There are two propositions, on the back of the ballot on Tuesday, November 4, that all Suffolk County residents are being asked to weigh in on. One would do away with the Suffolk County Department of Finance and Taxation and also eliminate the role of the county treasurer, while the other would require the county to repay nearly $30 million to its own Drinking Water Protection Program.
Suffolk County has proposed eliminating its Department of Taxation and Finance, folding its duties and many of the employees of that office into the county comptroller’s office. Supporters of the bill, who include County Executive Steve Bellone, have said the move will streamline the bureaucracy and slash some $800,000 in immediate costs from the budget simply by eliminating the salaries of the three top positions.
If approved, the positions of county treasurer, chief deputy treasurer and deputy treasurer would be eliminated immediately. Angie Carpenter is now the county treasurer, Douglas W. Sutherland is the chief deputy treasurer, and Diane M. Stuke is the deputy treasurer.
If the measure is adopted, the Suffolk County Legislature would then be tasked with either merging or eliminating the positions of several dozen employees now working in the Department of Taxation and Finance. A similar referendum proposal last year was blocked by a court challenge.
The latest proposal has met with some opposition, largely from Suffolk County Republicans who say that the offices should be kept separate. Under the proposed merger, Ms. Carpenter would complete her current, and final term, which ends in December 2017. Term limits will prevent her from serving again.
Ms. Carpenter has, nonetheless, opposed the merging of the jobs. “We need to have totally separate functions,” she told Newsday earlier this year. “You can’t meld or commingle authority of those who make the expenditure with the person who dispenses the cash.”
If voters approve the measure, whoever is elected to the county comptroller’s post in next week’s election would oversee the merger of the two offices. In that race, Democrat James Gaughran of Eatons Neck, current chairman of the Suffolk County Water Authority, and Republican Suffolk County Legislator John M. Kennedy Jr. of Nesconset, the minority leader of the County Legislature, are battling to succeed Joseph Sawicki, who also cannot seek reelection due to term limits.
The second county ballot proposition attempts to correct what environmental advocates have called a robbery of an important water quality protection fund to balance county budgets.
If approved, the proposition would allow for the utilization of tax revenue from the Drinking Water Protection Program’s sewer district tax stabilization reserve account for balancing the county budget through 2017. But it would require that the county dedicate $29.4 million to land preservation and water quality protection efforts—an effort to make amends for money previously taken from a water protection program.
The Drinking Water Protection Program generates about $76 million a year from a voter-approved quarter-percent sales tax. The money is divided between four reserve accounts: one for land preservation, one for drinking water improvement projects, one for stabilizing sewer district taxes, and one for property tax stabilization.
When facing a deepening deficit in 2012, the county began taking money from the $100 million sewer stabilization reserve—which most see as far larger than is needed—for the general tax relief component. Environmental groups sued, saying that changing the division of the money could not be done without voter approval. Many also fear that there would be raids on other components of the fund in the future.
As part of the agreement reached between county lawmakers and the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, the county will redirect the “repayment” of the money diverted to tax relief back to land preservation and water protection projects, instead of sewer stabilization.
“The Pine Barrens point was that if this money was approved by voters, you can’t change it without going back to voters, so that’s what we’re doing here,” Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman said. “It’s really critical that this passes. If it fails, then this year’s budget and next year’s budgets suddenly will have giant holes.”