The Town Board voted 3-2 on Nov. 15 to approve a 2023 operating budget that pierces the tax levy cap and raises the tax rate by more than 4%.

The Riverhead Town Board in a 3-2 split vote last night approved an operating budget for 2023 that increases spending by more than $3.5 million over the current year and requires a 4.21% tax rate increase in the three town-wide funds.

The tax rate will increase to $59.613 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, up from $57.204 per $1,000 in 2022. 

The town-wide tax levy will rise by 4.51%. The Town Board at its last meeting unanimously approved a local law authorizing the town to pierce the 2% tax levy cap in 2023.

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar voted no, citing amendments to her tentative budget proposed by council members — all but one of which she voted to approve at the board’s Nov. 1 meeting. 

Council Member Ken Rothwell also voted against the budget, complaining that the budget had not been adequately discussed at Town Board work sessions. There was no scheduled public discussion of the budget either before or after the supervisor released her tentative budget on Sept. 30. Aguiar has said she included the council members in the process of developing her tentative budget.

The board did discuss six budget amendments proposed by council members at the Oct. 27 work session, which had been discussed and agreed to privately before that work session. The proposed amendments angered the supervisor, who said during the work session she had been “blindsided” by the council members’ proposals. Two more budget amendments were added for the Nov. 1 meeting. 

Rothwell last night also complained that the budget funds an across-the-board 6% raise for all town employees, other than elected officials. The budget provides a 5% raise for elected officials other than the supervisor and council members, whose salaries remain unchanged at $115,148 and $48,955 respectively.

He said this is unfair to the town’s “lower-tier” employees, who, he said, “need to be caught up so people can make a decent living in the Town of Riverhead.” As written, the budget is “top-heavy,” Rothwell said, because a flat-rate increase to all workers results in larger dollar increases to higher-paid employees.

The supervisor’s budget message, released with her tentative budget  Sept. 30, did not disclose how much it set aside for wage increases under the town’s collective bargaining agreements with the town’s labor unions. At no time was the inclusion of any wage increase for the town’s workforce disclosed by any board member or publicly discussed. The labor union contracts expire at the end of this calendar year. 

In an Aug. 20 interview, Aguiar accused Rothwell and Council Member Tim Hubbard of negotiating with the CSEA, the town’s largest union representing most civilian employees, behind her back. In that interview — in which she accused the two council members of plotting against her because, she said, they both want to run for supervisor — Aguiar said they had agreed to a 6% increase for the CSEA. Both council members denied the accusations, as did the union president.

Last night, Hubbard was joined by council members Frank Beyrodt and Robert Kern in supporting the budget. 

“I’m going to vote yes. It is a good budget in terms of helping to get some of these salaries up for some of our lower-tier employees,” Hubbard said, responding to Rothwell’s complaint. “You can’t do it all at once, as much as you’d like to, and I think it was done as best it could be done. And I vote yes.”

Beyrodt said “a lot of work went into this” budget. “I think this is a good first step forward, to bring up, like Ken says, to bring our employees up to speed and make these positions competitive. I think it’s a good budget. I’m going to vote yes,” Beyrodt said.

Kern voted in favor of the budget without comment.

Before voting no, Aguiar defended her tentative budget and again objected to one of the six amendments proposed by council members: providing a $7,500 raise to the Town Board coordinator. 

“So initially, when I submitted the budget, we had to expand our police department. We did expand the most ever, probably three times more than it’s ever been done, to seven police officers,” Aguiar said. 

“I tried to keep the tax cap as low as can be,” she said. 

“I did have discussions with the Town Board members during the budget process. And when I completed my process, and no one made any recommendations, and as soon as I submitted my budget, an employee, we have 358 employees, and in open session, that one employee was identified and received $7,500, which is not fair to anyone involved,” Aguiar said, referring to the resolution boosting the Town Board coordinator’s salary. 

“And so, in addition, the funds that were added, the $150,000 resolution, it’s a recreational issue – concern, right? And so it should have came out of our fund for community funds that we get, such as solar, and I don’t think that the taxpayers should have been afforded to have to pay for that,” Aguiar said. 

The supervisor was referring to a budget amendment to add a $150,000 expenditure to cover the cost of electricity to the domed ice rink being built by the Peconic Hockey Foundation at the town’s Veterans Memorial Park in Calverton. The town committed to that payment in a contract with the Peconic Hockey Foundation authorized by the Town Board on Oct. 4. Aguiar voted to approve that contract. Aguiar also voted on Nov. 1 to approve the $150,000 budget amendment to fund the obligation the town assumed in the contract to pay for electricity for the ice rink.

But last night, the supervisor argued the money should come out of a community benefit agreement, though she did not identify a source.

Aguiar complained that board members, without discussing things with her, agreed on budget amendments that increased the amount of the tax levy increase over what she had proposed in her tentative budget, which was 3.31%. The six amendments brought the tax levy increase to 4.5%. State law imposes a 2% tax levy cap. The supervisor said the way they proceeded lacked transparency, while the process she followed was transparent. She referred to one council member as a “cowboy,” but did not name names.

“I cannot vote yes for this budget,” Aguiar said.

Before the vote on the budget resolution, former town supervisor and Riverhead Town Democratic Committee Chairperson Laura Jens-Smith, reiterating comments she made during the Nov. 1 budget hearing, asked the board to provide details to the public about the change in the tax levy, tax rate and amount-per-thousand as a result of the six budget amendments approved Nov. 1 that impact the tax levy. 

Financial administrator William Rothaar provided verbal answers to the former supervisor’s questions during the hearing but, as Jens-Smith noted last night, the town never published an updated summary with the revised numbers after approving budget amendments increasing the tax levy by nearly $579,000. 

“I’m just wondering, is there a recalculation of the budget, so we know what the increase to the general fund is, we know what the increase to the taxpayer per $1,000 is, if it’s there, I didn’t see it. And I’m just wondering if that’s going to be provided for the community, especially since you’re voting on the budget this evening,” Jens-Smith said.

Rothaar said last night he did have a revised summary page that he would “distribute for the resolution.” He read from a document providing the numbers Jens-Smith asked for.

“Give me a copy of the summary sheet and we can put it up. How’s that?” Aguiar said.

RiverheadLOCAL requested and obtained from Rothaar a copy of the revised summary sheet on Nov. 2. It appears below. 2023-Budget-Preliminary-Fund-Summary-11.1.2022

Editor’s note: This article has been amended since its original publication for purposes of clarification of remarks made by the town supervisor before voting on the budget resolution.

The survival of local journalism depends on your support.
We are a small family-owned operation. You rely on us to stay informed, and we depend on you to make our work possible. Just a few dollars can help us continue to bring this important service to our community.
Support RiverheadLOCAL today.