Equal Time: For town budget, there is a better way

The town supervisor is budget officer and chief financial officer of the town. As a former supervisor, I prepared several budgets that I submitted to the Town Board. Over my lifetime in Riverhead, I’ve watched supervisors before and after me do the same. But never before has the town seen a show like that put on this year by Supervisor Sean Walter and this Town Board.

Act I began Sept. 30 with the presentation of the supervisor’s budget, which called for the dismissal of 13 employees yet included a $70,000 increase to the supervisor’s personnel budget to insure continued employment of the supervisor’s campaign manager. The supervisor’s budget also included $170,000 in deferred compensation for elected officials, political appointees and department heads, items not disclosed in posted salaries.

Yet, Mr. Walter somehow failed to include in his budget $150,000 in mandated expenses for step increases required by contract for civil service employees and also failed to include over $200,000 for dispatcher salaries and benefits mandated by last years’ referendum. Despite his omission of these required expenses, the supervisor’s budget featured, in the midst of a painful recession, the highest tax increase of any town on Long Island.

Act II opened with the budget tragedy descending into farce. Between Sept. 30 and Nov. 20, many contentious budget meetings were held by the Town Board. Most noteworthy was the incivility of Town Board members to each other and to town employees pleading for their jobs. The highlight came when Mr. Walter refused to permit the president of the employee union, Bill Walsh, to speak at a public meeting. Here is where tragedy became farce when Mr. Walsh declared that Mr. Walter was a “Chickensh– for not allowing me to speak,” as reported by the News-Review.

Act III commenced as the all-Republican Town Board voted 4-1 against the supervisor’s budget but then failed to muster the necessary three votes to make any change to it. Months of budget meetings came to no purpose.

After the failed budget vote, the supervisor’s original budget became by default the town’s 2011 final budget. This budget is now law and features: (1) a missing $350,000 in mandated expenses ($150,000 for step increases; $200,000 for dispatchers); (2) $240,000 in unnecessary discretionary spending ($70,000 for the supervisor’s campaign manager and $170,000 in deferred compensation for elected officials, political appointees and department heads); (3) termination of employment for 13 town employees; (4) uncut salaries for elected officials, political appointees and department heads; (5) Long Island’s highest tax increase. Grievances and lawsuits are already under way.

Lingering tension among Town Board members continues, as reflected in Mr. Walter’s parting comment at the budget vote. “This was just a media circus,” he said. “This was a show put on by some council members just for the media.”

If this budget folly was indeed a show, as Mr. Walter suggests, it was one sorry performance for which our residents and 13 fired employees will pay dearly.

How about this for an alternative, happier ending? A budget without unnecessary spending, with mandated expenses included, 13 of our neighbors’ jobs saved, Long Island’s highest tax increase avoided and voluntary salary givebacks from elected officials, political appointees and department heads. (Recall that former supervisor Phil Cardinale gave $17,000 of his salary back to the town.)

There is a better way.

Mr. Villella is a former Riverhead Town supervisor and chairman of the town Democratic Committee.