Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst this week presented the Town Board with an $88.5 million town operating budget for 2015 that would increase spending by $3 million and add seven employees to the town payroll.
But the budget proposes to keep the tax levy flat for the fourth year in a row, aided by rising revenues and pulling $1.3 million from the town’s $29 million reserve account.
If the final budget, which must be adopted by November 20, maintains the zero-percent levy, tax rates for town homeowners would actually drop, due to the expected jump of nearly $2 billion in the town’s overall assessed value, the result of new construction and rising property market values. Town Comptroller Len Marchese said that the estimated tax rate is projected to drop from $1.4216 to $1.4163 per $1,000 of assessed property value. The impact on individual tax bills would vary based on an individual property’s assessed value.
Climbing mortgage tax income, rising revenues from the town’s once-again booming construction industry, increased fines and fees, and more county sales tax revenue will help offset much of the new spending in the budget, the supervisor said at Town Hall on Tuesday morning.
The rest will be made up with fund balance, if the Town Board agrees to her budget proposal. The town’s fund reserves currently stand at about 32 percent of the operating budget, well above the 17 percent minimum the board set as a standard for the future earlier this year.
“This 2015 budget and my previous four budgets are based on the notion that sound financial footing is the bedrock on which all town services rest,” Ms. Throne-Holst said. “The degree and quality for which the town can provide for public safety, safe- and well-maintained roadways, clean and accessible beaches, parks and public spaces, and a host of other services that support and improve the quality of life for our citizens depends on our ability to provide that sound financial footing.”
The supervisor said that the $1.3 million in reserve funds she proposed to use could be directed at one-off costs—like boosting the pay-as-you-go funding of vehicle and equipment purchases, which had traditionally been made with capital borrowing—so as not to burden next year’s budget with unfunded recurring costs.
But Ms. Throne-Holst also suggested—even advocated—that, if the Town Board were amenable, the town could withhold its reserve funds and present a final budget with a 1.5-percent tax increase instead. Doing so would qualify the town for a state tax rebate program this year. In a plan offered by Governor Andrew Cuomo, the state will refund homeowners whatever the increase in their local property taxes is, if their municipality or school district stays within the state-mandated 2-percent tax cap.
The consideration of presenting residents with a tax hike, despite the promised refund, gave Councilwoman Christine Scalera pause.
“I’m a little worried by her willingness to go to a 1.5-percent increase and leaving open whether or not to use the governor’s tax rebate program, but I need to look closer there,” Ms. Scalera, the senior Republican on the Town Board, said. “And, obviously, we’ll be looking closely at the number of positions added, and some of the salary increases.”
Included in the budget is a slightly more than 2-percent salary hike for the four Town Board members, from $60,000 per year to $62,000 per year, a hike Ms. Scalera said she did not feel was necessary.
The budget, the supervisor said in her presentation, continues recent efforts at cutting borrowing and reducing debt burdens, identifying cost efficiencies in town services.
Early in her tenure as supervisor, Ms. Throne-Holst had overseen a 15-percent reduction in staffing levels. But for the first time, in 2015 she calls for the hiring of eight town employees as part of an effort to “right size” the town government after years of reductions. Two police officers, one code enforcement officer, an environmental analyst, three Highway Department workers and three administrative personnel would be added under the supervisor’s proposal. One position in the Highway Department is being eliminated, for a net addition of seven town positions.
The salaries and benefits for the new employees, if all the positions are in the final budget adopted in November, account for $695,000 in new spending in their first year on the payrolls. With the additions, the town will have a total staff of 489, including police officers.
“We’ve lived with a pointed decline in our staffing levels, and we’ve made adjustments accordingly,” Ms. Throne-Holst said after her presentation. “We said, with the police and the retirements we knew were coming, for instance, okay, let’s see how that works. Can we do more with less? Now, we can look at it and with some of the restructuring planned, we can see it is timely to add some officers.”
With the addition of the two officers the Town Police force would stand at 91 officers and brass, which is still far below past levels, which had been 110 or more.
The Police Fund budget, always the largest single chunk of town spending, in the supervisors proposal is $20.7 million. That represents an approximately $727,000 increase in spending over 2014, about 3.6 percent, driven primarily by contractual salary hikes.
The town and the police officers’ union reached a new contract agreement just this month, one that carried a number of concessions by the union on salaries and the employing of part-time officers. The agreement will drive a shift to “steady tours” scheduling. In addition to the new officers, the supervisor’s budget calls for the promotion of two more officers to add a third lieutenant and a new sergeant to the department’s senior officers corps.
The new officer being hired in the code enforcement division of the town attorney’s office will be the third hired in the last 18 months as the town struggles to cope with a bombardment of complaints from residents about illegal rental housing. The town will also be hiring a special prosecutor, by contract, to aid in the prosecution of town housing code violations. Ms. Throne-Holst noted that since the town passed the duties of processing rental permits to the code enforcement division from the Building Department, 110 backlogged applications have been processed.