Riverhead Town Board members want to plan budget in public

Riverhead Town Board members (from left) Jim Wooten, John Dunleavy, Supervisor Sean Walter, Jodi Giglio and George Gabrielsen.

Should the Riverhead Town Board hold public meetings to discuss potential changes to the supervisor’s proposed 2012 town budget?

Supervisor Sean Walter had suggested board members meet individually or in groups of two with town finance administrator Bill Rothaar to hammer out a final budget, but if council members wanted to have public work sessions to discuss the budget, he said that’s their decision.

And do the council members want to do the work in public?  Yes, at least for part of the process.

“I think we should have a combination of us sitting down with Bill Rothaar oneon one to go through all the details, and then go back into the public later on where you can go over it all together and make changes,” Councilman George Gabrielsen said.

He feels it would be faster this way, since board members would be able to explain proposed changes better to Mr. Rothaar than they would in a public session.

“We should do a lot of it behind-the-scenes and then come out with all the questions in public,” he said.

“I’m proposing a resolution to hold a public hearing on the budget on Nov. 1,” Councilman Jim Wooten said. That would put the hearing a week before election day, Nov. 8. That’s a change from recent years when the budget hearing has been held on the day after Election Day.

But Mr. Wooten said he’s still reviewing the proposed budget and doesn’t favor having any public Town Board discussions on the budget until after the public hearing.

“I think, at this point, it’s up to each council member to look  at it for themselves, then have the  public hearing on Nov. 1, and then have our discussions right after that, and that will all be on public time,” Mr. Wooten said.

“I would rather have it in public so everyone knows what’s happening,” Councilman John Dunleavy said. “I think it’s invaluable for the people to understand how the town operates and how the budget is formed.

“I have no problem with having a public meeting to discuss the budget,” Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said.

Mr. Walter did make a public presentation on his budget during last Thursday’s Town Board work session.

His tentative 2012 budget of $51.6 million calls for a 2.36 percent tax rate increase  and a 3.3 percent spending increase.

The tax levy would increase by 2.86 percent. That percentage is permitted to exceed the new state-imposed 2 percent tax cap on year-to-year tax levy increases because of exemptions in the cap pertaining to pension cost increases and tax levy increases related to new development, Mr. Walter said.

“The biggest problem is landfill debt,” Mr. Walter said. He showed charts on a projector indicating that landfill debt comprised $3.3 million out of a total of $4.9 million in debt repayments in 2011 budget.

“I’m not laying any blame, these are the facts,” Mr. Walter said in reference to the millions spent in a failed attempt at reclaiming the municipal landfill, which was later capped. “We’re not going to see a reduction in landfill debt service until 2021. It’s a significant problem for the town.”

He also showed a chart showing that the amount of budgeted spending has been growing at a larger pace than property taxes under his predecessor — and rival in this year’s election for supervisor, Phil Cardinale — due to the use of “one-shot revenues” such as reserve funds to offset tax increases.

Mr. Walter has used $2.6 million in reserve funds in both the 2011 budget and his proposed 2012 budget to offset tax increases.

“It’s unfortunate, but with the two-percent tax cap, there was no way for me to reduce that,” he said.

He also said that before he took office, the town would cut spending in election years and increase it in non-election years.

Mr. Walter later in an interview blamed his predecessor for the town’s budget problems.

Mr. Walter said the landfill reclamation project that resulted in the big debt payments happened under Mr. Cardinale’s watch, that Mr. Cardinale used surplus funds to offset taxes, thus creating deficits in future budgets, and that Mr. Cardinale failed to sell bonds for capital projects, leaving those costs for future generations to deal with.

Mr. Cardinale later responded in an interview that while both he and Mr. Walter used reserve funds to offset taxes, he also brought in $11 million in new reserve funds, whereas Mr. Walter hasn’t brought in any, and he says the town’s bond rating was upgraded twice during his term in office.

Mr. Cardinale, a Democrat, said the landfill project was started by an all-Republican Town Board before he became supervisor in 2004 and that the previous Town Board bonded for the landfill project. Mr. Cardinale claims he stopped the project when he noticed that the money was spent and the project wasn’t near complete.

“An all-Republican board accepted a grossly inaccurate landfill volume estimate from a political contributor engineering firm, hired on a single bid contract, and they borrowed $40 million and spent most of it. The landfill debt he talks about was borrowed and largely spent, more than half of it, by a Republican board that preceded me.

“When I got into office, I hired a qualified engineering firm who provided an accurate volume estimate, I shut down the reclamation, stopped the spending, sued to recover damages from the engineers and won. I then capped the landfill in 12 months for about $9 million.”

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