Members of the public had little to say about the Riverhead Town Board’s proposed 2024 operating budget or a local law that will allow the budget to override the state-imposed 2% tax levy cap at a hearing held Thursday at Riverhead Town Hall.
The proposed budget calls for a tax levy increase of 4.86% to support spending of just over $69.4 million in the three town-wide funds, a 5.5% spending increase over 2023. The three town-wide funds are the general fund, the highway fund and the street lighting district fund.
Reeves Park resident Mike Foley spoke in support of the budget and piercing the tax levy cap to allow the budget to be adopted. The budget allows for raises town employees need to be able to live in Riverhead and wages the town must pay in order to retain employees, Foley said.
“This budget, in my opinion, is a very good one,” Foley said. “I believe we’re gonna have to revisit piercing the cap next year and the year after that. And maybe the year after that our employees will have been caught up so that they can make a comparable living wage working in the Town of Riverhead.”
Most of the talking during the hearing was among board members, who also spoke of the need to increases employee salaries. The Town Board this year approved contracts with the Riverhead Police Benevolent Association, which represents the town’s rank-and-file officers, and the Civil Service Employees Association, which represents the town’s civilian workforce. Board members also cited the rising cost of health insurance and rising inflation rates as contributing factors in the need to pierce the tax cap.
“Our payroll was just substantially too low for too long for too many town employees in this building and the highway building and throughout the town,” Council Member Ken Rothwell said. “And I just think that we were playing catch up. People can’t make a living doing $39,000, $40,000 A year. It just doesn’t work on Long Island anymore.”
“And so for a number of years, and during COVID, we kept a 0% tax increase and I praise the supervisor doing that because it was the right time then, because we had businesses closing down and everybody taking a pause during that,” Rothwell said. “And I think last year and this year, we’re simply playing catch up. I think that our employees seem to be much more happy with the outlook in the future for working in the Town of Riverhead.”
In fact, the Town Board unknowingly pierced the 2% tax cap from 2018 through 2022 without an authorizing resolution, according to an audit conducted on the town’s 2021 finances released earlier this year. The mistake was first discovered by auditors as they completed the 2020 audit and was fully corrected by fiscal year 2023, according to the town’s financial administrator.
Under the 2024 budget proposal, the tax rate per $1,000 of assessed property value would rise to $62.319 per thousand, up from $59.613 per thousand this year. Assessed value is a fraction of current market value. The supervisor’s budget document states that an “average” home in Riverhead has a market value of $538,000 and an assessed value of $50,000. That home would see a property tax increase of $135.50 to cover the three town-wide funds.
Additional town taxes are levied on properties located within the water district, sewer district, garbage district, ambulance district, and public parking district, to cover the expenses of those districts. Proposed total spending, including these districts and the three town-wide funds, would top $111.3 million in 2024.
The Town Board must adopt a final budget for the next fiscal year by Nov. 20. The Town Board has scheduled a special meeting on Wednesday at 11:30 a.m. to adopt the budget and authorize the town to override the tax levy limit. Resolutions to amend the budget are not on the agenda released by the supervisor’s office. The preliminary budget the board will vote on remains unchanged from Supervisor Yvette Aguiar’s tentative budget proposal filed Sept. 30.
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