Several rounds of cutting are reflected in East Hampton Town’s tentative budget for 2012, a $65.6 million spending plan that would for the second year in a row lower taxes for both town and village residents.
The continued belt-tightening since 2010, prompted by the need to get back on financial track in the wake of a $27.2 million deficit, has manifested most significantly in staff cuts, as well as changes in residential services and the functioning of town departments.
The 2012 budget calls for staff and service cuts enacted this year to be maintained, including the discontinuation of the leaf-pickup program and the Wednesday closing of the Springs-Fireplace Road recycling center.
It eliminates over $1 million budgeted this year for the operation of the scavenger waste treatment plant, anticipating that the town will stop operating the plant itself and instead lease it out to a private entity. The budget also anticipates revenue from the sale of East Hampton’s 50 percent interest in the Poxabogue Golf Center to Southampton Town.
At Justice Court, the elimination of two positions after workers departed prompted a decision by the two town justices earlier this fall to close the court office to the public one day a week so that the remaining staffers could catch up on paperwork. Those who have business with the court cannot complete it any longer on Tuesdays.
Justice Lisa Rana noted, however, that salaries for court officers to oversee a new security system at the entrance to the court building had been added to the departmental budget, an inclusion that she called “really significant.” However, the town’s model court program for students has been eliminated.
Dave Browne, the town’s chief fire marshal, was unavailable for comment this week, but in recent months has regretted his department’s inability, given its current staffing, to continue to offer fire safety programs in the schools.
One of the most visible and much-discussed belt-tightening measures has been the abolition of the Highway Department’s roadside leaf-pickup program. Many residents spoke out at hearings last year to oppose its elimination, saying they would rather be taxed for a townwide service than pay landscapers for help clearing fallen leaves. The program was suspended in 2010, formally eliminated this year, and not funded in next year’s budget.
The Highway Department staff has been reduced by 30 percent, its superintendent, Scott King, said Tuesday. From a high of 41 workers, plus office personnel, in 2001, the staff has gone to 27 highway workers and three office staff.
“With the generous amount of time off that they get, it means we’re understaffed,” Mr. King said. “The workload has increased for everybody. We can’t get as much done.” For instance, he said, he would like to accomplish the repaving of between 4 percent and 6 percent of the roadways in the town each year, but is now able to do only 1 or 2 percent. “We have had to change priorities,” he said, such as not clearing drains before a big rainstorm, repainting equipment, or carrying out “aesthetic” tasks such as mowing.
In the proposed 2012 budget, the Highway Department is one of three entities, along with East Hampton Airport and the Sanitation Department, where the anticipated appropriations for next year include an amount taken from a fund surplus. In this year’s budget, $1.1 million for road paving, which would have been included in the amount to be raised by taxes, was eliminated, with the sum taken from the department surplus instead.
“I have a concern over the amount they spent, because I need it for equipment and infrastructure,” Mr. King said. A surplus could avoid having to raise additional money for capital expenses, such as large-equipment purchases. “I’ve been keeping this place together with bubblegum and duct tape for the last three years,” said Mr. King.
According to the tentative budget, the state comptroller has advised that surplus money not used for annual expenses should be maintained at “reasonable levels” and otherwise used to reduce the tax levy. The town has a policy of maintaining a 20-percent surplus in each fund and, according to the budget message, the surplus appropriations in the highway and sanitation funds move the totals closer to that level.
The Highway Department’s surplus, anticipated to be 37 percent of the department’s budget at the close of 2011, would be at 26 percent at the end of next year, or $1.4 million, under the proposed budgeting.
For the Sanitation Department, the proposed 2012 budget applies $1.1 million of surplus as a revenue, which would leave $2.5 million, or 43 percent of the department’s overall budget, as a surplus at the end of next year. Use of $400,000 from the airport fund surplus next year would go toward running a seasonal airport control tower.
However, Councilman Pete Hammerle warned at a recent town board meeting that relying on surplus money in a particular annual budget to pay for an ongoing expense can create problems when that is no longer possible, meaning taxes must be increased to pay that expense.
“We’re surviving; we’re getting by,” said Pat Keller, the head of the Sanitation Department, which has 10 fewer employees than it did in 2009. Full-time salary costs have dropped from $1.5 million to $1.1 million this year and a proposed $933,069 in 2012.
The recycling center is closed now every Wednesday and several more holidays during the year, and the household hazardous-waste pickup program, which was offered twice a year at both Montauk and East Hampton, now occurs once annually at each site.
The “home exchange” area at the East Hampton center, where reusable goods could be deposited and picked up, has been closed, although Mr. Keller said that was largely the result of safety concerns and a lawsuit against the town after a woman cut herself there. “We’re managing,” Mr. Keller said. But, he added, “I don’t think we could operate with any less.”
In the Human Services Department, 11 employees retired last fall under a state retirement incentive program. Money for their positions, along with those of all of the youth-services staff, was eliminated.
The town’s after-school program for youngsters was abolished last year. Families were referred to an independent program, Project MOST, for which a fee is charged.
The adult day care program, which had operated at both the Montauk Playhouse and in East Hampton, is now offered only in East Hampton. Families and individuals seeking counseling, which the town had offered, are sent to the Family Service League. An agreement allowing that agency to use a town building was also designed to ensure that town residents would have access to certain services.
Councilman Dominick Stanzione, the board’s liaison to Human Services, pointed this week to a recent report by an outside accounting firm hired to conduct a review of how that department had been functioning, as evidence that there was room for improvement and cuts.
Other services offered by the department, such as in-home services and transportation for the handicapped, continue as before, he said, with a higher degree of efficiency.
The amount budgeted for salaries in the Parks and Recreation Department, as well as buildings and grounds, has remained largely stable since 2010 and is not proposed to change significantly next year.
Tom Ruhle, the head of the Housing and Community Development Department, said making do with a staff smaller by one has been made easier because no new affordable-housing initiatives have been recently introduced, thus lightening the department’s workload. But, he said, he hopes that next year’s budget will allow the replacement of a second staffer, who retired this fall. “We will be crippled if that position is not refilled,” he said.
Certain federal housing and other programs that the department implements, such as the Section 8 affordable housing vouchers, set specific standards that must be met. “You have to meet deadlines,” Mr. Ruhle said. “There’s not an option to do less work.”
With the economy limiting the number of applications being submitted to the Town Planning Department, Marguerite Wolffsohn, the department head, said, a pared-down staff is at present able to process applications and work on long-term studies or other projects assigned by the town board, such as providing comments on proposed legislation. Four vacated positions have been left unfilled. In the future, should submissions to the department for site-plan approvals and other permits increase, long-term planning projects may have to be put on hold.
“It’s difficult, but we’re making it work. We want to do our part to comply with the town’s need to cut costs,” said Tom Preiato, the town’s senior building inspector. “Everyone is picking up the slack.” The full-time salary line for the Building Department has dropped by almost $100,000 since 2010, largely because no one was appointed to replace the late Don Sharkey as chief building inspector. Mr. Preiato is acting chief, but has not yet taken the Civil Service test for that post. The test is only offered occasionally.
In the Ordinance Enforcement Department, “We’re doing more with less,” Betsy Bambrick, the department head, said this week. The staff of officers has gone from six full-timers, plus one working part-time, to five full-time officers; full-time salary spending for the department was $411,484 in 2010, and is proposed to be $276,312. Savings are also a result, Ms. Bambrick said, of a departmental reorganization, placing both Ordinance Enforcement and Animal Control under a public safety division headed by a town attorney, Patrick Gunn, with Ms. Bambrick serving as head of both departments.
The town board will have one work session before the hearing on the budget, scheduled for Nov. 10. Whether the budget will be discussed at that session has not been announced. Board members, who received copies of the budget after its Sept. 30 submission by Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, have not commented on it in public session.
According to state law, the board must adopt a preliminary budget by Nov. 15 and a final budget by Nov. 20. Should the budget be passed as proposed, the tax rate for town residents would be $26.58 per $100 of assessed value, a decrease of 2 percent — a savings of $2.32 for those with a house with a $500,000 market value, and a savings of $8.12 for owners of a $1.8 million market-value house.
Village residents, who are not taxed for all of the town services, would see a 9.3 percent tax decrease next year under the proposed budget, at a rate of $11.10 per $100 of assessed value — a $46 savings on taxes for a $500,000 house and a $161 savings on an $18 million house.