Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone during his May 8 news briefing. Image: Video screenshot

Two proposals authorizing the use of Suffolk County drinking water protection program funds to help plug a “catastrophic” gap in the county budget and stabilize county property taxes will be on the ballot in November, if approved by the county legislature.

One proposal would divert a portion of Suffolk County sales tax revenues from the drinking water protection program over the next three years.

A second would authorize changes to an agreement previously approved by voters to repay $29.4 million already borrowed from a sewer stabilization fund to plug earlier budget gaps — plus draw another $15 million from that fund. A State Appellate Division panel in 2014 ordered the county to repay the money drawn from the fund.

The county is facing a budget gap estimates at more than $800 million in the current year and $1.5 billion through 2022, due to the COVID-19 crisis, according to county officials.

“We are in a financial emergency,” County Executive Steve Bellone said yesterday. He said federal relief is required to prevent a “hollowing out or gutting” of county government.

Even with federal relief, the county has to make difficult choices, Bellone said. Among them are the two measures he’s submitted to the legislature concerning sales tax revenues.

The proposed modification in the distribution of sales tax revenues is necessary to “fund essential law enforcement, health and other services” in 2020, 2021 and 2020, according to the legislation.

The measure would reduce by 8% to 11% per year for the next three years the sales tax revenues set aside for property acquisition and other environmental protection projects.

The bill allows the county to borrow money, if needed for land acquisition, to replace sales tax revenue diverted to property tax stabilization. Debt service would be paid out of the general fund.

A hearing on the sales tax proposal, recessed from the last meeting of the legislature, is on the agenda for today’s meeting in Hauppauge. The hearing on the sewer stabilization fund measure was closed at the June 9 general meeting.

Environmental advocates strenuously oppose both measures.

Richard Amper, executive director of the Pine Barrens Society, which brought the lawsuit challenging the county’s drawdown, without voter approval, of sewer stabilization funds to pay general government expenses, said County Executive Steve Bellone is using the COVID crisis as “a plausible excuse” to raid environmental protection funds raised by sales taxes with voter approval.

“He can’t balance the budget — or won’t — and he’s punishing the public for it,” Amper said of Bellone.

“I don’t think the public will support these referenda,” Amper said. “This is the fourth time these funds have been raided. I don’t think the public will go for it,” he predicted.

“The work to clean up the water isn’t done yet — not by along shot. And this doesn’t make a dent in the county’s fiscal problems,” Amper said.

County Legislator Al Krupski said he has not decided how he will vote on either proposal.

He said legislators will be reluctant to bond money for land preservation as one bill would require. The county is already struggling with debt, he said.

“We’ve got this historic and effective land preservation program,” Krupski said. “Keeping the integrity of that program is so important for all three towns that I represent.”

Krupski said the pandemic will increase development pressure on the East End, as people flee the city for a less populated area where there’s open space.

He also questioned whether a voter referendum can “negate” a court decision. “I’m waiting for the opinion of legal counsel on that.”

The county executive yesterday signed an executive order freezing wage and step increases for nonunion county employees. He also said he has ordered the “embargo” of funds across all county departments to curtail spending.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.