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

I’ve been known to rant about how the Riverhead Town Board shirks its duty with respect to the formulation and adoption of the town budget.

I’ve complained that they have few, if any, public discussions about the budget. I’ve complained that the board often doesn’t even bother to vote on the budget, but lets the supervisor’s proposed budget become the adopted budget “by operation of law” — ie automatically. That’s a fail-safe in the state law if a town board fails to act. To be clear, state law says the town board shall adopt the budget.

As a Riverhead taxpayer, this offends me. Fiscal oversight is the town board’s number one duty. As a former councilwoman, this drives me up a wall. I know from experience how a budget can mask appropriations and hide sometimes significant amounts of money. I also know that a budget for any entity — whether it’s a small business like the one I run with my family or a $100 million organization, like the one our town board is charged with overseeing — is a blueprint for operations, a roadmap for its future.

But how do you know where you’re going, what you’re capable of doing, and whether you’re going to get there as efficiently as possible, if you don’t know where you’ve been?

Until last year, I’d never seen a budget document that didn’t display actuals from the prior year or year-to-date numbers. “Budgeting” without that information is like budgeting blindfolded.

Yet, that’s exactly what we have in Riverhead. Starting with the budget for fiscal year 2019 — which, once again, the town board didn’t bother to publicly discuss or vote on — the town’s budget document no longer reflects actual revenues and expenditures for either the prior fiscal year or the year to date.

The town’s budget now only displays columns for “current budget,” “department request,” “tentative budget,” and “adopted budget.”

A page from the supervisor’s 2020 tentative budget

I should also point out the document omits a column for “preliminary budget.” The preliminary budget, by law, the budget subject to a public hearing. It’s supposed to be the supervisor’s tentative budget as amended by the town board. By omitting the preliminary budget column, the tentative is just assuming the town board isn’t going to make any changes. Not a bad assumption, based on past performance.

When I questioned the supervisor about why her budgets do not show actual numbers for the prior year or year to date, she said — and I quote — “I think it’s because of the new software.” She assured me that she had the actuals and the board members could get the data if they asked for it. (I muffled a guffaw.) What about the public? What about transparency?

Then she asked me what other towns do.

In fact, other towns’ budgets do show at least one prior year’s actuals and year-to-date actuals. I was certain of it, because I’d never seen such a preposterous practice as the one Riverhead has now adopted. But I checked their websites anyway. Southold, East Hampton, Southampton, Brookhaven — yep.

I quit after that and decided to see what the Office of the State Comptroller had to say about it. The state comptroller’s office publishes guides for town officials and citizens alike, explaining things like the budget process and sound fiscal management for municipalities.

The Office of the State Comptroller in its publication “Citizens’ Guide to Local Budgets” says “budget documents should show a few years’ worth of budget data.” (Emphasis added.)

I should note here that Riverhead Town isn’t violating any laws by not including that information in its budget document. It’s “just” violating sound fiscal oversight practices.

The comptroller’s guide says if the local budget does not include prior years’ budget data, “you should ask to see this information (preferably displayed in an identical fashion), so that you have a basis for comparison.” (Emphasis added.)

Ah. A basis for comparison. That would be the whole point now, wouldn’t it?

How is the town board supposed to assess the supervisor’s tentative budget and change it or vote to adopt it without a basis for comparison? (This presumes they’d do such things.)

For example, if a hypothetical budget line has $100,000 in it for 2020 but actual expenditures in that line during FY 2018 were only $10,000 and year-to-date in that line (for the first half FY 2019) was only $4,000, why are we budgeting $100,000 in that line for FY2020? With Riverhead’s new budget format, board members and the public have no way of knowing that the $100,000 appropriation might be out of whack.

This is how municipal governments pad their budgets, line by line — and it adds up, allowing them to accumulate handy rainy-day funds for pet projects or purchases. This is often made obvious by perennial end-of-year budget adjustments and transfers. For example, we had a transfer at the last town board meeting: a $70,000 transfer to fund a new boiler for town hall. The expense wasn’t budgeted for and the resolution said the funds were coming out of a line for playground equipment.

I next took my questions to the town’s financial administrator, William Rothaar.

He told me the new format was portrait (vertical) instead of landscape (horizontal) and couldn’t fit all the columns. Why did the town switch from the landscape format it has always used? It’s a smaller document and it’s “cleaner” and “easier to read,” he said.

“The supervisor was fine with the format that we have,” Rothaar assured me.

“Maybe, but it’s missing essential information,” I complained.

Board members get biweekly reports of actual revenues and expenses, Rothaar told me. Those reports are dumped into a file on the town’s server that the board members can access, he said.

So, the members of this board, who over the past decade have shown little evidence of actually delving into the budget document itself, are now expected to go back through biweekly reports and match up account categories to budget lines in order to figure out how projections for last year and this year line up to reality? Are you kidding?

And what about the public? How are the taxpayers who pay the bills, who see those bills increase year after year, supposed to know whether this budget is a fair, accurate projection of evenues and expenditures — a projection on which the tax rate for the coming year is based?

“Well I guess they could FOIL for those reports,” Rothaar offered.

Say, what? First of all, who besides me and maybe town board watchdog Sal Mastropaolo of Calverton are going to do that? Second, there’s no guarantee the FOIL would be fulfilled prior to the budget hearing required by law. And if the town board is discussing data or documents during a public meeting — in case they decide to actually have a budget discussion, that is — the state Open Meetings Law requires those documents to be provided to the press and the public before or at the meeting.

To make matters worse, the current supervisor doesn’t publicly present her budget proposal to the town board and the public, as past supervisors have done — to explain how the proposed spending plan was devised, what’s included and what’s not and invite the town board’s feedback. She simply files it with the town clerk and posts it on the town website — without so much as a press release announcing it’s been filed. The less said the better?

I’m still not sure who made the bad decision to present a dumbed-down version of the town budget, but I know who could change it. The supervisor and the town board. And, for the sake of the transparency they are always touting, they owe it to the public to do so — right away.

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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.