The outcome of Suffolk County’s Proposition 2 is yet to be certified, as many absentee ballots remain to be counted, though it was approved by a majority of voters who cast ballots in person on Election Day.
County Executive Steve Bellone is confident that it will pass — and that there will be litigation. And in anticipation of a legal fight, he has gone on the offensive.
Mr. Bellone accuses Pine Barrens Society Executive Director Richard Amper of lying about the proposition, which would permit money to be moved from the county’s sewer tax stabilization fund into a fund where it could be used for reducing general and police property taxes. It would also absolve the county of obligations to repay money previously borrowed from the fund.
Mr. Bellone says the proposition is necessary to fund critical services amid the COVID-19 pandemic, adding, “This money is fundamentally a tax stabilization fund.”
Mr. Amper maintains that Mr. Bellone is taking money that is designated for water quality protection to plug a hole in a bad budget, and he disputes that the budgetary concerns are related to COVID-19. He says the taxpayers have reaffirmed multiple times that they want the money set aside for water quality, and that three courts have already told the county that the money cannot be used for another purpose.
“The county executive is having a hard time balancing his budget,” Mr. Amper said Saturday. “That’s just the way he is.”
If approved by voters, the proposition would require that $44.4 million be transfered from the sewer tax stabilization reserve fund to the taxpayer trust fund. Additionally, it would mean that the county would no longer be required to repay $154.2 million from the general fund to the sewer tax stabilization reserve fund.
Mr. Bellone said Friday that the sewer tax stabilization fund has never been exclusively for water protection and that every time the fund has been on the ballot, tax stabilization has been at the center.
Mr Amper disputes that: “Mistaken. Wrong. Incorrect. Not true,” he said, insisting that this latest referendum is the only instance that the fund has been on a ballot for a purpose other than protecting water and land.
The Suffolk County Sewer Assessment Stabilization Reserve Fund raises revenue through a 0.25 percent sales tax. The tax is under a section of the county code titled the “Suffolk County Drinking Water Protection Program,” which Mr. Bellone says contributes to confusion over the purpose of the tax. He said water protection is part of the purpose — but tax stabilization has always been at its core.
The County Legislature established the tax in 1983 purely for tax stabilization of sewer rates, he said. It was expanded in 1987 via referendum to add land acquisition in the Pine Barrens to protect the drinking water supply, but continued to include “countywide real property tax relief.” Voters extended the program in 1999 and in 2007 for both purposes.
On both sides of the dispute between Mr. Bellone and Mr. Amper, one is accusing the other of stealing $29.4 million from Suffolk County taxpayers.
“He has repeatedly claimed that Proposition 2 is stealing money from drinking water protection and water quality, and that is just an out-and-out lie and a deception that he is trying to put over on the public,” Mr. Bellone said of Mr. Amper.
Mr. Bellone said that $29.4 million was transfered out of the sewer tax stabilization fund in 2011 during the administration of former County Executive Steve Levy, and a court ordered that the money be restored to the fund because it was withdrawn without the necessary voter approval.
In 2014, the county struck a deal with Mr. Amper to bond for $29.4 million for open space and environmental purposes, rather than putting money back into a sewer tax stabilization fund that did not need the money, Mr. Bellone said. He noted that the Pine Barrens Society celebrated the deal in a press release at the time that stated “the Assessment Stabilization Reserve Fund … helps control sewer rates but can’t be used for land preservation or other water quality programs.”
He also said he actually agrees with Mr. Amper that voter approval is necessary to change the purpose of the tax stabilization fund. But he added that — after Mr. Amper argued based on the principle that only voters can make changes to the quarter-percent program — the Pine Barrens Society is going to litigate the results of Proposition 2 anyway.
“Everything he has been saying for years about the importance of voters being the ones to decide whether the program should change or not, that was all B.S., ultimately,” he said of Mr. Amper.
There is no litigation in the works yet, but Mr. Bellone is betting on it once the vote is certified. “I am just making a prediction based on, now, my years of experience dealing with this guy,” he said. “That there is no honor. The guy is not concerned with tethering himself to the truth in any way.”
Mr. Amper said it is premature to judge the result of the referendum while there are still ballots to be counted.
As of Tuesday, the number of “yes” votes on the proposition is 270,473, or 53.8 percent of ballots counted so far, and the margin in favor of passage is 38,406. More than 140,000 absentee ballots remain to be counted, so the final result could still go either way.
If the proposition does fail once all the votes are tallied, it will be a moot point. But if it passes, Mr. Amper plans to intervene.
“While we don’t have any specific legal action at this point, we are proceeding to be sure this is properly reviewed,” he said. “It has certainly not been to this point.”
Mr. Amper described the language of the proposition as off-target and almost incomprehensible to the average voter.
The proposition asked voters to approve a resolution that states: “A Charter Law to Transfer Excess Funds in the Sewer Assessment Stabilization Reserve Fund to the Suffolk County Taxpayer Trust Fund and to Eliminate the Requirement that Interfund Transfers Be Made from the General Fund to the Sewer Assessment Stabilization Fund.”
According to Mr. Amper, “One of the requirements of state law is that you can’t put anything on the ballot for referendum unless it is understood to every eligible voter.”
But Mr. Bellone said that if the language was misleading, Mr. Amper, who he called “the most litigious guy in the county,” could have sued before the vote.
“He had an opportunity to try to knock it off the ballot,” Mr. Bellone said. “He didn’t do it, and that was a clear indication. He didn’t do it because there was no basis for it.”
Mr. Bellone said that the proposition was written in such a way that no one could read it and think the county was encouraging people to vote for it. “The ballot question is confusing, because it is very technical,” he said. “We wrote it straight down the middle.”
If he could have written it in plain English, he said, it would say, “This is a COVID relief measure that would allow the county to use excess funds in a sewer tax stabilization fund to address broader budget concerns and to fund critical services moving forward.”
He also said it is understandable why many residents believe that quarter-percent program is exclusively about water quality funding. “[Mr. Amper] pounds away on it, and no one has ever challenged him on it,” he said. “And, quite honestly, I’ve never been interested in challenging him on it, because one of the top priorities of my administration has been to reverse the decades of decline in water quality. It’s one of the things that I have focused my efforts on.”
Mr. Amper said that even if the proposition passes, the result cannot supersede what three courts have told the county: that the $29.4 million is for protecting water and land.