What appear to be alarmingly optimistic projections and unfunded expenses are buried in the 2014 East Hampton Town budget. How the town deals with these stumbling blocks, which were left for the new town board by the previous administration, will be an early test. What is emerging is a picture of a budget that was fudged to make it appear balanced — hardly one that ex-Supervisor Bill Wilkinson would have left for himself had he expected to remain in office.
One example of unlikely revenue is a probably impossible 21-percent increase in the fines and fees meted out by the Justice Court. No major changes in ordinance enforcement nor new hires have been announced that would support such an increase, and it is difficult to see how the current staff of four inspectors and a director could ramp up efforts enough to meet a projection that shows revenue rising by more than $200,000. Reality, it seems, is taking some of the shine off the Wilkinson financial miracle.
It is interesting to note, however, an initiative in the Town of Islip to revitalize its code and public safety enforcement, which was reported in Newsday earlier this month. It resulted in a huge jump in fines, swelling town coffers by $900,000. There, as in East Hampton, a substantial proportion of Justice Court cases concerned illegal, multiple housing.
Part of the rise in fines had to do with a boost in the number of investigators and fire marshals, but part also was motivated by a willingness at the top for a more aggressive approach, including lots of fieldwork and close cooperation with police. Here, where obvious violations go unchecked for months, if not years, restoring faith in government and balancing the books would suggest that this is a tactic the town board should consider.
Another iffy item is $350,000 from an anticipated sale of a town-owned office suite. It appears on the books even though no contract has been inked.
The town board has already considered the waste-disposal fees paid by homeowners, which are set to rise sharply in order to make up for what otherwise would be a six-digit shortfall in the sanitation budget.
Such is the worrying state of finances at the outset of 2014. These gaps and rosy projections also contribute to concern about the quality of the oversight that was supposed to come from the state comptroller’s office. As a condition of the town’s borrowing to cover McGintee-era deficits, the state was expected to pay more attention than it apparently has.
If there ever was a moment for the town’s volunteer budget and finance committee to sharpen its pencils it is now. Wedged between the state 2-percent tax cap and overstated revenue expectations, the East Hampton Town Board may find itself having to ask property owners to swallow tax hikes or to make very deep cuts in services next year. There will be hard work ahead, and leveling with the taxpayers about what is really going on will have to be high on the list of priorities.