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County Open Space Fund in Jeopardy as Some Legislators Question Logic

With budget woes at the county level, and hearing complaints from their constituents, some Suffolk legislators express an interest in taking dedicated quarter-percent sales tax for open space and using for other purposes.

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.

Howard R. Meinke January 18, 2012 at 04:54 PM
It is important to continue the work "to save Southold". Open space purchases and land preservation are an important piece of the plan. The sales tax is a very necessary funding source. This all ties in to what is necessary to support the Peconic Estuary program. It would be a terrible mistake to take the short sighted view here. What we lose we can never regain. Howard Meinke
Elaine January 21, 2012 at 01:17 PM
I believe we must preserve our open space/land since Suffolk County, in my opinion, since 2000 has been under attack to build up the density particularly on the East End. Leg. Romaine should be supported and congratulated for his efforts in protecting our County. I hope the Suffolk County Legislature follows his lead!
Barbara Salvarezza January 21, 2012 at 09:38 PM
I agree that we should try to preserve our open space but there are other issues which are just as important that must be addressed. For example: On the grounds of the Police Dept. on Old Country Rd. in Westhampton, there is a sex offender trailer that has a makeshift waste connection, to a cesspool, which is visible above ground level. Not only do the people who live in the adjoining complex (Westhampton Pines) have to put up with the trailer but what is this makeshift waste connection doing to our clean water preserve? Especially when there is a water tower in close proximity to this connection. This issue needs to go public. This money should be used for the removal of the sex offender trailers and consequently the makeshift waste connection. Barbara Salvarezza
mike foley January 23, 2012 at 03:26 PM
Barbara; Although I agree that the sewage problem needs to be remedied, Money directly used for Land Preservation should not be the funding for the problem of sewage. We need to "save what's left" on the East End,and I thank Legislator Romaine for being the CHAMPION of Land Preservation,And Dick Amper for making sure Our Land Preservation Fund is not raided for use other than Land Preservation--KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK! Mike Foley

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