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Enough already with the fighting over spending highway fund revenues for the town’s loose leaf pickup program. This ridiculous annual ritual has got to stop.

Here’s what it accomplishes:

Residents don’t know what to do with the leaves they rake up in their yards and they grow frustrated and angry.

Town officials, who should be working together for the good of the public, get mad at each other and the prospect of working “cohesively.” as the supervisor likes to say, diminishes.

Tax money is wasted as some of the town’s most highly paid employees — among them its financial administrator, town attorney, deputy town attorney — work to concoct new ways to evade the law on behalf of a town board that senselessly digs its heels in.

Folks, using highway fund revenue to pick up leaves raked and hauled to the curb by residents is illegal. Period. It is not a “highway function” under New York State Highway Law. There are two legal opinions from the Office of the State Comptroller stating as much and when the town asked the State Attorney General for an opinion, the AG sent the town the more recent of the two comptroller’s letters. 

End of discussion. It’s a general fund expense and the Town Board, if it really wants to provide the service, should find the money in its budget — in the general fund — to pay for it. 

But they don’t want to. 

They’d rather raid the highway department’s piggy bank — because they can. The Town Board controls the purse strings, even for the highway fund. They’ve got the highway superintendent over a barrel on this one. And they know it. He either complies with the law, declines to spend highway funds on a non-highway function, and endures the wrath of angry residents, whipped up by finger-pointing officials at Town Hall, eager to pass the blame — or he breaks the law and violates his fiduciary duty as superintendent of highways.

And this has been going on, round and round, for years.

The best argument they can come up with to support their position can be summarized like this: The highway department must have the money in its budget for leaf pickup because the department has been doing it for years. So just do it and be quiet. 

To hell with the law. To hell with fiduciary responsibilities. To hell with right and wrong. 

This cavalier attitude by Riverhead public officials toward how taxpayer dollars are handled should give every Riverhead taxpayer pause. A deputy town attorney actually told the Town Board last week it’s just a question of how funds are “labeled.” This should make you wonder what kind of financial shenanigans take place behind the scenes when there’s not an independent-minded elected official like Highway Superintendent Mike Zaleski (or his predecessor Gio Woodson) standing up and shouting “Foul!”

And their “permanent” solution to this annual self-created debacle? The town’s general fund will pay for the pickup beginning in 2023. But of course that’s not the whole story. The Town Board’s preliminary budget — up for adoption tomorrow night — calls for reducing the highway fund tax levy by the amount needed to fund the leaf pickup and increasing the general fund tax levy by the same amount to cover it. This clearly illustrates how the board and its top finance official view the budget process as little more than some sort of shell game. 

When the finance officer said last week the cost of this year’s pickup should be paid out of the highway department’s fund balance — which means it still comes out of the highway fund — Council Member Ken Rothwell asked why it couldn’t come out of the town’s general fund balance. Good question.

No can do, the finance official answered. The town must comply with its adopted policy requiring the general fund balance to equal at least 15% of the total expenditures and transfers out of the town’s general fund for a given fiscal year. Expenditures that reduce the fund balance for the general fund to less than 15% require a town board resolution.

“We barely have our 15%,” Finance Administrator William Rothaar told the board. 

No one asked the financial administrator what the general fund’s unrestricted fund balance actually is in 2022. What was the number as per the adopted 2022 budget? What is that number now? Pertinent questions. 

We delve a bit into the numbers below.

Some final thoughts on Riverhead’s ongoing leaf pickup saga.

Riverhead Town’s sanitation budget covers a contract with a carting company that already includes (bagged) leaf pickup. Can the town lawfully tax property owners twice for leaf pickup? Once in the general fund and once in the highway fund? 

If it’s a “highway function” to pick up leaves from private property hauled to the curb by residents at the town’s invitation — as Riverhead officials insist — would it not also be a “highway function” to remove other types of refuse placed in the town’s highways at the invitation of the town? 

By its own logic, the Town Board could decide to save the more than $3.5 million it’s paying the town’s contracted garbage carter for waste disposal and tell the highway superintendent it’s up to him, on his dime, to pick up and dispose of all refuse left curbside by residents at the town’s instruction. It’s in the public highway, after all.

Of course, requiring the highway superintendent to undertake a sanitation function would require a blatant disregard for state law, wouldn’t it?

Fallen leaves are a form of refuse. Picking them up is refuse removal. It’s a sanitation function, not a highway function. 

The millions of highway fund revenues spent on this over the past decades could have purchased new plow trucks, paved roads, built desperately needed sidewalks, improved crosswalks, and provided more highway crew members to do the crucial jobs they do that keep our town functioning. 

Last but not least, residents should be encouraged to mulch their leaves at home, to leave them in place instead of disposing of them. They provide nutrients — natural fertilizer for grasses and plants. Let’s save time, wear and tear on vehicles and equipment, untold gallons of diesel fuel — and the air pollution from trucks and payloaders deployed to pick up leaves for several weeks at the end of every year. 

The 2022 adopted budget provides general fund expenditures of $52,487,600. The fund balance policy (15% minimum) requires the town to maintain a fund balance of $7,873,140 at the close of 2022, approximately six weeks from today. 

The last audited financial statements currently available to the public are those for fiscal year 2020. According to Rothaar, as of Sept. 30, when the town supervisor released her 2023 tentative budget, the 2021 audited financial statements were not yet completed by the town’s outside auditor. (That, in itself, is a cause for concern, since to some extent it requires budgeting in the dark.)

As of Dec. 31, 2020, according to the audited financial statements, the unrestricted fund balance in the general fund was $8,905,600 — 17% of general fund expenditures in the 2020 budget.

According to the year-end financial report the town is required to file with Office of the State Comptroller every April, as of Dec. 31, 2021, the general fund’s fund balance had increased to $14,733,609. 

Assuming that number is accurate — the report is based on unaudited numbers — the fund balance was 28.9% of budgeted general fund appropriations ($51,050,700) and 29.7% of what was actually expended ($49,563,252) including budget transfers of $4,408,976.

This, then, begs the question: what happened to the $14,733,609 fund balance in the town’s general fund on Dec. 31, 2021 as reported to the Office of the State Comptroller in April if that fund balance now “barely” covers the 15% minimum ($7,873,140) required by the town’s adopted fund balance policy, as the financial administrator told the Town Board on Thursday.

We’re sure there’s a good explanation and we’d like to hear and understand it. We just wish the Town Board felt the same way. Because these things deserve their attention and careful scrutiny. It’s their own fiduciary duty to taxpayers.

What does all this have to do with leaf pickup? 

Actually, everything. 

The cavalier attitude of town officials when it comes to commingling of funds is disturbing. The financial administrator is fighting tooth and nail to keep $220,000 in the general fund’s fund balance — which, according to the town’s own public documents, appears flush with cash. He’s backed up by spurious analysis offered by the town’s lawyers, such as, it’s just a matter of how funds are “labeled.” We know that’s not true. And they know it too.

Certainly, at the very least, a coherent explanation is required. And we emphasize the word coherent.

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