MELVILLE, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — The coronavirus pandemic shutdown has had a grueling impact on local governments’ budgets, which are now looking at massive deficits.

But one county’s solution has environmental groups seething, CBS2’s Carolyn Gusoff reported Wednesday.

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Dead downtowns for months didn’t only cripple business owners, it also decimated county coffers. With sales tax revenue dramatically down, Suffolk County is looking at a $1.5 billion shortfall over the next three years.

“The county is facing a budget catastrophe due to COVID-19,” County Executive Steve Bellone said.


Bellone is seeking federal relief to prevent gutting essential services, and everything is on the table, including a three-year reallocation of money from the county’s environmental trust fund — the quarter-cent sales tax voters agreed to pay to protect open space.

A second proposal would take surplus funds in the sewer improvement program that protects drinking water.

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Bellone said environmental protections will be funded instead by the county’s capitol budget, and the temporary diversion won’t hurt the environment.

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“Zero negative impact on any environmental program, but something that will help protect taxpayers and our essential employees from the impacts of this COVID-19 budgetary crisis,” Bellone said.

That’s better than doomsday alternatives like mass layoffs or tax hikes, but environmental leaders want hands off their funds.

“We cannot count on each legislative year replacing the money. The fund shouldn’t be raided,” said Adrienne Esposito of the Citizen’s Campaign for the Environment.

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Critics also say tapping into funds voters specifically earmarked diminishes trust in government.

“Any time there has been a raid on environmental funds, they’ve been struck down multiple times by courts. So they are just teeing themselves up for another series of expensive legal losses,” said Richard Murdocco, public policy adjunct professor at Stony Brook University.

The county executive says let the public chose the best way out of the county’s dire financial situation, with a referendum on these proposals in November.

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Suffolk County has already frozen the salaries of government managers.