With some contentious competitions on the horizon, not the least of which is the presidential race pitting Democrat Joe Biden against incumbent Donald Trump, voters will need to remember to flip their ballots over and weigh in on two county propositions when they go to the polls or fill out absentee ballots. Early voting begins on October 24. In addition to selecting candidates, voters can weigh in on proposals related to Suffolk County legislators’ length of service and using water protection monies to help bail the county out of its budget crisis.
Proposition 1 asks voters to decide on extending the length of terms for Suffolk County legislators who currently serve two years, with term limits of 12 years.
The term limits remain intact and, if the proposal is approved, a four-year term of office would go into effect for lawmakers taking their seats on January 1, 2022. Those who favor the proposal note other Suffolk County elected officials — the county executive, district attorney, treasurer and county clerk — all serve four-year terms. Additionally, proponents say the extended terms would allow legislators more time to see projects through to fruition and eliminate the distraction of campaigning for re-election and fundraising, according to a report by the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County.
The second proposition, if approved by voters, would allow county officials to use some water protection fund moneys derived from a quarter percent sales tax for county operating expenses. The money is part of a sewer assessment stabilization reserve fund that was established to cap increases in costs for sewer district residents. Its balance at the end of 2019 was $35 million.
Proposition 2 suggests creating a Trust Fund to receive a portion of the unspent balance — $15 million — from the Assessment Stabilization Reserve Fund (ASRF).
The pandemic decimated the county’s budget, which relies predominantly on sales tax. While County Executive Steve Bellone has consistently beseeched the federal government to provide aid to local municipalities for months, such aid has not been forthcoming.
Adopted in 1987, the Drinking Water Protection Fund was crafted to dedicate funding to open space preservation and water quality projects. In recent years, the county borrowed millions from the DWPF and is required to pay it back. Close to $150 million must be repaid by 2029, according to a 2014 lawsuit settlement in an action taken against former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy. The legislation proposes the debt be canceled and the surplus funds be placed in a fund for use to plug the budget hole.
An array of representatives from the regional environmental community, including Adrienne Esposito of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Debbie O’Kane of North Fork Audubon, Tracy Brown of Save the Sound, Mark Haubner of the North Fork Environmental Council, Kevin McAllister of Defend H2O, Sean O’Neill of Peconic Baykeeper, and Robert DeLuca of the Group for the East End have expressed adamant opposition to the proposal.
Said Mr. DeLuca this week, “If approved, the ballot measure would allow Suffolk County to forgive approximately $150 million in debt owed to itself that was swept from the Drinking Water Protection Program’s Sewer Rate Stabilization Fund for general budget purposes. Voters authorized the borrowing, but the funds were all supposed to be paid back.
“The proposal would also allow the county to negate a 2019 appellate court order that required Suffolk to pay back an additional $29.4 million taken from the sewer rate fund during the Levy Administration, and permit an additional sweep of some $15 million that is currently available in the fund.”
On its website, The Pine Barrens Society describes the plan as a “raid” and calls upon voters to vote “no.” Said executive director Richard Amper, “Voters want to continue to protect water quality, they do not want to pay increased taxes to plug holes in the County’s already bloated budget.”