Towns all over Long Island are facing difficult budget decisions, as recession-damaged revenues decline and costs keep rising. But the Town of Islip is on the verge of taking a step that makes us all sit up and take notice: An all-Republican town board is proposing a budget that comes with a 65 percent property tax increase. It's a $200 jolt for the average homeowner. But believe it or not, there's some good news here: town officials willing to look fiscal reality in the eye, raise revenues to meet it, and take the consequences later.
The person at the core of the Islip crisis is Supervisor Tom Croci, a Republican who ran last year on a low-tax platform. As a staff member to Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), he worked to get the 2 percent state property tax cap enacted into law. But he has come to the conclusion, after making layoffs and significant cuts -- including an entire department -- that the only way to avoid devastating service cuts, including closing beaches and pools that town residents love, is to raise taxes.
This is not without peril for Croci, who must run again in 2015, or for two of his town council members, who must run again next year. It may also have an impact on Republican candidates running in Islip this year -- including Croci's former boss, Zeldin; Assemb. Philip Boyle (R-Bay Shore), who's seeking a Senate seat; and others. Croci says his reading of residents' comments after a major outreach is that they're more worried about loss of services than about rising taxes -- after more than quarter-century of no tax increases. If he is misreading residents, he may well pay for it at the polls.
The problem for Croci, as for every other politician, is magical thinking: Voters don't want services cut, but they don't want taxes raised. That may be possible in some distant galaxy, but on this planet, it's just not. Taxes can be suppressed for a time, by fiscal gimmickry, but those tricks last only so long. In the end, officials have to balance the budget either by cutting services or raising taxes. Croci is facing that reality and is willing to accept the consequences. That's laudable.
For too long, Islip has used its rainy-day account to fill budget holes. Now that account is all but gone. Other towns have used other ploys. Brookhaven relied on the revenue gushing from the town landfill and a mortgage recording tax. The town even foolishly levied a zero property tax for two years. Those two revenue rivers are now tiny revenue streams; Brookhaven is hurting. Oyster Bay is cutting spending through buyouts and layoffs. In Long Beach, population went down, payroll went up, and tax-increase avoidance helped create that city's current budget crisis.
Islip has kept taxes -- and employee pay -- flat since 1984. Even with this increase, the average Islip homeowner would pay a lot fewer dollars in town tax than the average homeowner in the other four western Suffolk towns. It would have been easier to sell if Croci had not given a $55,000-a-year job to the town GOP leader, Frank Tantone. Still, Croci is showing some courage. A Republican asking for a big tax increase is a bit like President Richard M. Nixon, a hardliner, thawing relations with China. But we still have China problems, and Islip will still have tax problems. At least Croci is honest about it now.