’14 budget would pull from reserves; EPCAL land to help in future

MICHAEL WHITE PHOTO |  Supervisor Sean Walter during Monday's presentation.
MICHAEL WHITE PHOTO | Supervisor Sean Walter during Monday’s presentation.

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter pitched a 2014 budget proposal Monday that would increase the town tax levy — the total amount of money collected from taxpayers — by 2.5 percent and see spending rise by 3 percent.

The town’s tax increase would come in under the state’s mandated 2 percent cap on year-to-year tax levy increases, Mr. Walter said, since some expenses are exempt from the law.

The budget proposal borrows $3.5 million from the town’s fund balance, leaving a balance of a little over $3 million. The town has also created a separate revenue stream from the $2 million it received from leasing town space in Calverton to a car auction company following superstorm Sandy. That money is being parceled out at $550,000 a year for four years, starting in Mr. Walter’s tentative town budget for 2014.

Mr. Walter emphasized that the town, while still needing to use surplus money, is “headed in the right direction.

“It took a long time to steer this ship around through some treacherous waters here but things are looking up,” he said during Monday’s public slide show presentation in Town Hall.

The combination of cutting government expenses, refinancing debt and refraining from taking on much more debt has kept the town from completely raiding its reserves, he said, pointing to a chart showing that before he took office in January 2010, the town was trending in a direction that would have completely depleted the fund balance.

“Had we not done the things we did this town would be facing a 20 percent tax increase for this year,” he said.

The town has been using the fund balance, or surplus funds, to offset tax increases for at least a decade, with much of those surpluses coming from land sales or contracts for land sales at the Enterprise Park at Calverton.

Since 2010, the town has appropriated fund balance amounts of $4.7 million in 2010, $2.6 million in 2011, $2.6 million in 2012 and $3.08 million in 2013 toward reducing the tax rate.

The reason for the additional use of surplus funds for 2014 stems from a state comptroller’s audit in March that faulted the way the town used administrative charge-backs from other departments to fund its general fund. Because of accounting changes in response to the audit, the general fund is just under $1 million short in revenue, according to Mr. Walter.

And, he noted, debt to pay off the town’s landfill reclamation and capping project comes in at about $4 million for next year.

“I don’t want to keep beating the landfill debt drum but the residents have to understand why we’re tapping the general fund balance the way we are,” he said, noting the landfill debt doesn’t drop significantly until 2023, when it falls to about $1 million annually.

In the meantime, Mr. Walter said, to bring in more revenue the town should be able to start selling land at EPCAL, which would help restock the reserves in time for the 2015 budget and in the years ahead until the landfill debt drops.

The town is currently seeking to subdivide and sell some 600 acres at EPCAL, the site of a former naval weapons plant facility.

But what if the land isn’t ready for sale next year?

“Do I have a contingency plan? Absolutely,” Mr. Walter later told a reporter, explaining that the town, if needed, could borrow money at low rates using EPCAL property as collateral.

“Would I wallop the town with a 20 percent increase? Not if I can help it,” he said. “There is a Plan B. Once the EPCAL land is subdivided, we’re sitting on $60 million to $100 million worth of equity. I think we’ll be able to mortgage property at very, very favorable rates. So we would have to borrow on the land.”

He also said at the presentation that there has been great interest in the town land at the enterprise park.

“The residents are going to be pleasantly surprised at the types of businesses that want to come into EPCAL,” he said.

The tentative 2014 budget also includes money for anticipated contractual agreements with the town’s two largest employee unions, the Civil Service Employees Association and the Police Benevolent Association, both of which are in negotiations for their 2014 contracts, Mr. Walter said.

He said revenues from fees and mortgage taxes have been trending upward as well – though they still fall short of revenues realized before the recent recession.

Since Mr. Walter and the current Town Board took office in 2010, the total town spending, including special taxing districts like the Business Improvement District, ambulance district and two sewer districts, has decreased by $463,765, and is currently at $89.03 million, according to town records. The 2014 proposal would total spending to $91.9 million.

Also since 2010, the so-called town-wide budget — which includes general fund, highway and street lighting, the three districts every property owner in town pays into — has increased by 4.6 percent and is currently at $53.06 million, according to town records. Due in part to declines in revenue, the town-wide tax rate has increased by 9.9 percent during that period, Mr. Walter said. The town-wide budget comes in at $54.5 million in the supervisor’s tentative 2014 budget, a 3.02 percent increase.

Under Mr. Walter’s proposal, the owner of a house worth about $350,000 would see about a $60 tax increase due to spending increases in the general fund, which includes police services; highway; and lighting districts, according to officials.

Proposed spending in the town’s general fund alone comes in at $46.3 million in the tentative budget.

The supervisor’s full budget proposal was made available online and at Town Hall Monday afternoon. The Town Board will now consider the proposed budget and could suggest changes before a public hearing is held— though no Town Board members expressed great concern with the budget outline as it was presented.

Mr. Walter, a Republican, is running for a third two-year term this November. His Democratic rival, Angela DeVito, was at the Town Hall presentation and expressed disappointment the full budget, with department heads outlining how the budget would affect their particular town services wasn’t available for review.

She called the presentation a campaign event.

“All we got was his campaign slogan,” she said. “I’m very disappointed, to tell you the truth. Did you see a budget? I didn’t.”

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