Dispatcher discrepancy could increase tax hike to 7 percent

Though it appeared the Riverhead Town Board was ready to adopt a 2011 town budget with a 3.92 percent tax increase, a discrepancy over funding for town police dispatchers could now raise that increase to 7 percent.

The board did not vote to adopt a budget at Tuesday’s meeting, meaning that Supervisor Sean Walter’s proposed budget, which called for a 4.3 percent tax increase, would automatically become the final budget if the board takes no action to adopt a different budget by Saturday, Nov. 20.

Town Councilwoman Jodi Giglio had said she would vote in favor of the spending plan with the 3.92 percent increase — that was until she discovered after a nearly two-hour budget review session had concluded that the full $950,000 voters approved in a referendum last year to fund dispatchers was not there. Ms. Giglio says the amount budgeted is about $240,000 short of that amount and that she’s not voting for the budget as is.

Prior to this discovery, Ms. Giglio, Councilman George Gabrielsen and Supervisor Sean Walter were in an informal agreement to support a proposed budget with a 3.92 percent tax rate increase. That budget called for the elimination of six full-time and seven part-time positions, as proposed in Supervisor Sean Walter’s original budget.

Councilmen John Dunleavy and Jim Wooten, both retired town police officers, opposed that budget. Mr. Dunleavy had specifically argued that it didn’t fully fund the dispatcher positions, which voters approved in a referendum last year.
“We’re supposed to be listening to what the public says,” Mr. Dunleavy said. Mr. Walter said that adding three more dispatcher positions, as Mr. Dunleavy urged, would increase the tax rate by another 3 percent.

“It’s not a perfect world, but they are managing it,” Mr. Walter said of the town’s decision to fund only seven dispatcher positions instead of 10. “If it shows that we’re running too much on overtime, we’ll hire another dispatcher or two.”

“All I can say is, this is a fake budget and in July, we’re going to be adding money to it,” Mr. Dunleavy said.

“I’ve spent my whole life working for the town,” Mr. Wooten said. “This budget is irresponsible.”

If the Town Board does not agree to add funds for the dispatchers into the budget by Saturday, then the supervisor’s budget — which doesn’t include the additional dispatcher funding — would automatically become the adopted 2011 town budget under state law.

The board also agreed to restore $122,600 to the budget to fund salary “step” increases for employees who belong to the Civil Service Employees Association. Officials said that funding was mistakenly left out of earlier versions of the proposed 2011 budget and they were not aware of this until Monday.

The dispatcher issue dates back to late 2008, when then-supervisor Phil Cardinale cut all funding for public safety dispatchers in the police department from his proposed 2009 town budget. Mr. Cardinale argued that Suffolk County was required to provide that service for town residents and that it made no sense for taxpayers to pay twice.

The Town Board instead decided to put the issue on the November 2009 ballot.

The referendum stated that, if approved, the town would transfer the safety dispatch function to the county and that, if not approved, “the Town of Riverhead would add the sum of approximately $950,000 to the 2010 Town Budget and succeeding budgets, through the collection of taxes from Riverhead residents to retain the safety dispatch function.”

Residents voted in favor of retaining the Riverhead dispatchers.

When the board, which then included Mr. Cardinale and former councilwoman Barbara Blass, but not Mr. Walter and Ms. Giglio, approved the 2010 budget, it was facing a huge tax rate increase. Board members then decided to use $4.7 million in reserve funds to offset taxes. Officials said the 2010 budget also doesn’t fully fund the dispatchers.

Matt Hattorff, president of the town CSEA, said he is awaiting an opinion from the state attorney general as to whether the town is required to fund the full $950,000 for dispatchers.

Although the budget vote was not on the Town Board’s agenda Tuesday night, union members, who showed up in force at the meeting — all wearing red — were once again outspoken in criticizing Mr. Walter for going back on his promise to “not balance the budget on the backs” of town employees. They even carried signs that said as much.

In a last ditch-effort to save the jobs, CSEA representative Stephanie Teff told the Town Board union members were “willing to share the pain,” but she wanted concessions for the second, third and fourth years of the union’s next contract and she wanted another meeting with the board. She did not mention any specifics, and Mr. Walter requested that union leaders offer up some hard numbers in writing. He said the next scheduled meeting the board has with the CSEA is Nov. 30.

Mr. Walter said the CSEA jobs had to be cut because the union did not agree to a five-percent salary giveback. Ms. Teff hinted that CSEA may now agree to something like that.

The Town Board could actually adopt the budget as proposed and add the six full-time employees back after Nov. 20, so long as other cuts are made and the adopted budget amount doesn’t increase, according to town finance administrator Bill Rothaar, who said the six full time positions being cut represent about $520,000 in savings. Two people also argued Tuesday for restoring the dog warden, one of the positions on the chopping block, saying the animal control department is already understaffed.

[email protected]

Looking to comment on this article? Send us a letter to the editor instead.