Suffolk County has leached into its Drinking Water Protection Program fund for various expenses since the project’s inception in 1987. County executive Steve Bellone settled with the environmental community in 2014 after inheriting the ongoing reallocation of funds, and announced the county would phase out this line of action.
“The use of environmental funds to balance the budget was a longstanding practice, and county executive Bellone ended it when he took office,” said Peter Scully, DEC regional chief.
County comptroller John Kennedy claims, however, that the fund continued to be dipped into through 2018, saying that the settlement actually allowed for the continuation of such. During Bellone’s time in office, Kennedy said that the county sliced off “tens of millions of dollars” from the Drinking Water Protection Program.
Kennedy said that there are not enough sanitarian workers who monitor water quality, which is directly affected by this continued reallocation of funds.
“He has been diverting that quarter-percent funding that is dedicated specifically to protecting the groundwater, the aquifer and to do capital projects. And he is using it to cover payroll. He is using it to pay utilities. He is using it to run government and, in fact, is violating what the directive is supposed to be,” he said.
About three weeks ago, Bellone was ordered by the Appellate Division in Brooklyn to put $29.4 million of that prior-diverted money back into the fund.
Brookhaven Town supervisor Ed Romaine and councilman Neil Foley accompanied Kennedy at his press conference at Corey Beach in Blue Point last week, in which he conveyed his concerns for the county’s financial responsibility. Romaine was a member of the county Legislature when the quarter-percent was proposed to be used for clean water.
“The fact that we do not have enough sanitarian people to protect our water, let alone our sewage treatment plants, is nothing short of irresponsible,” Romaine said. “To use it for other purposes to balance the budget because you cannot balance it is not a wise use of public funds.”
A lack of sufficient sanitarian personnel also has contributed to beach closures. Corey Beach has been subject to this quite often.
“Corey Beach is the jewel of Blue Point,” Foley said. “People wait eight to 12 months a year to come down here and the fact that it is closed multiple times per week or month is not right.”
Reallocations from a fund of this kind call for a vote by the county Legislature, and Scully said that Kennedy, as comptroller, voted repeatedly to dip into the fund.
“[Kennedy] oversees the use of various county funds to pay the county's operating expenses,” Scully said. “His office dipped into that fund regularly to pay for expenses that have nothing to do with the environment. It's kind of a head-scratching effort to rewrite history and blame the county executive for a practice that he is actively supporting.”
Sewage is relevant to the conversation of water quality, and Suffolk County is one of the few places left that continues to rely on cesspools. The county has been dealing with a lack of sewers for more than 50 years. Plans to address the sewer situation decades back were tabled for a slew of reasons, mainly financial.
Scully said that the Septic Replacement Program put in place by Bellone is backed by organized labor, the business community and the environmental community.
“Rather than applauding the county executive and the department of health services for offering up a plan, you have this career politician trying to mislead the public into thinking that this county executive — who solved the problem of raiding the environmental fund — did not,” he said. “[Kennedy], as a county legislator, has voted repeatedly to raid the fund, and his office continues to raid it on a day-to-day basis.”
Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, expressed concern for the presence of politics in drinking water and said it should be a bipartisan effort to retain and maintain a public necessity.
“It would really be a tragedy if the program was impacted by this. Instead of fighting about the Drinking Water Protection Program, they should all be working together to make it successful,” Esposito said. “No one wants to hear them fighting over how to accomplish it. If the comptroller wants to propose a plan, he should do that. The only plan out there right now is Bellone's plan, and it is working.”
Kennedy responded that his criticisms were bound to the lack of sufficient amount of sanitarian workers, containment of stormwater runoff to prevent the repeated cycle of beach closures, and the reallocation of funds to contribute to salaries and other ventures unrelated to the intended use of the funds.
“They are not rebutting what our characterizations are,” Kennedy said. “They are attempting to divert from what we brought and raised as a very concrete, specific, cogent issue. They cannot rebut it because it has been done.”Kennedy will run against Bellone in November Suffolk County comptroller John Kennedy is running for county executive, which is up for election in November. Kennedy said that in terms of finances and transparency, his administration will stop the reallocation of dedicated funds. “When I get elected, I will unwind that quarter-percent diversion,” Kennedy said. “We will get back to honesty and transparency with budgeting for the electorate. This has been the legacy for the last eight years. Everyone is saying at this point that enough is enough.”