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Proposed Brookhaven budget heavy on fee hikes, critics say

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Edward Romaine talks about the

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Edward Romaine talks about the proposed 2014 budget during a meeting at town hall in Farmingville on Oct. 1, 2013. Credit: Ed Betz

Brookhaven Democrats, including the party's candidate to lead the town, say the budget proposed by Republican Supervisor Edward P. Romaine relies too heavily on fee increases to cover spending hikes.

Vivian Viloria-Fisher, who is challenging Romaine, said the increased fees -- contained in the $252.4 million budget proposed last week -- amount to a "backdoor tax" on residents.

"People feel they're being fee'd to death," Viloria-Fisher, a former county legislator from Setauket, said in an interview. "I don't know that it's a very honest statement to make that people's expenses aren't going to come up."

Romaine has touted the spending plan, saying it avoids tax hikes and layoffs. The budget proposes to boost spending by 1.9 percent -- with the increase to be covered, in part, by higher fees for building and planning department permit applications. Romaine said the fees would go up about 1 percent.

Romaine's budget would succeed a 2013 budget that was enacted by default in November when the town board did not approve a spending plan crafted by former Supervisor Mark Lesko, a Democrat. Romaine had criticized Lesko's budget plan, which kept taxes flat but trimmed 140 jobs.

Romaine said Thursday that Democrats were "grasping at straws" to find fault with his budget.

"I already have enough votes for the budget, and they're going to vote for it -- as opposed to last year, when none of them voted for it," he said.

Democrats said Romaine's budget appears to benefit from Lesko's staff reductions.

"The budget is fine . . . but, I mean, if you look at it, everything is dependent on the savings that came from Lesko's budget," said Councilwoman Connie Kepert, a Democrat. "And yet . . . [Romaine] criticizes Lesko for cutting services, but he's taking credit for a balanced budget.

"You can't speak out both sides of your mouth. Either it was a bad thing to cut services and employees, or it was a good thing."

Republican Councilman Dan Panico defended Romaine's budget, released about a week after 14 town employees agreed to accept an early retirement package that saved the town an estimated $1 million.

"The budget overall is solid. It provides for services and doesn't lay off employees," Panico said. "The early retirement program was a good strategy to downsize employees, salary, health insurance and Social Security."

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