By Claire Walla
By now, local governments across New York are in preparation mode.
In light of news that the state will impose a two-percent tax cap for the upcoming fiscal year (2012-2013), Southampton Town is getting ready to cut back. And it seems cuts to staff will be imminent.
“It is always my goal to avoid layoffs,” said Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst this week. And while she said she will try to reorganize positions and even cut back on hours to prevent eliminating any positions outright, at this point some form of staff reductions will be unavoidable.
According to a presentation made by New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele last Friday, July 15, the tax cap would prevent local government districts from increasing their tax levies by more than two percent, or the cost of inflation, whichever is less. As it stands now, the inflation rate is around 1.85 percent.
During a meeting in her Southampton office this past Tuesday, Supervisor Throne-Holst communicated to members of the media some key elements of the steps she is taking leading up to the budget season. Most importantly, she said she is continuing efforts taken last year to make the budget process as inclusive as possible.
“This year, I’m going to improve on that interactive forum and bring the public into that discussion,” she said, referring to budget workshops held last October after the tentative budget was passed. The process will be a little different this year, as Throne-Holst plans to hold three public workshops the week of September 12, well before the tentative budget is due on September 30. She added that her intent is “to get some input and guidance and feedback on what matters [to the community] and why.”
Last year, Throne-Holst proposed streamlining town operations and combining services in a few departments while also resisting the urge to re-hire some recently vacated positions, most notably in the highway department. The supervisor said that she will look at reorganizing, reintroducing shared services and consolidating work duties again this year.
In the next few weeks, department heads will be meeting with the comptroller, Tamara Wright, to determine exactly what effect such a two-percent cap will have on their funding streams. Throne-Holst has challenged each department to come up with ways it will be able to cut costs in the coming year.
“For example, the highway department uses, overwhelmingly, outside engineering services,” she said. “We have an in-house engineer. This is a time to look very closely at things like that.”
But she anticipated that cutting costs will necessitate a multi-pronged approach. For instance, she added, “Maybe we can cut down on desk hours in the assessor’s office, or the clerk’s department.”
“Again, it will take a lot of careful thought,” she said.
Assemblyman Thiele suggested on Friday that the town might consider raising fees for some of its services. However, Throne-Holst addressed the issue by suggesting such measures would need to be taken into careful consideration.
“In this economy, you don’t want to whack your constituents with a fee increase that’s unsustainable,” she said. For example, if fees rise so drastically it stops the public from paying for certain services, that would dig the town into an even greater hole.
She pointed to senior services as an area that could potentially see a fee increase. “There are hundreds of seniors [at the senior center] every day for lunch. The place is packed. But, we charge very little for that,” she said, adding that even in this instance fee increases might not be the ticket.
“That’s a delicate balancing act, too,” she continued, noting that higher fees could potentially deter seniors from taking advantage of the lunch service, causing long-term health effects.
As the town makes efforts to address its financial future, Throne-Holst ultimately said she hopes the process is as collaborative as possible.
“I’m hoping that both my colleagues and our constituents will work with me through this,” she added. “We have to make sure that both our finances and our tax-payers are protected.”