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Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter delivering the State of the Town message March 3, 2016. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Walter’s ‘State of the Town’ preview: battling state and county ‘unfunded mandates’ in the year ahead

When Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter delivers his annual State of the Town address to a joint dinner meeting of Riverhead’s service clubs Wednesday evening, he will focus on pending threats from outside aggressors.

And terrorism has nothing to do with it.

Walter’s gunning for the County of Suffolk and the State of New York.

For the Riverhead supervisor, it’s a matter of unfunded mandates by the state and the county’s refusal to play fair.

Changes to some arcane state regulations governing storm water runoff will cost Riverhead Town about $1.4 million next year, the supervisor says.

The state is revising reporting and other requirements pertaining to storm water runoff that will force the town to hire eight new highway department workers, an engineer to handle the new reporting and two new pieces of equipment — a street sweeper and a “super-sucker” truck — to comply with the new rules.

The regulations pertain to cleaning streets and sumps and changes in reporting rules.

“That’s a 19-percent increase in the town highway budget,” Walter said.

But that’s not all, according to the supervisor.

The town is fighting the County of Suffolk for sewer stabilization funds. The town board in December authorized a notice of claim for a $2 million demand for a share of Suffolk County’s sewer stabilization fund.

A special state tax law provision allows the county to collect a sales tax of one-quarter of 1 percent for the purpose of stabilizing assessments and sewer rates in sewer districts established in the county, including town and village sewer districts. The law gives the county executive and county legislature discretion to determine the amounts to be distributed for assessment and rate stabilization purposes.

Without the county funding, Riverhead sewer district rates will increase 400 percent, Walter says. 

The county never promulgated rules for how the sewer stabilization fund should be distributed, Walter told RiverheadLOCAL in December, “so it’s basically on a whim.” At the time, a county spokesperson declined comment due to the prospect of impending litigation.

The third battleground, according to Walter, is the “water tax” proposed by County Executive Steve Bellone.

Bellone during the last state legislative session called for a $1-per-thousand-gallon surcharge on all public water customers in Suffolk, to establish a dedicated fund for wastewater treatment projects. It would raise an estimated $75 million annually that would be distributed by the county executive and legislature with the advice of a committee comprising local officials, community and environmental leaders.

The state legislature didn’t buy it in the last session but the county executive is pursuing the measure in the current session, Walter said.

“Bellone’s water tax would mean a 57-percent increase for Riverhead Water District customers,” Walter said.

Coupled with sewer district tax increases — due to the county’s refusal to apply the sewer stabilization fund in Riverhead — the result would be catastrophic, Walter said.

The town supervisor said he sees the year ahead as “me standing at the western border with a big stop sign trying to stop the State of New York and County of Suffolk from imposing these mandates.”

Walter said it’s “fundamentally impossible to stay within the tax cap” with state and county “mandates like this.”

The supervisor’s state of the town address will be given at a joint dinner meeting of the Riverhead Rotary, Lions and Kiwanis clubs — a long-standing tradition in Riverhead. The meeting takes place Wednesday, Feb. 15 at 6 p.m. at The Birchwood of Polish Town, 512 Pulaski Street, Riverhead. (Cost: $30 per person.) This year’a State of the Town dinner is hosted by the Rotary Club of Riverhead.

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