Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar has proposed a $5.5 million town-wide spending increase in 2024. The spending, which covers new police officers and town employees, as well as the rising costs of employee benefits, will require the Town Board to authorize piercing the state-imposed tax levy cap.
The proposal would increase spending for the three town-wide funds — the general fund, highway fund and street-lighting district — by $5.56 million over 2023. It calls for a 4.86% increase in the tax levy in the three town-wide funds, requiring a 4.54% tax rate increase.
The spending increase would require the town to collect $2.4 million more in property tax dollars, bringing the total town-wide taxes levied to more than $52.6 million. The rest of the town-wide budget increase would be offset by the use of $2 million in fund balance and an estimated $1.1 million increase in expected revenues.
The tax rate would rise from $59.613 per $1,000 of assessed value to $62.319 per $1,000 of assessed value. That will result in an “average” home in Riverhead — which town officials say has an assessed value of $50,000 (market value $538,213) — paying $135.50 more in property taxes next year towards those three funds.
In addition to property taxes to support the three town-wide funds, taxpayers will see property tax increases to cover rising spending for other expenses that are not town-wide, such as those for the sewer district, water district, ambulance district and parking district, depending on the location of the property being taxed. Residential properties within the garbage and refuse district pay an additional tax for trash and recyclables pickup.
The budget proposal, unless amended to decrease the proposed tax levy, will require the Town Board to adopt a local to authorize piercing the 2% tax levy limit imposed by state law. The town also pierced the tax levy limit for the current fiscal year. Riverhead Town also inadvertently pierced the tax levy cap for several years without the Town Board adopting the local law required to lawfully pierce the cap.
“This budget incorporates revenue and spending estimates reflecting diligent considerations of our Town’s economic environment,” Aguiar said in her budget message. “A budget is a careful analysis of planning and forecasting the future for an operational sustainability. As we move to the post COVID-19 pandemic, three years later we continue to endure impactful negative monetary challenges.”
Significant spending increases in the proposal include the addition of five new police officers in the Riverhead Police Department — bringing the total to 100 officers — and the addition of four civilian employees to “assist in the [town hall] operations and to support Building and Grounds operations.”
Aguiar attributed other large spending increases to the rising cost of employee health insurance and employee retirement contributions.
The supervisor’s proposal comes after the town settled the labor contracts this year with its two largest employee unions, the CSEA and Riverhead Police Benevolent Association. Both contracts, which expired at the end of last year, were “favorably negotiated,” Aguiar said in the budget message. The Riverhead Superior Officers Association, which represents police department brass and also expired at the end of last year, does not yet have a new contract with the town.
The overall operating budget, which includes spending that is not assessed town-wide, would increase to $111.4 million from this year’s adopted budget of $103.9 million under the proposal. In addition to using $2 million from the general fund’s fund balance, the budget proposes using a little more than $4 million from fund balances in the sewer, scavenger waste and water districts to cover expenses in those districts.
The total general fund spending, which covers most general operating expenses of town government, including the police department, comes in at around $60.8 million under the spending plan. Proposed spending on the town police department represents 30.6% of total general fund spending. Aguiar proposes increasing the police department budget by 4.86%, to $18,621,436.
The highway fund, which covers the expenses of the repairs and maintenance of town roads and sidewalks, comes in at just over $7.5 million — a 2.31% increase over the 2023 adopted budget.
The street-lighting district fund, which covers the cost of purchasing, maintaining, repairing and operating street lights and traffic signals in town, is proposed at just under $1.1 million, a slight reduction in funding from the previous year’s adopted budget.
A 20% raise for the paid appointees to the town’s Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals and Architectural Review Board is also built into the budget proposal.
The proposal does not include any salary increases for elected officials.
Aguiar proposes appropriating $6.26 million to pay debt service, a slight increase from the $6.21 million appropriated last year. The town has authorized bonding for two large real estate purchases over the last few years, including $4.85 million in May 2021 to buy three buildings for the town square and $21.5 million last year to purchase and renovate a new Town Hall on West Second Street. Aguiar said in the budget message that the move to the new town hall was the “most notable accomplishment” this year.
The town has issued bond anticipation notes for both bonds. The town may have to issue bonds to fund other large projects in the near future, including a multi-story parking garage on the north side of East Main Street and renovations to the former Town Hall on Howell Avenue to accommodate a functional and safe town justice court.
“Our fund balance remains at a strong level and residents will continue to receive the services they expect and deserve,” Aguiar said in her budget message. “We are fortunate to have a good financial footing. However, this does not happen by chance: it is the result of meticulous financial planning and difficult decision making. Sound financial standing enables us to respond to the needs of the community, without the loss of services.”
How the town budget process works
The town supervisor is required to file a budget proposal with the town clerk on or before Sept. 30. After the budget is filed, the town clerk is required to present the proposal — known as the tentative budget — to the Town Board at a regular or special meeting on or before Oct. 5.
The Town Board is required to review the budget and can revise it as they see fit. The tentative budget, together with any amendments made by the Town Board, becomes the preliminary budget, upon which the board is required to hold a public hearing. The hearing must be held on or before the Thursday immediately following the general election. The general election this year is Tuesday, Nov. 7, so the Town Board is required to hold a hearing on the preliminary budget on or before Thursday, Nov. 9.
The board may make additional changes to the preliminary budget and must adopt the budget by resolution on or before Nov. 20. To adopt a budget that exceeds the tax levy cap, the Town Board must pass a local law, with a supermajority vote, overriding the tax levy limit.
If the Town Board fails to adopt a budget by Nov. 20, the preliminary budget becomes the final adopted budget for the next fiscal year.
The current town budget was adopted by the Town Board in a 3-2 vote last year after council members introduced and passed six amendments to Aguiar’s tentative budget. All but one of the amendments was passed without her support. Council Member Ken Rothwell also voted against the budget, complaining that the budget had not been adequately discussed at Town Board work sessions.
Town council members did not immediately return calls requesting comment. Council Member Bob Kern said in a message in response to a call that he has not completely reviewed the budget yet. Financial Administrator William Rothaar did not return calls requesting answers to questions about specific aspects of the budget.
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