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Nov 20, 2014 3:20 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Southampton Town Budget Passes Along Party Lines As Board Battles

Nov 28, 2014 11:08 AM

The Southampton Town Board approved a $88.6 million operating budget for 2015 by a bare majority last week, with the board’s two Republicans standing alone in opposition to a number of last-minute changes.

The final hour of a months-long budget crafting process was notable for the retooling of more than $1 million in spending to accommodate a number of new hires and increases in road repair funding, as well as by the discord raised among board members—a rarity in the 11 months that the current board has been serving together.

Town Comptroller Len Marchese also shared with the board that most town residents will be getting a rebate check from the state this year, equivalent to approximately 1.4 percent of their total town tax bill, thanks to the town staying below the state-mandated 1.5-percent cap on tax levy increases.

In the end, on Thursday, November 20, Town Board members Stan Glinka and Christine Scalera voted against the final budget, despite having disagreed with only a handful of the changes and polices it represented, while Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst and board members Brad Bender and Bridget Fleming provided the majority votes for approval. The same split decided several of the final amendments, including the official ending of a “hiring freeze,” a schedule of salary hikes for non-union employees, and the hiring of three employees not included in the supervisor’s original spending proposal.

The board, in a mixture of split and unanimous votes, cut several positions that had been in the original budget and added others, along with cutting hundreds of thousands in spending in various corners of the plan and finding an additional $370,000 in tax revenues that it directed primarily to the Highway Department’s roadways maintenance funding.

The end result was a budget that increased spending by another $160,000 over what Ms. Throne-Holst had proposed with her initial draft in late September—or a total hike of approximately $3.3 million over the current year’s $85.3 million budget.

The town’s tax levy will increase by $370,000, but with steadily swelling revenues and assessed valuations, both Ms. Throne-Holst and Mr. Marchese said residents overall should expect their tax bills to remain flat from last year. Therefore, the tax rate should remain at around $1.42 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

“The actual tax bills that residents of our town paid last year will be the same this year,” Mr. Marchese told the board at its final discussion of the budget last Thursday, November 20. “But more money will come into the town, because there’s more people.”

The adopted budget will direct up to $550,000 to the Highway Department’s road repair accounts—$340,000 to road paving and $50,000 to drainage projects immediately, and the rest contingent on expected year-end surpluses in the highway accounts.

The two political factions on the board offered competing approaches to increasing the funding dedicated to the Highway Department without raising taxes. Ms. Scalera and Mr. Glinka’s version cut five of the eight proposed hires from Ms. Throne-Holst’s budget and redirected $250,000 in savings to highway work.

The tack proposed by Ms. Throne-Holst, and ultimately adopted by a 3-2 vote, had a net reduction in new hires of just one position and used a bit of budgetary horse trading to find additional revenue.

With the town’s total assessed value up by $500 million in 2014, to $55.5 billion, keeping tax rates flat in 2015 would mean an additional $370,000 in tax revenues. Ms. Throne-Holst’s initial preliminary budget had proposed keeping the total tax levy flat, in which case the rising assessed valuation would likely have meant decreasing tax bills for many residents.

The shift in approach, the supervisor explained, allowed the town to do crucial infrastructure work while standing by its pledge not to burden residents with higher taxes.

“We all agreed that after the highway superintendent came to us … we needed to support his request,” Ms. Throne-Holst said, referring to the pitch that Highway Superintendent Alex Gregor made to the board earlier this month detailing how additional spending on roadway maintenance now could result in big savings years down the road. “We’ve had some discussion about how to support that without raising our tax rate. [This approach] doesn’t raise individual taxes, and it gives us $370,000 that we can dedicate toward our highway infrastructure.”

Ms. Scalera challenged the approach as a tax increase, both in a practical sense and in spirit, in light of Ms. Throne-Holst’s initial proposal, as well as the overall increase in spending and principled objections to policies on salaries for non-union workers.

“I will not be supporting this budget because of increased spending—upward of $3 million—increased taxes … the increase in tax levy and the tax rate over what was in the preliminary,” she said. “The salary matrix has not been property vetted and essentially unionizes the non-union employees, and I think will result in long-term spending increases and bigger government.”

Board members on both sides of the aisle offered some 29 amendments to the budget last Thursday, changes that members of the public would have had scant few minutes to review or comment on prior to their adoption, or discarding. Seven of those amendments passed by the same 3-2 majority as the budget, while four that took different paths to the same basic conclusion offered by Ms. Scalera and Mr. Glinka failed in parallel vote splits.

Both sides called for increases in highways spending, the elimination of a number of positions, and tailored raises given to non-union employees that were included in Ms. Throne-Holst’s initial $88.5 million proposal.

Blasting the supervisor’s proposal of a new schedule of regular salary hikes for non-union employees, modeled after the sort of longevity and pre-agreed-upon salary increases that union members receive, an amendment offered by Ms. Scalera eliminated or trimmed the raises being given to several employees in the supervisor’s budget, including the comptroller and town attorney.

“It is our belief that this proposal not only diverts us from merit and work product-based raises, but will ultimately serve to increase reoccurring expenses in salary, benefits, steps and longevity,” said Ms. Scalera, who called the matrix an effective unionization of non-union staff. “Employees will find not the predictability suggested, but rather the vast uncertainty of a government unable to sustain itself.”

Her resolution failed, however, by a 3-2 vote.

In contrast, another resolution introduced by Ms. Throne-Holst, Mr. Bender and Ms. Fleming laid out a number of additional raises to non-union staff that had not been included in the preliminary budget. It was adopted, 3-2. Mr. Marchese said the additional raises, approximately 2 percent each, were the product of additional examination of staff salaries using the new guidelines introduced by Ms. Throne-Holst in her preliminary budget, which she dubbed the “salary matrix.”

“This is my seventh budget, and every year we’ve had issues of inequality … where certain people were given raises and others were not,” the supervisor said. “This struggles … to put some equality to it but also some predictability.”

In another series of split votes, the board agreed to drop four staff positions, including an assistant town attorney, that Ms. Throne-Holst had originally proposed, but added three others: a stormwater management engineer, a justice court clerk and a Youth Bureau recreation leader.

In all, the board retooled some $1.1 million in spending in its final throes of the budget formulation process last Thursday. The total amount of fund balance the board will be using to offset spending was actually reduced by more than $250,000, to about $1.1 million.

To avoid the sort of last-minute sparring that swirled last week—though it was but a faint and cordial whisper compared to some of the partisan warfare that has engulfed budget adoption meetings in years past—Ms. Throne-Holst proposed that, for the 2016 budget, the board agree to hold two closed-door executive session specifically to hash out details of the budget regarding salaries and hiring moves.

But she also said the final product from this year’s process was one that prudently considers a vast number of needs townwide, and still manages to soften the blow to taxpayers.

“This is a very sage and structurally balanced budget that does not raise taxes on our constituents … but provides for very well thought out fiscal and treasury management,” said Ms. Throne-Holst. A mother of four, she added, “I likened [the budget process] this morning to giving birth to a baby: It’s a long gestation period, then you get to the actual birthing process and it’s hard and it’s painful but then it’s behind you and you move on.”

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"filial majority" come now Michael, really. parental relationships. What exactly were you trying to say.

Ah as the ancient Chinese would say "filial piety".

An attempt at "Conehead" parental unit comedy perhaps.

By NTiger (543), Southampton on Nov 20, 14 6:37 PM
Aw, picking on Michael Wright's diction is an easy pass time, Neil -- at least he's trying. One questions what his Editors are doing, though.
By Frank Wheeler (1826), Northampton on Nov 21, 14 9:08 AM
"Filial" majority? Hilarious, it was simply an erroneous and faulty choice of words by Michael as there is absolutely no filial relationshiop between the Democratic Party of Bridget Fleming and the "filial" crypto-Republican Independence Party members, unless you were talking of Ana being a "Rosemary's baby". Brad, he just obviously does what he is told like a good boy paroting Ana's words verbatim of course, and becomes an "automatic". He never has to think, god forbid.

Michael obviously ...more
By Obbservant (449), southampton on Nov 21, 14 7:38 AM
Ignoring the snarkisms about "filial," Michael Wright is correct -- this is the first time that the Democratic/Independence majority has been deployed "on such a momentous legislative decision." Indeed, I can't think of another time, momentous or otherwise, that these three Board members have voted together in opposition to the two Republicans on the Board.

So why is that? In 2013, the voters elected Anna Throne-Holst and Brad Bender, Independence Party candidates endorsed by the Democrats, ...more
By Turkey Bridge (1979), Quiogue on Nov 21, 14 12:30 PM
Good Luck!If this blunder of a budget marks the first decision the dysfunctional "majority" have been able to pull together- you're going to need it! From the looks of it- the Southampton Republicans you're looking at now are informed, well spoken, environmentally conscious and can play well in the sandbox- that's a powerful mix- yep- Republicans may have it easier than even I thought.2015 is going to be interesting…..
By Roughrider28 (80), southampton on Nov 21, 14 3:00 PM
1 member liked this comment
My oh my, George, you have seen the light.

Might have to start thinking of you as being a real Democrat.

Congratulations on a well thought out, positive comment.

Welcome to reality 2014

By NTiger (543), Southampton on Nov 21, 14 3:23 PM
Well said Turkey!
By Justsay'n (42), Southampton on Nov 21, 14 5:10 PM