmental advocates have called a “raiding” of a portion of the Drinking Water Protection Program, a quarter-percent sales tax that Suffolk voters have chosen to levy upon themselves through the year 2030. It is intended to protect groundwater through several specific uses, such as open space purchases and a fund dedicated to stabilizing residents’ sewer rates.

In 2011, and again in 2014, the county dipped into the sewer stabilization fund, using the money to help plug budget gaps. Environmentalists say that violates the terms under which voters agreed to tax themselves and is therefore illegal.

Under the proposed settlement, the county could still dip into the fund — which had a balance of around $140 million last year — until 2018, in order to meet long-term financial needs. However, any money diverted would have to be paid back in full by 2029. No interest would be attached to the repayment.

While the announcement in June required voter approval for any future changes in the Drinking Water program, legislators withheld support of that part of the deal on Tuesday. Deputy Presiding Officer Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk) said that because negotiations are still technically ongoing — the lawsuit has not been officially dropped — the legislature was advised to table support for part of the agreement.

North Fork Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) said he was at first “disturbed” by the agreement, since it contains no provisions guaranteeing the purchase of farmland in the future.

However, he said that Mr. Bellone and the Legislature’s willingness to preserve farmland on the East End in the past have eased his mind. And in the end, voters will still have the final say on whether or not this agreement suits their needs.

“I would have structured this a little differently, but I wasn’t at the table,” Mr. Krupski said Wednesday morning. “So I didn’t have that option … But I think if you look at this globally, this is the hand we were dealt. And past decisions have really made our options limited financially. This was, I felt, the best option to take.”

With county budget forecasts looking grim, Republican members of the Legislature — though split on the issue — expressed concern about the long-term viability of paying back the debt.

Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said he would rather see the dollars currently in the sewer stabilization fund — the section of the Drinking Water Protection Program that would be borrowed from — used to build sewers to revitalize the county’s downtown areas and update aging cesspool systems countywide.

“This is nothing more than kicking the can down the road with steel-tipped shoes,” Mr. Trotta said. “People are saying we cut a deal and fixed a problem. But we have beaches closing because cesspools are running into our water. Sewers would fix that.”

Legislator Tom Barraga (R-West Islip) voted in favor of moving the agreement to voters on the merits of giving the public the power to make its own decision. But he said paying the borrowed funds back by 2029 could end up being more trouble than it’s worth, a concern Mr. Krupski said the county would have to address before the payments come due.

Minority Leader John Kennedy (R-Smithtown), however, pointed out that if the lawsuits proceed, and the county prevails, it won’t have to replay the funds at all.

07/06/14 10:00am
07/06/2014 10:00 AM
Here's a low-resolution photo that came out of the Brookhaven Town press shop in 2013. It's Councilwoman Connie Kepert congratulating engineers on an award. Notice the date stamp.

Here’s a low-resolution photo that came out of Brookhaven Town’s press shop. It’s Councilwoman Connie Kepert congratulating engineers on an award. It was taken on April 6, 2013, if you couldn’t tell from the time stamp. I imagine this got printed nowhere.

Public relations firms: News organizations can’t live with ’em.

And life would sure be a lot harder without ’em.

That might not be the first thing you’d expect an editor to say, but it’s the truth. Relationships with people in the PR business — and spokespeople for many elected leaders — are an important part of the job and can be very helpful at times.

Other times, though, I really just have to shake my head. (more…)

06/20/14 5:00pm
06/20/2014 5:00 PM
Nature Conservancy researchers found causes of nitrogen pollution vary significantly across the North Fork.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

The Nature Conservancy environmental group on Thursday released a report that details the sources of nitrogen pollution researchers say are reaching surface waters throughout the Peconic Estuary.

The data presented in the report shows causes of nitrogen pollution vary significantly throughout the East End. (more…)

06/20/14 8:00am
In the Southold Elementary School garden, students not only learn about science; they put their math skills into practice by measuring and planning the garden’s layout. Since they also harvest and sell their produce, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone says he’d like to see similar programs implemented in other county schools. From left: second-graders Mae Dominy, Grace Zehil, Alyvia Apparu and Skylar Valderrama. (Credit: Carrie Miller photos)

In the Southold Elementary School garden, students not only learn about science; they put their math skills into practice by measuring and planning the garden’s layout. Since they also harvest and sell their produce, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone says he’d like to see similar programs implemented in other county schools. From left: second-graders Mae Dominy, Grace Zehil, Alyvia Apparu and Skylar Valderrama. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone wants more young people to know that, among doctor, lawyer, firefighter or police officer, “farmer” is also a viable career, and an attainable and realistic life goal.

(more…)

06/17/14 8:00am
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.  (more…)

06/13/14 7:00am
06/13/2014 7:00 AM
Dave Colone, Chairman of Suffolk County Planning Commissioner; Adrienne Esposito, Executive Director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment; Bob Delucca, President and CEO of the Group for the East End, County Executive Steve Bellone, Dick Amper, Executive Director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society and Deputy Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory. (Courtesy photo)

Dave Colone, Chairman of Suffolk County Planning Commissioner; Adrienne Esposito, Executive Director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment; Bob Delucca, President and CEO of the Group for the East End, County Executive Steve Bellone, Dick Amper, Executive Director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society and Deputy Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory. (Courtesy photo)

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(more…)

06/05/14 1:08pm
06/05/2014 1:08 PM
That deal would requires approval from both county legislators and county taxpayers in November. (Credit: Carrie Miller, file)

That deal would requires approval from both county legislators and county taxpayers in November. (Credit: Carrie Miller, file)

After environmentalists sued Suffolk County earlier this year for “raiding” more than $30 million dollars from the county’s Drinking Water Protection Program, environmentalists and county leaders announced an agreement that will replace the funds and safeguard the reserve in the future.

County Executive Steven Bellone and members of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society and Group for the East End announced the deal — which  still needs approval from county legislators, as well as a voter referendum in November — on Wednesday.

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

“This is a good faith effort on the part of the County Executive and County Legislature to right a wrong,” said Mr. Amper. “It was initiated by the County Executive. He called me and said this is contradictory to what we are trying to do. Lets fix it.

The Drinking Water Protection Program is funded by a self-imposed tax that county residents voted to levy upon themselves several times since 1987. It is intended to protect groundwater through several specific uses, such as open space purchases and a fund dedicated to stabilizing sewer rates for residents. It would not otherwise come up for a vote again until 2030.

In 2011, and again in 2014, the county dipped into the fund, using it to help plug budget gaps which environmentalists say violates the terms under which voters agreed to tax themselves, making it illegal.

Under the proposed settlement, the county could still dip into the fund until 2018, in order to fulfill it’s long-term financial needs, however any money diverted would be paid back in full, according to the agreement.

Environmental advocates, led by Pine Barren’s champion Richard Amper, sued the county — twice — challenging that the funds raised through the program could not be diverted to other uses without a referendum voted on “by the taxpayers who created it.”

The Bellone administration has aggressively been targeting a goal of improving the county’s long term water quality, an effort the county exec has dubbed the ‘Reclaim Our Water’ initiative. Mr. Bellone has announced support for extending sewers on the west side of the county and fast-tracking the approval of denitrification systems. On the North Fork, the county threw its support behind a study exploring the use of such systems in Orient, spending $60,000 to see if the group systems would work in the un-sewered hamlet.

Mr. Amper said on Thursday that, “it would be inconsistent to say [the county is] fighting to improve water quality, while at the same time taking away money from the fund.”

Urging the legislature to follow suit and vote on the deal, Mr. Bellone agreed.

“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 2014 budget used $32.8 million from the program, specifically the county’s sewer stabilization fund. Under former County Executive Steve Levy’s administration, the county used about $20 million.

“The 2011 raids were conduced by the Levy administration, and they were not understanding or cooperative at all,” Mr. Amper said. “Bellone’s is taking a much more productive view.”

The settlement puts to rest a petition campaign initiated in February seeking a similar outcome.

Robert DeLuca, president of the Group for the East End, who helped hammer out the fund restoration deal said, “every resident of Suffolk County should feel good about this settlement,” adding that government can be “moved by an organized, mobilized citizenry that acts with purpose, passion and persistence.”

Legislator Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk), who voted against the 2014 budget which included dipping into the fund, said “I am certainly encouraged that there is an agreement, and I think we all need to work together on achieving water quality goals. I have to look at the details to say definitively whether I will support it.”

Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) stressed that the deal still needs to be approved by the county legislature.

“I think it’s a very complicated settlement that a lot of people are taking a careful look at,” he explained. “If it serves the taxpayers and help to give us a little more environmental protection, I will support it.”

cmiller@timesreview.com 

05/06/14 10:35am
05/06/2014 10:35 AM
County Executive Steve Bellone, second from right, discusses Southampton Town's Riverside plans with, from left, Councilwoman Christine Scalera, Councilman Brad Benter, Sean McLean of Renaissance Downtowns, and Southampton Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst. (Credit: Tim Gannon)

County Executive Steve Bellone, second from right, discusses Southampton Town’s Riverside plans with, from left, Councilwoman Christine Scalera, Councilman Brad Benter, Sean McLean of Renaissance Downtowns, and Southampton Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst. (Credit: Tim Gannon)

Steve Bellone, meet Riverside.

The Suffolk County Executive was given a bus tour of one of Southampton Town’s poorest, most crime-ridden, rundown neighborhoods Wednesday morning in hopes of getting his support for a number of ongoing efforts to revitalize the area. (more…)