November 22, 2006

Board Bickers Over Budget

Tensions were high at a special meeting of the Southampton Town Board on Friday as tempers flared regarding a number of amendments to the 2007 preliminary budget.

What is typically a routine meeting to go over minor changes in various amendments to the budget became, at times, a board embroiled in disagreement as a normally docile town council erupted in anger.

Discord became evident as town board members discussed an amendment to the preliminary budget for various existing staff positions to correct titles, organizational charts and schedules. A heated discussion evolved regarding changes to titles of secretaries in Supervisor Skip Heaney's office.

"I do not want people interfering with support in my office," said Heaney, after Councilwoman Linda Kabot mentioned modifying the title of the supervisor's confidential secretary to legislative secretary. Heaney added that he has been told he was not to have another legislative secretary.

Kabot insisted the changes were merely amendments to clarify existing language.

The board then debated an amendment regarding the functions of the town's internal auditor and town comptroller as well as the chain of command in those positions.

Next, a discussion ensued regarding a proposal in the tentative budget by Heaney for partial funding of the health and human services grant program administered by the Department of Human Services through the Cablevision franchise fee-financed special projects and program fund. Heaney supported the concept, explaining the town board had an opportunity to fund the program without relying on real property tax to do so.

Kabot objected to utilizing Cablevision franchise fees and did not agree with Heaney's proposal. The councilwoman added that such fees should be related to recreation, education, culture, history, public access to government, economic development and tourism promotion, public awareness, campaigns and advocacy initiatives for veterans and the disabled, and civic celebrations.

Heaney reminded that when franchise fees were first instituted, the dollar amount was small. Now, he said, the amount has increased dramatically. "It's simply a matter of having more money available to fund services of the town and reduce reliance on real property tax," he said, adding that enough funding would be available down the line for recreational opportunities such as a SYS facility west of the canal, too. "The fees should be used in a way to encourage kids," to watch public access channels and learn about government, but also to get away from the television and promote cultural events.

Councilman Chris Nuzzi agreed that any way to relieve overburdened taxpayers was a plus.

Councilman Steve Kenny questioned whether such a policy issue should be discussed before the board acted on the amendment.

Heaney assured the program is an expanding one. "We are recipients of an ever-increasing amount of revenue."

The amendment was voted down; Heaney's initial proposal to utilize Cablevision fees to help ease taxpayers' burden remained intact.

Tides turned contentious over an amendment regarding adjusting the budget for salary schedules of administrative support. Kabot was livid after Heaney and Nuzzi voted no to an amendment for which the councilwoman had believed there was a consensus. The amendment, which called for the elimination of the assistant superintendent of parks, sparked outright dissension, especially after Kabot questioned Heaney's vote.

"You have no damned right to tell me what my legislative discussion is," he snapped. He added: "The vote is successful; let's move forward."

"What a master," sniped Kabot. Later, Kabot refused to let the subject die and introduced a resolution regarding a directive to file a salary compensation study in the office of the town clerk and begin implementation of recommendations.

Kabot interrupted Heaney, who had called for an adjournment, to mention her walk-on resolution. "When someone introduces a motion to adjourn, there is no debate," said Heaney, adding, "It's rude."

The board also discussed waste management policy and procedures, as well as the preliminary budget for various special assessment districts.

In the end, the budget will rise 2.6% to $73.9 million.

"The budget is adopted," said Heaney. "We can all declare victory."

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