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.

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