The state of the Town of Shelter Island is currently in solid shape, but there are financial hazards in the road ahead.
That’s according to Supervisor Jim Dougherty, speaking at Sunday’s “State of the Town” address, a luncheon at the Ram’s Head Inn sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Shelter Island.
“I think I’ve persuaded my colleagues that we can’t wait for October and the budget season to get going on this financial crisis,” Mr. Dougherty said while laying out the challenges he anticipates. “We have to start cutting straight away.”
Speaking before more than 100 residents, not counting a contingent of high school students, Mr. Dougherty’s report was more subdued than in past years. This was the seventh annual state of the town luncheon sponsored by the League and the main speaker, as League President Lois Morris pointed out, has been Mr. Dougherty for each one of them.
Last year, Mr. Dougherty pronounced the state of Shelter Island as “excellent” and the future would be “a wonderful era.”
This year the supervisor delivered a more sober assessment of responsibilities in the area of health coverage and unfunded mandates coming from Albany
On the positive side of the ledger, Shelter Island was the lowest taxed town in the state and the town’s bond rating was among the highest, Mr. Dougherty said. The town is blessed with a “tremendous amount of borrowing capacity that I and my colleagues on the Town Board don’t like to use unless we absolutely have to,” Mr. Dougherty added.
The town’s debt is also modest relative to the town’s budget and revenues.
Mortgage tax rates continue to flow into the town’s coffers, with close to $400,000 collected for 2013. It’s nowhere near as high as the $700,000-plus the town collected in 2007 during the real estate boom, “but it’s recovering,” the supervisor said.
Mr. Dougherty misspoke quoting the amount of financial burden the town took on when the ambulance service reverted to the town from the Red Cross, and corrected himself Monday morning. The town will pay $94,424 this year for the services.
He praised the commitment of the all-volunteer force — the only all-volunteer ambulance service on the East end — and noted the savings to the town as opposed to having paid employees.
Health care costs are about 10 percent of the budget, coming in at about $1 million annually, plus pensions for active and current town employees comes to about $650,000.
But the real challenges are state imposed, Mr. Dougherty said, with unfunded mandates becoming a burden. In addition there’s a state imposed tax cap on town taxes. Municipalities cannot increase their tax rate more than 1.6 percent over this year’s rate. Towns can override the cap by passing a local law.
Mr. Dougherty doesn’t believe it’s just about money. “The tax cap has been a camouflage for launching a very aggressive crusade to destroy home rule and transfer power from Town Hall here and the Village of Dering Harbor to a very bloated and remote bureaucracy in Albany,” Mr. Dougherty said.
He went on to say, admitting figures were still not completely nailed down, that for example, if a homeowner paid $2,000 in town taxes, and the town stayed within the 1.6 percent cap, “Governor Cuomo will mail you a check for $29.20.”
Mr. Dougherty retuned to that figure several times, telling his audience not to spend their $29.20 too quickly.
Another mandate coming for 2016 will be a state requirement that municipalities consolidate services to save money. The town has already done this, Mr. Dougherty said, with the highway and police departments cooperating with other towns. But the question is whether the state will accept past efforts to consolidate.
The town’s 4-poster program has been expanded from 26 units to 44, Mr. Dougherty said, with Mashomack adding to that number. Contributions have come from private individuals, but still the program is expensive.
The supervisor mentioned a recent study that mice were the main hosts for ticks that cause illness. He wasn’t sure if there was any validity to the study but mentioned it as food for thought.
Thom Milton, chairman of the town’s Irrigation Committee, said that the town might face strong opposition if it instituted “2-posters supplied by cheese.”
There were only two questions from the audience, one on how many employees were covered by town health insurance. Mr. Dougherty estimated there were about 100, including both active and retired employees. To a question about what affect licensing town garbage haulers would have on clean streets and roads, Mr. Dougherty said it’s an issue the Town Board had just recently begun to investigate.
“It’s early days,” Mr. Dougherty said.