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Riverhead says it intends to sue Suffolk for $2M in sewer funds

Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter during a town

Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter during a town board work session in Riverhead on July 2, 2015.  Photo Credit: Ed Betz

Riverhead Town has engaged in what town officials are calling “friendly litigation” against Suffolk County for more than $2 million in sewer stabilization funds necessary to prevent raising the town’s sewer district tax rates.

Town officials filed a notice of claim against the county on Dec. 22 asking for $537,140 for 2016 and $1,466,712 for 2017 in sewer stabilization funds from the county.

The county’s sewer stabilization fund reimburses municipalities with established sewer districts to keep those taxes from rising more than 3 percent.

According to a motion the Riverhead Town Board passed last week, Suffolk County has only paid the Riverhead Sewer District $144,688 of the $681,828 the district told the county was necessary to stabilize the taxes for this year. That payment was made in March, the town said.

Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter said that amount was not enough to offset a shortfall of $537,140, which would require raising local sewer users’ taxes by between 78 and 400 percent.

“It is a phenomenal sewer tax increase, so the stabilization funds are key to keeping our taxes stabilized,” Walter said.

According to Walter, town officials have asked the county for the stabilization funds, but county officials told them roughly three weeks ago that they didn’t think the county would able to give Riverhead the sewer funding it has requested.

Noting the Riverhead Sewer District processes “a significant size” of waste from the local county court jail complex, Walter said, “when you combine all those factors, it’s pretty clear to me that we should get these sewer stabilization funds.”

According to Suffolk Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider on Tuesday, the county attorney’s office confirmed the county received the notice of claim. County officials, said Schneider, were reviewing the situation and “will respond appropriately to the town.”

Schneider pointed out that Suffolk County in 2013 awarded Riverhead an $8 million grant to upgrade and expand the Riverhead Advanced Wastewater Treatment facility to allow the plant to remove more nitrogen and handle wastewater from 500 additional housing units.

“Without that $8 million grant, you would see significantly higher rates today on taxpayers in the Riverhead Sewer District. Suffolk County has been very supportive of keeping down rates for Riverhead taxpayers in the sewer district,” Schneider said. “Considering that … it’s a little disappointing to be sued three years shortly after making a major grant like that.”

Walter said the town was also considering reaching out to nine other towns with sewer districts such as Patchogue, Sag Harbor and Northport, among others, to see if they want to join in any potential legal action over the sewer district funds.

Walter said, however, he was hoping for a quick and friendly resolution.

“[Suffolk County Executive] Steve Bellone has been a very good friend of the Town of Riverhead. I just hope that we can come together. It’s never a good idea for one governmental agency to sue another governmental agency. It’s a total waste of taxpayers funds,” Walter said. “But when you look at what the cost increase is going to be to our downtown and to our residents, we have no choice but to do this. I really hope that this is what I’ll call friendly litigation and we can resolve this where we get the funds.”

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