The Southold Town Board decided to put back the money it took from town reserves last month to pay for highway repairs — and then some.
Board members unanimously approved a roughly $43 million budget for 2016 at Tuesday evening’s meeting. The budget included putting $750,000 back into the town’s general reserve funds, $500,000 more than the board had previously removed to pay for the roadwork.
“I’m reluctant to change a budget so substantially after the proposed budget,” said Supervisor Scott Russell. “Circumstances have changed within the last few weeks … I don’t think the board had a choice today.”
In October, the board voted to fund an eleventh-hour $250,000 payment to the highway department to cover road repairs with money from the town’s savings. In the revised budget, board members chose to pay back the $250,000 it took, plus an additional $500,000 to restock the reserves.
That reserve money would normally have to be made up in taxes, a roughly 3.78 percent increase, according to town estimates. But because of a reduction in a separate budget line about Suffolk County tax settlements, the Town Board had extra money to work with.
Because of that extra money, residents should see tax increases of “a few dollars” on the Southold Town tax line instead of something more substantial, said town comptroller John Cushman. He didn’t have exact numbers for how much the average tax bill would go up as of Tuesday morning.
“It’s going to be minimal,” he said. The town will still stay under the state tax levy cap, Mr. Russell added.
At Tuesday night’s meeting, Mr. Russell said residents should see their taxes decrease overall, since the Suffolk County tax settlement line will drop more than the town’s tax line will rise.
Since the original budget plan hadn’t anticipated the decrease, the windfall would only last for this year’s budget. At Tuesday morning’s meeting before the budget vote, board member James Dinizio pushed to fill up the reserves now while the board still could.
“I know it sounds strange coming from me, but I think raising those taxes is the prudent thing to do,” he said. “We have a great bond rating and I don’t want to risk that.”
Mr. Dinizio said the town had no choice but to take out the $250,000 for road repairs in the first place. Highway Department crews have been working throughout the year to repair serious damage to local roads. All told, the town will have spent roughly $1 million of state and its own money to make the repairs.
“Roads right now are a big deal,” Mr. Dinizio said. “We gotta get on it.”
Other Town Board members were also worried about leaving money on the table. Since the windfall would be gone next budget cycle, the chance to recoup money for the town’s reserves would be lost, too.
Board member Louisa Evans also said that increasing the tax levy gives them a bigger tax base for next year’s budget, which would make it easier to stay under the tax cap and appeal to credit rating agencies.
Yet not all were on initially on board. Mr. Russell, who had originally pitched adding up to $500,000 back into the reserves, said he was “very hesitant” to put the money back all at once.
He said he hasn’t received the highway department’s priority list of which roads need work.
“Part of the problem is I’m budgeting in the dark here,” he said.
In the end, the board compromised, splitting the difference between the $500,000 addition that was first proposed and the $1 million addition some board members had pushed for.
Of the $750,000, $500,000 will go into a fund for the entire town. The remainder will go into a separate general fund that excludes the Village of Greenport, which has its own reserves.
After the vote, board members William Ruland and Jill Doherty thanked Mr. Russell, Mr. Cushman and the comptroller’s office for giving them “figures, figures and more figures” to help make “very difficult and important decisions.”