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Town Board members say no choice but to raise taxes

As the vote to approve a Southold Town budget that would raise taxes more than 7.5 percent was called, board members expressed concerns. They said they understood the concerns of residents, but most said their hands were tied by a “dire set of circumstances,” largely the deteriorating state of some local roads.

In the end, all but one voted in favor of the $44 million spending plan, which sets aside $2.4 million for road repairs.

“The idea of complying with the tax cap each and every year is far-fetched. It just can’t happen,” said Town Supervisor Scott Russell before voting for the budget at Tuesday night’s meeting. “Southold Town needed to bite a bullet.”

Mr. Russell said rising employee healthcare costs alone would have forced the town to raise taxes past the cap. The added money for road repairs only added to the tax hike.

Members of the Town Board had publicly signaled their reluctance to raise taxes past the tax levy cap, which would not only add more than $100 to the average tax bill but also cancel a tax credit residents get when their municipalities remain under the cap.

“I basically hemmed and hawed over this all day long,” said Councilman James Dinizio, who voted for the budget. “We’re a victim of certain spending practices that were forced on us by the state.”

Councilwoman Jill Doherty said the condition of local roads, which were heavily damaged by a pair of harsh winters, was the most important issue. She voted to approve the budget.

“It comes down to a point where it comes to the safety of people in this town,” she said. “In my mind it’s a must do.”

The lone dissenting voice was Councilman Robert Ghosio. Mr. Ghosio said he respected the work of Mr. Russell and those in the town’s finance departments to put together a budget, but decided to vote against the budget because of comments made at public hearings by struggling North Fork residents who said the tax hike would represent a high burden.

“I’m very sensitive to the folks in town who are going to be hurt by this,” he said. Town Board member Louisa Evans was not in attendance at Tuesday’s special meeting.

While the budget was ultimately approved, board members said they were not satisfied with town highway superintendent Vincent Orlando’s plan to spend roughly $9 million over four years on repairs. Mr. Dinizio said the proposal was “woefully inadequate” because it didn’t detail the state of roads and only provided which streets would be paved, when they would be repaired and how much it would cost.

Both he and Ms. Doherty called for a more complete inventory of local roads that would detail when they were previously paved, so the town could prioritize which roads would be fixed first.

“Just start that history so then we know in the future we can easily do a budget,” Mr. Dinizio said. Mr. Russell signaled that future roadwork likely wouldn’t be completed in the four-year timeframe Mr. Orlando pitched.

“I think it’s unrealistic to think that can be done over three or four years under any scenario, massive tax increase or not,” Mr. Russell said. “I think the Town Board is looking for more of a long-term plan … We can’t keep raising taxes like this every year.”

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