The Board of Trustees extended the deadline for both payments on new sewer rents charged to residents and for appeals to reassess payments on specific properties following a heated discussion during a public forum at Tuesday’s Board meeting.
The deadline to submit applications for adjustment on a property’s sewage usage assessment was extended to March 15, with the permitted amount of time to pay the bill extended to June 1. Each deadline was originally Feb. 28, or one month after the bills were sent to residents and business owners.
The decision followed a two-hour public hearing which saw approximately 17 residents voice their displeasure with the new sewer rents. While some contested that the rents caught them by surprise, most were upset with the either the amount of money they were charged and/or the time frame for which they were being charged.
The Sewer Rental Code
The law was initally passed during the Board of Trustees meeting on Aug. 3, 2010, and was at the previous Village Board of Trustees meeting on January 18th. It was copied from a similar law used by a community in Rhode Island, according to Mayor George Doll. It stated that the village was going to charge residents and businesses that used the sewage system a yearly fee for that usage. The fee was in place of property taxes that went to all village residents, which included residents using cesspools to drain their water. The funding for the rents goes toward maintaining the condition of the .
The rent owed by residents to the village was derived from the amount of water they used, using figures from the Suffolk County Water Authority. Residents are taxed $2.95 for every 1000 gallons they use. A 10% reduction on the total cost was provided to homeowners in anticipation of people using some of that water on their lawns or for other usages that did not use the sewer system.
Villagers took exception to this means of assessment at the meeting. Former mayor Peter Panarites, who owns the , expressed his belief that the village should have charged a flat fee to residents and businesses instead, an idea initially proposed by Trustee Thomas Kehoe.
Village Attorney James Matthews explained to the residents in attendance that several options were taken into account, including a flat fee and an 'ad valorem' tax, which is what Huntington Village imposes on their residents and businesses in lieu sewer rents. But the board ultimately decided on a water-usage system.
The Retroactive First Bill
Many of the residents who spoke at the meeting took issue with the time frame they were being charged for. The bill that went out on Jan. 28 was issued for the period from September 2009 to June 2010, even though the law was not past until August 3, after that time frame ended. Panarites told the board to expect a lawsuit to be filed against this decision.
Pleas from Local Businesses
Many businesses owners used the public forum to express that while they had no issue paying a sewer-rental fee, the new imposed sewer rents would cripple their businesses, as their water usage plays an integral role in how their business is run. Among the most vocal was Panarites. He estimated that his taxes would go up by 25% with the new sewer rents.
“Every customer that comes to my store, I give a glass of water,” he told the Board. “My customers want to use the restroom. Then I get people in off the street visiting Northport who want to use the restroom. What do I tell those people? No, you can’t use my restroom, because there’s a water tax now, and I don’t want to use too much water?
The son of Paul Gallowitsch, whose company, Gallowitsch Enterprises Ltd., owns several businesses in the Village, including Skippers and Bistro 44, read a letter from his father to the board explaining that the new sewer rents added $3,000 to his $4,100 village tax bill for Bistro 44. All village residents also pay property taxes to the Town of Huntington.
“As a business owner, I know my expenses, and I budgeted for them,” the letter read. “Because the village did not give me a chance to budget correctly, there will be dire consequences for me.”
The board responded by telling aggrieved business owners to appeal and to express their concerns at a special meeting this Saturday.
Concerns of Residents
Several residents also expressed concerns over the legislation at the meeting. Paul Lewin, a resident of Harbour Point, brought up to the Board that the measure of water usage for that community isn’t an accurate assessment of its sewer usage because a large proportion of that water is used by sprinklers. The village told him that this could be a concern addressed through the appeals process.
When one resident stated that “660 people got billed and they don’t even know what they got billed for," the board reminded the Villagers that the legislation was passed in August and that they had time to express concerns then.
“We did not undertake this hiding under a bushel basket,” said Village Trustee Thomas Kehoe. “We had public hearings. They were posted in the newspapers. We are constrained by the laws of the State of New York that when we pass legislation like this that we have to have a public hearing, and it’s duly publicized. The people that followed it understood.”
The board did concede that they should have sent a cover letter with the first bill explaining what the sewer rental fee meant and why it was being assessed.
One of the biggest issues for the residents who spoke at the forum was a lack of knowledge of an appeals process to get payments reduced. The process was listed in the Sewer Rent Code and separately explained on the village’s website, but it was not explained when the bill was sent. Businesses were also upset that the process to file an application for adjustment on their rents was not made clear. The board acknowledged its mistake and stated that a letter of apology will be issued to residents with the appeals processes explained and the new deadlines listed.
The decision to extend both the appeals process and the deadline for payments was agreed upon by all of the trustees when it was discussed after most of the public left the meeting. “Whether they were surprised by it or not, they need time,” said Trustee Jerry Maline.
But there was debate over how long of an extension to grant for the appeals. Trustee Kehoe and Village Clerk Donna Koch suggested that the extension should be 30 days, while Deputy Mayor Henry Tobin and others on the Board wanted to extend the appeals deadline to 90 days.
Ultimately, it was decided that since an apology and explanatory letter would go out to the Village residents would be received by the beginning of next week, the residents would be given approximately a month from that point to appeal, since the original code called for a 30-day appeal period. The date decided on was March 15.
The due date for payments by residents and businesses on the sewer rental fees was also extended by 90 days to June 1st. The original legislation stated that the fees needed to be paid by Feb. 28, with a 1.5% penalty fee assessed for every month that the payments were late. That penalty fee will not be assessed until after the June 1st deadline.
Several Board trustees expressed concerns that this would fall too close to the 2010-11 payment, which will be due in October (as will every sewer rental fee from this year forward). A suggestion was made by a village resident for that payment to be split over two specific time periods, but no final decision was made on that payment at this time.
The board said that they will meet with aggrieved businesses and their counsel on Saturday morning to discuss their appeals and a potential lawsuit against the village for the filings.