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Riverhead Town says Suffolk County owes more than $1M for sewer rent

Although the Riverhead Town Board has passed a resolution authorizing the retention of a law firm to sue Suffolk County for $1,068,347 in unpaid sewer district rent, Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith says she’s hoping the parties can reach an agreement, but at a higher price than what the county is willing to pay. 

The county buildings south of the Peconic River — such as the County Center, the Arthur Cromarty Court Complex and the jail — are located within Southampton Town but have been connected to Riverhead Town’s sewer district for years.

Ms. Jens-Smith said the last agreement between the town and county was made more than 30 years ago and expired at the end of 2017.

“We’ve been negotiating with them for a new contract,” she said. In the meantime, she said, the town sewer district continues to provide the county sewage disposal service to the county.

On May 22, the Town Board passed a resolution authorizing the law firm of Smith, Finkelstein, Lundberg, Isler & Yakaboski to act as special counsel to initiate a legal proceeding to recover the sewer rents from the county.

“Right now, they’re dumping their sewage into our treatment plant, so we are looking to be paid for this service that we provided to them,” Ms. Jens-Smith said.

The negotiations with the county have stalled, she said, although the town has continued to provide the service.

“If you’re getting electricity and you stop paying the bill, they turn you off. That’s normally what happens. We don’t want to turn them off, but we want to be paid, and we want to be paid at a higher rate than the contract that was negotiated.”

On Dec. 22, 2018, the Town Board passed a resolution that set the annual rate for 2018 at $720,311 and the annual rate for 2019 at $696,073.

The rate is based on water consumption and the valuation of the property being served.

The town also seeks to charge a higher rate for properties not physically located in the sewer district, which would include the county properties.

The entire 2018 fee was due Feb. 1, 2019, and has not been paid. The 2019 amount is payable in four installments due March 1, June 1, Sept. 1 and Dec. 1.

To date, neither of the first two payments has been made, officials said. As of June 1, a total $348,036 was owed for 2019, according to the rent payment schedule sent to the county.

Deputy county executive Peter Scully issued a written statement Friday saying, “The Town Board’s action is puzzling, because the county has been attempting to pay the sewer charges and the town has resisted those efforts. The town’s use of outside counsel will cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills with absolutely no rhyme or reason. The only ones who will benefit from the Town Board’s action are the attorneys.”

Mr. Scully did not respond to a request for elaboration on that statement.

Ms. Jens-Smith said the county buildings use a lot of the town plant’s capacity.

“We want to be able to supply capacity for the people in the town of Riverhead who want to develop here,” she said.

The town upgraded its sewage treatment plant several years ago at a cost of $24 million. Suffolk County paid $8 million of that and the state paid $4 million.

County officials have said the town has been trying for several years to find a way to force county taxpayers to pay the cost of the plant, instead of passing costs on to sewer district customers.

Ms. Jens-Smith says that has nothing to do with the dispute over the sewer rent.

The town also has criticized the county for not paying a “sewer stabilization fee” that would limit annual increases for sewer district customers to no more than 3% using money from the county’s quarter-percent sales tax.

Ms. Jens-Smith said that, too, has nothing to do with the dispute over sewer rent.

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