Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Riverside. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Suffolk County has sued the Town of Riverhead over sewer rates established earlier this year for out-of-town users — which the county says is targeted at its facilities in Riverside.

The county is looking to annul a May 19 town board resolution that set sewer rates for county facilities in Riverside for 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021.

The town-owned sewage treatment plant has served the county complex in Riverside since September 1969. The complex includes the county center, criminal court and jail. The county facilities are located in the Town of Southampton and outside the Riverhead Sewer District.

The most recent agreement between the county and the sewer district, signed in 1997, expired Dec. 31, 2017. After the expiration of the agreement, the relationship grew fraught between the town and the county concerning access to and funding for the sewage treatment plant.

Riverhead and other municipalities outside of county sewer districts since 1985 had been receiving allocations from the county’s Assessment Stabilization Reserve Fund, a fund derived from the 1/4% sales tax collected by Suffolk.

Beginning in November 2015, Riverhead demanded an increase in $146,688 annual subsidy it had been receiving from the Assessment Stabilization Reserve Fund since 1992. Riverhead officials said the Riverhead Sewer District was entitled to stabilization fund payments of $537,140 for 2016 and almost $1.5 million for 2017. In December 2016, the town board authorized filing a $2 million notice of claim against the county.

In June 2017, Riverhead sued the county seeking to collect on its claims for an increase in the subsidy, but in May 2020, State Supreme Court Justice John Leo dismissed Riverhead’s case.

According to papers filed by the county in court this month, Suffolk has paid the Riverhead Sewer District nearly $4.6 million in Assessment Stabilization Reserve Fund subsidies over 32 years. The county also notes it awarded an $8.1 million grant to the Riverhead Sewer District in 2013 to assist with the $24 million cost of a major upgrade to the town’s treatment facility.

The county says in its filing that Riverhead’s calculation of the rates it seeks is based upon “an arbitrary, mythical and hypothetical ‘design flow’ of wastewater usage rather than actual wastewater volume” and that the town, in addition, is attempting to impose an “illegal surcharge” on the county intended to have the county “subsidize the District’s operating deficit. The town is looking to impose on the county penalties of about $300,000 per year, the county says. The county has refused to pay the sewer rates and surcharges sought by the town.

The town in June 2019 brought a second action to attempt to collect funds it says the county owes for 2018, but the town has taken no action to prosecute that case, the county says.

Suffolk argues that the town’s calculations of sewer rents and surcharges are a thinly veiled attempt to force the county to increase the Assessment Stabilization Reserve Fund payment to Riverhead.

The resolution adopted by the town board in May treats the county unlike any other in-district or out-of-district user, according to the county’s complaint, and it seeks to penalize the county by requiring it to pay more than the actual costs of services rendered in violation of state law. It is “merely another illegal attempt to force the County to pay for the Wastewater Treatment
Facility that Riverhead determined to construct, operate, and mismanage,” the county says in the complaint.

The county is asking the court to annul the resolutions setting the rates to be paid by the county, to direct the town to issue a permit to connect the county correctional facility to the sewage treatment plant and to award the county damages, plus punitive damages and attorneys’ fees and costs.

Riverhead was served with the lawsuit on Sept. 9. Town Attorney Robert Kozakiewicz declined comment for this story.

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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.