Walter says cash is there for cops in 2012

While the preliminary 2012 Riverhead Town budget doesn’t show any money budgeted for police salary increases, Supervisor Sean Walter said he doesn’t think the town will have any problem coming up with cash.

The issue arose at Tuesday’s public hearing on the budget in Town Hall, where former supervisor Phil Cardinale — Mr. Walter’s opponent in next Tuesday’s election, as well as his predecessor — asked about police salaries.

The $51.6 million preliminary budget increases spending by 3.3 percent and calls for a tax rate increase of 2.36 percent. It must be adopted by Nov. 20.

“It’s my understanding that the [Police Benevolent Association] contract is up in 2012,” Mr. Cardinale said, adding that recent binding arbitration awards in police contracts have not called for anything below 3 percent raises. Police contracts are subject to binding arbitration, in which an arbitrator decides the outcome when two sides can’t agree; then that decision goes into effect.

“We have no idea of whether we’re going to binding arbitration, so there’s really not a clear path as to how much to put into the budget,” Mr. Walter said. “Plus, we have the availability of revenues in the budget.”

Town finance administrator Bill Rothaar added that since the town has no agreement in place, “we’d be giving away our hand” in negotiations by putting a specific number in the budget.

“We could take money out of reserve funds as necessary,” Mr. Walter said, adding that based on conversations he’s had with officials from other municipalities, arbitration awards are going to be much lower in the post-tax cap era.

The state enacted a law this year that caps tax levy increases for all municipalities at 2 percent, although it makes some exceptions.

“If you’re at zero, and a 3 percent award is given, that’s going to take about $1 million,” Mr. Cardinale said.

“It would be nowhere near that,” Mr. Walter said.

Mr. Rothaar said the total amount budgeted for police salaries is just under $10 million, and every 1 percent on the contract equates to about $100,000 in spending.

“We can absorb $300,000 in a $44 million budget without having too much problem,” Mr. Walter said. The general fund of the proposed budget is $43.9 million.

Mr. Cardinale also asked where the funding is for the EPCAL subdivision Mr. Walter plans, and what happened to a $937,605 settlement check made to the water district that resulted from a class action suit the town participated in regarding groundwater pollution from the gasoline additive MTBE. The check was made out to the water district.

Mr. Walter said the water district’s legal counsel, Richard Ehlers, advised him that the check can be applied to the general fund, since the MTBE pollution wasn’t affecting specific wells.

And Mr. Walter said the EPCAL study will be funded by money from runway lease agreements at EPCAL. He said there’s about $300,000 available.

Resident Dennis Yuen asked why the public parking district in the budget shows an 874 percent tax rate increase. Mr. Rothaar said he believes that’s an error, since spending in that district is going down.

“It’s a little frustrating seeing that our town has a higher tax rate [increase] than any other town,” said resident Steve Romano. Riverhead’s budget proposal has the highest percentage tax rate increase of the 10 Suffolk towns.

He asked what would happen if the town didn’t use $2.6 million in reserve funds to keep taxes down and still keep the taxes under 2 percent.

If the town didn’t use reserve funds, it would have to either raise taxes by about 10 percent or cut about 30 positions, Mr. Walter said.

“The town could not withstand that number of layoffs,” Mr. Walter said.

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