(Updated 8:30 p.m.) Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has withdrawn his resolution for a ballot proposition to reroute Drinking Water Protection Program sales tax revenue from land preservation to taxpayer relief.
Bellone notified the legislature of his decision to withdraw IR 1413 two hours before the scheduled start of the 2:30 p.m. special meeting he’d called for a vote on the resolution.
“In the end, it wasn’t going to provide budget relief and it put the county’s land preservation program in jeopardy,” said First District Legislator Al Krupski, who spoke out against the bill.
Bellone’s proposal would have reduced, for three years, the sales tax revenues set aside for land acquisition and other environmental protection projects under a charter law establishing a quarter-percent sales tax from 31% to 11% of the total sales tax revenues.
The bill required the county to fund land acquisition through its capital budget for the next three years — something that many legislators said was unrealistic in a time of perhaps unprecedented fiscal crisis for the county.
“With the uncertainty of the budget for next year, how are you going to get 12 votes for land preservation?” Krupski asked. “It will be very difficult,” he said, adding that there will be a lot of competition for a limited capital budget and legislators will not have much appetite for incurring more debt.
“After hearing directly from our partners in county labor as well as our colleagues in the legislature, we have come to an agreement to withdraw this resolution in order to focus our efforts on ensuring the passage of the ballot referendum regarding the Assessment Stabilization Reserve Fund,” Bellone said in a statement this afternoon.
The controversial proposal set off a contentious debate between the county executive and members of the environmental community, with Bellone and Long Island Pine Barrens executive director Richard Amper exchanging harsh words.
“It was stupid and it was wrong,” Amper said this afternoon. “The people of Long Island for the last 40 years have put up $2 billion to protect land and water because land and water matters to them and this was going to end the program,” Amper said. He argues that the reduction of funds for three years would be a blow to the program from which it would not recover.
“I believe most of the legislators didn’t like it from the get-go and would have done the right thing if he (Bellone) hadn’t made this decision,” Amper said.
Bellone accused Amper of lying about the bill. He said “not one dime” would be taken away from open space preservation because of the bill’s requirement that land acquisitions be made from the capital budget, with borrowed money if necessary. Should the legislature balk at authorizing bonds, the bill required the funds to be transferred from the environmental protection fund to the taxpayer protection fund.
The proposal drew bipartisan opposition from former legislators.
Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), chairman of the Assembly’s environmental conservation committee, wrote to legislators yesterday to urge them to reject the measure, which he called “a deceptive money grab.”
“When we as an earlier group of Suffolk legislators helped launch this major environmental initiative, it was based on the idea that the funds raised though this tax would be put in a lock box fund for clean water and open space protection,” Englebright wrote. All understood that the non-renewable resources of land and water define our quality of life and for the first time, it became official policy, he said.
“In the referenda that followed our legislative action we didn’t ask the voters to use their tax dollars for drinking water protection — unless we need that money for something — that maybe we’ll reveal to you later,” Englebright wrote.
Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches), another former county legislator, testified at last week’s meeting that he believed Bellone’s proposal “would be a mistake.” Romaine said he cosponsored the 1987 bill to establish the Drinking Water Protection Fund.
“I understand you have financial problems,” Romaine told the legislature. “They did not develop overnight. They were there even as I was leaving the legislature in 2012,” he said.
“The county has shown bad faith with these locked-box funds,” Romaine said, cautioning “Trying to raid these funds, you break faith with the voters.”
A second bill introduced by Bellone, which passed the legislature last week, authorizes a referendum in November to allow the transfer of $15 million from the sewer Assessment Stabilization Fund to the general fund, cancel the repayment of $29.4 million to the fund, as required by court order, and repeal county charter provisions requiring the scheduled repayment to the sewer fund, pursuant to the settlement of additional litigation, of an estimated $145 million between 2021 and 2029.
Bellone said today he is pleased “several key players within the environmental advocacy community have indicated that they will not jeopardize the approval of this pending ballot measure and instead leave it in the hands of the voters.” The resolution would not have any negative impact on the county’s environmental programs, he said, and will deliver tax relief he said is “too great to risk during this unprecedented financial crisis.”
In an interview today, Englebright said the state would work with county officials on solving its fiscal crisis.
He said before the COVID crisis, most residents weren’t fully aware of the vital services provided by county government, including protecting public health and safety.
“We’re going to have to roll up our sleeves and work together across the aisle and find another source of revenue for the county so the important services the county provides will continue,” Englebright said.
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