By Jano Tantongco
The Huntington Town Board unanimously approved piercing its state-mandated tax cap Tuesday to make way for a $190 million budget for 2017 that preserves all programs and services.
The budget, if approved, increases spending on the current budget by $1.34 million, a 0.7 percent increase from the current budget of $188.6 million. It’s held up by a $117.7 million tax levy, a 2.85 percent increase from this year’s levy of $114.4 million.
The levy limit increase was capped at 0.68 percent by the state, the lowest it’s ever been.
It was standing room only for the public hearing to discuss the board’s proposal to pierce the 2-percent tax levy limit, popularly known as the “tax cap.”
Huntington Supervisor Frank Petrone has repeatedly called the 2-percent figure a “misnomer,” since the actual percentage is modified based on municipal variables including exclusions, reserves and allowable growth factors.
Petrone cited increased health insurance costs for town employees as a major factor in needing to break the cap to balance the budget.
“Everybody was concerned. We had a frank discussion, all of us. I talked to board members, and they understood this,” Petrone said. “If we would have gone into a draconian budget, we would have never recovered from that. It would have taken us a minimum of five years to just get back to where we are today.”
Representing the group of Tri Community and Youth Agency volunteers, staff and youth, its director, Debbie Rimler, said the agency is one element in the town’s “amazing, coordinated youth service system.”
“Our budget has remained the same for the past three years, however the cost of everything has risen,” said Rigler, a 31-year resident of the town. “We cannot sustain any cuts as we already operate on a shoestring budget.”
Angela Williams, a 16-year-old junior at Huntington High School, said she’s been attending Tri CYA for almost 4 years, and initially“was not in the right place” and couldn’t foresee a future for herself.
“They basically treat us as if we’re their own kids. Everybody here in yellow shirts, they are family. This how we prepare for the hardships of life,” she said. “I’m there six days a week. Basically, it is my home.
William Walter, president of the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association, thanked the town board for their support and urged them for further assistance.
He said in this past month, the birthplace has had visitors from countries including France, Germany, South Korea, Colombia, Ontario, Japan, Norway, United Kingdom and China.
To prepare for the 200th anniversary of Whitman’s birth, the association needs $300,000 to modernize its exhibit area.
“You need to continue the support, as do the other cultural, art and youth services here, so please pierce the cap and keep Huntington the prime community here on Long Island,” Walter said.
Marc Courtade, executive director of the Huntington Arts Council urged for “continued support for the cultural assets.” He quoted August Heckscher, who chimed in on Huntington’s cultural life in 1962.
“Do not minimize their importance in your common life. Do not think they are secondary and that their welfare is of no real concern to citizens. The vitality and prosperity of the cultural life will depend in no small measure upon Huntington’s capacity to keep its identity amid great change and growth,” Heckscher said.
Each of the 25 speakers at the public hearing expressed their support for piercing the cap. Once the hearing was closed, Petrone motioned to vote on the resolution immediately, which was unanimously adopted by the board.
Petrone then officially presented the 2017 preliminary budget to Town Clerk Jo-Ann Raia, who then presented a copy to each of the board members.
Town spokesman A.J. Carter said the budget utilizes a 2.85-percent levy limit increase. He added that, while all programs and services will be kept in place, there will be no salary increases for any town employees, whether elected, appointed or in a union.
Further, Carter said there are no layoffs proposed, but the town would not seek to fill positions vacated by retiring employees.