In 20 years as an elected official, Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman has never presented a budget that increased taxes — until this week. On Thursday, he unveiled a spending plan that, if adopted as is, carries a 2.49 percent tax increase, amounting to $12 per year for a property valued at $500,000.
“It’s not a large increase, but I wish it wasn’t there,” the supervisor said.
In total, the 2021 tentative budget proposal calls for $107.6 million in expenditures, $33.5 million in revenue and a tax levy of $71.8 million
“This is a bare-bones budget,” the lawmaker said during the September 24 Town Board work session. The COVID-19 pandemic meant, he said, “this year has been all over the map.” Response to the crisis, the costs associated with providing service to a surging population, the loss of revenue, the potential loss of state, federal, and county funding, plus a massive hike in pension contributions, made for what he called “an extraordinary setting for preparing a budget.”
The perfect storm of fiscal uncertainty was exacerbated by news from the Office of the State Comptroller. Whereas the town generally anticipates paying around $2 million into a special account to fund pension liabilities, the state called for an 11-percent increase.
The OSC calculates a municipality’s annual contribution every year at the end of March. The contribution relies on the health of a stock portfolio it manages for the expense and, in the wake of the pandemic, “the market took a nosedive,” Mr. Schneiderman explained. The value of the portfolio plummeted, and the town was assessed $650,000 more than expected. Because the contribution relates on the fluctuating market, Town Comptroller Leonard Marchese said the figure is “really hard to deal with.” But, there’s “a good likelihood” the contribution will be less next year, he qualified.
On the upside, while the tax rate increase came in a 2.49 percent, the town was able to avoid piercing the state-mandated tax levy increase cap by using credits from past years when the budget came in under the 2-percent cap. Additionally, with the housing market boom, mortgage tax revenue shared with the town helps offset some losses — such as a 50-percent decrease in justice court revenue. The town may receive as much as $9.2 million, an amount Mr. Marchese said was quite high; the tentative budget anticipates a conservative $8.3 million
But the housing boom didn’t help as much as it might have, thanks to the current freeze on valuations, enacted by the town to assist homeowners. As the town takes a comprehensive look at its assessment strategies, the board enacted a two-year freeze on valuations. Were home values “unfrozen,” Mr. Schneiderman said there might even have been a tax cut.
On the issue of cuts, the town generally receives $3 million from Suffolk County as part of a sales tax revenue sharing program for public safety. Municipalities that operate their own police departments across the county are entitled to a share of sales tax. But this year, sales tax “collapsed,” and the county may cut the share in half.
Across the state, officials have been lobbying the federal government to include aid to local municipalities in upcoming funding packages. If such funding comes through, Mr. Schneiderman believes the county will make the town whole. However, on Friday, County Executive Steve Bellone announced further cuts — to bus service — on the horizon if federal aid isn’t forthcoming. He’s been pushing desperately for an aid package for months to no avail.
Speaking to “the worst case scenario,” no federal funding, plus a cut to the revenue sharing form the county — the supervisor said, “We have adequate reserves in the Police Department fund. I hate to use them, but if we have to, we’re prepared.” For now, officials have to wait and see what Mr. Bellone’s proposed budget includes, or excises. It’s due for release this week.
As previously reported, the population explosion on the East End during the pandemic has meant an increased call for services, and their inherent up-tick in costs. That up-tick has been “dramatic” when it comes to solid waste disposal, Councilman John Bouvier emphasized.
About 10 to 15 percent of town residents are self haulers, bringing their trash and recyclables to the town’s four transfer stations. Residents buy green bags for trash, but dispose of recyclables for free.
If the supervisor’s budget proposal is adopted, self-haulers will have to pay to dispose of recyclables. A $50 permit to help defray burgeoning costs of running the program is proposed.
There was a time when the town actually made money on the sale of recyclable materials, the supervisor recalled. However, in recent years, the vicissitudes in the international market transformed the program from one that was self-sustaining to one that costs, Mr. Schneiderman said, “significant amounts.” He noted the cost at approximately $1 million.
The permit fee is, he said, an effort to close some of that hole. With the permit, which was also recommended by the town’s solid waste committee, the town will still be losing money, but “we’ll lose a little bit less,” the supervisor informed.
The population increase, and exactly how many people moved to Southampton Town in flight from the pandemic in New York City last spring, continues to be an elusive figure.
Last year’s budget was based on a year-round population of about 60,000 residents, Mr. Schneidrman pointed out. And although he believes the population may have tripled, he underscored, “We functioned with the budget we had.” The town added new programs, such as one to assist vulnerable elderly residents sheltering in place with errands, but did not add new staff. The supervisor said he hoped the population wouldn’t remain as high as it’s been. “If it does, we’re going to have to make some really difficult decisions and some serious changes to maintain the level of service our residents are accustomed to,” he said.
While he was clearly dismayed to present the first budget he’s crafted in 20 years that includes an increase, the lawmaker said, “it’s a really challenging time. Thankfully, we’re going into this with a real strong financial position.”
The supervisor’s budget proposal is known as a “tentative “ budget. Once given to members of the Town Board, it’s converted to a “preliminary budget,” which will occur at a special meeting on October 8. From there, public hearings on the spending plan will be held on October 27 and November 10. A vote on its adoption is slated for November 12. The budget is available online on the town’s website, southamptontownny.gov.