The Town of Hempstead board voted Tuesday night to pass a $432.5 million budget with a 3.5 percent tax cut, with tense statements to follow.
All six town council members voted in favor of the budget, with Town Supervisor Laura Gillen dissenting.
“I believe budgets are about more than just numbers on a page and cutting and spending,” Gillen said. “It’s about the future we want for ourselves and for our families.
“I am very proud that over 95 percent of this budget has remained intact from what I initially proposed. After the preliminary budget was introduced, I made attempts to discuss changes that could be agreed upon by all of us, but that request fell on deaf ears.”
Gillen and the council’s largest disagreement within the budget is the concept of “less savings.”
Less savings constitutes the money the town anticipates to save, based on historical data, from employee retirements during the year. The town council’s decision to cut taxes by 3.5 percent comes as a result of a projected $8.5 million in less savings in 2019.
In 2017, the town’s less savings goal was not realized. The budget forecasted $13 million in savings but later borrowed $8.5 million from rainy-day funds to cover separation payments, an expense also not accounted for in the current budget.
This year the board budget estimated $12 million in less savings from 100 employee retirements. $11.3 million in less savings has materialized from 113 retirements so far in 2018, Town Comptroller Kevin Conroy said.
A retirement incentive that includes medical coverage for town employees that retire and their spouse has created “a lot of sentiment out there that a lot of people are going to retire,” Conroy said.
“I believe [the less savings] to be appropriate and I believe it to be conservative,” Conroy said. “In 2018, we’re there.”
The topic of less savings was debated most fervently during the first of two public hearings Oct. 30. Richard Schurin of Harbor Isle questioned the board based on a column by George Marlin in the New Hyde Park Heralc Courier, in which Marlin blasts the budget as “fiscal antics.”
“The key to the GOP shell game is the assumption that there will be $8 million in savings from 100 retirements,” Schurin said. “This claim is a specious one, it does not include the cost of separation and accrued vacation pay, assumes none of the positions will be filled and that the 100 people will actually call it quits.”
“Who is George Marlin to make those observations,” Hempstead Town 3rd District Council Member Bruce Blakeman said. “He’s never come to one of our meetings, he’s never read our budget, he’s a complete fraud.
“He calls himself a conservative and he calls himself an expert. I’ve known the guy for over 20 years and I’ve never met anybody with less of an understanding of government and knew less about the budget,” Blakeman said.
“I don’t even know who George Marlin is,” Conroy said. “He doesn’t work on this budget, I do and my colleagues do.”
Marlin, who attended the second of the two public budget hearings, called it a “farce” and claimed the Republican majority was bitter.
“They’re pretending to be self-righteous by claiming transparency in budgeted less savings,” Marlin said. “Rainy day funds are meant for a rainy day, not to tap into during prosperous economic times.”
Nassau County Interim Finance Authority Director Chris Wright spoke at one of the public hearings about the lack of consideration in the budget for separation pay.
“I think the town board missed an opportunity to take a good, solid baseline budget and improve upon it,” Wright later said. “Unfortunately, they focused on the team rather than the town.”
Filling of vacated positions was also a concern, Schurin said.
“Is there anything to stop this board from filling positions that have been vacated this year from less savings with patronage employees,” Schurin said.
“I think your characterization of jobs is offensive,” Hempstead Town 5th District Council Member Erin King Sweeney said.
“Positions are filled based upon experience and need,” Conroy said.
Following the vote to pass the budget and Gillen’s comments that the board’s budget was irresponsible, Blakeman and Hempstead Town 1st District Council Member Dorothy Goosby responded.
“The disagreement affects less than two percent of the budget,” Blakeman said. “Our disagreement is minimal compared to the entirety of the budget.
“Can’t we just agree to disagree? Not call names, not call people irresponsible because they disagree on less than two percent of what you’ve proposed,” Blakeman said.
“You have said some things to me and done some things to me that were very disrespectful and I would like for you to stop it,” Goosby said.
“Let’s from this day on go and do what we’re supposed to.”