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CCE IN THE NEWS

Source: Newsday

Will Suffolk residents be open to diverting taxes?

BY RICK BRAND

Posted: May 17, 2009
Originally Published: May 16, 2009

Lately, veteran Suffolk Legis. Cameron Alden said he has no trouble making his fellow lawmakers cringe during debate.

"Every time I bring up the fact we spent $18 million to buy Dick Cavett's backyard they wince with embarrassment," said the Islip Republican, referring to joint state, county and town purchase of 77 oceanfront acres in Montauk amid Wall Street tumult earlier this year.

Now Alden has filed a controversial proposal that may make them shudder to their shoes. He wants a voter referendum to decide whether part of the quarter-cent sales tax, now earmarked for environmental land preservation, should temporarily be diverted to help the county close its looming $119-million budget hole brought on by the national fiscal meltdown.

The measure, which will go to committee this week, would allow the county from 2010 to 2012 to divert from $15 million to $40 million annually from the program to help avoid layoffs, cutting programs and raising property taxes, Alden said.

"When we are looking at laying off 400 people, shutting down police cars and asking people to wait a year for sewer permits, we have to look at everything," said Alden, who is term limited and cannot seek re-election. "People are scared to death."

However, environmentalists maintain that the public has repeatedly voted not only to preserve open space but also to tax themselves to pay for the purchases. "Any politician who wants to dismantle the program is effectively thumbing their nose at everyone on Long Island," said Richard Amper, Long Island Pine Barrens Society executive director.

As a pre-emptive move, the Nature Conservancy in March commissioned a poll that shows the public still backs protecting open space despite the economic downturn. Their poll found that 79 percent of Long Islanders believe government should spend the same or more on buying open space. Nearly the same number, 75 percent, believe that it is a good time to buy land because real estate prices are down.

"This is a classic myopic piece of legislation from an out-of-touch legislator that the public is going to shoot down," said Adrienne Esposito of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. She worried the money will go "into the black hole of the budget," rather than saving 35,000 of the county's last 70,000 undeveloped acres.

However, Alden said that environmentalists are "unrealistic and selfish" to expect that environmental programs go untouched when workers are deferring salary, and the county is asking for higher taxes on hotel rooms, cell phones and cigarettes. He also said voters' opinion should be sought again in light of the economic mess. He added, "We're not killing the program, just asking voters if they want to reallocate some of the money for a short period of time."

But Martin Cantor, director the Long Island Economic and Social Policy Institute at Dowling College, also opposed Alden's proposal. Instead of tax relief, Cantor said more money from the program should be directed toward putting in sewers, which would not only help stimulate the economy and protect the county's bays and underground water supply, but focus new development toward downtown areas.

But County Executive Steve Levy and Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook) say that Alden's proposal cannot be dismissed and is "on the table" with other proposals. Levy said he "would prefer not to tap this money" and said officials should "wait until August to get a better picture of our fiscal status." August also is the deadline to put the issue on November's ballot.

Lindsay said the county may be forced to make more cuts if economic woes deepen.

"We're doing things now that a year or two ago we would not even consider," he said. "Will there be reluctance? Absolutely. Will we seriously look at it? I'm sure we will. Will it pass? I'm not sure."