A discussion about the census bled into a discussion about the fiscal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic during the Southampton Town Board’s September 17 work session. Aid from the state and federal governments is often calculated based on population figures — an inaccurate census count could have damaging financial consequences for schools and local municipalities.
In Southampton Town, census figures are particularly vital statistics, since, according to Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, the population has surged with second homeowners fleeing Manhattan and taking up full-time residence in Southampton.
Southampton’s typical year-round population is traditionally estimated at approximately 60,000. Mr. Schneiderman has estimated that figure soared to 200,000 during the summer season. What it is now, how many people have decided to stay, is a question mark.
That morning, Mr. Schneiderman, along with Councilmen Rick Martel and Tommy John Schiavoni, plus other East End representatives, and Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and County Executive Steve Bellone, attended a rally to encourage citizens to fill out the census.
“It’s super important,” Mr. Schneiderman said during the work session. “If you don’t get counted, we have federal and state agencies that underestimate our population and don’t give us the adequate resources to keep everybody safe … If we don’t have an accurate count, how do we scale our police officers. Our emergency services?”
Based on the current responses to the census, he said, “It makes our population look like it’s half of what it was 10 years ago. When the reality is, we probably have twice as many people. So we have more expenses, more people to provide for, and we’ll have less resources to do that. That’s not good … we’re gonna find ourselves in a very difficult position if we don’t get those numbers up.”
Of the 930 townships in New York, Southampton places 801 with a self-response rate of 40 percent. East Hampton is at number 854 with a self-response rate of 33.2 percent, and Shelter Island places 868 with a self-response rate of 30.7 percent. Of New York’s 62 counties, Suffolk ranks 12th with a self-response rate of 66.7 percent. On Monday morning, legislator Bridget Fleming released the figures. She planned to host a Zoom meeting to continue the push on Tuesday. The deadline for filling out the census is September 30.
During the work session, the supervisor informed that census takers must report where they were living as of April. “And this year, in April, we had double our population,” he said. “All those summer people, they have put their kids in local schools, they have stayed.”
“These last six, seven months, we’ve had an increase in population, my guess is 200,000,” Mr. Schneiderman surmised. “Not 50,000, not 60,000 … 200,000 people, and it’s impacting us. We’re wiped out … and we’ve gotten no federal money whatsoever.”
Like officials across the state, the supervisor continues to lobby with counterparts for a federal aid package that includes funding for local municipalities. Speaking of the catastrophic collapse in sales tax revenue in Suffolk County, he noted, “The COVID pandemic has led to a lot of issues at different levels of government, revenue shortfalls. At the town, our budget’s coming out soon. Our building permit revenue is way down, our justice court fees are way down. We have many areas where our revenues have dropped significantly.”
The town receives approximately $3 million per year through a public safety sales tax revenue sharing. “That’s a big chunk of the police budget,” Mr. Schneiderman pointed out. “If there is a cutback on a county contribution to our police, that’s significant impact. We’ll have to raise taxes to cover it, or use reserves until the federal money comes through.”
In addition to a potential county cutback, he pressed on, “We have a significant amount of outside funding that keeps our taxes where they are, and I’m hearing from the state, they’re gonna pull back at least 20 percent on assistance to municipalities … highway money, They’re holding back, it might be worse.”
“This is no joke, this is really serious. This pandemic is having broad economic consequences. We’re waiting for the federal government to help. Without it, it’s gonna be real dire. This is desperate.”
Certain costs and service needs have ballooned. According to Southampton Town Police, calls for service from January through July 2020 numbered 31,236 compared to 2019’s 29,931. Domestic incidents surged from 512 last year to 580 this year.
“My budget’s coming out soon. We’re doing the best we can, there’s a lot of unknowns … if this population continues to be so high. I haven’t added staff, new positions. If we’re gonna keep having this many people, we’re gonna have to,” Mr. Schneiderman related.
Does that mean adding more police to the department? Not yet.
During the early months of the pandemic, officials across the county reported a reduction in crime. However, Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki reported an up-tick in general information inquiries. As new executive orders were issued by Governor Andrew Cuomo, police were monitoring businesses and assisting with reopening plans. A “tremendous amount of work and energy” was devoted to patrolling road end beaches, which saw surges of visitors and multiple incidences of overcrowding.
While he didn’t have figures to share regarding cost, the chief acknowledged, “a significant amount of overtime.”
Now that people feel more free to come and go, the chief said there’s been an increase in property crimes — thefts and burglaries. “A lot of people are out of work and hurting,” he noted.
The department has been able to use seasonal staff at beaches and special events, and, the chief noted, he can extend the season for those workers. He said he and Mr. Schneiderman have been keeping an eye on the population, but said it’s a figure that’s hard to put a finger on.
If the swell continues, if it remains long term, the chief predicted, “We’re going to have to have a serious discussion.” For now, he said, “we’re getting by.”
Back at the work session, Councilman John Bouvier, opined, “We budgeted for a season that ends typically on Labor Day, and we’re continuing that on and those stressors are just gonna get bigger and bigger.” He reported municipal waste costs have skyrocketed along with the population. “We’re going to have to increase our costs just to get cost neutral because of the increase in waste,” he said.
Local municipalities need the federal dollars to come through, Mr. Schneiderman emphasized.
“We’re all hoping there’s some package that comes out of Washington that has significant levels for relief through this pandemic. I’m hearing there’s talk, but the clock is ticking,” he said.
“This is going to affect the villages and school districts, too,” Councilman Schiavoni underscored. “They’re all looking at 20-percent cuts, and that’s going to further drive down the economy on Long Island — and across the state and country. Everybody’s facing this.”