A Riverhead Highway crew removing leaves on Jan. 5, 2022 in Wading River. Photo: Peter Blasl

Loose leaf pickup will continue in Riverhead Town indefinitely under an agreement authorized by the Town Board at its meeting Tuesday.

The Riverhead Highway Department will pick up loose leaves, as it has for many years — but funding for the program will come out of the general fund, not the highway fund, according to the agreement. The program will be initially funded at $219,018.88 in 2023. Funding will increase each year according to a rate schedule published by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to the agreement.

The Town Board and former Highway Superintendent Gio Woodson had an ongoing dispute over whether the loose leaf pickup program conducted by the highway department should be paid for out of the highway fund. Woodson maintained that the annual pickup was not a highway department function and said expending highway funds on anything other than a highway function was illegal.

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 — repeatedly. He argued that if the Town Board wanted the highway department to conduct the pickup it needed to fund the program out of the town’s general fund.

Woodson battled with successive administrations prior to his retirement last December.

MORE COVERAGE: Town board orders highway superintendent to conduct loose leaf pickup this month

Town board orders highway superintendent to conduct loose leaf pickup this month

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, the former superintendent argued. The highway department lacks adequate manpower to handle both jobs simultaneously, Woodson told the board, and loose leaves left in the roadways pose a safety hazard, he said.

After Woodson’s deputy superintendent and successor, Mike Zaleski, took office in January, the board and the new highway superintendent agreed to ask the state attorney general’s office for an opinion about funding for the program.

MORE COVERAGE: Town board and highway superintendent seek to resolve loose leaf pickup debate — once and for all

According to the resolution authorizing the agreement, the town requested the state attorney general’s office for an opinion in May. The AG asked the state comptroller’s for guidance. The comptroller’s office located an opinion it issued in 1976 to the Town of Brookhaven. That opinion states, according to the resolution, that the Town Board can assign loose leaf pickup to the highway department as an additional duty, but the expense of conducting the pickup are chargeable to the general fund appropriation for refuse collection — not to the highway fund.

The supervisor’s tentative budget, filed with the town clerk on Sept. 30, includes an appropriation to cover the expense of the loose leaf pickup program out of the general fund.

Zaleski said he worked to try to find “a legal way to make this happen,” cooperating with the Town Board and town attorney. He said he “patiently waited for a fair decision from the comptroller” and was glad the issue could be resolved in time to make it work this season.

Loose leaf pickup dates have not yet been firmed up, Zaleski said, but he expects the pickup will begin shortly after Thanksgiving, in early December.

“I ask the public to still please abide by the rules so we can complete the task safely,” Zaleski 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.