Suffolk, Brookhaven Town officials at odds over overdue $10.8M college tuition bill

Suffolk and Brookhaven officials are engaged in a spat over $10.8 million in out-of-county college tuition reimbursement payments that the county says are owed by the town.

The county said Brookhaven has failed to make the payments for the past three years, adding to Suffolk’s budget woes.

Brookhaven officials said Wednesday that they expect to pay the bills after they are authenticated by town and county budget officials.

“Our residents are entitled to make sure that when we pay our bills that the supporting documentation is there,” Matt Miner, Brookhaven’s chief of operations, said in an interview. “As soon as that happens, we will certainly expedite the payment.”

Counties in New York pay out-of-county tuition rates for students who attend community colleges in other parts of the state. Suffolk typically passes on those costs to its 10 towns.

Brookhaven is the only Suffolk town that owes tuition reimbursements, county officials said. Brookhaven reportedly owes $3 million from 2018, $4.5 million from 2019 and $3.3 million this year.

“We fully expect that Brookhaven will fulfill its financial obligations to Suffolk County taxpayers just like every other town as is required by law,” county spokesman Derek Poppe wrote in an email.

Most Suffolk students who attend out-of-county schools go to Nassau Community College or the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan, county officials said.

Suffolk’s demand for the Brookhaven payments comes amid a county budget crisis partly driven by the coronavirus pandemic. County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat, recently proposed a $3.19 billion budget for next year that would cut 500 jobs and raise police district taxes by 1.9% to cover revenue shortfalls.

Republican County Comptroller John M. Kennedy Jr. dismissed the flap as “a non-story.” He said Brookhaven has placed the payments into an escrow account, from which they will be paid to the county once they have been verified.

The county Budget Review Office checks with out-of-county colleges to confirm the home addresses of Suffolk students, Kennedy said.

“The monies have been collected, they are in escrow and they are ready to be remitted,” Kennedy said in an interview. “I suspect we’ll be ready to release them in a week or so. As much as some would like to characterize that the town is out of compliance, I think it’s anything but that.”

Miner said Kennedy and town Finance Commissioner Tamara Branson plan to meet soon to discuss the payments. He said it’s “standard operating procedure” to authenticate bills before they are paid.

“We’re not talking about 5 or 6 dollars. We’re talking about a considerable amount of money,” Miner said. “This is no different than normal procedure, and I’m confident that when the comptroller and the finance commissioner sit down, any outstanding issues can be resolved and we can cut the checks.”