The Riverhead Central School District will file a notice of claim against the Town of Riverhead for unpaid tax revenues collected by the town on behalf of the district.
The Riverhead Board of Education authorized the action — and an eventual lawsuit — at its meeting last night.
The town has not paid more than $4.2 million owed to the school district in 2019-2020 tax revenues collected on behalf of the district, Riverhead Central School District Deputy Superintendent Sam Schneider said in an interview this morning. (Since the matter was brought up at the July 7 school board meeting the town has remitted approximately $300,000 to the district, Schneider said.) The money was due to the district by June 30, the end of its 2019-2020 fiscal year, Schneider said.
Schneider wrote to town officials twice last month expressing concern about the town being late for the third year in a row. He said he never had a response from the supervisor, council members or financial administrator.
“We’re not looking for the town to do anything that the other nine towns don’t already do,” Schneider said.
“Riverhead is the only town that doesn’t remit the tax collections to the school districts by June 30,” he said. “Of all the school districts in Suffolk County, there are only three that weren’t made whole by June 30: Riverhead, Shoreham-Wading River and Mattituck-Cutchogue, all of which have not been paid by the same town — the Town of Riverhead.”
The town receiver of taxes collects tax payments for all taxing entities and districts within the town’s boundaries. The receiver turns the money over to the town’s financial administrator and he, in turn, distributes the tax collections to the taxing entities.
To date, the town has collected $158,718,578.53 in property taxes, Riverhead Receiver of Taxes Laurie Zaneski said this morning. There remain $7,896,336.31 in delinquent tax payments, she said.
Delinquent taxes are collected by the county and then remitted to the town, which in turn, distributes the revenues to the taxing entities.
It takes time to receive the payment from the county because the county audits the tax collections in all 10 towns, Zaneski said.
“Normally we don’t get made whole until August,” she said. “Last year, the woman who did the audits retired and we weren’t made whole until October,” Zaneski said.
Zaneski said after receiving Schneider’s email, she checked with the Suffolk County Tax Receivers Association and was told the other towns in Suffolk “pay the school districts first.” She said she confirmed this with the tax receivers in Southold and Southampton herself.
“Riverhead waits for the county to make the town whole before the town make the school district whole,” Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said in an interview this morning. “That is our process.”
The school district is “fully aware of the process,” she said. “It’s not different this year from last year or any year prior,” she said.
Aguiar said the school district is making an issue of the tax matter to deflect attention from its own fiscal problems.
“They’re getting beat up on the budget,” she said. “They’re looking to create a distraction and they’re using this issue to do it, to get media attention and take it away from an impending budget that they haven’t been able to pass.”
The notice of claim and threat to sue are “frivolous and political,” Aguiar said. “This matter will be done well before anything reaches the courts and they are fully aware of that.”
The town supervisor then launched a broadside attack on the school district, accusing it of a lack of transparency to hide “mismanagement.”
“There is no accountability,” Aguiar said. “They create their budget on their own. They vote on it. We have absolutely no knowledge or ability to have access to anything,” she said.
“There is no transparency and there is no communication between the town. Other towns have people who work with the school boards and attend meetings with them and have discussions, we have absolutely been kept totally in the total black — they operate as a sole entity,” she charged.
Aguiar accused the district of refusing to disclose how much money it saved as a result of the COVID-19 shutdown.
“They have saved millions and millions of dollars, savings in security and other staffing, food, electricity, water, just to name a few. We have no knowledge where this money is going,” Aguiar said.
School officials have repeatedly said the savings realized from the COVID shutdown will be placed in reserve, to be drawn on if state aid is cut mid-year — a Gov. Andrew Cuomo has warned could be coming.
“I’ve had at least 100 emails, people — parents — have requested an accountability statement on the fundings that we save from the COVID-19 and we’re all trying to find out and even the union requested this information, and their response to every single person who inquires is ‘we are not required to reveal that to the public,’” Aguiar said.
Not true, said Riverhead Central Faculty Association president Greg Wallace. “Their response to me was the same response they gave at the board meeting — that they will have that number once the books have been reconciled. That’s seems reasonable,” he said.
Wallace said the supervisor’s comments are “incendiary at a time when we really need to come together.”
“The district has not refused to disclose anything,” Interim Superintendent Christine Tona said in an interview today, repeating what she said in response to questions from the public during last night’s board meeting.
“The amount of savings from the shutdown won’t be known until the district closes its books for the fiscal year that ended June 30,” she said. “The district is working with its accountants to close the books.” As soon as that’s done, the district will report an exact number, she said.
As for transparency, the interim superintendent said, “our detailed budget is posted on our website and our monthly treasurer’s report is also posted there throughout the year.”
Tona noted that the school district is “the only entity that has its budget voted on by the public.”
Aguiar said she believes “we should call for a school reform — the taxpayers’ school reform, for more transparency and accountability from management.”
The supervisor did not elaborate when asked what “school reform” would look like or how it would be implemented.
“The school district is willing to open and speak with me, we’ll discuss it and we’ll do this together,” Aguiar said.
She also slammed the school board for meetings she said should be “an avenue to work with the community” but instead are “not cohesive.”
“It’s constant arguments, accusations. And they’ve had a huge amount of (meetings) recently and they all end up the same way — frustrated, nobody coming to an agreement, and there is no cohesiveness. It’s obvious. All you have to do is look at look at the school board meetings and you see it. It’s uncomprehsible to see that this is how the school operates,” Aguiar said.
School board president Laurie Downs took exception to Aguiar’s assessment.
“We’re all individual people, just like the town board,” Downs said. “People may have different opinions and we may vote differently sometimes, but in the majority of what we do, we have no disagreements. You never see us argue,” she said.
“All of us are well-informed and work together for the district,” Downs said.
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