Town budgets tell a story. For the last five years, it's largely been a tale of woe. Faced with the worst recession in decades, many of Long Island's 13 towns laid off personnel, cut back services and capital projects, and relied heavily on reserve funds to produce balanced spending plans. But the proposed budgets for 2014, released over the last two weeks, tell a different story.
Peeking out through the thousands of columns of numbers are little shafts of light, some glimmers of optimism that perhaps -- even after last year's body blow from superstorm Sandy -- we've bottomed out and are starting the long climb back. That would be welcome news indeed. Not-so-good news: Many Long Island voters will not know what their elected representatives think about those budgets until after they must cast votes for those officials in November.
The good number vibes come from several key areas. Mortgage tax revenue is primary among them. As the real estate market tanked, the nosedive in that revenue stream was one of the major stressors on town budgets. Hempstead, for example, went from reaping $46 million in 2006 to a paltry $13 million in 2011. Thanks to an improving market, the town has been rebounding and budgeted nearly $18 million as part of next year's spending proposal. Other towns -- from North Hempstead to Southampton, Huntington to Islip -- also are reporting upticks. It's still a far cry from the heady days before the 2008 crash, but an encouraging trend.
Fees from building permits also are rebounding in some towns. Some of that is due to Sandy-related rebuilding, true, but not all. Some towns that have waived or reduced fees for Sandy victims still are projecting increases. And though some towns continue to shed personnel, the losses are small and being done through attrition and buyouts, not layoffs. Some towns are even hiring again -- code enforcement officers in Islip and building department staff in Brookhaven, jobs that bring in revenue through fines and permit fees to help offset the increase in payroll.
Reserves still are being used but not as heavily as in the recent past -- in most towns. Islip is increasing spending by about $13 million while keeping taxes flat; the town is covering that with $11 million in reserves, which it intends to partly replenish with land sales. And then there is Smithtown, which is pitching a slight increase in spending and a cut in taxes, covered by the use of $8.3 million in reserves. As the economic storm clouds dissipate, towns should be more judicious in their use of these rainy-day funds.
But this is an election year. And that highlights a problem with the town budgeting process. Though tentative budgets must be submitted by supervisors by Sept. 30, town boards have until Nov. 20 to vote on them. That's well after Election Day. The state law setting the deadline dates to 1941, and had the effect of standardizing for much of the state a date that until then had varied from county to county. Only the State Legislature can change it, but state officials say there never has been a serious push to move the date.
Given the opportunity afforded by the Nov. 20 deadline, many boards routinely schedule budget votes for after Election Day. Some towns even hold the mandatory public hearing on the budget after Election Day.
The upshot is that board members in those towns don't have to defend their decision on that year's budget before voters that same year. That stinks. Approving a budget -- deciding how to spend taxpayers' money -- is one of the most important duties of public officials. A budget vote should be part of the record on which a candidate runs, a view shared by some local elected officials who would be affected by a change of dates.
Brookhaven Supervisor Edward Romaine is among those running for re-election in November. His town set a public hearing on the budget for Nov. 7 and the board will vote on the spending plan either Nov. 12 or Nov. 19, all of which are after the election on Nov. 5. "Personally, I think you should vote on the budget before Election Day," Romaine said.