Clerical errors blamed for overspending and confusion in Southampton Village budget

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Southampton Village officials last week approved a $19.5 million spending plan for 2008-09, but mistakes in the budget—discovered both before and after the unanimous vote to approve it—nearly overlooked hundreds of thousands of dollars in projected police expenditures.

During the budget process, the board made a series of cuts in police spending. But two spreadsheet errors that omitted approximately $700,000 in spending from the department’s personnel budget were discovered on Friday, April 25, just days before the overall spending plan, which includes a 7.2-percent hike in overall expenditures, was slated to be approved.

Then on Thursday, May 1, the morning after the Village Board approved the budget at a specially scheduled meeting, village officials discovered that they had been working with the wrong existing tax rate. This mistake actually worked in the taxpayers’ favor: They had anticipated that the new budget would require a 5.4-percent hike in the tax rate, but in fact the tax rate will rise only 1.1 percent in 2008-09.

Village Administrator James Van Nostrand said that the spreadsheet errors were made not just in the police department’s 2008-09 proposed budget but also in the two previous budgets. Mayor Mark Epley said the $700,000 miscalculation never jumped off the page before, in part because the department did not fill several vacant positions, thus sidestepping the spending increase.

For the current year, the Village Board budgeted $5 million in police spending. With one month left to go in the fiscal year, the department has already spent $5.1 million, and Mr. Van Nostrand said the department is on pace to spend $5.6 million for the year. For 2008-09, the Village Board allocated $5.39 million to the police department, a 7.7-percent increase over what was budgeted this year, but still below the anticipated amount that will actually be spent.

In an earlier draft of the village budget, police department spending was slated to rise 7.2 percent, but after making numerous cuts, village officials thought they had managed a 1-percent decrease in police spending. That was erased by the $700,000 bookkeeping error.

Police Chief William Wilson Jr. said a significant portion of the budget cuts came from removing $300,000 for a microwave antenna for the police station from his requests. But even with that, and other cuts, Mayor Epley said it did not make sense that police spending would decrease, considering that police officers earn annual raises.

As a result, the village’s deputy treasurer, Stephen Funsch, took a closer look at the police department’s numbers and found that the personnel salary spreadsheet had calculation errors that under-represented spending by around $700,000. The first error came from columns being added improperly; the second omitted the department secretaries, school crossing guards, traffic control officers and ordinance inspectors from the budget total.

After the spreadsheet errors were found, Chief Wilson gave up more on his wish list, including two additional police officers. The department has 29 officers now, including himself and others in administrative positions, the chief said. He wanted to bring that up to 34, but is now settling for 32 in the interest of reducing spending, he said.

Chief Wilson said because he signs off on the department’s budget request before passing it along to the Village Board, he was taking personal responsibility for the mistakes.

Mr. Van Nostrand owned up to the tax rate error. He marked down on the overall budget summary that the current property tax rate was $13.58 per $100 of assessed valuation, but that was in fact the 2006-07 tax rate. The summary should have indicated that the existing tax rate was $14.17.

On Wednesday, April 30, the board approved a budget of $19.5 million—a 7.2-percent increase in spending—and a tax rate increase to $14.22 per $100 of assessed property value, an increase of 1.1 percent.

While he emphasized that he was not happy about the tax rate mistake, Mayor Epley said it was probably a good thing that it happened, considering the state of the economy. Had he known the real impact on taxpayers beforehand, however, he said the board would have been more conservative in its estimates of revenues other than property taxes, such as fees and fines, rather than more free in spending.

Non-tax revenue accounts for $5.8 million, or 29.9 percent, of the village’s projected 2008-09 revenue. The projection is up from this year’s $4.6 million, which represented 25.6 percent of the 2007-08 budget.

Mr. Van Nostrand said he prefers that the board maintains conservative revenue estimates, because a bad beach season or other factors could easily reduce what the village takes in from selling parking permits and other methods.

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