03/07/13 12:00pm
03/07/2013 12:00 PM
Town Board budget, state audit

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

Riverhead Town’s “structural deficit” of $3.2 million could grow by another $1 million to $3 million as a result of the recommendations of a recent New York State comptroller’s audit of the town’s administrative chargebacks, according to Supervisor Sean Walter.

That’s because the audit from state Comptroller Thomas DeNapoli’s office is telling the town the method by which it obtained nearly $3 million in administrative payments to the the town general fund from other town departments is not “adequate” and needs to be revised.

The town has submitted a corrective action plan that would bring in about $1 million less in administrative chargebacks to the general fund, Mr. Walter said.

But even if the comptroller approves that plan, which it has yet to respond to, “the town general fund is another $1 million short,” Mr. Walter said, because it anticipated receipt of those funds. If the comptroller doesn’t approve that plan, the town budget will be another $2.98 million short, since it cannot continue to use the current plan, which anticipates that much in administrative chargebacks to the general fund, he said.

The town for many years has charged other town taxing districts like the highway district, water district, sewer, garbage and others an “administrative chargeback” of 14.2 percent of their budget from the previous completed year, which would actually be two years ago, since the budget is devised in November.

The chargebacks, which total $2.98 million in the 2012 budget, are meant to account for those departments’ use of general fund services, such as the tax receiver’s office, which collects taxes for every department, or the town attorney’s office, which might advise or defend other departments, or things like payroll services.

The method of just doing a flat percentage across the board was instituted because it would be too difficult to actually determine the cost of what each department uses in general fund services, town officials have said.

As for the structural deficit, Mr. Walter said, that refers to the fact the town used $3.2 million in surplus funds to balance its 2013 budget, and the loss of the administrative chargeback funding to the general fund will make that deficit even higher. There is only about $6 million left in surplus funds, though more money is coming in from Sandy-damaged cars being stored on town land in Calverton.

“We’re $3 million behind now, we’ll be $4 million behind if the comptroller agrees with this [corrective action], and if they don’t agree, we’re more than $6 million behind,” Mr. Walter said.

But the use of chargebacks in the town has also been controversial, as town highway Superintendent George Woodson, Business Improvement District president Ray Pickersgill and others have complained that they are being made to pay for services they don’t receive.

Mr. Walter said he had been getting conflicting advice on the issue, including advice from people at the state comptroller’s office, and so he asked the comptroller’s office last year to do a formal audit of the administrative chargebacks.

“There was so much controversy over it between the highway superintendent and various department heads,” Mr. Walter said. “I really pressed the comptroller, because the town needs an answer to this.”

That audit was made public this week, and the results weren’t pretty.

“This is not an adequate method of allocation because it assumes that the entire budgets of the town’s cost centers [taxing districts] were devoted to services provided to the other receiving funds,” the audit states.

“In addition, it assumes that each of the receiving funds received equal shares of the services from each cost center.”

The audit states that “the methods that town officials used for calculating administrative cost allocations were not based on the actual services being provided. Instead, town officials calculated this allocation as a flat percentage of the total budget based on actual expenditures in the administrative cost cost centers for the last complete year.”

The comptroller said the town couldn’t charge back administrative costs to the highway department, which has the same tax base, and couldn’t charge back services such as the Town Board. It also said the chargebacks have to be based on actual expenses, and not on a flat percentage.

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03/06/13 10:00am
03/06/2013 10:00 AM
Riverhead braces for storm

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | A highway department plow before the start of last month’s blizzard.

As another winter storm bears down on the North Fork, the National Weather Service has issued a winter storm warning for eastern Suffolk County, saying the storm could bring as much as 10 inches to the area over the next two days.

But North Fork town officials said they’ll be prepared to take on this latest nor’easter.

The storm, which is building off the Carolinas, isn’t expected to move over the Northeast like most winter storms, but the sheer size of the nor’easter means the North Fork will see some of its effects, said David Stark, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service Station in Upton.

A rain/snow mix will begin Wednesday afternoon, with the precipitation changing to snow as the sun goes down, Mr. Stark said. Snow will generally be light, though there could be “occasional moments of moderate snowfall” through Thursday morning, Mr. Stark said. The storm will dump between 3 to 5 inches on the area overnight, Mr. Stark said.

Temperatures will warm up on Thursday afternoon, possibly leading to a wintery mix, but snow will move back into the area overnight into Friday, adding another couple of inches to the totals by Friday morning, he added.

Depending on the intensity of the storm, the North Fork could see as much as 10 inches over the next 48 hours, Mr. Stark said. However there’s “still a great deal of uncertainty in the forecast,” which could mean the area could see less snowfall than predicted, he added.

A coastal flood warning is in effect for the North and South shore, as the storm could bring minor to moderate coastal flooding in susceptible areas, Mr. Stark said.

High winds are also a concern, with gusts near 50 mph overnight on Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service.

By Saturday, the weather will have improved, Mr. Stark said.

“It looks like it’s going to be a very sunny weekend,” he said. “We just have to get through the next couple of days.”

Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter said the town has already made preparations to clear away any snow from this storm.

“We’re ready,” he said. “[Highway superintendent] George [Woodson] has the equipment ready, the plows, the salt, we’re just waiting for it to snow,”

The town board’s work session may be cancelled due to the storm, he added.

In Southold, Town Supervisor Scott Russell said the town is taking a “wait and see” approach, but are ready in case the storm does bring its worst.

“We’ve been monitoring the storm,” he said. “If it does turn into snow, [Highway superintendent] Pete [Harris] has got the guys ready to go.”

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02/22/13 1:40pm
02/22/2013 1:40 PM
downtown Riverhead cleaned up

TIM GANNON PHOTO | Highway crews downtown about noon Friday.

The Riverhead highway department partially closed a section of downtown Riverhead’s East Main Street Friday to clear away big piles of snow that had remained along the road after this month’s monster blizzard.

“I wanted to get all the neighborhoods open before I shifted my crews to downtown,” said Riverhead Highway Superintendent George (Gio) Woodson. “This way, when people come to town, they have somewhere to park. It helps out the store owners.”

The work started in the morning and was wrapped up by about 1:15 p.m. Friday, when the road reopened to traffic.

East Main Street had one lane closed while the crews cleared the snow from the side of the other lane.

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02/15/13 2:00am
02/15/2013 2:00 AM
George Woodson of Riverhead

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Highway Superintendent George Woodson uses heavy equipment to clear Marcy Avenue at 4:30 Saturday.

Despite the unique challenges every big storm poses, Riverhead Town Highway Superintendent George “Gio” Woodson has pretty much seen it all. No career politician, Mr. Woodson is a career highway worker with over two decades of experience as a town employee.

His expertise and work ethic show during every major weather event, when he rolls up his sleeves and takes to the roads himself.

He leads by example, which motivates workers and, in the end, means safer roads for residents. Of course, we would be remiss if we did not tip our hats to all the highway workers, too. The department has been operating at historically low staffing levels in recent years, yet it continues to impress taxpayers with its performance every time.

As Mr. Woodson notes in our coverage of the road-clearing efforts, there are no alternating teams for Riverhead Town highway workers, as is the case with the state. They’re all out there, all the time, save for two or three hours’ sleep here and there overnight or during white-out conditions.

In contrast, the performance of the state Department of Transportation (though not its workers themselves) was disappointing at best. The state seems to have no ability to turn up the volume and beef up snow removal staffing when it comes to the largest storms.

On Friday and Saturday, officials said, the DOT had three trucks assigned to cover Route 25 from Riverhead all the way to Orient, and another two trucks assigned to Route 24 in Southampton Town. That might be enough for a regular snowfall, but not a historic blizzard.

The lack of state resources was evident on our state roads. Route 24 was a deathtrap into Saturday night. And Routes 25 and 25A in Calverton and Wading River remained largely impassable for more than 48 hours.

All the while, other main roads in Riverhead Town were mostly clear, save for some snow blowing from farm fields.

Town and county officials have been mostly polite in their public comments about the state DOT, while rightfully criticizing residents for leaving cars on roads and being out when they shouldn’t have been. But the time for delicacy with the DOT is over.

Highway superintendents from across the county should demand changes in the way state roads are cleared.

Otherwise, it’s just a matter of time before something tragic happens.

03/24/11 7:33pm
03/24/2011 7:33 PM

Leaf pickup, paper bags only

Now that spring is officially here, you may be wondering if the town is going to pick up leaves in the spring.

The answer is that the highway department will not pick up leaves at the curbside this spring, as it did in the fall, according to Highway Superintendent George Woodson.

He said the department hasn’t done curbside pickup in the spring in many years.

However, the town’s garbage carting company will pick up bagged leaves on Thursdays, as long as they are in a biodegradable paper bag, according to deputy supervisor Jill Lewis. Plastic bags will no longer be accepted, she said.

The town distributed several hundred paper bags to residents last fall and the bags also are available at some stores. Residents also can dump loose leaves at the town’s yard waste facility on Youngs Avenue.

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01/28/11 1:16pm
01/28/2011 1:16 PM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Town highway worker John Appicello removes snow from Pulaski Street last week to make room for more.

Riverhead Highway Superintendent George “Gio” Woodson said the town has enough money left in its annual snow removal budget to cover two more snow storms until Dec. 31.

But forecasters are already predicting more snowfall Tuesday.

If the town spends more than the amount allotted for snow removal, Riverhead could be sending an additional bill to residents.

Last year, neighboring Brookhaven Town issued a $2.3 million bill to its residents to cover snow removal, which cost the average homeowner about $15, according to Brookhaven Supervisor Mark Lesko .

Riverhead, which is much smaller than Brookhaven, has about $70,000 left for overtime costs and $100,000 for salt and materials for 2011, Mr. Woodson said.

“If you go over [budget], then everything comes back to the taxpayer,” he said. “Our budget isn’t busted yet.”

The town has spent about $70,000 in overtime in January alone and about $75,000 for materials including salt, according to Mr. Woodson’s assistant, Susan Beal.

January 2011 is now the snowiest January in Long Island history, according to the National Weather Service in Upton. A reported 34.2 inches has fallen at Islip’s Long Island MacArthur Airport this month. The previous record was 21.5 inches set in 2005.

But the budget could be just one of our worries. Mr. Woodson said flooding might persist once the mountains of plowed snow begin to melt. Aside from hindering motorists’ views, the snow piles are also making it difficult for the town’s 33 highway workers to plow the town’s 444 miles of road lanes.

“The roads may get a little narrower if we get [an additional] 18 inches,” he said.

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Read more in the Feb. 3 issue of the News-Review.