Riverhead is one of the last towns left in Suffolk County that allows people to put loose leaves at the curb for the highway department to pick up, according to town Highway Superintendent George “Gio” Woodson.
And he’d like to change that.
“We’re probably the last town doing this,” he said at last Thursday’s Town Board work session. “It’s not a highway function.”
Mr. Woodson said it costs about $250,000 for the highway department to collect loose leaves from the curbside each year. He feels that money should come from the town’s general fund, not the highway department budget.
Another issue facing the town this year is that the owners of two large properties who took the leaves from the town in the past may not be able to do so to the same extent this year.
One of them, in Calverton, has no more space for the leaves and the other, a Jamesport farmer, has difficulty getting the town trucks into his property, Mr. Woodson said.
The town also got a notice from the state Department of Environmental Conservation saying it can no longer dump leaves on property it owns on Manor Lane in Jamesport, Mr. Woodson said. This means the town will have to transport leaves from the eastern part of town to Calverton, which will add costs for equipment and manpower, he said.
The town’s highway yard in Wading River also cannot accept leaves, he said.
The Calverton site has already taken in more leaves than permitted.
“We’re making topsoil out of it and trying to get rid of some of it,” he said.
Mr. Woodson said his top priority at this time of year is preparing highway trucks for winter and installing snow fences.
Leaf pickup, he said, is not a top priority.
“It’s just become quite difficult to try and do all this with just 30 guys,” he said, adding that his department had about 47 employees in years past.
Another problem the town is facing is people not following the rules, Mr. Woodson said.
“I’ve caught at least 30 landscapers putting leaves on [Riverhead] roads from other towns,” he said.
Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said Mr. Woodson’s budget is operating at a surplus.
Mr. Woodson responded: “I have a surplus because of tight spending and doing what you’re supposed to do.”
Ms. Giglio said any vehicle with commercial license plates should not be allowed to bring leaves to the town landfill.
“If we’re going to do this, the money has to come from the general fund,” Mr. Woodson said of the curbside leaf pickup.
She said residents are not going to be happy if the town stops picking up leaves at the curb and suggested that if residents want that to continue, it should be subject to a public referendum.
“I respect what you’ve done and what you’ve been doing, and I also know we’ve gotten a lot of pushback from residents when we broached this subject five or six years ago,” Ms. Giglio told Mr. Woodson.
She also questioned the highway department’s budget surplus.
“Your budget has so much of a surplus we should almost be reducing the amount of highway taxes we’re collecting if you’re not spending the money,” she said.
“I have my reasons for keeping a tight budget,” Mr. Woodson said. “When you only have $150,000 a year for equipment, that buys one dump truck. So any money I’ve been saving I have been reinvesting into getting our equipment upgraded.”
Councilman Frank Beyrodt said Mr. Woodson “does a great job finding good deals on used equipment.”
“That’s one reason his budget always has a surplus,” Councilwoman Catherine Kent said.
“It’s time to look at this issue and see where we go from here,” Mr. Woodson said.
Councilman Tim Hubbard said the town’s hand is being forced by the DEC.
The Town Board plans to discuss the issue again in a few weeks before making a decision.