Whether it’s for the cell bill or a new bike, every parent has heard the phrase, “Mom and Dad, can I borrow some money?”
“Borrow” is a flimsy word. As we parents know, those kinds of dollars are rarely paid back, but we love our kids and, provided it’s for a good use, we almost always say “Yes” to a little extra allowance or a helping hand for our family.
As every parent also knows, it’s not that first ask that tries your parental patience — it’s the second, third and fourth. We get edgy as parents when our children fail to budget or plan properly. We worry that the initial “Can I borrow …” will be the first in an escalating chain of impassioned pleas.
The Town of Riverhead is about to ask us all for an advance on its allowance. We voters are about to consider a ballot measure that will extend the life of the Community Preservation Fund another 40 years. Now, Town Hall says they don’t need all of those 40 years to consolidate their debt. They say they can pay down the CPF by 2030. Nonetheless, if you pass the referendum, you are granting them the authority to roll out debt until 2056. You’ll just have to trust that Town Hall will live up to its debt promises.
I don’t know about you, but this parent is getting edgy. I’m not sure I trust this group with a blank check, because when it comes to budgeting they’ve been so wrong, so often before.
Consider that even with all the wealth Route 58 created, little Riverhead owes more money per person than any other town in Suffolk. Riverhead has earned the county’s lowest bond rating and routinely has the highest tax increases of any East End town.
When I advance money to my daughters, I want to know that they asked for the right amount the first time. I want to know that they prudently planned. I want the same from my government. Our town’s biggest cost is our municipal employees, who are working without a contract. How much is the new one going to cost? Our highest paid employees are our police; they don’t have a contract either. What’s that going to cost?
We need sewer upgrades. We need one downtown, we are talking about sewers in Jamesport to prevent the fish kills that plague our late spring season and we need sewers and infrastructure at EPCAL. What’s all that going to cost?
We have a skate park we couldn’t find money to fix. Our parks need upgrading. Much of our facilities are in disrepair. Councilwoman Jodi Giglio has been championing an upgrade to our computer system. Good idea. She got the green light from her colleagues, but her plan hasn’t received funding. As Councilman John Dunleavy points out, “We never have money to fix anything.” How long can the town run on empty?
I believe we need to hire code enforcement officers. They’ll eventually pay for themselves, but in the meantime where’s the money to do that? We have a water well that’s contaminated and the bill for cleaning it is double what we were originally told. Will it cost more to complete? For years now, we’ve been told EPCAL sales are “coming soon.” How much will completing the subdivision cost us? When can we expect revenue from the former Grumman site to finally materialize?
My point? There are a lot of looming icebergs on Riverhead’s financial horizon and Town Hall’s answer on how to fix the problem is to ask us to approve a long-term debt consolidation loan. What I want to know is: Has the town properly planned so that we know this fix is a one-time solution? If Town Hall is asking for use of a high credit limit Visa card, I want to know it won’t be coming back soon asking for more money, taking advantage of the lending latitude we voters are being asked to grant it.
Remember, for three years now, we’ve budgeted for a solar project at EPCAL that never materialized and probably never will. Just last year Town Hall told us “credit ratings don’t matter, we pay as we go, we don’t need to borrow.” One year later, Town Hall’s asking for the authority to borrow more money than we ever have. So before I sign a blank check, I have to ask: Is this it? Is there more debt to come? It’s a question you should be asking, too.
My suggestion? Town Hall needs to couple its request for more money with a long-term budget plan. The town should button down long-term employee contracts before it asks for borrowing authority. Staff is our biggest expense; let’s lock in that cost so we can provide some predictability to our budgeting. Let’s create a long-term capital plan and stick to it. We can’t keep running a hand-to-mouth government. Folks will accept a bit of spending if you couple it with a long-range plan.
Finally, let’s get this done now. If we set forth a sane and sensible multi-year financial plan, that show of fiscal maturity might induce Wall Street to up our bond rating and that action would reduce the cost of borrowing.
There’s a big difference between throwing your kid a few bucks you’ll never see again for a used Subaru and signing a blank check for a politician. Before you vote “yes,” ask to see the plan.
Photo Caption: The empty skate park at Stotzky Memorial Park earlier this year. (Credit: Tim Gannon, file)
The author is a local businessman and a former Democratic nominee for town supervisor.