Editorial: How much cutting can town government endure?

At face value, Supervisor Sean Walter’s effort to save taxpayers money by consolidating town government offices seems to be a good idea — and it’s good that he’s pursuing such good ideas. Trimming the number of town employees by 12 percent over the last five years has surely saved taxpayers money — and will continue to down the road. However, the need for the town to trim even more personnel to balance its budget next year and beyond is a real problem — one that’s largely of his and this Town’s Board’s own creation.

The town’s over-reliance on reserves since the early 2000s is well documented. The practice predates Mr. Walter’s administration, and he can rightly claim that the town budget was balanced on reserves long before he took office. But in the five budgets he has crafted, the supervisor — with the support, or at least lack of sufficient opposition, from current Town Board members — has continued the practice.

Akin to a family continuing to draw from its own savings to pay household expenses, reductions in the size and cost of town government have yet to compensate for what reserves have provided over the years. The town’s savings are running dry, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone — especially the supervisor, despite his repeated claim that, along with developing EPCAL and revitalizing downtown, improving Riverhead’s finances is one of his administration’s three primary goals.

Though the town budgeted a balanced spending plan this year, the supervisor banked on receiving over $600,000 from Suffolk County in 2015 — funds that were never secure from the start. Mr. Walter has been made aware that those funds will not materialize, which will force the town to make up the difference elsewhere. Guess where? Its reserves.

In his State of the Town address last week, the supervisor had the chance to bring some of these concerns to light. Instead, he made more promises about things he believes — or, perhaps more accurately, hopes — will happen. The town, he insisted last week, will have “at least one significant sale at EPCAL” and is “one year away from a truly balanced budget.”

Executive addresses are meant to provide a vision for the future. For too long, though, Mr. Walter’s vision has ignored the reality that the town’s future financial health is in jeopardy because it’s not generating nearly enough reliable annual revenue to cover its costs — which at this point, will amount to at least $850,000 next year.

Given the sheer size of that operating deficit, raising taxes may have to figure into any plan to solve a serious budget crisis, despite its political consequences. In fact, it should already have been done incrementally by this Town Board. Instead, the board has simply been spending revenues and hoping a pot of gold will materialize somewhere down the road.

The supervisor believes the option to continue cutting town positions should be considered. But he should also consider raising taxes as well — otherwise, staff cutbacks may ultimately render the town unable to carry out its most basic functions.