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…)

03/22/14 9:00am
BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The view from Route 105 bridge at Indian Island golf course as the Peconic River leads into the Bay.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The view from Route 105 bridge at Indian Island golf course as the Peconic River leads into the Bay.

This is the time for action. Recently, I announced the single most important initiative of my administration and what should be the single most important goal for all Long Islanders: curbing decades of nitrogen pollution we have been inflicting on our ground and surface waters here in Suffolk County.  (more…)

03/21/14 11:00am
03/21/2014 11:00 AM
Steve Bellone speaking with area farmers last Wednesday in Calverton. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

Steve Bellone speaking with area farmers last Wednesday in Calverton. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

County Executive Steve Bellone is in the process of forming a working group that will be tasked with pushing a vision for a skilled agricultural work force that’s trained and educated right here in Suffolk County.

The idea arose during a meeting Mr. Bellone had with farmers last week at Ivy Acres nurseries in Calverton under the notion that high school and college students shouldn’t have to travel far to study for jobs that are available in an industry already well-established in the county. (more…)

03/21/14 11:00am
The Reeve Farm’s farmstand on Sound Avenue in Riverhead. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

The Reeve Farm’s farmstand on Sound Avenue in Riverhead. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

Imagine a working farm on or near the campus of a college or university, where students of agriculture and natural resources daily apply their growing knowledge of science and technology. Imagine, on this same property, adjoining labs and classrooms where students and professors conduct soil research and engineering tests or study the habits of local insects and wildlife. Perhaps the owners and employees of nearby farms also serve as mentors through student internship programs.

Now imagine such a facility right here in Suffolk County. (more…)

03/17/14 12:00pm
03/17/2014 12:00 PM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO

Saying a lawsuit against the Suffolk County isn’t quite enough, environmentalists have taken to parking lots from Southold to Huntington to get a referendum on this fall’s ballot to halt a county effort to use $33 million in reserved Drinking Water Protection funds.

Dollars are raised for the Drinking Water Protection Fund through a 1/4 percent sales tax, and several dedicated programs exist within the fund. One of those, the sewer stabilization fund is meant to offset large spikes in sewer rates for residents, and the last fall the county decided to budget $32.8 million from that fund to help balance the 2014 spending plan.

While the Pine Barrens Society of Long Island, along with the Long Island Environmental Voters Forum, filed suit last week against the decision, Group for the East End has joined the Pine Barrens Society in gathering 10,000 signatures before the end of April. The hope is to get a measure to overturn the decision to use the funds this year.

“We’ve been arguing against it pretty vociferously,” said Bob DeLuca, president of GFEE. “But you hit that point when you realize nobody’s listening.”

Suffolk voters last agreed to renew the tax in 2007 — approving a ballot measure to maintain the tax through 2030.

The PBS sued Suffolk after it decided in 2011 to use close to $20 million to balance its budget previously. That litigation is still making its way through the justice system, though is expected to be heard later this year.

In order to qualify to get on the ballot, according to PBS president Dick Amper, the groups have to gather 2.5 percent of the population in each town who voted in the last gubernatorial election.

That equates to about 10,500 signatures, or a town-by-town breakdown as follows:

  • Shelter Island: 39
  • Southold: 237
  • Riverhead: 268
  • East Hampton: 205
  • Southampton: 475
  • Brookhaven: 3,137
  • Smithtown: 974
  • Huntington: 1,623
  • Islip: 1,917
  • Babylon: 1,623

Mr. Amper said on Monday morning that he’s been “amazed at the number of people who know about” the issue as PBS and GFEE petitioners have approached citizens in public places such as parking lots at supermarkets or post offices.

County Executive Steve Bellone’s original budget last year had not called for dipping into the sewer stabilization fund at all, but rather closing the budget gap in the $2.7 billion budget through borrowing from the New York State Dormitory Authority, a path that would have required legislation approved at the state level. A report from the County’s Budget Review Office identified that plan as a risk because of the necessary legislation.

Justin Meyers, communications director for Mr. Bellone, said last week that the county exec plans on replenishing the fund.

“The fact of the matter is that there are two overarching concerns,” he said. “First, if the money is being taken and used for something other than drinking water, it must be repaid. The county executive completely supports that.”

He added that also, the county “needs to engage the public and voters on the issue if it moves forward.”

Mr. Meyers added that once the county decides to spend the money from the sewer stabilization fund, the county legislature would have to pass a measure approving the spending. Within the language of that approval would be a repayment structure outlining when the county would pay the fund back.

Mr. Amper said a ballot referendum would be the only way to ensure that the funds are paid back, noting that a similar use of Drinking Water Protection Program money in 2011 did not require county legislation.

“We want to guarantee” that the money is paid back, he said. “And we’re going to do that through courts, or the court of public opinion.”

The plan laid out by the county last fall intends to start paying back into the sewer stabilization fund in 2017, though the county would still have to formally adopt a repayment schedule. Last fall, the balance in the sewer stabilization fund hovered around $140 million, leaving over $100 million left, should the $33 million be allocated this year.

However Mr. DeLuca noted that part of the Drinking Water Protection Fund already reserves a portion of revenues raised for balancing the budget. According to the county charter, about 32 percent of the proceeds raised by the tax go toward reducing county property taxes.

“You got money for the purpose of reducing taxes,” Mr. DeLuca said. “Stay away from the other part.”

jpinciaro@timesreview.com