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

The saga of loose-leave pickup in the Town of Riverhead has not yet been laid to rest, with town officials still arguing over which town revenue fund should pay for the service.

The dispute continues despite an agreement announced last month that funding for the loose-leaves pickup program would, at least in part, come from the town’s general fund, instead of the highway fund. And today, Riverhead residents with leaves piling up in their yards, are once again wondering whether the town will continue the service that many consider essential.

Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar put the matter on the Town Board work session agenda for discussion yesterday, but Highway Superintendent Mike Zaleski sat the meeting out — to the evident dismay of the supervisor and council members.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Zaleski told RiverheadLOCAL he wouldn’t be attending.

“I’m not going to any more meetings about this,” Zaleski said in the phone interview Wednesday. “They’re not even meetings. They’re lectures.”

Picking up leaves placed in the public right of way by private property owners at the direction of the town board is not a highway function, Zaleski said, repeating what he and former Superintendent George Woodson have insisted for years.

But the cost of the fall leaf cleanup has been paid out of the highway fund in Riverhead since the late 1960s and the Town Board has been loathe to fund it through the general fund, which pays for general town services and facilities, police and public safety expenses.

State law, as interpreted by the Office of the State Comptroller, is on the side of the highway superintendent in this dispute, according to a 46-year-old opinion of the state comptroller issued to settle a similar dispute in neighboring Brookhaven Town. Woodson brought this up repeatedly.

The town board, on the advice of the town financial administrator and the town attorney, maintains that the highway department’s existing budget, funded by highway fund property taxes, covers the cost of the pick-up.

In recent years, the perennial argument has erupted each autumn, when leaves begin to fall. More than once, Woodson agreed under pressure to conduct the leaf pickup “one more time,” only to end up debating it again with the town board the following autumn. In November 2020, Woodson again agreed to take care of the leaf pickup with the understanding that the highway fund would not pay for it again in 2021. The Town Board agreed. But last fall, the board again asked Woodson to handle the pickup, without a commitment of general fund revenue to pay for it. Woodson, then about to retire, refused, and left office at the end of the year without the pickup taking place.

Zaleski, who had served as Woodson’s deputy and was elected to succeed him last November, agreed to do the pickup “one more time” and commenced the work in January after he took office.

Town agreed that the highway superintendent and town board would jointly write to the State Attorney General — a neutral arbiter — seeking a legal determination.

The State AG’s office provided the town with the 1976 state comptroller opinion written to the Brookhaven Town Highway Department. The opinion states that a town board could direct a highway superintendent to pick up loose leaves but had to pay the cost of the service out of the general fund.

After receiving the letter from the NYAG, the Town Board capitulated, and it seemed that the matter was settled.

The supervisor’s tentative budget, released Sept. 30, included a fund transfer of $219,018.88 from the general fund to the highway fund to cover the cost of vehicle wear and tear, maintenance and repairs and fuel expenses — though not payroll — for the pickup.

That amount was negotiated with Zaleski and he was satisfied with the resolution of the issue.

Then Zaleski learned that the funding, which added to the highway department’s 2023 — from the general fund —would not be forthcoming for 2022 and he was expected to conduct the loose-leaves pickup this fall anyway.

“So now we’re back to square one,” a frustrated Zaleski said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Zaleski showed no sign of budging. “I am not picking up leaves unless they come through on their promise, after I did a year’s worth of work and meetings and obtaining neutral opinions, trying to resolve this mess,” he said Wednesday. If the town provides him with general fund revenue this year, he said the highway department would begin leaf pickup after Thanksgiving.

“They’re trying to renege on their promise,” he said.

“If I ever go to one more meeting about leaves, I want to bring my own attorney,” Zaleski said. “Because they don’t even listen to me,” he said.

“I want to pick up leaves for the public. And I worked my ass off coming up with a way we can continue this where it’s legal for my department to do this,” he said.

At the crux of the dispute is the strict legal requirement that the town’s separate funds must remain separate and cannot be used to pay for expenses outside of the purpose for which they are collected. The town collects taxes for many separate funds, including the highway fund — which is required by state law — and special taxing district funds, such as the water district, sewer district and ambulance district.

Riverhead Town during the administration of former Supervisor Sean Walter was directed by the state comptroller to end its practice of flat-rate administrative chargebacks to the various funds to cover administrative expenses such as accounting, legal and general administrative support. The amount of the chargebacks bore no relation to actual expenditures and so violated the requirement that the funds remain strictly separate. Woodson had been complaining about that as well, but the financial administrator, who started the practice under Walter’s predecessor, Supervisor Phil Cardinale, did not change the practice until the comptroller weighed in.

Zaleski said the highway department’s compensation from the general fund is “an extremely cheap rate” and “if they ever had to outsource this, forget about it. The cost would be seven digits, not six. And here they are trying to use trickery and deceit, a shell game — it’s manipulative, almost bullying,” Zaleski said.

Council Member Tim Hubbard at yesterday’s work session addressed the absent highway superintendent.

“Mike, if you’re watching or listening, the last conversation we had you mentioned you wouldn’t come again unless you had an attorney. Just reaching out to you publicly. I’ll reach out to you privately, also. I wish you would come in without an attorney, and we can sit down and work this out,” Hubbard said.

“And that’s going to cost taxpayers more money. That’s great,” Aguiar said.

The supervisor said the town board would discuss the leaf pickup again at its next work session.

Residents can put bagged leaves out for pickup by the town-contracted garbage carter. The bagged leaf and yard waste pickup is part of the town contract with its carter. Leaf and branch pickup takes place on the last pickup day of the week during designated weeks (marked in tan) on the town’s recycling calendar. Leaves must be bagged in paper lawn and leaf bags or placed loose in pails for pick up curbside.

Residents can also dispose of leaves free of charge at the town’s yard waste facility on Youngs Avenue. Proof of residency is required.

Correction: This article was amended to correct an error in the original about the frequency of leaf pickup by the town’s contracted carter. The pickup is offered twice a month, not every week throughout the year, but during three weeks in November and December.

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