Outgoing Southold Town Highway Superintendent Pete Harris suggested during a budget presentation Monday that the town switch to a pay scale for elected officials — a move he said would make more funds available for new hires and the purchase of necessary equipment.
Mr. Harris, who chose not to seek re-election this year after 12 years in office, was one of several department heads to present their 2014 department budgets at a special Town Board work session Monday afternoon.
Highway department spending, which is expected to be slashed by 5 percent next year, to $5.57 million, represents about 13 percent of Supervisor Scott Russell’s proposed $41.6 million budget. The biggest cuts in highway spending come from road resurfacing and heavy equipment purchases, Mr. Russell said. Mr. Harris originally requested that $350,000 be allocated for road resurfacing next year, but under the proposed budget would receive just $200,000, Mr. Russell said.
Mr. Harris’ request for two new $110,000 dump trucks was also chopped from the proposed spending plan, which instead authorizes $80,000 for a light-duty truck, Mr. Russell said.
“The single biggest issue I have is the rolling stock; it’s in bad shape,” Mr. Harris said Monday. “Not for nothing, this Town Board really needs to step up to the plate. When the police department needs vehicles they seem to be getting their vehicles, but when Old Man Winter hits the fan or a superstorm Sandy hits the fan, we don’t have reliable rolling stock to get these roads open.”
While agreeing the town needs to invest in highway department equipment, Mr. Russell said the department needs to inventory the equipment it already has before adding any expenditures. He said that itemizing the department’s equipment would be one of his first requests of the new highway superintendent, who will be elected in November and take office in January.
“I’m sure everything he asked for is a legitimate request, [but] my budget is focused on what we can afford,” Mr. Russell said. “Pete is very fiscally conservative, he wouldn’t ask for anything he didn’t need. But we can’t say yes to everything.”
During a separate work session Tuesday, outgoing Town Board member Chris Talbot said that in the four years he’s served, Mr. Harris has been denied a request for a heavy-duty vehicle each budget cycle. Mr. Russell said the Town has traditionally bonded for equipment if the need arises over the years.
Mr. Harris said the proposed 2014 budget is workable but added that there is room for improvement moving forward.
“It is a budget I feel that the incoming superintendent can work with,” Mr. Harris told the board. “But at this point we’re down six or seven employees from what I originally had. It’s been a challenge. Definitely there should be some people bought back on.”
One possible way of funding these expenses could be found in Mr. Harris’ final plea to the board Monday, when he suggested revising the pay scale for elected officials.
Currently, according to Town Comptroller John Cushman, pay is increased annually by adding 2 percent to the current year’s salary. Thus, in Mr. Russell’s preliminary budget the new highway superintendent would have been paid about $104,000 next year. Mr. Harris suggested the newly elected highway superintendent start at $85,000. The Town Board has since agreed to ammnd the highway superintendent’s pay to reduce the salary to a little more than $100,000.
“I personally feel that both people vying for my seat have a lot of learning to do and, as a taxpayer, I think they should start at entry level and not with a raise,” Mr. Harris said. “This is not a political statement. The salary doesn’t warrant their knowledge in my opinion.”
Republican highway superintendent candidate Vincent Orlando, himself a former Town Board member, said he believes his salary is up to the board’s discretion, but doesn’t believe the current system is flawed.
“Just because someone is leaving and someone new is coming in shouldn’t dictate salary,” he said during a phone interview Tuesday.
Democratic highway superintendent candidate Eugene “Tobie” Wesnofske did not respond to a request for comment.
Board member Jill Doherty said the town should look into adjusting the pay rates of elected officials for the 2015 budget. She suggested modeling it after CSEA’s pay scale, which is increased incrementally based on years served.
Mr. Russell agreed it’s something worth considering, but said the logistics would need to be carefully weighed.