Column: Tough job, well done

COURTESY ILLUSTRATION Budget negotiations have wrapped at Town Hall.

It has been an interesting budget season, watching a newly constituted Town Board tackle the agonizing process of giving with one hand and having to take with the other, balancing the needs of the town with taxpayers’ ability to foot the bill.

No one likes paying taxes. And politicians who have to impose spending plans know that their public careers are at risk if the public thinks anything but the most necessary expenditures are in proposed budgets.

At this writing, the proposed $12.9 million represented a 5.3 percent spending increase.

But the Town Board was open to hearing suggestions from residents at Wednesday’s public hearing before solidifying the 2019 budget.

What has been impressive during this budget period is that all five Town Board members have been strong in their views about what should or shouldn’t be spent next year, with each member bringing expertise to the discussions based on their individual knowledge of particular needs.

For the second successive year, Councilwoman Amber Brach-Williams took the lead in guiding her colleagues through the process and keeping them aware of what each expenditure would mean to the 2019 budget. Each of her colleagues, as liaisons to various departments and committees, worked hard to ensure they were getting the best bang for the buck.

They worked through much of October to scale back or eliminate many reasonable requests for money, examining a thick budget book line by line to make the hard choices to reach that 5.3 percent spending plan.

They showed respect for one another’s opinions, but no one hesitated to ask pointed questions necessary to pare down spending.

Reaching consensus meant denying Mr. Gerth the community information liaison he sought at a $45,000 price tag. That person was to be charged with disseminating information to the public, compiling and analyzing data, coordinating contacts with community groups and the media, keeping the town website up to date and coordinating the flow of information between committees, departments and the board.

Although Mr. Gerth sees this as a job he would like to add in a future year, some of those responsibilities will be handled by the Information Technology Committee that is implementing programs to smooth a lot of internal communications.

Mr. Gerth does a fine job on his own in getting his messages out and touching base regularly with others inside and outside his administration.

On the other hand, a last minute decision to fund a part-time assistant to Senior Services Director Laurie Fanelli was a wise move by the entire board. Given the large and growing population of seniors on the Island, the need is great and a bargain at $22,100 per year.

The proposed budget provides funds to care for a number of long-neglected assets that pose liabilities for the town. Failure to attend to them could not only lose the town its insurance, but could result in critical injuries or worse if they continued to be neglected.

Two such projects are the bulkheading at Volunteer Park and the re-pointing of bricks at Police Headquarters.

In addition, the board was able to make some progress in improving staff salaries for the lowest paid town workers on the East End.

Other East End towns have some depth to their staffing while Shelter Island depends on 18 people to do the work that is typically expected of many more individuals. This year, the staff will see a 3 percent raise and a few critical staffers who assume more responsibilities will get an additional raise.

It will be easy for some residents to point to a $2.2 million windfall from the sale of its cell tower at the Recycling Center to Florida-based SBA Communications as a means of offsetting spending.

But not all that money will go to into the general fund to offset one year of expenditures.

Instead, the Town Board designated $347,021 to pay off a bond taken when the highway barn was constructed. That will result in a savings of $17,604 in interest payments.

Another $376,490 will be set aside to fund programs that are either largely or entirely paid with grant money. But the town needs to lay out that money before any grant reimbursements are made. The money will be used toward the amount of the grant, not the portion the town might have to pay.

Still more money will be used on capital projects, such as a generator for the Medical Center Building that also houses the Senior Center and provides one of the town’s sites to house residents in the event of an emergency such as a major hurricane.

Islanders pay less in taxes than other East Enders and no one is suggesting they should be hit for more. But caring for the town’s assets and avoiding liabilities is what a responsible government is expected to do.

This Town Board has acted responsibly.