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Town Board hunting for budget cuts

JULIE LANE PHOTO
Highway Superintendent Jay Card Jr. and his secretary Debra Speeches made their case to the Town Board.

What started out as a 16.9 percent increase in spending for Shelter Island Town in 2019 has been whittled down to 12.4 percent in two Town Board budget meetings. But the work has just begun toward a final budget.It started with release of Supervisor Gary Gerth’s preliminary budget calling for $13.3 million in spending of which $10.3 million would be raised from taxes. But neither he nor his Town Board colleagues planned an increase that large.

Its development came from perusing the current year’s budget and,working with Deputy Supervisor Amber Brach-Williams, speaking with department chiefs and committee representatives about the needs they anticipated.

By the end of two days of meetings with various department chiefs and discussions of needs, the board was looking at a critical amount of money to either replace the bulkheading at Volunteer Park overlooking Dering Harbor or re-pointing all of the brick work at Police Headquarters.

They were convinced that the building had to take precedence until they had Town Engineer John Cronin and Public Works Commissioner Jay Card Jr. examine the bulkhead.

The two men returned with word that the bulkhead is critical. Some Town Board members have visited the site on their own and drawn the same conclusion. On Friday morning, Mr. Gerth and others plan to take a second look at the bulkhead, but the expectation is that one way or another, money will have to be found to address that project in 2019.

Councilman Paul Shepherd said there was a lot of leakage to the bulkhead, but most dangerous was concern that a child could fall from Volunteer Park and sustain serious injuries on the broken bulkhead.

The town does have a $2.2 million windfall from sale of its cell tower at the Recycling Center to Florida-based SBA Communications and has planned to spend some of that money on capital projects.

It’s the first time in 10 years a capital budget has existed instead of responding to needs of maintaining town-owned assets only when critical needs arose.

Plans call for using $1.1 million of the money toward operating expenses, but over a 19-year period.

Another $347,021 would be allocated to pay off the bond taken when the highway barn was built, which will save $17,604 in interest payments.

The cell tower money will also allow $376,490 to be set aside to fund programs that are either largely or entirely paid for through grants, but where the town needs to lay out the money before any grant reimbursement is forthcoming. The money would only be used toward the amount of the grant, not whatever portion of the project might have to be paid by the town.

As for specific projects, the Town Board was anticipating using $372,500 to pay all or part of the following projects planned for 2019:

• $62,500 to pay half the cost of installing license plate readers and cameras at North and South ferries with the other half coming from the Police Department’s 2019 budget.

• $40,000 to purchase a new generator at the Medical Center/Senior Services building.

• $120,000 for a storage building at the Highway Department.

• $150,000 to restore the bulkhead at Volunteer Park overlooking Dering Harbor.

But until the bulkhead project is put out to bid, there’s no indication that $150,000 would cover the cost.

The two largest department budgets typically represent the most spending.

Mr. Card has been heard from on his Highway and Public Works proposals and Chief Jim Read is due to meet with the Town Board Friday on his budget.

“It’s no surprise I look again to be compensated for what I think the job is worth,” Mr. Card told the Board last Friday.

Highway Superintendents throughout the East End make many thousands of dollars more than Mr. Card does and their jobs don’t require doing triple duty — highways, public works and landfill.  He even suggested Friday that the Board consider splitting the highway and public works job and hiring someone else. But that wouldn’t come cheap.

Mr. Card currently receives a total of $83,993. He is budgeted by the Gerth draft to receive $90,513. But his request is for $110,000. That would still put him much below pay other area highway chiefs receive.

Board members made it clear they think he’s doing a great job, but money is tight.

Debbie Speeches, his personal secretary, would receive $49,524 by Mr. Gerth’s calculations, up from Mr. Card’s request for her salary to rise to $47,425. She is one of a few Town Hall staffers to receive more than the 3 percent raise Mr. Gerth is requesting across the board. Mr. Card has fought year after year for Ms. Speeches and probably hadn’t expected she might end up with more than he requested if the preliminary budget holds.

Town Board members generally endorsed the 3 percent across the board raise for town workers, although Mr. Shepherd said he worries ab out spending and certainly couldn’t expect that the town would hike salaries by 3 percent every year.

Mr. Gerth argued that the Shelter Island Town staff is the lowest paid on the East End and because of the small size of the staff, tackles more than workers in other municipalities are asked to do.

Mr. Card is currently requesting a $100,000 allocation with $60,000 going to Mr. Cronin for his work and the balance to a junior engineer who would start at $40,000 but eventually reverse positions, enabling Mr. Cronin to train and oversee the younger engineer, but not have to tackle as much work himself.

That younger engineer wold be groomed to eventually become the town engineer when Mr. Cronin chose to retire.

Mr. Card prioritized various public works projects saying that finishing the new nitrogen-reducing bathroom at Crescent Beach would top his list for 2019. Also on the list was re-pointing Police Headquarters brink work, and repairs of bulkheads, but not in the amount the project at Volunteer Park could  cost.

Maintaining town assets is always going to be costly for the Public Works Department, but add to that a decrease in expected revenues related to  the sale of plastics. Mr. Card said its related to the market shrinking since tensions with China that used to purchase a lot is drying up.

Mr. Card also wants another worker as does Laurie Fanella, director of Senior Services, who looks to free up more of her time for home visits and counseling while a part time person would provide administrative help in the office.

Another major issue is how much Mr. Gerth and Town Board members should receive in compensation. Members all said they would not take a 3 percent hike, but would settle for 2 percent, but they wanted Ms. Brach-Williams to get more because of her work on the budget and her service as deputy supervisor.

She argued against it, but for the moment, if the numbers stand, she would receive the same $40,405 her other colleagues receive plus an additional $4,000. Current salary for Town Board member is $39,227.

As for Mr. Gerth, he was undecided initially about whether he would take the full 3 percent that would raise his $85,749 salary to $90,322. He said that the supervisor’s salary is the lowest on Long Island and his concern was that unless it is raised, it could stop younger qualified candidates for seeking the job.

By Tuesday, he said he was leaning toward taking the full 3 percent, but donating the raise to Shelter Island Housing Options, the Shelter Island Food Pantry and an interdenominational youth program.

He argued that his colleagues should also accept 3 percent because they give so much to the job, and also help him with administrative decisions bringing their knowledge to various subjects.

Justice Mary-Faith Westervelt is asking for $5,425 for a part-time security officer who would likely be a person employed by Southold Justice Court in a shared services arrangement.

The Deer & Tick Committee wants to increase its spending to increase the deer cull and to consider hiring a part time animal control officer to handle domestic issues to free up Animal Control Officer Beau Payne to concentrate on deer and tick issues and possibly do some hunting himself without added compensation for that function.

The Community Housing Committee wants more money to pay engineering consultants as it works to develop a concept for affordable rental apartments and to enhance its communications with the public.

Meetings continue on Thursday and Friday this week and next Monday with other sessions on a line-by-line review looking for possible budget cuts.

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