When New York State first approved its state property tax levy cap in 2011, this newspaper called it the biggest unfunded mandate of all. Two years later, we editorialized that the tax cap should never have been labeled “2 percent” if exceptions allow municipalities to increase budgets by more than that amount without technically piercing the cap.
Then, in 2015, we examined results from the cap’s first four years and found that spending in Riverhead Town had increased at a much slower rate in that period than during the four years before the cap was approved. The same could be said for the tax levies in most school districts across the North Fork.
Now another year has passed and we again have reason to lament that a town can pierce the cap by a simple majority vote. Specifically, we’re talking about how easily four members of the Riverhead Town Board could approve a budget that not only pierces the cap, but also includes raises averaging 12.6 percent for other elected town officials.
Under the adopted 2017 budget, Riverhead’s tax levy will rise by an estimated 4.1 percent. Supervisor Sean Walter said that in order to stay under the cap, the town would have had to cut $1.3 million from the budget.
Only Councilwoman Jodi Giglio voted against the spending plan because raises were given to “several employees, including ones we’re not contracted to.”
“I think that we should have made an attempt to at least make some cuts in the budget,” she said.
Still others defended the spending plan, including Councilman John Dunleavy, who called it “the tightest budget the supervisor could have made.”
How can that be true when eight elected officials — town clerk, highway superintendent, justices, assessors and tax receiver — will receive raises next year totaling approximately $80,000?
We understand that contractual expenses make it difficult to navigate the cap, but a town that’s running low on reserves and has consistent budget shortfalls should not be handing out salary increases it’s not obligated to pay.
The supervisor was wrong to include these raises in the 2017 budget. It will be disingenuous when he and his fellow board members who voted in favor of the spending plan inevitably claim to be fiscal conservatives at re-election time.
File photo: Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter. (Credit: Riverhead News-Review)