The Riverhead library's main floor. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Riverhead Free Library trustees have decided to cancel a public vote on a budget for 2020-2021 and operate under the existing budget for another year due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

“The board recognizes the extreme economic distress that COVID-19 has had on our community, and did not think it could in good conscience, go forward with asking local residents to support an increase in taxes right now,” Riverhead Free Library director Kerrie McMullen-Smith said in a statement.

The library trustees in January adopted a proposed $4.2 million budget for 2020-2021, a 2.8% increase over the current year’s budget of just under $4.1 million, which was approved by voters on April 2, 2019 by a vote of 242-82.

The 2020-2021 library budget vote was scheduled for April 7, but was canceled by executive order of the governor due to the coronavirus outbreak.

In a May 1 executive order, the governor authorized the library to hold a budget vote and trustee election in conjunction with the school district vote on June 9 — which is being conducted by absentee ballot mailed to all registered voters in the school district.

But at a meeting last month, the library board decided instead to shelve this year’s vote altogether and continue operating under the 2019-2020 budget for another year.

Library board members agreed they did not want to have the library vote at the same times the school district’s vote, according to minutes of the meeting posted on the library’s website. That’s an option the library has every year — and every year it opts to hold a separate election, which typically has a turnout of well under 1,000 people.

The Riverhead library is an “association library,” one of four types of libraries authorized by state law. It is technically a private, nonprofit membership association. It is not a special district library and has no authority to levy taxes. Its funds are appropriated by the Riverhead Central School District, which levies the taxes to fund the library according to the budget proposition approved by library association voters. All residents of the Riverhead Central School District are members of the Riverhead Free Library Association.

McMullen-Smith said the library’s attorney advised her that the library could “roll the budget over from 2019-2020 fiscal year and not have a vote.” Under state law, a funding proposition approved by voters continues from year to year until the library board requests another proposition to increase the amount.

The trustees last month also temporarily amended the library’s bylaws to allow the board, because of the pandemic, to appoint people to fill three trustee seats that will become open in the 2020-2021 fiscal year. The trustees, volunteers who serve without pay, are elected to three-year terms, which commence on July 1 and end June 30.

The seats up for election this year are held by John Rienzo, Susan Bergmann, and Ruth A. Nelson, who filled a vacancy created by the resignation of Luwana Smith on November 12.  Rienzo and Bergmann are not seeking re-election to a second term. 

The trustees will reappoint Nelson and appoint Jeff Zeiger and Amy Wood to the seats being vacated by Rienzo and Bergmann, according to a statement from McMullen-Smith.

The temporary bylaw amendment automatically expires June 30, so that trustee elections by a vote of library association members will resume in 2021.

Due to the coronavirus, Riverhead Free Library Association’s annual meeting — which normally takes place the second Wednesday in May — will be held on June 10 at 7 p.m. via teleconference on Zoom. Information to join the meeting will be posted on the library’s website.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.