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Oct 3, 2012 11:09 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Southampton Town Budget Draws Fire For Painful Cuts

Oct 3, 2012 12:03 PM

Reductions in staffing over the last two years are saving Southampton Town more than a million dollars in Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst’s tentative 2013 budget, but spending constraints and austere staffing levels, particularly in the police department, are causing friction in some corners.

At the same time, early impressions of the budget hint that there might not be the contentious tug-of-war between the supervisor and the Republican-Conservative majority of the board this time around.

“I don’t truly foresee any major bones of contention,” Republican Councilwoman Christine Scalera said of the budget. “It mostly builds on things we’ve spoken about and issues that have come up in the past. But we’ve only had it for a week, so we’ll be talking to department heads again to get their impressions and looking for ways that we can keep spending down even more, if possible.”

The supervisor was equally hopeful that the work done together in crafting the budget will mean a smoother transition from her tentative budget to the adoption of a final budget by the November 20 deadline.

When she unveiled her proposed $82.7 million budget last week, the supervisor highlighted the town’s cuts to the overall workforce by 18 percent in the last three years as being a key to keeping a check on spending—which is up about $2.4 million this year, primarily because of increasing salaries and benefits—and a flat tax levy for residents. The spending plan reveals the cost savings that the reductions are yielding: Salaries for the town’s employees would decrease $1.7 million in the supervisor’s budget, down from $37 million in the 2012 adopted budget.

Nonetheless, the expense of benefits for current Civil Service employees in the 2013 budget continue to climb, up more than $860,000 from last year.

The budget does propose the creation of two new positions: a purchasing director to centralize the handling of all purchase orders from the town’s various departments, and the reinstatement of an assistant town attorney position, one of two that were eliminated in the 2012 budget.

But the staff savings are not getting good grades from everyone. The Town Board is taking flak this week from the town’s police union, the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, for the skeletal staffing levels. The PBA took out an ad in the current edition of The Press calling attention to the fact that official staffing in the police department has dropped 30 percent in the last 12 years. PBA President Kevin Gwinn on Wednesday said the Town Board has consistently refused to increase staffing levels or make changes to scheduling and technology upgrades that would ease the burden on the current force.

“We went from 106 [officers] only a couple of years ago down to 73, and we’re concerned about the safety of our officers and the services provided to the community,” Mr. Gwinn said this week. “[Chief of Police William Wilson] has asked for more officers and is continually being denied.”

Mr. Gwinn said the board has also refused to allow the department to shift its scheduling to ease the stress of working rotating shifts. He also said that technology upgrades the chief has requested and been denied are needed to save hours of processing work that also taxes the department’s effectiveness.

Ms. Throne-Holst acknowledged that her tentative budget does not propose an increase to police department staffing but noted it does not reduce it further, either. The budget also boosts the expected pay of overtime and part-time officers to help make up for the staffing shortages. She said that the key to all of the issues at hand will come with the start of negotiations for a new PBA contract, slated to begin later this fall. The PBA’s current contract expires in December.

The budget and the Town Board’s insistence on strict spending caps and cuts also drew criticism this week from Highway Superintendent Alex Gregor, who has butted heads with the board since he was elected in 2009. The Highway Department budget took a $600,000 cut to its allotted budget in the supervisor’s 2013 proposal.

“We got hammered,” Mr. Gregor said. “Three years ago, we had $500,000 for capital, last year, $200,000, and this year I’ve got $10,000 for capital equipment purchases. For three years, the average road improvement spending was $3.5 million—this year it’s $1.2 million for townwide paving.”

Ms. Throne-Holst said that part of the cuts to the Highway Department’s capital budget are expected to be made up with an anticipated $400,000 state grant that is not accounted for in the budget. But she added that the town has been looking to reduced its capital spending this year and next, and the Highway Department will feel the bite.

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