No tax hike in Southold Town’s tentative budget

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell presented a tentative town budget of almost $57 million for the 2024 fiscal year last week.

The budget, which will not be voted on by the Town Board until next month, calls for a 0% tax increase for the coming year.

“You cut in other areas, you find resources, such as [the American Rescue Plan Act] funding, you raise fees,” Mr. Russell said when asked how a 0% increase was possible. “There’s fund balances, money that was left over because we ran a tight ship last year, so you get to carry that money over … If you allocate for it in 2023, and you don’t spend it because you’re disciplined, then you can take that money and offset your needs for 2024.”

This 2024 budget will be Mr. Russell’s last, as he is not running for reelection as supervisor in November. He has occupied that seat for 18 years, first winning election in 2005.

Mr. Russell said allocations in his tentative budget total $56,827,330, an increase of $1,096,644 over the 2023 budget.

“Although our overall spending went down, the difference for the increase was the increase in New York State retirement and medical [costs],” Mr. Russell said. “Public safety is the biggest part of the budget. When you’re talking about new hiring and new equipment you are talking about quite a bit of money.”

Mr. Russell said the 2024 tentative budget accounts for four new police officers, two new safety dispatchers, additional soft body armor, partial reimbursement for Tasers and five new vehicles. The budget also includes funds allocated for enhancing cybersecurity.

“We have three firewalls, but we’re regularly performing testing and upgrades to make sure what happened to Suffolk County doesn’t happen to us,” Mr. Russell said, referring to the 2022 cyberattacks that disrupted services and may have compromised the personal data of hundreds of thousands of county residents.

As for public works allocations, the supervisor said “I would say some of the infrastructure needs were probably some of the bigger expenditures this year … There’s about $1.9 million in there for road construction, resurfacing and maintenance, another $250,000 for the reconstruction of an entire road [Wunneweta Road] in Cutchogue.”

The budget also includes funds for updating the gas street lamps on Love Lane, upgrades to a recently acquired town property at the corner of New Suffolk Avenue and Main Road for a community park and the continuation of the Bay To Sound project, which, since 2007, has aimed to create a cross-fork trail network linking land owned by the town, Suffolk County and Greenport Village .

Regarding environmental concerns, the budget includes the continued funding of the Narrow River Road water quality project, the town’s participation in the Peconic Estuary Partnership, stormwater mitigation and water quality improvement projects. There is also $100,000 allocated for a new line item: a Coastal Resiliency Preparedness Action Plan. Mr. Russell noted that these funds and mitigation plans will not be enough to solve all of the town’s current and future battles with rising sea levels, but are designed to “get the ball rolling.”

“We can’t go it alone,” he added. “Any effective approach to resiliency is going to require an inter-agency, intergovernmental response and plan … it’s probably going to require annual allocation.”

Looking back on proposing a total of 17 yearly budgets throughout his tenure, Mr. Russell said he was proud to draft his latest with a 0% tax increase. He hopes future budgets will also minimize tax hikes.

“There’s some concerns with regard to inflation and all the impacts that will have on goods and services,” the supervisor said. “We also have challenges with regard to increases in our medical costs for New York State and retirement costs, so there’s ongoing challenges here. But we came in at a 0% tax rate, we’re in very good financial shape. We need to do everything we can to maintain that financial shape so that we can produce budgets annually that have either nominal or no increase in the tax rate.”