Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter has proposed a tax levy increase of 5.06 percent for 2016, which he says will allow the town to prepare structurally balanced budgets going forward, though it does pierce the state tax cap and will cost the average taxpayer $7.50 more per month.
“I’m happy,” he said as he presented the budget to the town board Thursday morning.
The town’s total budget for 2016 would be $92.7 million, up about $1.2 million over the 2015 budget.
Mr. Walter said the budget cuts just two positions — those of former Deputy Town Attorney William Duffy, who left Riverhead to become Southold’s Town Attorney this year, and of a Geographic Information Systems specialist who also no longer works for the town.
Mr. Walter said the budget doesn’t rely on any money from the town’s dwindling reserve funds, which stand at $2.7 million, far below the cushion that the state comptroller and municipal bond rating firms like to see, after the town borrowed from the fund balance over the past several years to stay within the tax cap.
“I think this is the first truly balanced budget since Jimmy Stark left office,” said Mr. Walter, who added that if voters don’t like the tax increase, they will likely tell him so this November, when he faces a three-way race for re-election.
Mr. Walter said his focus since taking office was to grow the town’s tax base by encouraging economic growth, allowing increased assessment of commercial property to limit tax rate increases.
Mr. Walter said the total assessed valuation of property in Riverhead has grown from $800,000 last year to $835,000 this year. Riverhead does not assess properties at their full market value.
Because of that increased valuation, said Mr. Walter, Riverhead’s state tax levy cap is 2.04 percent, while many other East End towns are facing a tax levy cap closer to .73 percent.
“This has always been a race to build the economy of the town large enough before we kind of ran out of fund balance,” he said. “It’s never changed from that.”
Mr. Walter said his budget keeps all town programs in place, and the town will not have to borrow next year to pay for road repairs, or new equipment ranging from buses to ambulances.
Mr. Walter added that the town is lobbying for changes in the Community Preservation Fund program that will allow Riverhead to refinance its CPF debt. Currently, he said, the town pays $5.6 million in CPF debt service annually for land purchased through bonding against future revenues, but the town only anticipates taking in $3.6 million in CPF revenue this year.
Mr. Walter added that taxpayers are currently subsidizing boat slips at the town-owned marina in South Jamesport’s East Creek. Currently, the town is charging town residents $80 per foot per season to keep their boats docked there.
Councilman George Gabrielsen said he’d be in favor of possibly increasing the slip lease fee there.
In order for the town to override the state tax cap, the board must also put forward a “Tax Cap Override” local law, and must hold a public hearing on that local law, along with a public hearing on the budget, by the Thursday following the November general election.
The Tax Cap Override local law must be approved by a 2/3 majority of the town board, along with the proposed budget, by Nov. 20.
Riverhead’s full proposed budget is available on the town’s website here.