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Riverhead school district plans to sue town over unpaid $4.1M tax bill

Riverhead Town Hall in Riverhead on Thursday, Feb.

Riverhead Town Hall in Riverhead on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020. Credit: Randee Daddona

The Riverhead Central School District plans to sue Riverhead Town, claiming the town owes more than $4 million in taxes from the 2019-20 school year that were due last month.

The district’s Board of Education voted 6-0 at its July 21 meeting to authorize its legal counsel to file a notice of claim and proceed with legal action against the town to collect $4.1 million in taxes of the total $89.9 million that it taxed school district landowners, the district said.

The board sets the tax levy in the fall. The towns of Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton then collect the taxes and transmit them to the school district no later than June 30 per the Suffolk County Tax Act, according to the school district.

In a statement, interim school Superintendent Christine Tona said Riverhead has been late paying taxes to the district several times in the past few years. Tona said that while school district officials have previously attempted to work with the town “on an intergovernmental level” to rectify the matter, the situation has not improved.  

“We are not asking for anything that is not done by every other town in Suffolk,” Tona said. “All we seek is for the town of Riverhead to remit our full levy to us by June 30. We have been paid in full by the towns of Southampton and Brookhaven.”

Riverhead Deputy Superintendent Sam Schneider said at the district board’s July 7 meeting that the town in 2019 did not pay the school district its tax share in full until September, and that late payments cause the district “great strain” financially. The school district uses the levy money — its primary source of revenue —to fund its operations. 

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said Suffolk County is required annually to make the town’s tax warrant whole by providing funds for any shortfall in tax collections. Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy said Friday that while the county is obligated to do this per the tax act, he noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected this year’s tax collection process. 

Kennedy said Riverhead is not being treated “any worse or any better” than any other school districts or entities in the tax warrant process. 

“The school district has to operate, they’re independently elected, but litigation is not always the best answer,” he said.

Riverhead's school district had approximately 5,595 students as of February, according to previous school district numbers. In comparison, Southampton Union Free School District had 1,515 students in the 2018-19 school year, according to the New York State Department of Education’s website. Aguiar said that because Riverhead has more students and the town’s shortfall is usually higher, the county often delays making Riverhead’s tax warrant whole.

“The action by the Riverhead School District is clearly political to mask attention away from the real issues the school district is facing,” Aguiar said. “I am open to have a conversation with Mr. Schneider. Once the Riverhead tax warrant is made whole by the county, Riverhead township will immediately remit the funds. This year is no different than last year.”

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