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Armory renovation for new court and P.D. remains a possibility in budget discussion

11/18/2018 6:00 AM |

Whether the abandoned armory on Route 58 can be turned into Riverhead Town’s new police headquarters and justice court was among the topics discussed at a recent Town Board work session on potential changes to the proposed 2019 budget submitted by Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith.

The board has been at a standstill about how and where to accommodate the police and courts, and a proposal to renovate the town-owned armory building for those uses would cost about $18 million, Ms. Jens-Smith said. 

That expense would need to be included in the capital budget and bonded, rather than be paid for from the general fund, she said, adding that any renovation would take several years. 

But she said something needs to be done. 

“We can’t keep up where we’re going,” she said.

Councilman Jim Wooten suggested stop-gap measures in the interim, such as holding some court sessions at night or having traffic court on a separate day. 

The board held its first public discussion on the budget Nov. 1, a month after it was released. 

A public budget hearing held the day after Election Day drew no speakers, but the board left it open for written comments until Nov. 16.

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio also asked that the minutes from the Nov. 1 work session be included in the hearing minutes.

The work session discussion went on for more than an hour, as board members suggested a number of changes.

By state law, the full board has until Nov. 20 to adopt a final budget; otherwise, the proposed budget takes effect automatically. The Town Board’s next voting meeting is Nov. 20. 

The tentative $59 million budget proposed by Ms. Jens-Smith, her first as supervisor, increased spending by 3.9 percent, while the tax levy would increase by 3.4 percent and the tax rate by 2.6 percent. Someone with property assessed at $50,000 — the equivalent of a $360,000 market value — would pay about $72 more.

Those numbers apply to the three townwide taxes that all residents pay: the general fund, highway and street lighting district. 

But town taxes amount to about 28 percent of the overall property tax bill, the second biggest percentage after school taxes, which account for about 60 percent, according to the supervisor. 

The supervisor said about 85 percent of the $4.4 million in debt service included the proposed budget is due to the 2001 Youngs Avenue landfill excavation project, which ended up costing a lot more than officials at the time expected. 

The proposed tax levy hike does not violate the state’s 2 percent cap on tax levy increases. That’s because the town anticipates about $365,000 in revenue from properties whose owners were receiving veteran’s tax exemptions, but have sold their homes to new owners who don’t qualify for those exemptions, according to town finance administrator Bill Rothaar, who said the state allows this type of exemption from the cap. 

Among other proposed changes discussed at the Nov. 1 work session were a $1.2 million bill the town says Suffolk County owes for use of the town’s sewer system; the potential elimination of a $20,000 stipend Highway Superintendent George “Gio” Woodson is receiving to oversee the municipal garage, and transfer of that responsibility to the police department; a salary increase for Laverne Tennenberg, chair of the town assessors; and two new positions in the buildings and grounds department. 

The situation with the sewer payment relates to the town’s contract to provide sewer service to county-owned buildings in Riverside, including the jail, courts and county center. 

The town claims the county, which has not had a signed contract with the town for two years, owes $1.2 million, according to Ms. Giglio. The town also hopes to receive a portion of the county’s sewer stabilization fund, which caps sewer rate increases at 3 percent. 

Ms. Jens-Smith said the town and county are in the midst of a lawsuit that has not been settled. 

Ms. Giglio also suggested the town add two more buildings and grounds positions to the 2019 budget. She said that with the recreation trail in Calverton, and the various new parks and events held in town, the workload for buildings and ground has increased, while the staff has not.

Councilman Jim Wooten said about $225,000 in unused police salaries could be used to fund the additional employees.

Ms. Jens-Smith asked if the town should give that money back to the taxpayers in the form of lower tax rates. Mr. Wooten disagreed. 

The municipal garage has been under the leadership of Mr. Woodson, an elected official, for the past year. He receives a $20,000 stipend on top of his regular salary of $94,803. 

Mr. Wooten and Mr. Hubbard expressed concern about an elected official serving as head of a department other than the one they were elected to run.

Mr. Hubbard said the police department has agreed to assume oversight of the garage for no additional money, adding that most of the cars in the town impound yard are related to police cases. 

Board members plan to discuss the budget further, the supervisor said.

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