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Riverhead sues Suffolk over $700G in sewer fees town says are unpaid

Riverhead Town Hall, located at 200 Howell Ave.,

Riverhead Town Hall, located at 200 Howell Ave., is seen on March 22, 2011. Credit: Newsday / Erin Geismar

Riverhead officials have agreed to sue Suffolk County over what they say is more than $700,000 in sewer fees the county has failed to pay since 2018.

The town board voted 5-0 at its May 22 meeting to hire Riverhead-based law firm Smith, Finkelstein, Lundberg, Isler and Yakaboski LLP to start legal proceedings against Suffolk County to recover sewer rents due from the treatment of sewage generated at the County Center facility on Center Drive.

Riverhead in December set the total fees the county owed them for sewer treatment at the facility at $720,311.44 for 2018, which was due Feb. 1, and $696,073.83 for 2019, which would be paid with four installments of $174,018.46 apiece. The first of those installment payments was due March 1. Town officials said the county has not sent any of those payments.

Riverhead Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said the town had a contract for the past 20 years with the county to provide sewage treatment for the facility as a user outside of the town’s sewer district. Since that contract expired more than a year ago, the town had been negotiating with county officials for a new sewage treatment contract while setting what the town felt would be a “reasonable fee structure” for the county’s sewer rates at their facility, Jens-Smith said.

Town officials believed they could not continue providing sewer service to the facility for another year without the county signing a new contract or making owed payments, she said.

“It’s unfortunate we have to do this, but it’s been a year that we’ve been providing a service without getting a signed contract with them,” Jens-Smith said.

Deputy County Executive Peter Scully said the board’s action was “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," Scully said. "The only ones who will benefit from the town board’s action are the attorneys."

County officials said the town was trying to force the county to pay for Riverhead’s upgrade of its sewer plant, which cost about $24 million and was built to comply with new EPA nitrogen discharge requirements.

Jens-Smith said the upgrade was a separate issue and not the basis for Riverhead's legal action.

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