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Environmentalists mobilizing to protect clean water

 

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Near the mouth of the Peconic River.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Near the mouth of the Peconic River.

Saying a lawsuit against  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 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

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