08/22/14 7:00am
08/22/2014 7:00 AM

Screen Shot 2014-08-21 at 4.14.39 PMOver the past decade, Riverhead Town leaders in current and previous administrations have dipped into financial reserves to balance town budgets. Those funds have now run out and hard decisions have to be made in order to close a looming gap of $4 million — nearly 10 percent of the town’s general fund — next year.

Borrowing against future land sales at the Enterprise Park at Calverton — a bridge loan as it’s been called — may seem an easy way out. But the risks are great and it should be avoided. The town is already unable to meet its debt obligations on one gamble it made on future revenues: the Community Preservation Fund. It must learn from its mistakes. The idea is to pay back the bridge loan after two to three years using anticipated proceeds from selling town land at EPCAL. Aside from having to pay interest, the town’s history of selling land there speaks for itself: The last sale was 11 years ago.

Until now, Supervisor Sean Walter has candidly and unabashedly touted an all-or-nothing approach in advocating for the bridge loan: Sell the land and he’ll save taxpayers from a looming, double-digit tax increase. But if land isn’t sold, town residents face a tax increase that could be twice that much — or more over time, should the town keep taking out loans.

From a self-proclaimed fiscal conservative, nothing about Mr. Walter’s plan seems conservative.

But it’s the sheer lack of creativity evidenced so far in discussions about reducing the budget gap that has been most disappointing.

Up to now, no Town Board member has proposed any detailed, out-of-the-box ideas that would plug the hole — whether by cutting, consolidating or finding new revenue sources. Considering they all approved this year’s budget, the blame lies with them just as much as with Mr. Walter.

Finding a common ground between a tax increase, cuts and limited borrowing will likely be what’s best in the end. And until the Town Board finalizes this year’s budget, nothing should be off the table.

How about 3 percent (or even 2 or 1.5 percent) cuts across all town departments? Or furloughs? What would the town’s services (and pocketbook) look like if it folded its dispatching, or even its water district or police department, into the larger Suffolk County entities? Are there any permits the town can extend to two years instead of one? Can fees be increased? Surely, with these questions and so many others as a start, that $4 million deficit can be reduced.

08/20/14 4:09pm
08/20/2014 4:09 PM
Supervisor Sean Walter and Councilwoman Jodi Giglio at Tuesday night's Town Board meeting. (Credit: Paul Squire)

Supervisor Sean Walter and Councilwoman Jodi Giglio at Tuesday night’s Town Board meeting. (Credit: Paul Squire)

The Riverhead Town Board’s anticipated vote on authorizing a $6 million, two-year bridge loan to stave off a double-digit tax increase next year was put on hold Tuesday, because four board members are split on the issue and the fifth was absent from the meeting.

Supervisor Sean Walter said that without the loan, the town will face a 12.5 percent tax increase next year and that cutting $4 million — the amount of the town’s general fund deficit — would involve eliminating about 60 town positions. (more…)

08/15/14 10:00am
08/15/2014 10:00 AM
Riverhead Town Board members at an April meeting. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

Riverhead Town Board members at an April meeting. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

Facing a $4 million deficit in next year’s budget, the Town Board will consider on Tuesday a pair of bills to keep its options open: whether or not to authorize a $6 million bridge loan to help plug the hole, and whether or not to pierce New York State’s 2 percent tax cap next year.

Those were two options out of three presented by Supervisor Sean Walter recently as solutions to close next year’s deficit.

(more…)

08/08/14 12:00pm
08/08/2014 12:00 PM
Councilman John Dunleavy (left) and Sean Walter at a previous work session. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

Councilman John Dunleavy (left) and Sean Walter at a previous work session. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

Riverhead Town is facing a $4 million deficit and a potential 12.5 percent tax increase, even if its spending stays at current levels next year, according to Supervisor Sean Walter.

It can either cut spending by $4 million, which he says would require the town to cut about 60 jobs, or it could increase taxes by 12.5 percent, which would require the town to pierce the state’s two-percent tax cap.  (more…)

05/07/2014 10:00 AM
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Shoreham-Wading River school board members Richard Pluschau, left, and school board members Jack Costas and Mike Fucito at Tuesday’s meeting. (Credit: Jennifer Gustavson)

Shoreham-Wading River School District officials are considering a recent recommendation to lay off 15 teacher assistants in the special education department next school year.

Charles Althoff, the district’s special education director, said he took a hard look at his staffing levels in preparation for next year’s budget and found it was unnecessary to continue assigning two teacher assistants in some classes. (more…)

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.