During his State of the Town address last week, Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said his proposal to shrink town government would cause an “uproar.”
He may have been right.
Mr. Walter’s plan to cut staff in the town’s assessor and tax receiver offices in an effort to save $150,000 has been met with criticism from fellow Town Board members who question whether the move would bring the savings he says they will — and who think such a drastic change should only occur after a public referendum.
In his annual address, which was given last Wednesday at The Birchwood of Polish Town, Mr. Walter proposed eliminating the town’s three elected assessor positions and replacing them with two appointed posts — a head assessor and a deputy. In addition, he proposed making the town’s tax receiver an appointed position, while cutting the deputy tax receiver post.
Mr. Walter said the move would save $150,000 and that “not one taxpayer will see any change.”
The proposal comes as the supervisor says the town faces an $850,000 budget gap next year. Reserves have been dwindling for years as they’ve been used to balance the budget, leaving little in the bank for the town.
“Here’s the reality: We need to cut $850,000 next year and the budget should be balanced,” he said. “The Town Board is going to be looking at saving every penny we can.”
But some board members say they aren’t interested in the idea.
“I’m against it,” said Councilman John Dunleavy. “It’s not going to save us any money.”
Instead, Mr. Dunleavy said he’d be in favor of raising taxes, something he said the town should have done last year.
Councilman Jim Wooten also said he doesn’t support cuts in the two town offices, saying, “I don’t see the savings at all.”
Of every elected official the News-Review interviewed this week about the proposal, none expressed outright support for the supervisor’s plan, which also includes a proposal to fold the tax receiver’s office into the town clerk’s office.
In turning the three elected assessor posts into two appointed positions, Mr. Walter said he would increase their salaries to be more in line with neighboring towns like Brookhaven and Southampton, which pay theirs between $125,000 and $150,000. He also said a part-time employee would be hired to aid the remaining tax receiver and that another part-time worker could be hired to help assessors with field work.
Most of the Town Board expressed opposition to the thought of changing the positions from elected to appointed without a public referendum — the latter of which Mr. Walter said he would be open to.
Several board members said that before they consider a public referendum, they would like more details about whether a cost savings would be realized.
“I’m not committing on it either way,” said Councilman George Gabrielsen. “If it doesn’t affect service and the numbers work, it could be a bold move on the part of the supervisor that might work.”
“I would have to look into it in order to even put it up for a public referendum,” said Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, who has already expressed intent to screen for Mr. Walter’s seat this election season. “From what I can see now, it’s all politics.”
Tax Receiver Laurie Zaneski and Assessors Laverne Tennenberg, Paul Leszczynski and Mason Haas said they can’t foresee how the workload in their offices could be maintained under the supervisor’s proposal.
“I don’t want to badmouth it or bash it because I don’t know what his plans are, but I don’t see how decreasing staff is going to keep the same amount of service,” Ms. Zaneski said.
Ms. Tennenberg said the current system, which features three assessors and three additional staff members, dates back to the 1960s.
Since then, she said, the number of town parcels has grown from about 8,000 to 17,000, and that exemptions have “gone from a handful to thousands.” Ms. Tennenberg added that property tax grievances have also increased. She pointed to potential subdivisions on the horizon at EPCAL as yet another task that will fall on the assessor’s office to complete.
“We still do all of that work with the same six people,” she said. “How does that happen? We’ve become more efficient.”
In an interview, Mr. Haas showed data going back to the 2007-08 tax year, when former assessor Madelyn Sendlewski left office mid-term due to an illness. That year, the town hired an outside consultant to help with grievances at a cost of $87,500 and still saw over 80 percent of its grievances reduced in court. That percentage has fallen every year since, when Mr. Haas — who formerly ran a title company for 28 years — stepped into office. Last year, the town saw only 26 percent of its grievances reduced.
Pointing to higher-paid assessors in neighboring Brookhaven and Southampton towns, Mr. Walter said he fears losing the talent he has in the assessor’s office and the possibility of bringing in unqualified replacements through a public vote.
“If you don’t have a good assessor and a good deputy, everything else falls apart,” he said. “What happens if we get someone who is not capable of doing the job? Then what do you do?”
He said the town “got lucky” when its current set of assessors were voted in and claims the move isn’t a political hit on Mr. Haas, who is the chairman of the Town Republican Committee and has screened for Mr. Walter’s seat in the past.
As for claims that the supervisor should look at cutting his own office of four employees — something that was mentioned by more than one person interviewed for this story — Mr. Walter said that due to cuts elsewhere in Town Hall, much of that work ends up back in his office. Since he took office in 2010, 41 fewer people now work for the town.
In the end, Mr. Walter said, he would like to see the four elected officials affected by his proposals to be on board with his plan before moving forward with it.