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November 24, 2010

Supe Reacts to Budget Switcheroo


Three members of the Southampton Town board teamed up last week to amend Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst's preliminary 2011 budget in the eleventh hour.

A day before the budget was slated to be adopted, Councilmen Chris Nuzzi and Jim Malone, as well as Councilwoman Nancy Gabroski, introduced a series of last minute amendments that materially altered the supervisor's proposed budget and suggested reorganization of Town Hall.

The amendments slashed a proposed 2.6 percent tax increase suggested by the supervisor and aimed at bolstering the town's reserve fund and decreasing the deficit -- and left a host of town positions unfilled.

"The bottom line is we are going to be able to decrease spending from 2010 levels. This is important in a number of ways -- we are sending a strong message that we are cutting back. It's time to stop the spending express and turn the ship around, cutting back on all levels of government," said Nuzzi. "But, at the same time, do it in such a way where we're still going to be able to provide services."

Rather than the originally proposed $82.2 million preliminary budget, the budget as adopted stands at $79.8 million. The resolutions suggested by the GOP majority also add a half million to the fund balance.

Other highlights of the amendments were the establishment of an independent audit function and a continued hiring freeze.

Although the plan originally called for cuts in senior services, after a massive outcry from the public last week, the board decided to restore services to the town's seniors before voting to adopt the budget.

After the vote, Nuzzi said that he, Malone and Gabroski had a "philosophical difference" of opinion with Throne-Holst and Councilwoman Bridget Fleming when it came to the matter of establishing a reserve fund with a fund balance of 20 percent. While he said he and his GOP counterparts understood the importance of a healthy reserve fund, tough economic times called for running town government "like any other business," and making tough choices.

Over the past two years, Town Hall staff has been reduced by 60 employees. The current 2010 budget provides for 504 individuals, with the supervisor proposing 505. The latest changes seek to reduce the number to 497. "We are confident our department heads and staff will continue to meet the challenge of a steady workload with limited personnel," added Nuzzi.

But on Sunday, Throne-Holst commented on the ambush that decimated her proposed budget. The budget, as adopted, with the resolutions presented by her GOP counterparts, "is not a good budget for the town," said Throne Holst. "We're going backwards."

The supervisor said in the end, her proposed budget "would have raised taxes by $19, the cost of a pizza, basically. Theirs is a six-dollar savings -- a six dollar decrease. It's a cup of Starbuck's coffee or a sandwich. In the meantime, the town is so at risk now."

The amendments put forth by members of the board "knowingly added to our deficits," she said.

Nuzzi countered in tough economic times, "Our taxpayers need spending cuts and tax relief and this budget provided for that. Adopted spending levels and the 2010 levels are both down from 2010 levels. We have downsized government by reducing staff approximately 15 percent and cut almost $4.2 million in additional spending and taxation, proposed by the supervisor, inclusive of contractual consultant and overtime costs."

The councilman added that through reorganization, better use of personnel, and technology and a focused approach on how to provide vital services, "we have adopted a budget that costs our residents less, shrinks the size of government -- and sets the framework for additional change going forward. The supervisor's desire to tax more simply does not fit with the ability of our residents to pay during these lean times."

But, said Throne-Holst, the amount of money taxpayers will save will not "make a difference," not amounting to even enough to pay a utility bill.

And, she said, with critical positions such as those in the highway department not being filled, the town will be "bare bones when snowstorms hit."

The town will have to utilize outside contractors to perform needed services during such emergencies. "It just doesn't make sense."

The police fund, added Throne-Holst, will now once again be back in a deficit state.

Carving out a component of her proposed budget that called for deficit reduction could be catastrophic for the town, said the supervisor. "Every responsible financial manager would say absolutely, a municipality of our size shouldn't go less than 20 percent. And yet, they said this is a pie in the sky" concept.

Nuzzi said Malone suggested initiating a policy that would apply any mortgage tax revenue over 5.25 percent toward deficit reduction.

"That's a given," said Throne-Holst. 'The problem is we don't have fund balances now, or revenue appropriations, or proper levels of accounting for budgeting for a number of our cost lines."

The supervisor predicts emergencies will arise and the town will have to "dip into" the half million set aside in reserve under the new budget.

Six of nine funds are in deficit now, said Throne-Holst. "They've totally decimated," her proposed plan, slashing overtime and other things such as the town attorney's outside counsel line.

In the end, said Throne-Holst, "We're not going to be able to function under this budget."

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