After a six-year legal battle, it looks like Suffolk County will finally be forced to return $29 million that had been illegally raided from the Drinking Water Protection Program by former County Executive Steve Levy — unless the current county executive appeals again.
That would be Steve Bellone, who is mulling his next course of action. Pine Barrens Society Executive Director Richard Amper said after a series of court battles the State Appellate Division ruled the county must return the money, which was taken from the dedicated fund and placed in the county’s general fund by Levy and subsequently spent.
“The money was set aside by a referendum in 1987 that over 80 percent of the people voted for,” Amper recalled. “Anything done by a referendum can only be changed by a referendum.” In November 2014, the New York State Appellate Division ruled in the society’s favor, declaring the raid “illegal, null, and void” because the program had been altered without a required referendum.
Both the society and the county were then required to submit a judgment to the Suffolk County Supreme Court. The Steve Bellone administration submitted a judgment agreeing that the raid was a mistake, but argued that they were not required to return the money. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Farneti agreed with the county and signed its judgment, forcing the society to appeal that decision.
The matter again went to Appeals court.
On June 26, the Appellate Division once again ruled in the society’s favor, ordering Justice Farneti’s judgment to be reversed and a new judgment to be issued, requiring the county government to return the money to the program. “Once again, an appeals court has determined that Suffolk County government improperly took funds in violation of a public referendum,” Amper said. “Suffolk didn’t make a mistake, it broke the law and hurt the public.”
“The people have put up $2 billion to protect their land and water,” Amper said. He is confident even if the county appeals the latest ruling it will lose and the Drinking Water Protection program will finally be reimbursed.