File photo: Peter Blasl

Leaves may be falling but the fate of loose leaf pickup in Riverhead is still up in the air.

Highway Superintendent George Woodson has been seeking to end the highway department’s loose leaf pickup in Riverhead for more than a decade. The fall pickup drains manpower away from the critical late-fall task of erecting snow fences to prevent snow drifts from blocking town roadways during snowstorms, Woodson says. The highway department lacks adequate manpower to handle both jobs simultaneously, Woodson says, and loose leaves left in the roadways pose a safety hazard.

Each fall, residents have the opportunity to pile leaves from their properties on the side of the road for pickup by the highway department. The leaf pickup program started many years ago, as far back as the 1980s, the highway superintendent said. But the town’s growth — without corresponding growth in the highway department staff — makes continuing the program impractical.

Woodson says the annual pickup takes a $250,000 bite out of his budget and questions the legality of the expenditure. State Highway Law limits the expenditure of highway funds to the improvement and maintenance of the town highway system.

“Picking up leaves that accumulate on private property is not a highway function,” Woodson said.

Successive town boards have resisted Woodson’s request to terminate the pickup program, though the town’s contract with the carter that picks up household waste provides for bagged leaf and yard waste pickup year-round.

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said last week her office has been fielding numerous calls from residents asking about the status of the loose leaf pickup program. It’s a service much in demand.

Besides the highway superintendent’s objections regarding the pickup, the town has no place to deposit leaves that are picked up. Riverhead’s yard waste facility on Youngs Avenue is “maxed out” and has no capacity to take in the estimated 3,000 cubic yards of leaves that would be picked up this fall, said Councilman Frank Beyrodt, town board liaison to the highway department.

Beyrodt said the town needs to find another place to dispose of the leaves this year. The tipping fees — the fees paid to the facility — should come out of the general fund, not the highway fund, Beyrodt said.

He said he favors continuing the program this year for the last time because terminating it at this late date would leave residents in the lurch. He also favors continuing leaf pickup for seniors and disabled residents in the future — something that has the support of a town board majority.

The board discussed the leaf pickup program with Woodson again during last Thursday’s work session, but didn’t come to a resolution of the issue.

“The residents of Riverhead deserve to have an answer,” Aguiar said last week.

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said she is not in favor of terminating the program.

Woodson did not yield. He said if the town board wants the highway department to conduct the leaf pickup, it must allocate money from the general fund — not the highway fund — to pay for it.

Riverhead financial administrator William Rothaar told the town board last week the funding for the program is “built in” to the highway department budget because the highway department has been doing the pickup for so many years.

But Woodson doesn’t see it that way.

“It costs the highway department hundreds of thousands of dollars every year and it’s not a highway function. That goes against state law,” he said. “The highway fund can only be spent on highway functions — legally,” he said.

Beyrodt said he is hopeful this can be worked out, at least for this year.

“It’s too late to stop it,” he said.

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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.