After Two Options To Raise Money Fail, Riverhead Supervisor Promises an Ugly Balanced Budget

The Riverhead Town Board debated how best to cover their budget shortfall Wednesday night.
The Riverhead Town Board debated how best to cover their budget shortfall Wednesday night.

It wasn’t pretty.

Riverhead Town could be facing a budget shortfall next year of up to $4 million, and two attempts to take extraordinary measures to balance the budget failed when the board met Wednesday night.

The town board had considered either piercing the New York State-imposed 2 percent tax levy increase cap or taking a bridge loan of up to $6 million against the anticipated sale of lots at the former Grumman property in Calverton.

When both measures failed to get the three votes needed to pass, Town Supervisor Sean Walter promised to deliver a balanced budget to the board at the end of September — which would include hefty spending cuts.

The last time the board discussed spending cuts in depth, on Aug. 7, finance administrator Bill Rothaar told them it would take 60 layoffs — 20 percent of the town’s work force, to balance the budget.

At that time, Mr. Rothaar estimated the town would need to impose a 12.5 percent tax hike if they don’t make the cuts.

Riverhead has been borrowing money from its cash reserves to balance its budget for the past several years, but now has little money left in that account and must find another way to balance the budget.

“You’re not going to like what it looks like,” Mr. Walter told board members of the budget he plans to deliver Sept. 30, after rebuking them for leaving him “holding the water for the town board.”

“You guys have got a lot on your plate,” he added, telling board members they should block out an eight hour day each week in October to find creative ways to whittle down the budget.

“It’s not a game,” he said. “Some of the board members think it’s a game.”

But board members said they didn’t think they were playing games.

The bridge loan proposal — which Mr. Walter has favored fairly consistantly over the course of budget discussions — was least liked by board members, who said it was a gamble they didn’t want to take with the taxpayers’ money.

Only Mr. Walter and Councilman George Gabrielsen voted for the bridge loan, and only Councilman Jim Wooten and Councilman John Dunleavy voted to pierce the tax cap.

Mr. Dunleavy said Riverhead residents have been stopping him nearly everywhere he goes to tell him they don’t like the bridge loan idea.

“Borrowing money is just kicking the can down the road,” he said. “I can’t kick it down the road any more.”

Mr. Wooten said the extra taxes weren’t his favorite solution, but “borrowing money to pay down debt is stupider.”

Mr. Wooten said that, if someone handled their household expenses by consolidating their credit card debt, they would get wise and cut up their credit cards.

“Fundamentally, I don’t think it’s a good idea to borrow to cover expenses,” he said.

Before the budget-related votes, the board heard nearly two hours of public testimony, mostly opposing the town’s plan to subdivide a portion of EPCAL into a mixed-use development including retail, residential and light industrial uses.

If the town takes the bridge loan, it would, in theory, be repaid by the sale of those lots at EPCAL.

Mr. Gabrielsen characterized himself as an optimist in voting to take the bridge loan.

“I really think good things are going to happen at EPCAL,” he said. “We have an energy park there this close to happening. I heard depressing things today, but I’m an optimist.”

“I share George’s optimism for EPCAL,” said Mr. Walter in voting for the bridge loan. “If we have a 7 to 9 percent tax increase, the residents are never going to get it back.”

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio simply firmly said the word “no” each time she was asked to vote on an option.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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