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Bellone at odds with environmentalists over measure to plug budget gap

Environmental groups in Suffolk County are critical of County Executive Steve Bellone’s proposal to ask voters in November whether to use money set aside for environmental protection programs to instead help plug the county’s budget gap. 

In April, Mr. Bellone proposed two measures, both of which would be subject to voter referendum in November, to offset budget problems that are in large part due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic that has closed down many businesses in Suffolk County and cut deeply into the sales tax revenue that county government relies on. 

One referendum would take the money allocated to environmental programs for three years, and the other would transfer excess funds in the county’s sewer stabilization reserve fund to the general fund.

The two measures, both of which use money raised by a voter-approved quarter-percent sales tax, would provide $50 million in budget mitigation funding, according to Mr. Bellone. 

“We have a potentially $800 million-plus budget gap that we have to close in the next two months. You don’t want to let the public vote on this $50 million?” Mr. Bellone said at a recent press briefing. 

“OK, here’s what $50 million looks like when it comes to our taxpayers and our employees. For perspective, the county tax would have to be increased by 107% … to get us that $50 million. Seven hundred employees would have to be laid off to get you $50 million.

“For my purposes, we should do everything we possibly can to avoid two things: laying off our essential employees, and adding significant new tax burdens on our homeowners during the worst economic downturn that we’ve seen since the Great Depression.”

Mr. Bellone also said he doesn’t want “a COVID-19 tax.”

In a statement, Richard Amper, the executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, called that “pandemic skullduggery.”

“Suffolk County Executive Bellone’s latest attempt to take money from the [Drinking Water Protection Program] comes in the guise of covering losses incurred by the county during the coronavirus pandemic,” he said. “The county is looking to grab funds dedicated to protecting the environment despite the fact that federal aid is available to cover COVID-related costs and the fact that three courts in New York have declared the county’s practice illegal in the past.”

Mr. Bellone said federal aid is needed but would be insufficient.

“The hope is that with federal disaster assistance, instead of having a catastrophic budgetary situation, it will become a manageable fiscal crisis,” he said. “Think about that for a moment. Our goal with federal disaster assistance is to get to a place where we are managing a fiscal crisis. What that means is we have to make decisions on the local level to address this fiscal crisis.”

Mr. Amper’s Pine Barrens Society wasn’t the only environmental organization opposed to Mr. Bellone’s proposal. 

Organizations that signed a letter to Suffolk County Legislature Presiding Officer Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue) opposing Mr. Bellone’s plan included the Group for the East End, Seatuck Environmental Association, Peconic Baykeeper, North Fork Audubon Society, Save the Sound, North Fork Environmental Council and Citizens Campaign for the Environment. 

In a letter jointly signed by members of all those groups, they wrote, “it is our collective experience that the continuous threat of funding raids and program sweeps out of voter-approved environmental programs has had a strong corrosive effect on the public trust.”

The June 6 letter said one referendum would “redirect tens of millions of dollars currently obligated to land preservation for three consecutive years and no assurance of repayment,” and the other “sweeps” the sewer stabilization fund and “permanently redirects these important funds without concrete assurances for future investment in the county’s essential program to replace harmful septic and cesspools” with new improved wastewater systems. 

“Neither of these measures will take a dime away from any existing environmental programs,” Mr. Bellone said. “Dick Amper’s team right now are working their hardest to pressure legislators to make sure the public never gets the right to vote on these tax stabilization measures.”

He said the “common-sense measures that we have put forward fully protect the environmental programs that are part of the quarter-percent sales tax program. One hundred percent.”