October 04, 2006

2007 Town Budget Unveiled

Southampton Town Supervisor Skip Heaney unveiled a 2007 town budget last week that proposes a "whopping" 31.5% decrease in the town's total tax rate. The decrease reflects the recent town-wide reassessment. The decrease was mostly offset by a rise in valuation due to the reassessment.

Heaney, who, with Town Comptroller Charlene Kagel, presented the 2007 tentative operating budget and capital program to the town board last week, said as a result of the budget, the town property tax rate for 2007 drops from $1.84 to $1.26 per $1,000.

The tentative budget proposes a tax levy in the amount of $46.8 million, reducing the tax levy by $2.19 million from last year, representing a proposed 4.47% decrease.

In all the proposed budget currently stands at $73.6 million, up 3.2% from the current $71.3 million budget. The board is expected to tweak it further in the coming weeks.

The reduction, said Heaney, was realized by decreasing dependency of property taxes and instead, expanding on the use of fees collected in the building and zoning enterprise fund. A further reduction was realized by eliminating a reliance on taxes to fund reconstruction work; by slashing departmental over-budgeting for contractual line items; and by a decrease in the portion of debt service funded by taxes.

"This is a cost-to-continue budget," said Heaney.

A goal in this year's budget planning was to reassure residents who might have been living in fear after the town-wide reassessment sparked a soaring increase in residential property values.

"It's been a rocky year," he said. "A lot of mistakes were made. The reassessment project caused confusion and fear." The supervisor added that many thought town taxes, which comprise only about roughly ten to fifteen percent of the total tax bill, would soar, too. "This budget will prove that's not to be the case," he said, adding that the town has learned from its mistakes and acted responsibly to pave a successful budget that would put to rest many taxpayers' concerns.

In fact, he said, 46% of taxpayers would have a projected decrease in taxes, 32% of taxpayers would see a projected increase in town taxes of less than $275, and 8% of taxpayers would have no projected change in town taxes. Heaney said the 14% of taxpayers who would see a projected increase in town taxes of more than $275 would be affected by other factors such as major subdivisions, new construction of McMansion-type homes, or property conversions in their areas.

Finally, an additional $4 million-plus of mortgage tax surplus remains unassigned to any purpose.

Although the proposed tax levy for 2007 yields an unadjusted corresponding general town property tax rate of $1.29 per $1000 of assessed valuation, based on a current full market taxable value of $48.9 billion, for 2007, Heaney has proposed to further lower the town property tax rate by allocating $1.5 million from unassigned mortgage receipts surplus to yield the net property tax rate of $1.26 per $1000 of full assessed valuation.

The supervisor said that, as was the case last year, 81% of the increase is attributed to non-discretionary expenditures, including contractual salary increases, employee benefits, and debt service, with 19% attributable to discretionary spending. "It's consistent with last year; that's how tight this budget is," said Heaney.

A direct appropriation of additional funding to the "nascent, emerging" Town Housing Authority, has been set aside from surplus funds until early 2007, when 2006 year-end mortgage tax receipts and general fund balances will be available and appropriate allocations can be made to satisfy planning goals for the independent authority, established by the town board. "We're beginning with training wheels," said Heaney, who said the authority would require an infusion of cash from the town until sufficient properties have been acquired.

The town's operating budget and capital budgets are submitted at different times. The decision to do so was made by the town board last year, and a ten-year capital budget, from 2006-2016, was established, with the 2007 portion to be adopted in March.

The capital budget for 2007 includes recommendations for $420,000 in funding for the County Road 39 project, so that it might run consistently from April through Thanksgiving of next year.

Also, Heaney has suggested allocating approximately $30,000 to $50,000 to develop a solar-powered AM radio service with roadside equipment to advise motorists of changing traffic conditions east of the Shinnecock Canal.

Additional highlights of the proposed operating budget include provisions for ongoing work to improve and refine public services in the areas of animal control, community development, auditing, the tax receiver, and town management services.

At the suggestion by Councilman Chris Nuzzi, Heaney has placed $50,000 into reserve for the purpose of a continuing education incentive program to financially assist town employees seeking to improve career skills through college level courses.

And, with an eye toward enhancing the services provided by Town Assessor Ed Deyermond, Heaney has proposed to add two, full-time in-house appraisers, one commercial, one residential, and two information specialists. Finally, Heaney has proposed an investigations unit in the office of the town attorney. Consisting of one town investigator, one housing ordinance inspector, and one Spanish-speaking ordinance inspector, the unit would assist with zoning regulations regarding housing, enforcement of the new residential rental law, and related quality of life complaints.

"When you're dealing with private property, you need to create a much better paper trail," said Heaney.

Creating the unit, said the supervisor, would also free up public safety employees so that they might better respond to issues such as fire prevention and emergency preparedness.

After presenting the tentative budget to the town board on Friday, the next step is a special meeting this Friday with the town board to convert the tentative budget to the preliminary budget and to schedule the first public hearing for Tuesday, October 24, at 7 p.m. The town board is scheduled to adopt the town budget on November 17, three days before the statutory date of October 20.

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