HAUPPAUGE, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — Environmental groups say the Suffolk County Government committed a breach of trust — and broke the law — when it used water-protection funds to fill a budget gap.

As TV 10/55’s Carolyn Gusoff reported, a lawsuit was served Monday to Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and the county Legislature. The environmental groups argue the government had no right to divert $33 million created by a quarter-percent sales tax.

The tax, which has been approved by voters five times since 1987, is intended to go toward protecting Long Island’s drinking water supply. The tax has raised about $1.5 billion to date.

“They took it and plugged holes in the budget because they couldn’t balance the budget,” said Dick Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, an environmental advocacy group. “That’s not only immoral, it’s illegal.”

County leaders said they were only borrowing the money — a cost effective move because the loan was interest-free.

“In a tough fiscal environment, we had to use these funds,” DuWayne Gregory, presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature said. “But we have every intention to pay back these funds.”

“Every dollar in this fund will be used for what it’s appropriated for,” Assistant Deputy Suffolk County Executive Justin Meyers insisted. “What we are simply doing is borrowing from ourselves and paying that money back at a later date.”

But paying back the money may not be good enough. The groups suing want a judge to rule it is illegal to use water-protection tax revenue for any other purpose.

It’s not the first time clean-water money was used to balance Suffolk’s budget. In 2011, $20 million was redirected. That case is still in litigation.

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