Last year, the town board discussed the supervisor's tentative budget publicly for the first time on Nov. 1. File photo: Denise Civiletti

A month after Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith delivered her 2019 tentative budget and at the last work session before a public hearing mandated by state law, the town board on Thursday had its first public discussion of the proposed spending plan.

Jens-Smith’s tentative budget, without any town board amendments, will be the subject of a public hearing scheduled to start at 2:10 p.m. tomorrow, but council members Thursday discussed possible changes they may make after the hearing. Pursuant to state law, the board has until Nov. 20 to adopt a final budget. If it fails to act, the budget submitted to a public hearing — in this case the supervisor’s tentative budget — will become the final budget by operation of law.

The supervisor on Sept. 29 proposed a 3.9 percent spending increase in the three town-wide funds — the general fund, highway fund and street-lighting district — to $59.1 million. Total town spending in 2019 would rise to just under $97.7 million. Her budget calls for a 2.70 percent hike in the total town-wide tax rate, from $54.093 per $1,000 of assessed valuation in 2018 to $55.551 per $1,000 in 2019.

The 2019 town-wide tax levy would increase by 3.42 percent to fund the 2019 spending plan.

Among the changes on the table is a salary increase for the chairperson of the board of assessors, which Councilwoman Jodi Giglio advocated.

“Take into consideration that Laverne [Tennenberg] asked for an increase. She says she is going above and beyond — doing zoning, putting zoning in the real property tax service system. The other assessors as well,” said Giglio.

“She’s asked to be compensated for that. I’d hate to see her looking elsewhere where they’re paying sometimes $30,000 or $40,000 a year more than what she’s making,” Giglio said.

The councilwoman noted that all elected officials other than the town board got $10,000 salary increases in “a past budget” because “people in their offices were getting close to making as much as they were and they were the elected officials doing all the work and responsible for it.” That took place in 2017, proposed by then-supervisor Sean Walter. Prior to that, elected officials had last had a salary increase in 2012.

Giglio also advocated expanding the buildings and grounds staff by two employees. She said the town has added to the buildings and grounds crew’s responsibilities with new parks as well as the rec trail at EPCAL, the creation of which the councilwoman spearheaded. Giglio said a lot of people are using the trail and asking when the town will cut the grass around it.

“I know the supervisor’s office is getting as many calls as I am because I tell them to call you,” Giglio said to Jens-Smith.

“We need somebody to cut the grass around the trail,” Giglio said.

Though the town has added to the responsibilities of the buildings and grounds crew, it has not increased staffing, Giglio said. Officials said the department has had a staff of 18 people for the past several years.

B&G staff have to use comp time to get their jobs done in the warm weather, Giglio said, and then they take off in winter when the town needs them to plow parking lots and clear sidewalks.

“I think it’s really important that we just get two additional people and we have a steady work force,” Giglio said.

Deputy Supervisor Tim Hubbard agreed. “These guys bust their you-know-whats out there. They need help.”

Jens-Smith said she does not disagree. “I think I’ve put through a solid budget. I think we have added people to the town to be able to do stuff. I have spoken to B&G and engineering — whether it is a full-time person they need or seasonal help is yet to be determined,” she said.

Board members discussed shifting responsibility for overseeing the municipal garage from Highway Superintendent Gio Woodson to Police Chief David Hegermiller, something the three Republican members voiced support for.

The board delegated responsibility for the town garage to the highway chief earlier in the year on a provisional basis — agreeing to pay Woodson a $20,000 annual stipend, pro-rated for the balance of 2018, for taking on the additional responsibilities.

The police chief is willing to take on the responsibility without any additional compensation, according to Hubbard, who said he spoke with the chief about it.

“It makes sense,” Hubbard said. “The majority of the vehicles up there in the yard and such are police-related.”

Hubbard and Councilman James Wooten both said they did not like the idea of an elected official serving as the head of a town department, something Hubbard called “troubling.”

The $20,000 saved by shifting responsibility of the garage to the police chief could be applied toward paying for new expenditures not included in the supervisor’s budget, the board majority said.

Hubbard said the budget line for new police vehicles should be increased from the $90,000 the supervisor provided in her tentative budget.

Wooten said he reviewed the budget closely with town financial administrator William Rothaar and found areas where the board could free up some money with “massaging.”

Giglio said Wooten told her in a previous conversation he had “found” $225,000 in the police budget and she said the board should use that money for new buildings and ground staff.

“I’m not opposed to that,” Wooten said. “I don’t know if that kind of maneuvering has to happen at this particular meeting,” he said, indicating that as long as the tax levy is unchanged, the board could work within the budget to shift things from one place to another.

Jens-Smith questioned whether any money “found” in the budget shouldn’t be returned to the taxpayers by way of a reduction in the tax levy.

“I don’t think that would be wise,” Wooten said. “There’s always un-foreseens. At the end of the year you want to put that in reserves and maybe use it for the next cycle,” he said.

“You’re only talking a couple hundred thousand — you’re not talking millions.”

Giglio said there is other anticipated revenue she thought was not being spent, including property tax adjustments when veterans’ exemptions come off the books — which happens when a veteran with an exemption moves and the house is sold to a non-veteran. Giglio put the value of those adjustments at $365,000.

“We’re getting another one and a half million into the levy this year from IDA properties that have come off their incentives,” Giglio said.

Jens-Smith said the board should keep in mind that the town’s general fund balance should be at about 15 percent of the general fund budget, which would be $7.5 million. But the town only has about $2.5 million, she said. “It puts us in a bit of a precarious position.”

Her tentative budget is “a solid budget,” Jens-Smith said.

“It’s a balanced budget with no one-shots” that supports initiatives and programs the town needs, the supervisor said, listing the addition of two police officers for a downtown foot patrol sector, an additional code enforcement officer, two additional employees for the water district and an additional part-time clerk in the town clerk’s office, who will take on special event permit applications — freeing a paralegal in the town attorney’s office to work on code enforcement issues. Her budget, she said, also supports the town-wide three-year IT system infrastructure upgrades. It also supports important programs such as the intergenerational program, the youth court, meals on wheels and Riverhead CAP, Jens-Smith said.

Giglio raised the question of addressing the justice court problem. The court facilities, located in the same building as the police department is overcrowded and antiquated. For more than a decade, the town board has discussed ways to upgrade, expand or replace it. But — despite urging by the town justices — the board never moved forward, citing financial concerns and the town’s existing debt burden.

“Without a doubt something has to be done,” Jens-Smith said. “But there has to be the wherewithal to do it. The town board has to be willing to bond it out. This is my first year. If I had come in here within a month or two and said I want to bond out $18 million for a justice court, I think you guys would’ve — There would have been no support,” Jens-Smith said.

“We’re not in a position to bond that kind of money,” Wooten agreed.

“The justice court could not be done in the budget,” Jens-Smith said. “It would be a capital improvement and a bonding issue.”

Wooten said the court should be able to adjust its calendars to ease the overcrowded dockets — and courtroom.

“There were some things we talked about in the mean time as a stop-gap,” Wooten said. “Maybe an additional traffic court section — other things they can do to massage the calendar so [the cases are]not all between 9 and 1 on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,” he said. “They could have an evening court for infractions. There’s ways to split the calendar to make that a little safer.”

Giglio also brought up the issue of the sewer district’s agreement with the county. The county center’s wastewater is accepted by the Riverhead sewage treatment facility but the contract between the ton and county expired a year ago.

“So we’re not getting any of that revenue,” Giglio said.

She also asked about the fate of the town’s attempt to force the county to make a sewer stabilization fund payment to the Riverhead sewer district, a matter that landed the two government entities in court. When the county declined to make a sewer stabilization fund payment to the town, as the town demanded beginning with the 2016 fiscal year, the town sued. The litigation is still pending.

Giglio said the sewer district’s current revenues from taxpayers is insufficient to pay the expense of operations when debt service for the recent plant upgrade is factored in.

The sewer district recently completed a significant and expensive upgrade of the plant, with Riverhead officials counting on the sewer stabilization fund — a fund generated by a quarter percent sales tax collected by the county — to help offset the cost of debt service. The county provided an $8 million grant for the $24 million upgrade, which improved the plant’s treatment capabilities and expanded its capacity by 300,000 gallons per day.

Town officials argued that the Riverhead Sewer District is entitled to stabilization fund payments of $537,140 for 2016 and $1,466,712 for 2017. The county did not respond to Riverhead’s request for those payments and in December 2016, the town board authorized filing a $2 million notice of claim — a run-up to the lawsuit authorized in May 2017.

Former supervisor Walter said the sewer district would have to raise sewer rates as much as 400 percent to cover the costs of the upgrade unless the county contributes sewer stabilization fund money to the Riverhead sewer district.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor and attorney. Her work has been recognized with numerous journalism awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She was also honored in 2020 with a NY State Senate Woman of Distinction Award for her trailblazing work in local online news. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.