The Riverhead Town Board during the Nov. 7 meeting. Photo: Denise Civiletti

This column is more than a week late and I almost didn’t write it. In today’s hyper-paced news cycle, after all, week-old news isn’t just old news, it’s ancient history.

But I can’t let this go.

The Riverhead Town Board neglected to adopt an operating budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Again.

The Riverhead Town Board has not adopted an operating budget for five of the last nine fiscal years.

Even though state law makes it the town board’s duty to adopt the town’s operating budget.

It’s not optional.

Here’s what state law says:

“The preliminary budget as submitted or amended shall be finally adopted by resolution of the town board not later than the twentieth day of November… The preliminary budget as adopted shall be known as the annual budget for the town for the fiscal year beginning on the first day of January next succeeding, and it shall be entered in the minutes of the town board.” [N.Y. State Town Law Sect. 109(1)]

But there is a fail-safe provision in the law, I suppose to account for the kind of negligence and dereliction of duty we’ve seen in Riverhead this past decade. N.Y. State Town Law Sect. 109(3)says:

”In the event that the town board shall fail to adopt a budget as of the twentieth day of November… the preliminary budget, with such changes, alterations and revisions, if any, as shall have been made by the town board, shall constitute the budget for the ensuing fiscal year.”

The Riverhead Town Board has taken this as a pass. The budget becomes the budget “by default,” so why bother? They shrug it off. No big deal.

Except it is.

If you look at the state law that dictates how towns function and sets forth the duties and responsibilities of town officers — the N.Y. State Town Law — you’ll see the number one duty listed under the section titled “General Powers of Town Boards” is “Control of town finances.” The town board, the law says, “shall have the general management and control of the finances of the town.” [N.Y. Town Law Sect. 64]

Devising and adopting a budget and managing and controlling the town’s finances is the town board’s legal duty. And by the way, the town board is constituted as the town supervisor and council members. In addition to her duties as a member of the town board, the town supervisor acts as the town’s budget officer and treasurer. [N.Y. Town Law Sect. 29]

Until 2010, the Riverhead Town Board took this responsibility seriously. I searched the minutes of the town board for the last 30 years and found only one instance in which the town board prior to 2010 failed to adopt a budget. It was in 1995, when then-supervisor Joe Janoski, sidelined with ill health, was absent and a four-person board deadlocked 2-2. But at least they voted. Unlike the town board since 2010, which held no budget vote in 2011, 2012, 2014, and 2018. In 2010 they held a vote but the budget resolution didn’t pass.

This year, as in most every year this decade, the town board barely had any public discussion of the tentative budget filed by the town supervisor by the Sept. 30 statutory deadline. That, too, is nothing new for the Riverhead Town Board since 2010. But it is a stark departure from past practice. Past town boards held extensive budget meetings, poring over the supervisor’s tentative budgets, wrangling over amendments and eventually reaching compromises that allowed them to come to an agreement on a final budget, which was then duly adopted. Ask any past town board member and they’ll tell you how hellish the month of October was for them. As a past board member myself, I can attest to that.

But no more. Since 2010, the board hasn’t even shown much evidence in open session that they’re even familiar with the budget’s contents. They talk about how they’ve had conversations with various department heads and with each other. But that’s pretty much been the end of it.

Why does it matter?

There are 97,690,700 reasons why it matters. That’s the amount of appropriations in the 2019 total town budget this board didn’t bother to vote on.

“Just as the comprehensive plan serves as the basis for a town board land use decisions, so too the budget serves as the policy or basis for a town‘s financial decisions. No responsible individual could approach the task of preparing a budget casually. For those of us who attended the budget meetings, this was a deliberate and a difficult task. There are no catchy one-liners or sound bites that can be used to present this financial plan, because frankly this is not the time for show.”

Those were the words spoken by then-councilwoman Barbara Blass on Nov. 18, 2003 before she voted on the 2004 budget — after a lengthy and contentious budget “season.”

Failing to thoroughly review the supervisor’s tentative budget, discuss it in open, public meetings and not bothering to vote to adopt a final budget violates a number of state laws, which each member of the town board took an oath to uphold.

The new format of the budget document does not include line-item information on actuals for the prior fiscal year or year-to-date numbers. Top image: Screenshot of page from the 2019 tentative budget. Bottom image: Screenshot of page from the 2018 tentative budget. Click on image to enlarge.

To add insult to injury, as the board shrugged off this legal duty and the budget “passed by default,” the board didn’t even have the benefit of knowing the results of the previous fiscal year or year-to-date numbers for the current fiscal year. This year’s tentative budget format — for the first time in memory — didn’t include that information. Past tentative budgets had columns showing the previous year’s “actual” expenditures and revenues, line by line, as well as the current year’s actual expenditures and revenues for, at the very least, the first half of the current year. Not so the document for 2019.

How do you budget for next year without knowing both the results of the prior year and how you’re doing in the current year?  (See the NYS Comptroller’s publication, “Understanding the Budget Process,” pages 3 and 8.)

Not only that, the town had apparently not yet closed its books for 2017 as the board was working on the 2019 budget. The audited financial statement for 2017 has not yet been completed, financial administrator William Rothaar said at a recent work session, indicating it was taking longer this year because the town hired a new independent auditing firm, Cullen and Danowski.

Sound familiar? It should. The town hadn’t closed or completed an audit for several years running until the auditing firm the board didn’t hire back this year was brought in during 2010 and straightened out a backlogged mess. (The lack of audited financial statements prevented the town from selling millions of bonds it had authorized to pay for many capital expenditures; it was forced to “borrow” internally from its own funds to meet its obligations — not a good fiscal practice.)

The town shouldn’t be budgeting in the dark, but as far as the public can tell, that’s exactly what happened again this year.

One other thing in all this that I can’t let go without comment: Councilwoman Jodi Giglio complained at the Nov. 20 board meeting that there was no budget resolution on the table — because, she said, she wanted to vote against it. She blamed Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith for not having a budget resolution on the agenda.

Every town board member can author and offer a resolution, which with another board member to second it, will be voted on at the meeting — whether the supervisor wants it or not. Board members are legislators, after all. [N.Y. State Town Law Sect. 130] All Giglio had to do that night was say, “I move the 2019 preliminary budget for adoption as the final budget for 2019.” If that motion drew a second, there would have been a vote — and the opportunity to vote no.

Giglio likes to vote no on budgets. The board held budget votes five times since 2010, of which Giglio voted no on the budget four times.  Is it just “time for show,” to borrow Blass’ turn of phrase? I don’t know, but I will say this: Giglio has, over the years, at least demonstrated that she’s reviewed the document, given it thought and tried to see if she can improve it. While her efforts haven’t borne fruit, she gets credit for at least trying.

Last but by no means least, there’s your responsibility in this. Yes, you. Public apathy — as demonstrated by lack of participation in town meetings, hearings or elections — leads elected officials to believe none of this matters. It’s just something some crazy local news editor will rant about every few years without consequence. They can do whatever they want. They have a pass. And your signature is on that pass if you don’t pay attention and get involved.

Show up at meetings. Speak out. (Online comments don’t count.) Ask the town board next October when it will hold public budget discussions. Then show up for them. Or watch them online and email the board members to let them know you’re watching. Come to the budget hearing and voice your opinion. This is your town, your tax dollars, your future.

There’s a saying that we get the government we deserve. It’s up to each of us to stand up and say we deserve better than this.

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Denise Civiletti
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.