Walter: Taxes will go up 4.3 percent in 2011

Riverhead Town residents will be faced with a 4.3 percent hike
in taxes if the Town Board approves Supervisor Sean Walter’s
proposed 2011 budget, despite the fact that the tentative plan
features a 1.5 percent reduction in spending.

Riverhead Town residents will be faced with a 4.3 percent property tax hike if the Town Board approves Supervisor Sean Walter’s proposed 2011 budget, despite the fact that the tentative plan features a 1.5 percent reduction in spending.
The supervisor’s proposed $50 million budget, which would eliminate six full-time and seven part-time jobs, is also contingent upon the town’s police unions’ members approving a lag payroll. Without it, the tax rate increase would climb to over 5 percent, according to Mr. Walter, who said the lag payroll savings would amount to about $230,000.
Among other highlights in the budget are a “dramatic cutback” in police overtime, Mr. Walter said.
The actual amount budgeted for police overtime in Mr. Walter’s budget proposal is $600,000, which is lower than the $660,000 budgeted in the adopted 2010 budget, but higher than the $575,000 in the amended 2010 budget that reflects mid-year cutbacks made by the town. But all three of those numbers are lower than the actual annual amounts for police overtime since 2003, when the lowest annual amount spent was $720,000. The highest was $839,729 in 2005, according to town records.
Dixon Palmer, the president of the town’s Police Benevolent Association, said it’s hard to tell if that overtime number can be met, because officers responding to homicides and accidents can’t just leave when their shifts are over.
The proposed cuts in overtime for all other town departments totaled about $135,000 less than the current year’s budget.
As for the lag payroll, in the which the salary savings would be paid to employees when they retire, Mr. Palmer said the PBA’s leadership is recommending that the members accept it, and ballots have been mailed out. He expects a verdict toward the end of next week.
Town department heads and nonunion employees also agreed to a lag payroll, the supervisor said. Town finance administrator Bill Rothaar said these employees can either take a lag payroll or 10 unpaid days.
Mr. Walter, who unveiled the budget last Thursday, called the proposed cutbacks “a vital step in our attempt to get government to live within its means.”
The 4.3 percent tax hike would be equal to an increase of about $94 annually for a Riverhead resident whose house is valued at the townwide average of about $330,000.
The town portion of the property tax bill accounts for about 23 percent of the total, with school taxes being about 54 percent, town officials said.
The cuts were needed to offset a $6.9 million budget deficit that Mr. Walter blamed on the use of one-time revenues by previous administrations. Another big factor, he said, was the $50 million landfill reclamation project, which went way over budget several years ago, and accounts for $4.3 million in debt service in his proposed budget.
“If we didn’t have that issue, with the cuts we made, you would be getting a tax decrease,” he said in Town Hall.
The budget also proposes to use about $2.6 million of the town’s $7 million surplus to offset tax increases.
Mr. Walter said the cuts were needed.
“Let’s face it, our budget is so far out of control we cannot tax our way out of our problem,” he said. “We have to cut the cost of government and that has a cost in terms of people and families, but we must swallow that bitter medicine.”
The full Town Board must review the budget and adopt a final spending plan by Nov. 20.
Matt Hattorff, president of the town Civil Service Employees Association, which represents most non-police employees in town, expressed disappointment with the proposed layoffs: “Here’s a guy who campaigned that he would not balance the budget on the backs of the employees, and now, here he is, balancing the budget on the backs of the employees.”
Mr. Walter said he had no choice but to lay off employees because the CSEA would not agree to either a 5 percent salary cut or a lag payroll.
The police’s lag payroll, should the unions agree to it, amounts to about $230,000, Mr. Walter said. It was uncertain when the two unions representing police would vote on the lag payroll.
The town also has offered a voluntary retirement incentive program to induce older, higher-paid employees to retire. Mr. Walter said one employee has taken advantage of this program and another three have expressed interest. In two of the cases, the employees in question also plan to continue working part-time. Mr. Walter said this will be “a tremendous savings” to the town.
In the one case that is finalized, building department coordinator Sharon Klos will be working 17 and a half hours a week for $30,000 per year, instead of 35 hours per week for $81,415.
As for revenues, the supervisor said they were projected to be “flat” and based on actual 2009 figures and half-year 2010 figures.
Adding together the projected fees for the planning board, building department, site plan, justice court fines, and mortgage recording tax, which are among the largest income sources in the budget, the projected 2011 total of $2.781 million in Mr. Walter’s budget is slightly lower than the $2.784 million anticipated in the 2010 budget, but higher than the $2.11 million actually received in 2009.
“The revenues projected for 2009 were about $900,000 short,” Mr. Walter said. He had criticized the revenue projections his predecessor, Phil Cardinale, made in this year’s budget, including the sale of the dilapidated East Lawn building and a fine in a lawsuit for allegedly illegally excavating on Route 58. Those revenues totaled about $800,000, and aren’t expected to materialize, Mr. Walter said.
One revenue item that is proposed to increase greatly in Mr. Walter’s budget is rental income for wireless communications. That number is projected to increase from $100,000 in the 2010 budget to $305,500 in the 2011 budget, as the town has awarded contracts to wireless companies to build cell towers on three town-owned properties on which they will lease space.
Despite the cuts two Town Board members, George Gabrielsen and Jodi Giglio, say they don’t think the budget is low enough. They both want to bring the tax rate increase under four percent, which they say would require about $100,000 more in cuts.
Mr. Walter said he’s not sure the budget can be cut any further.
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