Southampton Town Board Adopts 2017 Budget, But Not Without Debate Over Key Parts Of Supervisor’s Plan

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A 3-2 vote along party lines on Friday approved the 2017 Southampton Town budget but also highlighted significant disagreement about key elements of the $94.7 million spending plan.

The Republican members of the Town Board, Christine Scalera and Stan Glinka, initially proposed a slate of changes that would have undone a great many changes at Town Hall that Supervisor Jay Schneiderman had built into the proposal. Ms. Scalera put forward an amendment, seconded by Mr. Glinka, to eliminate funding for the creation of a new Department of Housing and Community Development to work alongside the town’s Housing Authority, and also the creation of a new Department of Public Safety, including a new administrative position for Code Enforcement.

That amendment failed by the same 3-2 vote, with Mr. Schneiderman and Town Board members Julie Lofstad and John Bouvier voting it down. Later, with the budget approval, the funding for both changes was approved.

Prior to the final vote on the budget—which includes a 2-percent drop in the property tax rate, though spending is up about 4 percent—Ms. Scalera read a statement outlining her objections to the measures outlined in her amendments. She also took aim at another of Mr. Schneiderman’s proposals that won approval with the budget: plans for “longevity payments” of up to $4,000 next November for non-union salaried employees and most administrators—including the supervisor and Town Board members.

In her statement, Ms. Scalera suggested that the new budget is “putting at risk our AAA bond rating” by creating new positions at Town Hall that will have a growing impact on future budgets. “Increasing un-negotiated employee costs during and post-employment, longevity for elected officials and non-union members, un-needed created positions, and concern over revenue projections are just too great for me, in good conscience, to ignore.”

Mr. Schneiderman bristled at the suggestion and countered that it was a “strong budget,” and that the town was in “pretty strong fiscal shape,” with reserves about double what the ratings agencies require, so the bond rating wasn’t likely to change.

The debate also was over competing notions of the best way to improve the town’s code enforcement efforts in particular. The supervisor’s proposal, which was approved with the budget, will consolidate code enforcement, animal control, the fire marshal’s office and emergency preparedness into a newly created Department of Public Safety. The hiring of a new administrator, at a salary of $150,000, plus a clerk, will “significantly strengthen” the department by providing much needed coordination and leadership, Mr. Schneiderman said.

But Ms. Scalera and Mr. Glinka argued that the money could be better spent. “We only have seven code enforcement officers,” Mr. Glinka said, noting that he had just recently discussed the issue with Hampton Bays civic leaders. Of the supervisor’s plan, he said, “I just feel it’s a waste of money, and it’s not making good fiscal sense to have an administrator in place when we could use those monies to bring on another code enforcement officer in Hampton Bays, Flanders, Riverside or Northampton.”

The pair made similar arguments against the plan to create an Office of Housing and Community Development as a division of the Department of Land Management. The new office will take over elements of affordable housing from the town’s Housing Authority, and again will require the creation of a new administrative position at a cost of $150,000, plus a clerk. Ms. Scalera and Mr. Glinka suggested that if the plan was to bring elements “in house,” the town should eliminate spending for the Housing Authority altogether.

But Mr. Schneiderman said the two organizations would work together as a team, with the Housing Authority focusing on some elements, such as Section 8 housing, while the new office would work more aggressively on affordable housing. “I think there’s room for both—I do,” he said.

The 800-page budget includes hiring one police officer and one public safety dispatcher, and Town Board members hinted that more could be added in the coming year, depending on the requests of the new Town Police chief, Steven E. Skrynecki, who will start in January.

The hike in spending is offset by a jump in the overall assessed valuation of properties in the municipality, up to $60 billion from last year’s assessment of $55 billion, allowing a decrease in the tax rate.

The new “longevity payment” approved as part of the budget was pitched by the supervisor as a way to attract, and retain, good administrators by rewarding them for years of service. Salaried non-union town employees in Town Hall would be eligible—including the supervisor and Town Board members, along with the town comptroller, town clerk and town attorney, and various other administrators. The payments would be capped at $4,000 for an individual employee, would be based on the number of years in public service—not just at Town Hall—and would be made in November 2017. A total of 75 administrative employees will receive checks next November, with the cost estimated at $212,000.

Ms. Scalera, who last week labeled the proposal “a gift of public funds,” expressed alarm on Friday that the proposal—which was pitched as a one-time payment—is being added to the town’s employee handbook, suggesting that it could be an annual payment. Mr. Schneiderman acknowledged that it would be up to future Town Boards whether or not to approve the same payment in future years as well.

The effort to bolster salaries for non-union salaried employees goes back to the last Town Board when former Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst attempted to push forward a “salary matrix” in the 2015 budget. This would have created starting salaries for each position as well as pay increases for length of service and other factors specific to each position. This increase did not get included in the final 2015 budget.

Mr. Schneiderman introduced a similar longevity pay system in East Hampton when he was town supervisor in 2003. Non-union full-time town department heads and other salaried employees were given between $1,700 and $2,000 after the first five years of full-time service to the town, plus an additional $100 for every subsequent year. However, East Hampton Town elected officials do not receive longevity pay, as those in Southampton Town will.

With the budget’s approval, the supervisor struck a conciliatory note, acknowledging the 3-2 margin of approval: “These are changes that can be made next year,” he said of some of the proposals put forward by Ms. Scalera and Mr. Glinka. “It’s not set in stone.”

Staff writer Jen Newman contributed to this story.

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