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Politics takes back seat in budget talks

REPORTER FILE PHOTO | The Town Board met this week  and last  to discuss a 2016 budget.
REPORTER FILE PHOTO | The Town Board met this week and last to discuss a 2016 budget.

Budget talks started off this election year on a partisan note, but in the past two weeks discussions by all players have advanced beyond party differences.

Republicans initially charged Democrat Supervisor Jim Dougherty’s budget rollout was incomplete and the supervisor came right back, defending the plan. But board members quickly dispatched a large number of department and committee budget requests with little wrangling over the first several meetings.

They’re now focused on the remaining big spending issues and both sides are focused not on political posturing but trying to keep spending to a minimum.

The board must adopt a budget by the third week in November and a public hearing, not yet scheduled, will precede the adoption vote. That’s likely to occur in late October or early November to allow members to make last minute changes should any issues be raised by taxpayers.

At this stage, the controversial issues are philosophically based, not political. They deal with a question with which this Town Board has wrestled in the past — whether to begin funding for a long-term plan to maintain its assets and roadways, or to continue just-in-time funding year to year.

Despite constant pressures from Highway Superintendent and Public Works Commissioner Jay Card Jr. and Town Engineer John Cronin for long-range funding, the board has been steadfast in taxing only for what is immediately required in the year ahead and hoping enough money is in its contingency fund to handle unanticipated needs.

Both Mr. Card and Mr. Cronin argued last year that such planning required crisis responses that would likely end up being more expensive. But one major cost that went unfunded last year — a new roof on the Medical Center building — ended up getting grant funding this year. That may well be the argument Town Board members make if they opt to continue their approach to budgeting.

Mr. Card has a $705,000 road repair item in his request this year, knowing full well it won’t be totally funded. But he’s still hoping he can convince board members to increase a $30,000 recommendation Supervisor Jim Dougherty has slotted for repaving, raising it to $100,000 to begin work on what he sees as a major need.

Drivers may not think the roads are in a crisis state, Mr. Card said in his initial budget presentation. But his trained eye tells him that since many roadways haven’t been properly repaved in 40 to 50 years, it’s critical to begin a program that would get them all on a 20-year cycle.

If Mr. Dougherty’s $30,000 recommendation were to be approved, Mr. Card has said he would primarily have only some grant money to apply to road repaving. The town’s $30,000 allotment would go primarily to fill potholes and do emergency maintenance.
Mr. Card also knows he won’t get a request for five new vehicles in a single year, but he’s hoping for money for one a year, again with the intention of getting replacements on a regular cycle.

The trucks may not have high mileage on them, but they undergo hard use and he wants to begin replacements while the older trucks still have reasonable resale value to offset the cost of new purchases, he said.

Mr. Dougherty has said that to fully fund Mr. Card’s budget request would cause an increase in taxes 20 percent.

The Shelter Island Police Department won’t be getting cameras in their patrol cars in 2016 unless they can find grant money to pay for them. Town Board members decided at the Friday, October 9 budget hearing to knock out the $31,000 line item in Chief Jim Read’s proposal for cameras in three police vehicles.

While the chief made the case that there’s a trend toward using the cameras to capture information for the benefit of both police and those stopped by them, the Town Board wasn’t convinced.

Councilman Ed Brown opposed the idea and Supervisor Jim Dougherty said he thought it was unnecessary. Councilman Peter Reich questioned Chief Read earlier last week about whether there might be grant money to pay for cameras and the chief said he was unaware of any sources.

“Video will come,” said Councilman Paul Shepherd, who had spoken earlier in support of the cameras. Councilwoman Chris Lewis agreed, but thought the time was not yet right to spend the money.

After listening to Water Advisory Committee member Ken Pysher Tuesday afternoon outlining the need for testing water quality saltwater intrusion in wells, board members agreed the final budget must include a sizeable amount for two of the most critical issues facing the Island.

They will take $12,500 out of the environmental fund and add it to $25,000 for comprehensive water testing.

Their actions came after Democratic Town Board candidate Jim Colligan made the case, arguing that “people are crying for some leadership, some knowledge. This to me is number one.”

Every year the Town Board delays in what is planned as a three-year study is a delay residents can’t afford, he added.

Republican Emory Breiner, one of Mr. Colligan’s rivals for a Town Board seat, wanted to know the value of the water quality studies to Suffolk County since it issues permits for wells.

Mr. Pysher jumped in, explaining the county provides guidelines, but the town can set regulations. One such regulation that’s needed is for the town to keep anyone from having a well installed within three feet of a neighbor’s existing well.

Other major areas slated to receive careful consideration by the Town Board when budget talks continue Wednesday — after the Reporter’s press deadline are:
• Decisions about personnel that impact both the Deer & Tick and Public Works budgets. Mr. Card has said he loses manpower from March through November when highway employee Nick Ryan spends an average of 30 hours per week setting up and maintaining 4-poster units, the feeding stands that brush deer with tickicide.
• How to budget for the Building Department, because Building Inspector Bill Banks will be retiring this spring. Without knowing who will replace him, the Town Board will have to find the means to fill the position.
• How much to allocate for raises for those employees not covered by contracts. The line is currently listed at 2 percent. But Mr. Dougherty has suggested that he take only a 1.5 percent raise, but give higher raises to his office staff.
Mr. Dougherty currently makes $81,200.

Also under consideration is Mr. Card’s request for a substantial raise of his own salary and a hike for his assistant, Debbie Speeches. Mr. Card’s salary is $78,030 and Ms. Speeches earns $38,824.