Correction appended. See below.
Last week I wrote about some of the dysfunction I see on the Riverhead Town Board.  I ended with the question, “What’s the cost of all this nonsense?”

Civiletti_hed_badge_2014These part-time employees each earn just under $49,000 per year, plus fringe benefits. The work week of a part-time administrative employee in the town of Riverhead is 17.5 hours. So that means they’re being paid at the rate of about $100,000 a year if they worked a “full-time” 35-hour work week.

To put the board’s current salaries in perspective, I looked at median income in Riverhead and I looked at how the council and supervisor salaries have changed, relative to median income, going back to the year 2000.

In 2000, the town supervisor position carried a salary of $69,230 and the town council members’ salary was $26,000. In 2000, median household income in Riverhead was $46,195.

In 2015 the supervisor’s salary is $115,148 and council members’ salary is just under $49,000 — compared to the town’s median household income of $50,000.

Since 2000, the town board has increased the supervisor’s salary more than 66 percent and council members’ salary by about 92 percent — while median household income in Riverhead increased just 8 percent. (To be fair, the current town board has not increased the council salaries in the past six years, though at least a couple of members have told me they think they are entitled to a raise.)

Looking at their salaries relative to the consumer price index adds another perspective. Adjusted for inflation, the town board’s $26,000 salary in 2000 would be about $37,000 today. Adjusted for inflation, the supervisor’s $69,230 salary in 2000 would be $93,700 today.2015_0313_salary_line_chart

And that’s just one slice of what happened to our town budget, which swelled from $36.5 million in 2002 to $91.5 million in 2015. (I was unable to dig up budgets going back earlier than that, but as these things go, odds are it was less in 2000.) That’s a $55 million jump — a whopping 51 percent increase. Adjusted for inflation the town budget in Y2K would be about $50 million today, just over half of what it is.

See the pattern?

Obviously the town boards over the last 15 years believed their outstanding performance merited salary increases more than twice the rate of inflation over that time. Prudent fiscal management is hard work, after all.

But I’m not one to just grumble without at least attempting to come up with a solution.

I’ve always been a proponent of term limits. When re-election is the never-ending goal, the game becomes more important than anything else. But lately I find myself wishing for a completely different form of local government — one that takes the politics out of it.

State law authorizes towns to appoint a town manager. How about getting a professional administrator to run the business of town government? His or her salary could be paid for less than the combined salaries of the four town board members.

So how does that happen? Council members’ hours are so flexible they have the freedom to maintain other gainful employment should they so desire — and many have had, and do have, other jobs, both part-time and full-time. That’s fine. Being a council member is public service — it’s not a a job, much less a career. And it shouldn’t be paid like one. When you compensate political positions like careers, you get career politicians. Any you know whose interests they’re looking out for. (It ain’t yours.)

I think council members should be paid a lot less — more like the members of the planning and zoning boards, who are paid annual stipends of $9,000 and $6,000 respectively. It seems to me those people work just as hard and put in as much time as council members — in some cases, maybe more.

If council members were paid $10,000 per year, it would save the town $150,000, not counting fringe benefits (fully paid medical, dental and optical insurance as well as an annuity) which could fund the town manager. And it would help ensure that people who run for town board are motivated by the desire to serve, rather than the desire to earn a paycheck.

As for the town supervisor, who is by law the CEO of the town, classification as a full-time job makes more sense. Whether the person in that position works full-time is another story. And like most of the other things wrong with town government, it’s a bipartisan problem. With a town manager in place, perhaps the supervisor position could be made part-time and the salary reduced accordingly.

Let the town board truly take on the role of a board of directors, with the supervisor as its chairman, making policy whether by resolution or legislation. Ensure that the policy and legislative functions are conducted with transparency and integrity. Attend your ribbon cutting ceremonies and parades and photo-ops. And leave the business of running government to a professional staff that knows what it’s doing.

I know these are radical thoughts. And I can guarantee you the politicians and partisans will say it can’t be done. I can’t guarantee you that it will work, but it seems to me to be worth a shot. What we’ve got now sure doesn’t.

What we’ve got now is the government we get when we don’t pay attention and we don’t hold elected officials accountable. It’s a government run by politicians who avoid decisions, get bogged down in petty politics and personality disputes, don’t grasp the details necessary to fulfill their most fundamental duty to the taxpayers, the oversight of town finances — hell, this bunch has only bothered to actually adopt a budget once in the past six years, completely shirking their most basic responsibility as a town board. The very first item listed in Section 64 of the NY State Town Law (“General Powers of Town Boards”) is “Control of Town Finances.”

Remember to put all of this in the context of a board of “fiscal conservatives” that has: laid off employees; asks the lowest-paid workers in the town to accept 0-percent labor contracts; talks about plugging operating deficits but — until this fiscal year — has balanced the budget by spending down the reserves so low that Wall Street downgraded the town’s credit rating (and this fiscal year we may yet do emergency borrowing against town-owned land at EPCAL if anticipated revenues don’t materialize); approves consulting contracts, plans and studies that enrich consulting firms and then decides there’s no money to do the actual work they ordered plans and studies for. The town pays consultants and outside law firms about $2 million a year.

I think the time has come for some “radical” measures to get control of out town government. If we don’t start someplace and start now, we’re in for more of the same, no matter who’s elected in November, any November.

 

Correction:  The original version of this column incorrectly stated that Riverhead’s median household income between 2000 and 201o rose 42 percent. It actually rose 8 percent.  

In my first draft of this column, I used the 2000 median household income for the Riverhead Census Designated Place, which is basically the Riverhead hamlet, instead of Riverhead Town. The Riverhead CDP, which is more or less the downtown area, has much lower household incomes than the town taken as a whole.  Upon editing and redrafting, I caught that mistake and I changed the income figure but neglected to recalculate the percentage increase.

I am grateful to RiverheadLOCAL reader Michael Murphy for pointing out my mistake and I regret the error.

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Denise Civiletti is an owner of East End Local Media Corp., publishers of RiverheadLOCAL.com and SoutholdLOCAL.com. An award-winning reporter, she is an attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman (1988-1991); she lives in Riverhead with her husband and business partner, Peter Blasl. The views expressed in her blog are hers alone.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.