Despite the threatening night sky, nearly a dozen Southampton town civil service employees stood in the dark outside town hall on Tuesday evening, protesting 44 potential lay offs in the 2010 budget. Inside, the Southampton Town Board was holding its first public hearing on the controversial financial plan which includes excising positions, privatizing the animal shelter and waste management transfer stations and a full five percent tax rate increase.
As the hearing got underway, local Civil Service Employee Association President Pete Collins called the budget “unacceptable.” While Collins spoke co-workers and members of his union held up signs displaying the words “Show Some Respect” as they leaned against the beige-colored walls of the town meeting room.
Collins maintained that the board’s measures targeted the average employee. They, said Collins, are asked to agree to lag payrolls and furloughs, while administrators don’t need to make the same sacrifices. Historic districts and landmarks board member Lisa Votino-Tarrant was worried the layoffs targeted those workers in the lowest income bracket. She added that cuts in youth services were detrimental and affected residents who could least afford such opportunities in their own communities.
Of the proposal to close and privatize the animal shelter, current assistant animal shelter supervisor Christine Russell gave a tearful speech to the town board.
“Myself and eight others were written out of the budget. The shelter has been my pride and joy. When I told my four-year-old son that I was losing my job, he asked if I would be a hero again to different dogs and cats,” remarked Russell, as she fought back tears.
Even Pierson High School senior Celia Gianis spoke up during the meeting over two firings in the town Youth Bureau.
“I don’t think this is right. They’re not being laid off because of their work. They love the kids they are helping … the powers above them messed up,” noted Gianis. “When you get people who care about their jobs you keep them.”
Town supervisor Linda Kabot, however, said the layoffs were inevitable as the town by law can only raise the tax rate by five percent over the prior year’s tax rate increase. Last year, contended Kabot, the town used $4.5 million in surplus funds to sustain current staff levels. This year, the town doesn’t have any surplus monies and is already proposing to raise taxes the full five percent. The town board could raise taxes further to keep current staff levels and pay off past deficits, but this would require an amendment to town law to pierce the five percent tax rate increase cap.
Town board member Anna Throne-Holst, who is challenging Kabot for the supervisor position in next Tuesday’s election, advised against amending town law without clearly knowing the bottom line number for the capital fund deficit. She also felt the town doesn’t have a clear deficit reduction plan for the fund.
North Sea resident Barbara Fair had an issue with the language of the law to pierce the tax rate cap. She understood that the resolution calls for paying off prior deficits but added that “there is no cap on how much the deficit reduction amount might be.” Fair said she was troubled by this point.
Democratic candidate for town board Bridget Fleming raised similar concerns and was worried that the town hasn’t released results from a forensic audit in a public forum.
“I don’t see how we [the public] can comment or consider the budget when we don’t have the full information,” argued Fleming. “How do we consider this budget as a sensible cure for what ails us when we don’t even know what ails us.”
Gloria Burke, a member of the town’s budget and finance committee, explained some of the rationale behind the lean budget. She told the audience that town government has grown “on the back of mortgage tax revenue” which Burke added is controlled by the economy. With staggering losses in mortgage tax revenue, Burke said the taxpayers need to look at what services the government should provide.
The town board will hold the next public hearing on the tentative 2010 budget on Friday, October 30, at 1 p.m. in town hall.