Supervisor Mark Lesko's proposed spending cuts in cash-strapped Brookhaven ignited a debate at a packed town meeting last night between the supervisor, town board members and residents of two of Suffolk County's poorest communities.
Lesko had proposed shedding more than $6.3 million in building, parks and other projects from the town's 2010 capital budget. He also asked the town board to limit the use of $10.9 million in recovery zone bonds to road projects - a move the supervisor said would prevent Brookhaven from taking on more debt.
A group of about 50 Gordon Heights activists protested the moves. Residents, led by civic leader Tawaun Weber, said recovery bonds should be used to build a long-delayed community center in the neighborhood.
A smaller group of North Bellport residents also told Lesko they feared the capital project cuts would jeopardize already-delayed repairs at Robert Rowly Memorial Park. "We've been waiting for two years already," said Emmanuel Mayo, 20, one of two residents who stood in front of the town board holding signs decrying the state of the park.
Added Weber: "The community would rather see a community center than our potholes filled."
The town board eventually voted unanimously to cut its $68.6-million 2010 capital budget by just over $6.3 million. Parks commissioner Ed Morris said the cuts should not jeopardize repairs at the North Bellport park. The board voted 4-3 to use about $1.5 million of the recovery bonds on projects other than roads. Lesko voted against the measure.
The vote elicited cheers from Gordon Heights residents, but sparked a debate between Lesko and Councilwoman Connie Kepert, who represents Gordon Heights. Kepert said the community center "is just the kind of project" for which recovery bonds are intended.
But Lesko chided the board for failing "to make the tough decisions" on cuts. "These are times when people need to speak straight with the public that we don't have the funds to undertake those new projects," he said. Lesko has said Brookhaven needs to rein in spending because the town's revenue falls as debts rise. Brookhaven expects to spend nearly $30 million in debt service this year, up from $24.8 million in 2008, officials have said. That means the town's debt service is equal to nearly 20 percent of the town's general fund budget.
Yesterday's actions were the latest in a string of moves by Suffolk's largest town to cope with financial woes. The town has located about $13.5 million so far in savings and new revenue, Lesko said Tuesday.