Groundwater protection advocates say they have won an important victory in a struggle with Suffolk County leaders over the use of $30 million in land preservation funding.
The Long Island Pine Barrens Society announced this week that it had reached an agreement of settlement in two lawsuits against Suffolk County over tapping of the county’s Water Protection Fund to cover other areas of county spending.
The settlement agreement, according to Pine Barrens Society Executive Director Richard Amper, will withdraw a 2012 authorization by County Executive Steve Bellone to use the funds for costs other than water protection and sewer tax abatement, It will also place resolutions on next fall’s county ballot to require voter approval via referendum of any future proposals to use Water Protection money or borrow from its reserves. Mr. Amper said the executive has also agreed in principle to return $30 million taken from the fund in 2011 by then County Executive Steve Levy’s administration to plug holes in the cratering county deficit following the recession.
“This is a good-faith effort on the part of the county executive and county legislature to right a wrong,” Mr. Amper said in a statement.
A spokesman for Mr. Bellone’s office could not be reached for comment.
The basis of both suits by the Pine Barrens Society was that, as a voter-approved fund seeded with tax revenues from a quarter-percent county-wide sales tax, the fund could not be tapped by county officials for anything other than water protection initiatives without voter approval.
In addition to the steps taken by Mr. Levy and Mr. Bellone, in 2012, Legislator Al Krupski had introduced a bill that called for the money to be split between land purchases focused on water protection and those focused on farmland preservation. The bill was never adopted by the legislature.
The bulk of the fund’s annual revenues goes to debt payments on past borrowing for large purchases. Only about $5 million a year is added to the purse for land purchases.