Editorial: Local budget approvals should precede elections
The seamier side of the town budgeting process was on display last week in Oyster Bay, making the case once again that elected officials should be accountable for decisions on how to spend the public's taxes.
Oyster Bay's town board voted Nov. 19 to approve a budget for 2014 -- and revealed, for the first time, that the tax levy would rise a hefty 8.8 percent. That shattered the town's tax cap of 1.66 percent. The vote was taken Nov. 19 -- two weeks after Election Day, when Supervisor John Venditto and half of the town board were on the ballot. Budget approval should have been part of the record they had to defend before residents voted on Nov. 5. The problem is that state law sets a Nov. 20 deadline for approving town budgets. We've said it before and we'll say it again: Budgets should be approved before Election Day.
Venditto's preliminary budget -- submitted by Sept. 30, also mandated by state law -- included a spending figure but no tax levy figure. Long Island's other 12 towns stated tax levies in their budgets. Oyster Bay officials said they were waiting for valuation rates from the county -- rates that have little to do with calculating the size of a tax levy -- and an Oct. 22 meeting with the state comptroller's office, which advised the town to reduce its reliance on one-shot revenue sources. That should've been a no-brainer, given Oyster Bay's well-documented financial troubles. Bottom line: Voters should have known the tax levy and heard the explanations before Election Day. But Oyster Bay's timetable was not unique. Most towns approved budgets after Nov. 5; fortunately for every other town's taxpayers, they differed little if at all from the preliminary budgets.
The Nov. 20 deadline was set in 1941 to standardize the date for most of the state. Only the State Legislature can change it. It's time to move it up -- say, to the Tuesday before Election Day. Long Island's delegation should work to make that happen. Taxpayers deserve that much.