By Kathryn G. Menu and Melissa Lynch
Just two weeks before East Hampton residents will have the opportunity to formally comment on a proposed 18 percent tax increase for 2009, the town’s board unanimously chose this week not to accept a raise in pay this year.
“This was a board decision, not just a decision made by me,” said East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill McGintee on Wednesday.
The proposed spending plan of $67 million for the 2009 fiscal year includes a contractual 4.75 percent salary increase for union employees. In his budget proposal, McGintee noted that salary increases were extended to non-union and elected officials at a 3.75 percent rate.
While the proposed budget represents an almost $8 million drop from the approved 2008 budget of $75 million, residents in the town are still looking at a hefty tax increase of 18 percent, with those living in the village looking at a 28 percent tax increase.
Last week, some residents expressed concern over spending in town hall, and aksed that projects like the conversion of historic structures into town hall be halted in the face of an economic downturn and a projected $15 million deficit in the town by the close of 2009.
Rhoda Bation, an East Hampton resident, sharply criticized the board for even considering raises for themselves.
“Times are so difficult,” she said. “Can you tell me how you can justify giving yourself raises of just under five percent?”
At the time, McGintee responded to Bation that traditionally non-union employees are extended the same raise as those negotiated with union employees. However, during Tuesday’s work session, the board agreed not to extend the raises to the board, saving an estimated $12,000. Town board members are currently paid about $60,000, while the supervisor makes just over $95,000. Other non-union employees are still slated to receive a raise.
McGintee said on Wednesday, the move was a “good faith” effort on the part of the board to show taxpayers it is trying to curb spending where it can.
“It was a decision that we made amongst ourselves some time ago,” said board member Brad Loewen on Wednesday. “We recognized the dire straits we were in. We considered that we were willing to do this as a good faith gesture and stand in solidarity with our citizens.”
“We need to show people that we are with them in all of this,” said board member Julia Prince on Wednesday. “Honestly, if the board had agreed to take the raises, I would have placed mine in an escrow account and donated it to one of the organizations whose funding is getting cut.”
The proposed budget does have a series of cuts in funding for organizations like Project MOST — the town’s after school program — and East Hampton Day Care. According to Prince, on Tuesday, small cuts continued, although she cautioned it is her belief that historically under-funded budgets are to blame, in part, for the fiscal crisis the town currently finds itself mired in.
“We have to be realistic because not being realistic is how we got here,” said Prince, who said the board is receiving monthly reports from department heads, making spending more easily controllable. “Why should we leave it to the state comptroller to come back to us and say, you completely under-funded your budget. We are the elected officials, we should do what is right.”
McGintee agreed that cost cutting measures are necessary, but that the board should be careful.
“At the next meeting you will see that some may say the budgetary increases are too much, but at the same meeting I will have people saying there is not enough money,” said McGintee. “You can’t win no matter what you do in this situation.”