As the winter months approach, bringing the potential for snowfall while leaves still lay upon town roads, town officials are scrambling to find a way to resolve what they hope is the final dispute between the Town Board and the highway superintendent over who pays for loose leaf pickup in Riverhead.
Highway Superintendent Mike Zaleski reached a deal with the Town Board to conduct loose leaf pickup for roughly $219,000 per year starting next year, although the two parties are now wrestling to come up with an agreement to conduct the pickup for this year.
Zaleski said his department should be paid for the work out of the town’s general fund because disposing of the leaves is not a highway function, and therefore should not be paid out of the highway fund. In addition, the town is already taxing residents for leaf pickup because its garbage district collection contract includes an amount for leaf and branch pickup.
According to a 1976 New York State Comptroller opinion (see below) supplied to the town by the State Attorney General last year to settle Riverhead’s longstanding loose leaf pickup dispute, the Town Board can assign a highway superintendent additional responsibilities, such as loose leaf pickup, as long he is compensated out of the general fund for the cost of performing those duties — and as long as the performance of additional duties not imposed on the highway superintendent by law does not require him to neglect his duties spelled out in the State Highway Law.
The dispute over who pays for loose leaf pickup in Riverhead spans the past decade, to Zaleski’s predecessor, Gio Woodson, who fought with multiple administrations about the pickup, while he reluctantly continued the practice. When Zaleski assumed office at the beginning of the year, he conducted loose leaf pickup without compensation in January, after Woodson declined to do it before leaving office last December. When Zaleski agreed to do the pickup in January, he told the Town Board he had one caveat: that the town would ask the State Attorney General to interpret the law and finally resolve the issue.
The State AG provided the town with the comptroller’s opinion — which Woodson had previously repeatedly cited — but town officials remain resistant, arguing that the highway department’s historic practice of conducting the loose lead pickup demonstrates that the highway department is already adequately funded to provide the service.
“There is no way my department is budgeted for this, because it’s not a highway function,” Zaleski said in an interview yesterday.
Residents can still place leaves in paper bags or containers, separate from any other trash, for pickup by the town’s contracted garbage carter. Residents can also dispose of leaves free of charge at the town’s yard waste facility on Youngs Avenue with proof of residency.
With leaves piling up, and residents seeking answers, the issue was on the Town Board’s work session agenda for the second consecutive week yesterday. But the board again failed to find a solution. Supervisor Yvette Aguiar was absent from the meeting, and Zaleski, as he told the board last week, refused to attend. The four council members discussed the status of negotiations with Financial Administrator William Rothaar, Deputy Town Attorney Annemarie Prudenti and Town Attorney Erik Howard.
In a call Thursday afternoon, Zaleski said he watched the work session and was disappointed the issue is not yet resolved. He said the meetings with town officials have been more like “lectures” and said he will not attend any more. He said he has considered hiring a lawyer.
“They’re treating me like a kid. I’m not dumb. And I feel like I’m being disrespected here,” he said.
He said he has worked hard to try to come up with a fair solution to the problem and drafted up a fair price to conduct the loose leaf pickup based on prior years and the schedule of equipment rates published by FEMA. That price does not include man hours, he said.
“They’re just trying, at the final hours to, I think, use the shell game and maybe pressure me to just go do it,” Zaleski said. “I’ve already helped you. My men froze in January cleaning up from the last highway superintendent’s debacle. My men froze. We cleaned this town up.”
“This was an agreement we made. I will do this if we can come to a conclusion to this leaf debacle. They agreed. Nine months, Mike is doing the work, coming up with all these solutions agreements — by law, mind you — we’re not making it up out of thin air. And now they’re trying to say ‘oh, you have the money,’” Zaleski said.
Council Member Tim Hubbard said he and Council Member Bob Kern met with Zaleski on Wednesday, in what he described as a “pretty good conversation,” but said the board has yet to come to an agreement with Zaleski.
Hubbard and Prudenti argued, as town officials have consistently argued, that the Town Board has always funded loose leaf pickup in past years, including 2022, through its approval of the highway department’s budget and expenditures of highway funds to purchase vehicles and equipment for the highway department.
“The problem here is we got this decision, August of this year, maybe? So we couldn’t have budgeted this way last year. So what you’re saying is based on prior years of service, this is how it’s been done. We’re asking for it to continue to be done this year. And then next year, they will actually have a budget line in the general fund dedicated for leaf pickup,” Hubbard said.
“And that’s where Mike does have a little bit of a problem understanding — he wants to see the money, so to speak. And I don’t think anybody’s ever really seen the money in terms of a budget line. But money has been put in there in terms of employment of personnel and equipment and gas and diesel and whatever,” Hubbard said.
In fact, the town’s 2023 preliminary budget, which is up for a vote Tuesday, funds the new leaf pickup expenditure out of the general fund by decreasing the highway department tax levy by the same amount and raising the general fund levy, Rothaar explained. This keeps taxes for residents at the same rate, but causes Zaleski to effectively pay for loose leaf pickup through his own budget.
Not all board members were convinced by the argument advanced by Hubbard, Rothaar and Prudenti.
“To that point though, the money is put in there — it’s put in there for employees, it’s put in there for equipment. It’s amortized into everything they do,” Kern said. “So the fact that there’s not a clear line makes it really really cloudy and very hard to say okay, well ‘it’s in there as for leaf pickup and anything else that happens.’”
The 2022 adopted budget for the highway department has one line related to leaf disposal totaling $25,000. That money has been historically used to provide paper bags to residents for their yard waste, Hubbard said.
Zaleski said he even told board members was willing in budget negotiations to forgo the $25,000, as long as he was paid for the loose leaf pickup work.
Rothaar pushed hard during the meeting for the board to pay Zaleski for this year’s loose leaf pickup by pulling money from the highway fund’s reserves. He said the highway department underspent roughly $419,000 last year and has a significant fund balance.
The solution Rothaar proposed, however, would not be consistent with the comptroller’s opinion, which requires that the highway department be compensated out of the general fund for the a task that’s not a highway function.
“I think he wants to protect his fund balance from highway like we have fund balance on the town side of things, because I think he’s still looking at his fund balance for the future,” Rothwell said.
Zaleski in an interview gave examples of how he’s used the highway fund balance this year.
The Town Board cut his repair and maintenance line by $350,000 in 2022, he said, and he ran out of money in that line in September. “I have to go to my fund balance for another $150,000 to cover those expenses in the last quarter,” he said.
“My truck and equipment purchase line is only $250,000. My fleet is aging. New trucks cost $265,000 or more — each. I spent over a million on equipment this year and had to draw on my fund balance to do that. The fund balance is extremely important. Its a highway fund balance funded by highway taxes and dedicated to highway functions. It shouldn’t be used for non highway functions,” he said.
Rothwell advocated that the town use its general fund balance to pay for the loose leaf pickup this year. “It’s still one one town fund going into the other town fund. But it, to me, solves the problem,” he said. “We get through January, next year it’s lined up; it’s corrected for all years to come. And it’s about getting out of this dilemma right now,” Rothwell said.
But the town financial administrator pushed back, arguing that the town’s general fund has barely above the 15% fund balance required by town policy.
“We’re at a point where he’s made himself very clear. He’s not doing this task unless he’s getting paid for it. And so at this point, I’m looking to resolve it, and I’m willing to support a maneuver of [$195,000] from the general fund, instead of having to pay for it and let’s get the task done,” Rothwell said.
“And that’s the board’s decision. I will say it’s my recommendation would be to take it out of the highway fund fund balance, because it’s in there,” Rothaar interrupted.
By the end of the discussion, board members had not made up their minds.
“I spoke this morning to Supervisor Aguiar and her suggestion was that we work on this internally. And I tend to agree with that,” Hubbard said. “We’re not going to solve anything without Mike not sitting here. So my suggestion is we sit down with Mike, a couple of us, whoever wants to join, and we sit down with Mike, we sit down with you [Rothaar], and we try to work this out internally,” Hubbard said.
“I know it’s been done before. But I think we’re push come to shove at this point in time now. And we need to either come to a realization that we’re going to do leaf pickup or come to the realization that we’re not,” Hubbard said.
When asked if he saw any end in sight to this ongoing dispute, Zaleski said he is optimistic that some board members seem to want to resolve the issue.
“I’m fully prepared to do two things,” Zaleski said. “I will hire my own attorney to speak for me, because I’m like a guppy sitting there in a pool of sharks…And not a single truck is gonna leave his yard until they pay me out of the general fund like they’re instructed to by the state comptroller’s office.”
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