By Claire Walla
Elements of the 2012 tentative budget met with stiff resistance last Monday, October 3 when Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst presented her $80.3 million spending plan. The tentative budget — just shy of this year’s current $81.6 million operating budget — seeks to impose a zero-percent tax levy increase, while at the same time absorbing a $5.1 million increase in fixed costs for state-mandated programs like health insurance and pensions.
For the average homeowner on the Southampton side of Sag Harbor Village with a house valued at $600,000, town taxes are estimated to be $236, which is $25 lower than the approximate amount village residents paid in 2010.
Based on this year’s tentative budget, a town homeowner outside an incorporated village can expect to pay $835 in town taxes for a home assessed at $600,000. This is estimated to be an $18 increase from 2010.
Your tax rate can be calculated by multiplying each $1,000 of assessed value of your home by 1.391. So, for a home worth $600,000, you would multiply 600 by 1.391 to get $835. That would be your projected tax rate for Southampton Town outside of incorporated villages.
These figures do not include school district taxes.
In order to shrink the town’s budget by more than $5 million without raising taxes, Throne-Holst said it will require taking a “surgical” look at how the town’s services are staffed, organized and presented to the public. While the supervisor has outlined plans for eliminating upwards of 28 positions across all departments, the most sweeping change, for some, will affect law enforcement.
The proposal to cut eight to 10 members of the Southampton Town Police Department’s senior staff is “outrageous,” said a noticeably flustered Councilwoman Nancy Graboski in an interview directly following the supervisor’s presentation.
In order to chop $1.7 million from the police department’s budget, Throne-Holst seeks to implement the town’s “Twenty Years of Service” provision, which, by law, gives the town the authority to “separate from service” those officers who have worked for the town for 20 years or more, awarding them full retirement benefits upon departure. However, Throne-Holst said the town will only have to narrow-in on those eight officers who have served at least 25 years or more to achieve the desired amount of savings.
Throne-Holst said she recognized this tactic will remove senior and therefore more experienced officers from the force, but she added that the department will be able to “fill [positions] from below at a much lower cost.”
This maneuver also feeds into the supervisor’s plan — which was jointly created with Southampton Town Police Chief Bill Wilson — to make the department less “top heavy.”
“The idea is to have more cops and cars on the streets,” rather than in the office doing more administrative tasks, she said.
However, Graboski said she feels it is rather hasty for the town to reorganize the police department from the top down without a more strategic plan for replacing personnel.
“That infrastructure hasn’t been put in place,” she said.
Graboski referred to a plan that was suggested back in 2008 by the then-supervisor, Linda Kabot, to gradually trim the police force by two to three officers each year. It was never enacted.
“The important thing was to use objective criteria,” she continued.
According to Kabot’s suggestion at the time, officers’ attendance records would be reviewed over a five-year term and those officers with weaker performance records would be let go.
In an interview on Monday, Kabot — who had attended the supervisor’s budget presentation — seemed equally perturbed by the proposed budget cuts.
“These proposals [to cut the police force, implement staff layoffs and reorganize departments at town hall] are dusting off ones I had put on the floor a few years ago,” she announced.
Kabot, who is mounting a write-in campaign for supervisor against Throne-Holst in this fall’s election, further criticized the proposed plan to make cuts to the police department only at the very top.
“It is clearly a public statement on the newly founded Superior Officers’ Association (SOA),” said Kabot.
Several members of the SOA attended Monday’s meeting to voice their concerns.
Cutting eight employees “will be devastating to the police department,” Sergeant Michael Zarrow said on behalf of the group.
While the department had budgeted for 96 officers this year, he went on to say that it is now down to 92 based on retirements.
Sergeant Scott Foster added, “The SOA told this town we’re still open to negotiating.”
In addition to those eight members of the police force, the town expects to see six civilian retirements, based on responses from those expressing strong interest in retirement incentives proposed by the town this year. Similar to what the state was offering last year, town employees who choose to retire this year will receive a cash bonus upon departure of $1,000 for each year of service to the town.
But the town will also be eliminating 14 positions, including two attorneys from the town attorney’s office, and positions in the information technology department, land management department, tax receiver’s office, tax assessor’s office and others. The supervisor would not discuss the names of individuals affected by these proposed cuts.
What’s more, the proposed budget aims to curb health insurance costs. Next year, it would be required that all elected officials and non-union administrative employees contribute to their health plans, while benefits for all members of the zoning board of appeals and the planning board would be eliminated.
In terms of reorganization, the supervisor hopes to combine administrative services — particularly at the police department, which she said now uses “archaic” methods for keeping records.
And at town hall she said she hopes to create a Constituent Response Center, which would be operated by one employee and serve as a hub for all departments.
The response center, to be operated by the town’s current citizen’s advocate, Ryan Horn, would be “a first step to establishing centralized citizen information and response services,” Throne-Holst said. It would effectively eliminate two town hall positions.
“While the town certainly regrets the loss of personnel, many of whom have served in positions of rank, the need for cost reductions, greater efficiency and a new view of how to provide police services, made this decision necessary,” the supervisor announced before the crowd Monday night. “We will also continue to explore, in collective bargaining and otherwise, ways to control our police labor costs.”
With the imminent approach of increased restrictions in the months preceding the state’s mandated two-percent tax levy cap (which will go into effect before next year’s budget), Throne-Holst said she chose to keep costs below that mark, mostly for strategic reasons.
Last year, the supervisor’s tentative budget proposed tax hikes of 2.4 percent, money that would be used to pay-down the town’s deficit and increase reserve funds. It was shot down by the town’s Republican majority in favor of a zero percent increase.
“This year I opted to say, ‘Here’s the zero [percent tax levy increase] in a way that I see as sustainable,” she explained. As she sees it, this way the town board has the flexibility to increase taxes by two percent, if it so chooses.
“If the goal is to get to zero, here’s how to do it with a well thought out, truly sustainable plan,” said Throne-Holst.