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"Sometimes I can’t eat what I want to eat because I have to pay my bills," said Mary Lou Palmer of Laurel. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Residents sound off about tax hike in 2017 proposed operating budget

A handful of residents turned out yesterday evening to voice concerns about the tax increase called for in the town board’s proposed 2017 operating budget.

The proposed budget would increase spending 1.29 percent over this year, requiring a 7.57-percent tax rate increase. The resulting tax per $1,000 of assessed valuation will be $318.40, up $22.40 per thousand over this year. The tax levy would increase 7.76 percent. It requires the board to pierce the state-imposed property tax cap.

Three senior citizens told board members they are already struggling to make ends meet and cannot bear the additional burden of any property tax increases.

“The average increase will be $135 per home,” Supervisor Scott Russell said.

“It’s still a bill I’ll be paying and a hundred dollars is a lot of money,” said Mary Lou Palmer of Laurel, who said she doesn’t understand why the town can’t make do with no spending increase.

“I move from Peter to pay Paul, sometimes I have to do that. Sometimes I can’t eat what I want to eat because I have to pay my bills,” Palmer said. “I’ll eat spaghetti for three nights so I can pay my bills.”

“Getting older is not what it’s cracked up to be,” Kathleen Knapp of Laurel said.

“Young people are not coming in because they can’t afford the taxes. Senior citizens have to leave or move in with their children because they can’t afford the taxes,” Knapp told the board.

She complained to the board that even though taxes go up, services are being cut. Knapp said she lives on Brushes Creek and it’s not being dredged.

“We can’t even get our boards out. They’re sitting in the mud,” she said afterward.

Supervisor Scott Russell discusses the proposed budget with residents at the Nov.9 budget hearing. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Supervisor Scott Russell discusses the proposed budget with residents at the Nov.9 budget hearing. Photo: Denise Civiletti

“We’ve kept increases to a minimum and had no problem complying with the tax cap year after year,” Russell said.

This year, the budget has $1 million in spending on road repaving, which the supervisor said was unavoidable.

“We’ve had two winters that absolutely decimated the infrastructure and I get the calls,” Russell said.

“There was a time when deer were the number one issue, then helicopters were. Now it’s the condition of the roads,” he said. “The public is calling me constantly. We’re getting letters. We’re getting emails. ‘Fix these roads.’ That’s new spending and that’s why we have to raise the taxes. We had no choice if we were going to get the road done,” he said.

“You’re forcing the baby boomers and the millennial group out of here,” said Patricia Cato of Cutchogue. “Fortunately my son lives with me  — because he can’t afford his own apartment — but it enables us to keep the house for future generations. I’m working full-time and I have my son to help me, so I can stay. But it’s hard. And what if my son decides to leave? What do I do?” Cato asked.

Councilwoman Jill Doherty commiserated. “It’s tough. I’m in the house by myself as well. I have four different jobs. It’s hard to live here,” Doherty said.

The supervisor and comptroller did “a wonderful job” to hold the line on almost every budget item, Doherty said, noting that there are some expense increases that the town “has not choice” but to pay, including health insurance costs.

“We’re dealing with increases in health care and insurance that defy imagination,” Councilman Bob Ghosio said. At the same time the town has infrastructure needs to fund as well.

“I pride myself on being a fiscal conservative,” Ghosio said. “It’s hard when you talk about raising taxes,” he said.

Ghosio noted that prior administrations delivered double-digit tax increases. However, he added, he has reservations about the 7.57-percent tax rate increase required to fund the proposed spending plan. “I’m not saying I necessarily believe we need to go that high,“ Ghosio said.

Joe Cato of Cutchogue told board members to cut proposed spending but find a way to allocate more of the spending to infrastructure improvement. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Joe Cato of Cutchogue told board members to cut proposed spending but find a way to allocate more of the spending to infrastructure improvement. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Joe Cato said he doesn’t believe enough money within the budget is allocated to infrastructure. Paving “a few roads” isn’t really going to improve infrastructure which is what the town needs to be able to handle the growing number of tourists and visitors.

Councilman James Dinizio noted that the town is developing a comprehensive road maintenance plan and is making a commitment to the plan for several years. It will also use better quality paving material that will last longer — 20 years, Dinizio said.

“We’ve talked about bonding but in the end that’s not good. We’re bonding something we’re supposed to be supplying. Like the lady said, you can cut back and you can cut back. You can eat spaghetti but if you eat spaghetti all your life, that’s not good for you,” Dinizio said. “You have to start committing to roads that are good.”

Dinizio said board members met with department heads to review the budget. “Some of those discussions were uncomfortable, to say the least,” he said.

“Too much is going towards health insurance. “Maybe the town can get a less expensive policy for employees,” Joe Cato said.

The supervisor said the town switched plans two years ago to save money, but it’s still facing a $300,000 increase in the coming year.

The town bought the cheapest plan available that fulfilled its obligations under its collective bargaining agreement, but it is still costly, Russell said.

“The town board sought an employee contribution to medical coverage and we did stand firm with one of he unions and we got a 5-percent contribution,” Russell said. “We’re in the process now of renegotiating and we’re hoping to get more.”

The board also stood firm on the refusing to hire eight police officers under the old contract, which would have meant having the town pay 100-percent of the medical insurance for new hires, Russell said.

The dispute with the police union went to arbitration and the town got a decision requiring an employee contribution of 15-percent for all new hires, the supervisor said.

The savings, he said, are “not immediate, but with turnover, we will see savings.”

Robert Dunn of Peconic, a regular in the audience at town board meetings, took the podium after the budget hearing concluded to discuss several topics. He turned to the residents who spoke during the hearing.

“These guys are about as cheap as you can get, believe me,” Dunn told them. “I know there’s a big struggle up there on spending money.”