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Oct 13, 2008 12:21 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Southampton Town Board at work on budget

Oct 13, 2008 12:21 PM

With the soft economy already taking a toll, the Southampton Town Board got off to a bumpy start in its review of Supervisor Linda Kabot’s proposed $82.5 million 2009 budget, her first since taking office in January.

Supervisor Kabot’s proposed budget carries a tax hike of 5 percent, the highest allowed by town law, and sets aside $1.275 million of payments to make up for department budget shortfalls covered by the general fund in recent years, while struggling with reduced revenues from mortgage taxes and fees and permits.

But at least one Town Board member, Anna Throne-Holst, said last week that she wants to explore an alternative plan to avoid a tax hike altogether in the midst of the current turmoil in the world’s financial markets, hoping that spending cuts and other measures can delay the tax hike until the fiscal picture brightens.

Meanwhile, the town is looking at other measures to control spending, such as doing more work in-house rather than hiring consultants, and also freezing elected officials’ salaries and looking to make cuts in some departments. But although the Police Department has accumulated a $4.5 million deficit in recent years, covered by injections of cash from the general fund, the department looks to avoid the belt-tightening, adding more officers and seeking even more, and looking for $176,000 in vehicle and equipment purchases.

Meanwhile, there were tensions among board members: Councilman Chris Nuzzi walked out of the meeting on Wednesday, October 8, as the board met with the heads of various town departments in public session to discuss their budgetary requests.

Mr. Nuzzi walked out of the meeting to protest what he called a flawed process. He said he preferred the way the budget process was handled under former Supervisor Patrick Heaney, when department heads met in private with the supervisor and their Town Board liaisons before meeting with the full Town Board in public session.

Mr. Nuzzi argued that department heads would not be as forthcoming in public about the needs and concerns of their individual departments, especially in terms of personnel. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t work together,” Mr. Nuzzi said. “I just think it would be better to meet individually first.”

Ms. Kabot told the councilman he was welcome to leave, commenting that Town Board members were not required to sit in during work sessions. “It’s your choice to be here,” Ms. Kabot said. “Nobody’s making you stay.”

Mr. Nuzzi had informed Supervisor Kabot that he and fellow board members Anna Throne-Holst and Dan Russo planned to boycott the meeting. Although both expressed concerns about the process, they did not join Mr. Nuzzi in his protest.

Mr. Nuzzi’s stand angered Town Management Services Administrator Richard Blowes, who argued that each department affected the other and that the budget was too large to be worked on individually. “The whole is greater than the sum,” Mr. Blowes said. “All of this is interwoven, one decision has an impact on the other.”

“Our first responsibility is to form our own judgements, then come back and work as a team,” Mr. Nuzzi said.

“We’ve been doing it that way for the last five years, and that’s why we’re in the mess we’re in,” Mr. Blowes said, adding that politics taints the process when meetings take place in private. “People will say things to get other people elected. This should be done out in the open.”

Ms. Throne-Holst said she agreed with Mr. Nuzzi’s assessment of the process, saying it would have been better to meet with the individual department heads one on one.

“Ultimately, it’s all a matter of what gets cut out and who in that department is affected,” Ms. Throne-Holst said. “And when that’s done in public that puts a department head in an uncomfortable position.”

However, Ms. Throne-Holst said she decided to stay out of respect for, not only the individual department heads who carved out time in their schedules to attend the meeting, but also out of respect for the amount of work that went into the presentation.

Mr. Russo said he only wanted to have the same benefit of meeting with the department heads that the supervisor had. “She had her chance to meet with them in private,” Mr. Russo said. “I just would have liked to have had that same opportunity.”

Slowing Economy

Despite the disagreements, the board took its first step on Thursday and accepted Ms. Kabot’s tentative $82.5 million spending plan as its preliminary budget. The board has until November 20 to consider changes, make revisions to the spending plan and adopt a final operating budget.

Unlike in recent years when the town saw its coffers swell from the revenue pouring in from a booming real estate market, this year the Town Board has to grapple with a fiscal crisis due in large part to a softening real estate market and an overall downturn in the national economy.

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