A Riverhead Highway crew removing leaves in Wading River in 2022. Photo: Peter Blasl

Riverhead’s highway superintendent and town board are still in disagreement on whether the highway department should pick up loose leaves in the fall — and are looking to end the argument once and for all.

Highway Superintendent Mike Zaleski, who entered office this year and conducted loose leaf pickup beginning in January — after his predecessor George Woodson refused to do it last fall — is holding the line on Woodson’s position that the pickup is not a highway department function. He said his position is supported by an opinion of the state comptroller’s office. The cost of the pickup should be paid out in the general fund, not out of the highway fund, Zaleski said. 

“It’s very hard to get rid of leaves now. It’s a time constraint. We battle weather. The town is growing and it was a privilege all this time,” Zaleski said, arguing it cuts into time where his department is preparing for winter weather. “And if our department is asked to continue this, I just really strongly feel we should be reimbursed.”

The town board and the town attorney’s office argue that the pickup is a historic function of the highway department — having occurred as far back as 1968 under then-Highway Superintendent Alex Horton — and is a routine highway department function built into its budget. 

The board, by resolution last year, directed Woodson, a Democrat, to perform the service, but he ignored the demand. Woodson sought to end the practice years prior, but always ended up doing the pickup despite his objections. He chose to retire at the expiration of his term last year and did not seek re-election.

Zaleski, a Republican — and Woodson’s deputy — was elected this past November along with three members of the town board, started the leaf pickup after he took office in January, although a snow storm early in the month complicated the cleanup

“I don’t agree upon past practice, because improper practice is what is in debate here,” Zaleski said. “There have been other jobs the highway department has done annually and which have gone to the wayside due to financial reasons, time constraints, the town growing, that we no longer do. So I do not believe in past practice. If we were doing something wrong, I do not believe we should continue doing it.”

Zaleski and town board members agreed they will send a joint letter to the state attorney general with evidence from both sides of the argument seeking a legal determination. Zaleski the board’s agreement to ask for the AG’s opinion was a condition of conducting the pickup this year.

Zaleski said the cost of picking up loose leaves is around $250,000-$300,000 per year, which includes the cost of equipment, working hours and the cost of leaf disposal. Zaleski noted that the town’s sanitation department takes leaves from private property at its yard waste facility and the town’s contracted solid waste hauler picks up leaves in brown paper bags from homes within the garbage district.

Deputy Town Attorney Anne Marie Prudenti said the town has historically purchased trucks and other equipment out of the highway fund to assist with the pickup of leaves.

Zaleski said in response that the highway department has to pick up loose leaves around town that are necessary to the function of the department, like clearing drains and sweeping streets. “We need to stop allowing residents to pile their homeowner leaves in the streets, in the town right-of-way, for us to come pick all that up. And there will always be leaf pickup happening, it just won’t be a courtesy of taking your personal leaves out of your yard and getting rid of them unless I feel we get reimbursed,” he said.

Prudenti said town records show the town board has allocated money in the highway department’s budget to purchase equipment and trucks for picking up loose leaves.

Councilman Frank Beyrodt, the former highway department liaison, said he understands both sides of the debate. “But my conundrum is both: how do you stop doing something, a practice that has been 30 years continual? And on their side, where are we putting the leaves?” he said.

“The bottom line is, if, depending on the opinion, if it’s a routine highway function, I will tell the town board, that the highway superintendent, and any future highway superintendent, will not have the ability to say to the town board, I don’t want to do my job,” Prudenti said.

“If it isn’t, then that’s a situation where through discussions, agreements and budget process, you will address,” Prudenti added.

Councilman Tim Hubbard said he is in favor of continuing the pickup, so much so that he would be in favor of adding $250,000-$300,000 to the budget to have the highway department do the service.

“I do think it is a service we have provided for so long, I do believe it’s best practice, and I think our residents expect it to happen. So I would like to try to make it happen, no matter how this pans out, but let’s get an opinion,” Hubbard said.

The board agreed to move forward with sending the letter, and adjusting funding based on the results of the opinion at a later date.

“This is a huge decision. And I just I’m very appreciative we’re going to come to this conclusion as adults, mature people, where we can just finalize this,” Zaleski said. “It’s a debate that’s been ongoing, it’s a price increase that keeps increasing. It’s a safety hazard.”

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com