File photo: Peter Blasl

Summer may be almost over, but the loose leaf pickup saga in Riverhead continues.

The town board on Thursday decided the town will provide the service to residents again this year and that the highway department will continue to handle the pickup, with the cost coming out of the highway department budget.

But Highway Superintendent George Woodson said he has no intention of doing the pickup this year. Woodson has been at odds with the town board over the annual leaf pickup program for several years. He maintains that the pickup is not a highway function and the cost of completing it should come out of the general fund, not the highway fund.

Last November, Woodson agreed to take care of the pickup for 2020 with the understanding that the highway department would not be responsible for it in 2021. At the time, the town board agreed. But this year, the loose leaf pickup was back on the table.

“Seniors have reached out to us. They’re very concerned having to address this loose leaf pickup,” Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said at the town board work session Thursday.

Councilman Ken Rothwell said COVID has placed a financial hardship on seniors who are living on limited income and not able to afford hiring landscapers to deal with the leaves.

“They’re concerned about leaves remaining on property — on sidewalks, driveways, slipping hazards and things like that,” Rothwell said.

“So we’d like to help the seniors,” he said. “But obviously, we want to confirm that we have the financial ability to do so. So that’s one of our main discussions today — to make sure that we have the mechanical means, the staffing means and financial means to provide the service,” Rothwell said.

Aguiar said she favored retaining loose leaf pickup, calling the decision “a no-brainer.” She said Councilman Tim Hubbard, who was absent, agreed. Councilman Frank Beyrodt also agreed. Only Councilwoman Catherine Kent held back, saying she wanted to review all available information.

On Thursday, board members heard from Deputy Town Attorney Annemarie Prudenti, who said it was her opinion, based on research, that the loose leaf pickup is a highway department function. Prudenti said the Riverhead Highway Department has been picking up loose leaves in Riverhead every fall since 1968.

Board members also heard from Riverhead financial administrator William Rothaar, who said the highway department budget has ample funds in it to cover the cost of the pickup.

“It’s been a function of highway for as long as I’ve been here,” Rothaar said. “It’s built into their budget. They have the employees to do it. It’s included in their payroll and they have the equipment,” Rothaar said. He noted that the highway fund has a substantial reserve balance.

Board members did not hear from Woodson on Thursday. Aguiar said she invited the highway superintendent and his deputy to attend the work session but Woodson declined.

In an interview Friday, Woodson didn’t dispute that. ”I’m tired of discussing it. We’ve been going round and round with this for years,” he said. “I’ve been telling them this for 12, 13 years and nobody listens. I’ve done my homework. I’ve given them all the information,” Woodson said.

“The State Highway Law says the highway fund is separate from the general fund and must be used only for highway functions,” Woodson said. “Picking up leaves that were removed from private property and placed in the road is not a highway function. It’s sanitation. That’s why other towns have discontinued the practice,” Woodson said. “Unless it’s paid for out of the general fund, it’s not even legal.”

Woodson told RiverheadLOCAL he is relying on advice from David Orr, who he described as the “highway guru” in New York. Orr is the director of the New York’s Local Technical Assistance Program, which is part of the Federal Highway Administration and run out of Cornell University.

In an interview Friday, Orr said whether a task is a highway function depends on whether it’s something that’s needed to benefit the town’s highways. A town board has the power to ask the superintendent to do additional work or assign additional duties to him that are not highway functions, but the highway budget needs to be reimbursed for the cost of work that’s not a highway function, Orr said.

Orr said he did not want to get into the middle of the particular controversy at hand in Riverhead, but said, “You have to ask the question: Is this related to the highway or does it serve some other purpose?”

Woodson said he intends to ask the state comptroller’s office for an opinion. The comptroller’s office previously settled a dispute between Woodson and the town’s financial administrator over the administrative chargeback being assessed to the highway department and other special district funds. After an audit, the comptroller said the town’s practice was improper because it was a flat rate assessment and did not relate to specific expenses. The town had to stop the chargebacks, which totaled almost $770,000 in 2012. The town had been assessing the flat-rate chargebacks beginning in 2008. By 2012, the chargeback was more than 14% of the highway department’s budget.

Woodson said the town board is again looking to supplement the town’s general fund with highway funds.

He said the highway budget’s reserve is money he saved by careful spending and has set aside for sidewalk repairs.

“The sidewalks in this town need fixing. People are always tripping and filing claims and suing the town,” Woodson said. “I could do a lot of sidewalk repairs with the cost of the leaf pickup,” which he pegged at about $400,000.

“You can’t compare the town’s roads today to what they were in 1968,” Woodson said. “Look how much the town’s grown since then. How many more houses are there? How many more roads?” He said since he started working for the highway department in 1985, the town highway system has added over 104 lane miles and its staffing level has remained about the same.

The fall leaf pickup requires crews on eight trucks for several weeks and impedes the highway department’s ability to put up snow fencing and prepare trucks and equipment for winter, the superintendent said.

Besides, Woodson said, it’s not the only option for residents. Riverhead’s sanitation contract with the carter that picks up residential waste in the town requires the carter to pick up bagged leaves — year-round. The cost is paid for by the solid waste management district tax.

“If the town board wants to continue loose leaf pickup, I don’t mind doing it, but the town’s general fund has to pay for it,” the highway superintendent said.

Based on the town board discussion Thursday, the standoff on that point continues.

Correction: This article has been amended to correct errors in the reporting of statements by the highway superintendent in the number of trucks required to complete the fall leaf pickup and the cost of the program.

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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.