Although North Fork Legislator Ed Romaine has reintroduced a bill to purchase 150 acres on Edwards Avenue in Riverhead, that purachase and other county land acquisitions funded with a dedicated open space tax are in jeopardy.
Not only was a bill to pay $8.9 million for the former Beagle Club in Calverton tabled at the legislature’s Dec. 20 general meeting, but some members raised the question of whether the public wants to even continue the quarter-cent sales tax that funds the county’s purchase of open space and farmland development rights. Romaine, R-Center Moriches, re-introduced the bill to buy the property earlier this month and the county's Environment, Planning and Agriculture Committee will vote on the resolution at the end of January.
Presiding Officer William Lindsay, D-Holbrook, said he was seriously considering asking the legislature to approve a referendum in November that, if approved by voters, would suspend the land acquisition program and allow the county to use the money collected to balance its budget. Lindsay, along with two of his colleagues, . Lindsey said he would oppose all future open space acquisitions, saying an $18 million purchase (in the case of the Preserve) don't look good to many taxpayers.
Legis. Tom Barraga, D-West Islip, spoke in support of suspension, noting that his constituents are asking repeatedly why the county is spending millions of dollars on land acquisition when they can’t afford to stay in their homes.
“If anything, this should be stopped, at least for the present time until things improve economically,” Barraga said. “This is just the wrong way to go. It sends the wrong message.”
Romaine said Friday he was not opposed to a referendum. “I would not substitute my judgment for that of voters,” he said. “If he (Lindsay) feels so strongly, he should submit a referendum and let the people vote on it.”
Romaine added, however, that since the county’s drinking water protection program was first enacted in 1987, making way for the quarter-cent tax, “the public has voted not once, but eight times” to retain it.
Dick Amper, executive director of the , said that he, too, had no objection to putting the water protection program to a vote, but expressed confidence that the public would continue to support the tax.
“It’s not clear to me that the public, which has never defeated a referendum on the drinking water program, would be likely to tax themselves more for the cost of supporting Suffolk’s bloated budget,” Amper said.
“Given the legislators willingness to steal it, however, they might very well try to obtain it legally,” Amper added. “There is some admission on the part of the presiding officer that if they mean to alter the drinking water protection program, they need to go to the public.”
Amper’s reference was to a resolution approved by the legislature in August that permits the county to spend some of the revenues from the quarter-cent tax for purposes other than land preservation -- something’s that was done, according to Amper, to the tune of $20 million in the 2011 county budget.
Resolution 625, which gave the county the green light to use the tax for county-wide tax relief, was the subject of a suit Amper and other environmentalists filed in State Supreme Court in September, charging the legislators with "ripping off the tax-payers" by directing millions of spending on items other than land preservation. The case remains in the courts.
“That’s not just a betrayal of public trust, it’s against the law,” Amper said.
“The legislature cannot change the program because it’s a dedicated fund for land protection and land acquisition,” he said. “Because it was created by voters, it can only be changed by voters.”
The Suffolk Legislature meets again Feb. 7, where it may resume the discussion.