The Republican-majority Hempstead Town Board on Oct. 30 passed its $432.5-million budget by a vote of 6-1.
Town Supervisor Laura Gillen, a Democrat, did not endorse the spending plan, which, she said, relied on uncertain savings to fund an $11-million tax cut.
Gillen’s initial plan, which was rejected by the board, would have slightly cut taxes for most residents, according to her, despite a 0.74-percent increase to the overall tax levy. After the town board introduced their own budget, Gillen amended her first proposal, allowing for some of the board’s changes and cutting overall taxes by 2.4 percent.
She did not budge, however, on the board’s use of “less savings” — projecting a number of retirements, based on years past, and banking on the money that would be saved by not refilling those positions.
“I am not convinced, however, that gambling tax cuts on the backs of potential employee retirements is fiscally prudent or sound,” Gillen said in a statement. “In fact, I think it’s reckless and irresponsible.”
Comptroller Kevin Conroy said at the budget hearing that so far this year, the town is on its way to realizing the $12 million in less savings that were budgeted for last year — with $11.3 million saved by retirements so far.
“I believe it to be appropriate, and I believe it to be conservative,” Conroy said. “It’s a conservative number, and we stand behind it.”
Gillen’s director of finance, Averill Smith, however, pointed out that town officials were counting a parks commissioner who retired last year among the less savings, even though the position was filled.
Also, employees are often due unpaid sick or vacation time when they leave, Smith added.
Levittown resident Chris Wright, who is also a member of the Nassau County Interim Finance Authority — the state-appointed board that oversees the county’s finances — also approached the board to question the use of less savings.
Wright called the majority of the Town Board’s budget “thoughtful and helpful,” but said the town had a “track record of that number being wrong,” when it came to projecting savings from employee retirements.
Conroy assured Wright that a new retirement incentive in the town’s collective bargaining agreement had produced “a lot of enthusiasm” among union employees, and that enough reserves were set up throughout the budget to cover separation payouts.
Councilwoman Erin King Sweeney accused Wright of “sharing [Gillen’s] talking points,” and “infusing politics into this budget,” after he urged the board to “do something good here for the town, as opposed to just for your team.”
Councilman Bruce Blakeman then characterized the budget feuding as “the normal, natural tension that exists in every government” — with the executive proposing a budget, and the legislators amending it.
“Isn’t it a fact that we’re cutting taxes?” Blakeman said. “We have reduced the spending — not by a great amount. And nobody on this board said that her budget was a bad budget.”
After the budget passed, however, a two-page release from the Town Board called Gillen’s initial budget a “spending spree” and boasted that the board had “reversed the supervisor’s tax hike.”
“All of the township’s council members, both Democrat and Republican, understand that our homeowners deserve and need tax relief,” said King Sweeney in the news release.
The town board’s budget amounts to a roughly $14 tax cut per Hempstead resident.
“That’s why we unanimously passed an honest tax-cut budget in response to the tax-boosting plan preferred by the supervisor,” King Sweeney continued. “What’s more, our budget axes over $11 million in excessive spending offered by the supervisor, and our adopted budget restores $8 million to Hempstead’s budget reserves.”
Gillen also released a statement, after the vote.
“Since 2003, seven out of the last eight non-election-year budgets included tax hikes,” Gillen said. “In each case, the town unanimously raised everyone’s taxes without controversy, or even a word. The budget that was adopted would not be so if I was not here challenging the status quo. This is why I believe debate — any debate — is not only healthy, but is required for an issue that is as large and as all-encompassing as the budget. I will operate this town under the constraints presented to me by this board, and I hope that services to taxpayers can remain as steady as possible.”