03/10/14 8:50am
03/10/2014 8:50 AM
Environmentalists say Suffolk County's 2014 budget illegally used nearly $33 million in dedicated funds. Pictured: Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (Credit: Jennifer Gustavson file photo.)

Environmentalists say Suffolk County’s 2014 budget illegally used nearly $33 million in dedicated funds. Pictured: Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (Credit: Jennifer Gustavson file photo.)

After protesting the budget Suffolk County leaders approved last fall, environmental groups have now sued the county over its use of nearly $33 million in funds that were raised through the Drinking Water Protection Program, a self-imposed tax that Suffolk residents have voted to levy upon themselves several times since the late 1980s.

Saying that the funds comprise one of several dedicated revenue streams created by the sales tax — which will be in effect until 2030 — critics claim the choice to use it to close a budget gap violates the terms under which voters agreed to tax themselves.

“What Suffolk politicians did was not just illegal, it was a violation of the public trust,” said Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, which brought the suit together with the Long Island Environmental Voters Forum. “Citizens and taxpayers voted to give government more than $1.5 billion to protect water with the assurance that the funds could not be used for any other purpose without another vote by the people.”

The Drinking Water Protection Fund is filled through a sales tax of one-quarter of one percent. Within that revenue stream are several specific uses, such as open space purchases and a fund dedicated to stabilizing sewer rates for residents. The 2014 budget used $32.8 million from the county’s sewer stabilization fund.

The lawsuit demands that the county return the money to the sewer stabilization fund, along with interest.

Justin Meyers, communications director for Mr. Bellone, said on Monday afternoon that the county exec had met with Mr. Amper and others who had brought the suit, describing the meeting as friendly.

“The fact of the matter is that there are two overarching concerns,” he said. “First, if the money is being taken and used for something other than drinking water, it must be repaid. The county executive completely supports that.”

He added that also, the county “needs to engage the public and voters on the issue if it moves forward.”

Mr. Meyers added that once the county decides to spend the money from the sewer stabilization fund, the county legislature would have to pass a measure approving the spending. Within the language of that approval would be a repayment structure outlining when the county would pay the fund back.

“Our argument has been that money is in this account, just sitting there,” he said. “So this is a way to save taxpayers money, instead of bonding and borrowing.”

Suffolk voters last agreed to renew the tax in 2007 — approving a ballot measure to maintain the tax through 2030. The recent plan laid out by the county intends to start paying back into the sewer stabilization fund in 2017. Last fall, the balance hovered around $140 million, leaving over $100 million left in the sewer stabilization fund.

The lawsuit was filed on Wednesday, and names Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, the Suffolk County Legislature and the County of Suffolk all as defendants.

Three legislators voted against the budget last fall: Legislator Tom Barraga (R-East Islip), Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk) and Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore). Mr. Bellone’s original budget had not called for dipping into the sewer stabilization fund at all, but rather closing the budget gap in the $2.7 billion budget through borrowing from the New York State Dormitory Authority, a path that would have required legislation approved at the state level. A report from the County’s Budget Review Office identified that plan as a risk because of the necessary legislation.

The Pine Barrens Society also took Suffolk to court over its decision to use about $20 million from the same fund in 2011, under the direction of County Exec Steve Levy. That case is expected to be heard later this year.

An opinion of the county attorney’s office issued last fall defended the use of the funds.

Provided by a spokesperson for Mr. Bellone, the county pointed to case law — considered analogous with Suffolk County — that held that “The New York Court of Appeals has endorsed the statement that ‘laws proposed and enacted by the people under an initiative provision are subject to the same constitutional, statutory, and charter limitations as those passed by the legislature and are entitled to no greater sanctity or dignity.’”

11/20/13 3:43pm
11/20/2013 3:43 PM
Town Board budget, state audit

TIM GANNON FILE PHOTO | The Riverhead Town Board during last year’s budget talks.

The Riverhead Town Board unanimously adopted its 2014 town budget Tuesday with no changes from the tentative budget Supervisor Sean Walter presented at the end of September.

The adopted budget called for a tax rate increase of 2.17 percent in the townwide budget, which includes the three town taxing districts — general, highway and street lighting — that all residents pay into.

For someone with a $50,000 assessed value (which equates to a market value of about $312,891), that would mean an increase of about $52 in taxes for those three districts, for which spending increased by 3.02 percent to $54.6 million.

However, the town also controls a number of other special taxing districts, such as water, sewer and garbage, and with those included, total town spending in the approved budget is $91.9 million, up 3.2 percent from $89 million in 2013.

The adopted budget relies on the use of $3.5 million in town reserves to keep the tax rate down. That will leave the town with only about $3 million remaining in reserves, officials said. Supervisor Sean Walter said the biggest reason for the increase is the $4 million in debt service the town is paying on the decade-old landfill capping and excavating project.

Security cameras, take 2

The Town Board on Tuesday re-advertised a request for proposals for downtown security camera systems after getting only one response to an earlier request. This time, the board is specifying proposals for the installation and maintenance of an internet protocol (IP) wireless video security system, which is said to be the state-of-the-art method because it is both cheaper and more efficient.

The board also added the Grangebel Park area to the list of seven other downtown locations where the town wants to install cameras.

The proposals are due by Dec. 18. The downtown Business Improvement District has called for the camera system.

Pine Barrens credits to Deer Park

A Town Board resolution authorized Tuesday will allow Pine Barrens development credits from property in Riverhead Town to be used for a project on Commack Road in Deer Park called The Learning Experience.

The resolution authorizes use of 2.71 credits to increase permitted building density for the Deer Park project.

Supervisor Sean Walter said this is a good deal for the town because the Riverhead land will remain undeveloped and the development credits will be used outside the town.

The owner of the Pine Barrens land in Riverhead, the Theodore Roosevelt Council of the Boy Scouts of America, will be paid by the Deer Park developer for the credits, he said. The credits come from land in the 403-acre Schiff Scout Reservation, formerly known as Camp Wauwepex, on Wading River-Manor Road in Wading River.

11/19/13 12:00pm
11/19/2013 12:00 PM
MICHAEL WHITE PHOTO | Riverhead Town Hall on Howell Avenue.

MICHAEL WHITE PHOTO | Riverhead Town Hall on Howell Avenue.

Riverhead town board members are set to vote on spending up to $162,390 to complete its study at EPCAL, which is being done by Hauppauge-based planning firm Vanasse Hangen Brustlin.

According to the terms of the resolution the board will consider, “VHB was required to undertake negotiations the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (sic) and as a result of the negotiations VHB was required to modify the subdivision plan several times to obtain NYSDEC support for the project, and as a necessary consequence of the re-design of the subdivision VHB was required re-analyze potential environmental impacts (sic) for each proposed plan.”

The town board originally entered into an agreement with VHB in February of 2011 for a $462,000 study, a plan which will subdivide the Calverton parcel which the town has owned since the 1990s. In March of this year, VHB got the town to amend its original contract, noting that if they were not allowed to represent clients before the Riverhead Town Board, they would back out of the plan.

“We’re one year away from finishing it now,” Sueprvisor Sean Walter said at the time. “If VHB quits, we’d be two years away.”

Mr. Walter was not immediately available for comment.

In a Nov. 6 letter to the supervisor, Kevin Walsh, VHB’s managing director of Long Island Operations, pointed to a “substantial re-design of the subdivision and re-analysis of impacts that have changed during the course of negotiations” with the DEC, in creating a viable plan for EPCAL.

Read Walsh’s letter here:

CDA #16 – TA Authorize Addendum #2-VHB Engineering ATT

 

2014 budget vote

Board members are also planning to vote on the 2014 budget.

A public hearing was held earlier this month on the budget, which calls for a 3 percent increase in spending and a 2.17 percent tax rate increase in the so-called townwide budget – which includes the three funds that all residents pay into. There are also a number of special sewer, water and garbage districts that vary by area, and those would bring total town spending up by three percent to $91.9 million, under the budget proposal.

Supervisor Sean Walter is proposing to use $3.5 million of town reserves to keep taxes down, leaving only about $3 million left in the reserve account. He says this is necessary because the town is paying $4 million in debt on the town landfill reclamation, which went over budget during the previous administration.

Downtown cameras coming?

Board members will also vote on putting out a request for proposals for security cameras downtown, which has been a topic of conversation in recent years.

According to the bid package, prices for cameras in several locations would be needed as part of the bid, including by the Peconic River, Main Street, Griffing Avenue, East Avenue, and other areas downtown.

Tonight’s meeting is set to start at 7 p.m.

Click here to read tonight’s agenda.

11/19/13 9:00am
JENNIFER GUSTAVSON FILE PHOTO | Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has signed the 2014 budget.

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON FILE PHOTO | Steve Bellone has signed the 2014 county budget.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has signed a 2014 budget previously amended by county legislators earlier this month, though the amended plan has environmental groups preparing to sue over how the county is balancing its books.

Signed on Monday, the $2.7 billion spending plan – which calls for no tax increase in the county’s general fund – calls for using nearly $33 million from the county’s sewer stabilization fund, a reserve account created when Suffolk County taxpayers approved the Drinking Water Protection Program via referendum in 1987.

The fund comprises one of several dedicated revenue streams created by the sales tax — another being open space preservation, for example — which is one-quarter of one percent, and critics say the choice to use it to close a budget gap violates the terms under which voters agreed to tax themselves.

“The public has repeatedly voted to tax themselves – and they are paying 2.5 times the national average as it is – to protect their drinking water with the explicit assurance that the writing can’t be altered for any other purpose,” said Long Island Pine Barrens Society executive director Richard Amper. ”There’s no justification for violating this solemn contract with the public.”

Suffolk voters last agreed to renew the tax in 2007 — approving a ballot measure to maintain the tax through 2030. The recent plan laid out by the county intends to start paying back into the sewer stabilization fund – which is used to offset spikes in sewer rates – in 2017.

The balance currently hovers around $140 million, leaving over $100 million left in the sewer stabilization fund.

Mr. Bellone, in the budget he presented to the Legislature, had suggested closing the budget gap through borrowing from the New York State Dormitory Authority, a path that would have required legislation approved at the state level. A report from the County’s Budget Review Office identified that plan as a risk because of the necessary legislation.

Legislator Tom Barraga (R-East Islip), who spent over 20 years in Albany as an assemblyman, voted along with legislators Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk) and Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) against the county Legislature’s budget – pointing to past bailouts in New York City and Nassau County as evidence the legislation would not be much of a risk at all.

Supporters of the decision to use the funds said the plan will save over $40 million in interest payments from what they would have paid if they borrowed from the Dormitory Authority.

“It’s a huge savings,” said North Fork Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), who added that he wasn’t exactly sure how the use of the funds was legal.

He said that’s “a legal issue for the lawyers to decide.”

An opinion of the county attorney’s office, provided by a spokesperson for Mr. Bellone, pointed to case law — considered analogous with Suffolk County — that held that “The New York Court of Appeals has endorsed the statement that ‘laws proposed and enacted by the people under an initiative provision are subject to the same constitutional, statutory, and charter limitations as those passed by the legislature and are entitled to no greater sanctity or dignity.’”

While the county and some environmental groups remain in court over similar action taken in 2011, Bob DeLuca, executive director of Group for the East End — which did not take legal action then — said his organization’s members are deciding for themselves whether or not to sue.

Mr. DeLuca questioned whether or not the sewer fund would ever be replenished as promised.

“Anybody can promise anything in order to get a short-term gain,” Mr. DeLuca said. “But in 2017, to go back to the Legislature and say, ‘You promised to put the money back’ — there will be different people in place and different priorities. Maybe there will be another economic downturn.”

Aside from the county’s decision to use reserves from the sewer stabilization fund, an attempt to bring back about $120,000 more in revenue to the East End, generated through the county’s hotel/motel tax, stalled in the Legislature’s economic development and energy committee.

In addition, the Legislature rejected measures to adjust its police revenue sharing program — a move that would have brought over $500,000 to Riverhead, more than $400,000 to Southold and over $50,000 to Shelter Island — as well as an attempt to fund the Vocational Education and Extension Board, part of the county fire academy for a full year, as opposed to six months.

Pointing to the police revenue sharing defeat, the decision not to fund VEEB, and the loss of additional hotel/motel revenue — as well as use of the sewer stabilization funds — Mr. Schneiderman voted against the budget for the first time in 10 years.

“I don’t feel this year’s budget was great for the East End,” said Mr. Schneiderman, who was just re-elected to a sixth and final two-year term in office under term limit laws.

Mr. Krupski, meanwhile, said that some hotel/motel funds were brought back to the East End during the budget working group meetings, a closed-door process that has earned criticism on its own.

He also pointed to success “keeping revenue projections in a more realistic place,” and added that police revenue sharing is something that needs to be addressed on a percentage basis, rather than the hard numbers currently negotiated.

While he said the budget’s end product might not be exactly what East End voters would want, he said, “I did have some constructive input on it, but everything doesn’t always go my way or my district’s way. Every dollar was allocated evenly.”

As far as going to court over the use of sewer funds, Mr. Amper said the Pine Barrens Society’s board of directors has already approved litigating the topic. Group for the East End is still considering, while a request for comment from the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, another major environmental group in the region, was not immediately returned.

jpinciaro@timesreview.com

10/09/13 8:00am
10/09/2013 8:00 AM

Fire_Generic

The four fire districts within Riverhead Town will all have public hearings on their proposed 2014 budgets next Tuesday night, Oct. 15.

Fire districts are the taxing entity that funds the local fire departments, which are mostly run by volunteers but receive taxes for items such as equipment, facilities and some paid employees.

Below is a breakdown of the budget proposals and public hearing times and location:

Riverhead

The proposed budget called for $4.732 million in spending, up 1.4 percent over the 2013 budget of $4.665 million. The district is offsetting taxes with the use of $250,000 in fund balance and $50,000 in payments in lieu of taxes, bringing the tax levy to $4.432 million, which is up 1.66 percent.

Tax rates, which are determined by the town, were not yet available. The district covers parts of three different towns: Riverhead, Southampton and Brookhaven.

The public hearing on the budget will take place at 7 p.m. at Riverhead fire headquarters on 540 Roanoke Avenue in Riverhead.

Jamesport

The proposed 2014 budget is $830,318, which is up 1.77 percent over the 2013 budget of $815,841. Of that amount, $755,054 will be paid through taxes, which is a 1.65 percent increase.

The public hearing is at 7:30 p.m. at the firehouse on 25 Manor Lane in Jamesport.

Wading River

The proposed 2014 budget calls for $2.125 million in spending, up 2.2 percent from the 2013 budget of $2.078 million. The amount to be paid by taxes totals $2.070 million and is split between Brookhaven Town and Riverhead Town, with the portion in Brookhaven projected at $869,208, which is up 2.5 percent from 2013, and $1.2 million in Riverhead, which is up 2.5 percent as well, according to district figures.

The public hearing is at 7 p.m. at the fire headquarters on 15-3 North Country Road in Wading River.

Manorville

The proposed 2014 budget calls for $1.708 million in spending, up 1.6 percent over the 2013 budget of $1.681 million. The districtwide proposed tax levy is $1.66 million, but that number will be split between Brookhaven and Riverhead towns. District figures show $1.565 million going to Brookhaven, up 2 percent, and $94,632 going to Riverhead, which is a decrease from the 2013 levy of $101,364.

The public hearing will at 7 p.m. at the main firehouse on 14 Silas Carter Road in Manorville.

09/23/13 2:02pm
09/23/2013 2:02 PM
NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | Fire district headquarters on Roanoke Avenue.

NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | Fire district headquarters on Roanoke Avenue.

The Riverhead Fire District unveiled its budget for next year, proposing a 1.66 percent tax levy increase year-over-year.

The $4.73 million spending plan, which includes $250,000 in reserve fund payments, calls for a $67,000 increase in total in the 2014 budget. A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for Oct. 15 at 7 p.m. at the district headquarters on Roanoke Avenue.

Items proposed to receive an increase include:

• equipment and apparatus maintenance, from $194,000 this year to $207,000 next year

• building and property maintenance, from $197,350 this year to $214,500 next year

• fund transfers (from general to reserve) from $75,000 this year to $171,355 next year

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Several items are proposed to decrease next year in funding, including:

• employee salaries, from $829,685 to $815,857

• administrative, legal and professional services, from $184,400 to $172,800

• bond payments, from $1,218,237 to $1,188,137

The district is also proposed to make $50,000 in payments in lieu of taxes, $5,000 less than last year’s total.

Copies of the proposed budget can be viewed at the town clerk’s office in Riverhead, Southampton, Riverhead or Brookhaven. A message left with the district manager was not immediately returned.

jpinciaro@timesreview.com

 

05/20/13 5:00pm
JENNIFER GUSTAVSON  FILE PHOTO

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON FILE PHOTO

The Shoreham-Wading River School District budget vote will take place between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. in the high school gymnasium.

RESERVES TO STAVE OFF PROGRAM CUTS

Residents in the Shoreham-Wading River School District will vote Tuesday on a $66.1 million proposed school budget for 2013-14 that represents a spending increase of roughly 5.5 percent over this year’s plan. The district’s estimated tax levy increase is 2.29 percent, the maximum allowable under the law.

Superintendent Steven Cohen said his proposed budget will preserve student programs, district services, class sizes and staffing levels. The tentative spending plan also allocates funding for additional security staff and equipment, such as cameras, fencing and security vestibules.

RIVERHEAD VOTERS’ GUIDE

As in Riverhead, the district learned during the budget process that it would receive additional state aid for the 2013-14 school year.

The district will also use “one-shot” revenues to offset a tax levy spike, including $4 million from its fund balance, $1.5 million of prior year state aid and nearly $227,100 from the employee retirement system reserve, Mr. Cohen has said.

The majority of next year’s expenditures will result from a 5.2 percent increase in salaries, up $1.6 million, and a 13 percent increase in benefits, up over $2.2 million. The total cost of salaries, Mr. Cohen projected, is $32.3 million — or 49 percent of his proposed budget. Benefits account for nearly $18 million, about 27 percent of the budget.

While next year’s proposed budget keeps school programs intact, school officials have said it will be difficult in future years to find ways to trim the budget to fit under the tax levy cap, largely because of increases in teacher salaries and benefits that will outstrip the pace of the cuts.

If the spending plan fails Tuesday, Mr. Cohen said the district will have to cut middle and high school clubs, middle school athletics, three clerical positions and one teacher to cut $1.1 million for a contingency budget.

In addition to voting on the budget, residents will be asked Tuesday to approve a High School Facility Improvements proposition that will allow the district to use about $4.98 million from its Tax Reduction Reserve Fund, commonly referred to as “prior year state aid,” to pay for building improvements. Although the district has received its prior year state aid, it must receive voter authorization before using the funds to pay for the slated capital improvements.

School officials are proposing to use the monies to fix code violations the state education department has identified at the high school, including dead-end hallways, classroom egress issues and other areas in the building that aren’t in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The district also plans to replace a section of leaking roof above the high school music room and reconfigure outdated science labs.

jennifer@timesreview.com

TWO TO  TAKE TWO OPEN BOARD SEATS

Two vacant and uncontested seats on the Shoreham-Wading River Board of Education will be filled May 21. Richard Pluschau will serve a second term as the school board’s vice president and newcomer Sean Beran will begin his first term as a trustee.

Sean Beran

Sean Beran

Richard Pluschau

Richard Pluschau

Mr. Pluschau, 46, has lived in the district since 2005 and is vice president of enterprise data management at AIG. Mr. Pluschau did not return a request for an interview.

Mr. Beran, 41, is a Suffolk County police sergeant who grew up in East Islip and has lived in Wading River for the past 12 years with his wife, Wendy. He describes himself as a “pro student and teacher candidate” who is also sensitive to the needs of taxpayers.

“We must find a way to be fair to everyone while still providing and ensuring academic excellence in our classrooms,” he said. “This is the biggest challenge we face as a community and district.”

Mr. Beran believes his 18-year career in law enforcement will provide a distinct advantage to his insights as a board trustee, especially in the areas of infrastructure and school security.

with Rachel Young