“All the board needs is three votes to pass the budget,” said Southampton Town Deputy Supervisor Frank Zappone two weeks ago at a Sag Harbor Citizens Advisory Committee meeting. And that was all it took last Friday, November 19, to override the town supervisor’s proposed 2011 budget and adopt an altered plan, which brought the proposed $82 million budget down to $79.9 million.
Most notably, the adopted 2011 budget essentially eliminates supervisor Anna Throne-Holst’s proposed 2.4 percent tax increase and instead adopts nearly a one-percent tax decrease. This decrease would save about $6 a year for a resident whose home is assessed at $600,000.
The town board’s Republican majority, composed of Nancy Graboski, James Malone and Chris Nuzzi, all voted to pass the newly fine-tuned budget. Democrat Bridget Fleming voted against it and Throne-Holst, an Independent, abstained.
“This is not a simple difference in philosophy between the three majority board members and myself, this is in fact, a blatant and poorly masked move to bring back the lack of controls of the past, the ability to make decisions without proper controls and oversight, and to put back a structure that served the cronyism and mismanagement of yesteryear,” Throne-Holst wrote in an email.
None of the three Republican town board members could be reached for comment prior to press time.
Instead of using Throne-Holst’s proposed 2.4 percent tax hike to reduce the town’s deficit, the town will depend instead on any additional increase in mortgage tax revenue to pay down its debt in the coming year.
However, Throne-Holst commented that it is “meaningless and misleading to say we are going to set aside any additional mortgage tax revenue to deal with debt and fund balances that are out of compliance at a time in our economy when we have no reason to believe an increase in that revenue is going to happen anytime soon.”
The town currently has about a $5 million deficit, which has accrued in the beaches and waste management funds.
According to Southampton Town Council Member Bridget Fleming, the adopted 2011 budget in fact makes no plan to cut back on this deficit. “They’re basically handing off our financial problems to the tax payers of the future,” she said of the town board members who voted to pass the budget.
At a town board budget workshop the week before, when the 2010 budget planning committee met with town board members to discuss the supervisor’s proposed 2011 budget, committee chair Mike Kelly warned that the board should not allow the budget to depend too heavily on mortgage tax revenues because this money is volatile and — as the town has seen in the past couple of years — it can drop considerably.
In 2007 mortgage tax revenues totaled more than $10 million; but in 2009, that number plummeted to around $3 million.
The supervisor also noted that vacant positions within the highway and waste management departments were not accounted for in the adopted 2011 budget, which may lead to a shortfall in those services, especially since the trimmed-down department budgets reduce consulting and overtime funds by about five percent.
What’s more, the board voted against many of the proposed organizational changes laid-out in the supervisor’s plan, including the creation of a separate department for Building and Zoning. And oversight of the Community Preservation Fund will go back to the Land Management Department, a move the supervisor believes presents a conflict of interest.
Fleming also noted four major staffing changes that were passed just before the budget was approved last week. A budget management and an independent auditor position were moved from the comptroller’s office to a new general funds department, and a payroll position was taken from that department and moved to the comptroller’s office, “which is a conflict of interest,” Fleming added.
Overall, she and Throne-Holst take issue with the fact that many of the amendments made to the proposed budget were introduced just hours before the board voted to adopt it.
“The process by which we got to the final result, despite weeks of plea for joint deliberation and input, was entirely ignored and [the fact that] major changes were not introduced until the very eve of adoption, speaks for itself,” Throne-Holst added. “If these proposals were truly founded in good planning and input, why not bring them to the forefront and to the public in a timely manner?”