Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst unveiled her proposed 2014 budget on Monday, trumpeting its forecasts of stable tax rates, decreased debt payments and climbing revenues.
The $80.7 million spending plan represents an increase in spending of about $2.3 million over this year’s adopted budget, or about 3 percent. But the budget projects no tax increase for town residents, thanks to climbing revenues and other savings, and actually proposes a tiny decrease in the total tax levy to be raised from property taxes.
The biggest spending hikes come from contractual demands related to the town’s 482 employees. Total employee costs will climb by $2.1 million, mostly in salaries for current employees, from $56.4 million this year to $58.5 million next year, or more than 3.5 percent.
“As with all municipal budgets, the greatest expense we have is associated with our greatest asset: our personnel,” Ms. Throne-Holst said on Monday, speaking to an audience of officials, town employees and residents at a special meeting of the Town Board. “We have been able to control costs by reducing staff through retirement incentives … reorganizing operations to achieve greater efficiencies, and adhering to a hiring freeze where appropriate.”
According to information released by the supervisor’s office, residents can expect to pay roughly 40 cents per $1,000 of assessed value—in line with what they are paying this year—if Ms. Throne-Holst’s spending plan is approved as-is. Therefore, those whose homes are assessed at $600,000 can expect to pay $239.10 in town taxes in 2014.
Town Board members, who have made modifications to the supervisor’s previous budgets, must adopt a spending plan before November 20. The board will hold work sessions with department heads to discuss the proposed spending plan on October 17 and November 7, and will open a public hearing to garner comments from residents on October 22, with at least one additional public hearing session on November 12.
Her budget, the supervisor said, proposes eliminating two vacant positions, a deputy assessor and engineer, but does not call for any layoffs. The plan does call for the addition of some full-time posts, including a heavy equipment operator in the Municipal Works Department, a groundskeeper for lands overseen by the Community Preservation Fund office, a maintenance mechanic in the Hampton Bays Water District and the expansion of a part-time mechanic’s position in the Highway Department to full-time. The supervisor also proposes adding a new part-time code enforcement officer, a part-time mechanic in the town’s central garage and a data entry clerk in the Information Technology Division at Town Hall.
Ms. Throne-Holst highlighted that the town has reduced overall staffing by some 13 percent since 2008, cutting 72 positions from its tax rolls through attrition and retirement incentives.
Union and non-union employees would receive 2-percent salary increases in the supervisor’s recommended budget, a raise that Ms. Throne-Holst called “modest.” Elected and appointed officials will not get raises.
Revenues are projected to climb by nearly $2 million, largely on the back of a $1 million leap in projected mortgage tax income. That budget line is expected to increase from $6 million to $7 million, citing forecasts indicating an expansion of the housing market.
The budget calls for about $1.7 million in surplus to be plugged into the budget to close other gaps and keep taxes low. The town’s overall surplus balance will still be left at about $26 million, the supervisor said. The 2012 budget finished the year with a nearly $4 million surplus, despite the unexpected costs incurred because of Hurricane Sandy.
About half of the surplus allocation, roughly $836,000, will go toward the town’s largest single budget item: its police department. The department’s budget in the supervisor’s proposed plan would be about $19.7 million, an increase of just over $560,000 from 2013, or about 3 percent.
Salaries for the town’s police officers are anticipated to rise by 7 percent, to about $13 million, in 2014 as the town is expected to ink new contracts with the unions representing its rank-and-file officers and department brass. The contract with the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association expired at the end of 2012 and the 2014 budget anticipates approximately 2 percent raises for officers in 2013 and 2014.
Nonetheless, the town expects to be able to absorb those climbing costs thanks to an aggressive paring down of the amount of debt it is carrying and taking on each year.
“The real thing that’s going to make this budget balance this year, and in the years to come, is by [the Town Board] having really controlled their borrowing the last three years and setting up the pay-as-you-go policy,” Town Comptroller Len Marchese said of the town’s policy of making departments pay for many capital expenditures out of their operating funds that once were commonly borrowed for.
“Debt was 25 percent of the budget in some of these funds, in the Highway Department it was over 25 percent,” he continued. “When you start to hold the line on that you really see a difference. It’s like when you pay off the mortgage on your house, you have a lot of extra money. We’re now going to have more real money to spend on real programs.”
Early reactions from across the political aisle were positive, if circumspect.
“I’m happy to see that the debt service is continuing to come down,” said Town Councilwoman Christine Scalera, a Republican. In a message later, Ms. Scalera said she the Town Board needs to take a closer look at the projections for mortgage tax revenue increases and the possibility that a larger amount of surplus might be used to possibly lower the tax burden on residents slightly.
Fellow Republican Councilman Chris Nuzzi said it is important to him to see the town maintain its hiring freeze and keep the tax levy flat, or trending downward.
“That’s what we’ve done for the last three years and I think we can do it for a fourth year,” said Mr. Nuzzi, who will leave the board in December because of term limits and is running for Suffolk County legislator. “We do have to look at staffing, especially as it relates to public safety, but if [new hiring] does happen, we should be mindful to find an offset, a budgetary offset.”
Mr. Nuzzi said he would like to see the town dedicate money to incentives for homeowners to help tackle water quality problems, like subsidies for septic system upgrades and replacement.
Conservative Party member and Town Councilman Jim Malone applauded the supervisor’s commitment to continuing to hold the line on tax increases. “Any budget process that begins with a continuation of no new taxes is an encouraging start point for me,” he said on Tuesday.
Ms. Throne-Holst, an Independence Party member who presented her fourth budget, cited a continuing policy of stringent spending controls and an emphasis on reducing borrowing and the town’s long-term debt service, freeing up more money to be spent on the town’s day-to-day business.
Her political opponent in the November election, Republican Linda Kabot, said the supervisor’s telling of the budget is misleading.
“At first blush the message sounds wonderful, it sounds like the town is on solid financial footing, as it was when I left office,” said Ms. Kabot, who served as supervisor from 2007 to 2009 before losing her reelection bid to Ms. Throne-Holst. “But in my opinion, there’s a pattern of untruthfulness with the current supervisor. The devil is always in the details.”
But Ms. Throne-Holst trumpeted her record over the last three years of conservative financial management.
“I am confident that this is a sound fiscal plan that will keep the town on the steady course to improved financial stability that it has been on for the past three years,” she said in her budget message on Monday. “At the end of the day, a budget is evidence of your local government’s stewardship of your tax dollars. As chief financial officer for the town, I have no greater responsibility.”