The town budget process is typically tedious but very important.
What question is more fundamental than how our elected officials spend our tax dollars — except maybe how much of our hard-earned dollars government will take for taxes? The answers to both lie in the budget.
However, budgets are easy to manipulate to the political advantage of the person controlling the budget process, the town supervisor. Every two years, you can bet the sitting supervisor, whoever he may be, presents a budget that produces the lowest possible tax rate. There's even a name for it: "election year budget," a document that uses every gimmick imaginable to keep the tax rate increase low to please voters. Often election year budgets are unrealistic. Sometimes they are downright irresponsible. Supervisors have been known to prepare budgets that purposefully underestimate known expenses, leaving it to the Town Board to restore necessary funding on crucial line items. Then the supervisor can tell potentially angry taxpayers (voters): "My budget held the line on taxes. The Town Board hiked spending and taxes." It's an unconscionable practice — and violates the supervisor's duty as budget officer — but it's the oldest "election year budget" trick in the books and one very frequently employed by sitting supervisors of all political stripes.
That's why the budget process has typically been long and, often, contentious.
Phil Cardinale prides himself on what he calls transparency in government. He's got the TV cameras rolling in every work session and regular meeting of the Town Board. That's great.
But if business is being transacted outside those televised meetings, the rolling cameras are meaningless.
I'm afraid that's the case when it comes to the fundamental question of how our town government is spending our tax dollars. The budget process Mr. Cardinale has implemented has effectively foreclosed public discussion and scrutiny of the supervisor's tentative budget. He has not held a single budget meeting with the Town Board. One is scheduled to take place, finally, at today's work session — but only because the three Republican members of the board demanded it this week. My question is: What took them so long?
Mr. Cardinale told me on Friday he had council members meet "two by two" with the town's financial administrator to discuss changes they wanted to make to the supervisor's proposed budget. (If three board members are in a meeting, it must be open to the public, you see.)
Former Supervisor Jim Stark, Mr. Cardinale's challenger in this year's election, in last week's paper accused him of "cooking the books" — overestimating revenues and underestimating expenses.
Are Mr. Stark's accusations valid, or simply political grandstanding? Who knows? Thanks to masterful manipulation of the agenda and budget process by Mr. Cardinale and a readily manipulated Town Board, which has given the supervisor a pass on this, a public vetting of the supervisor's tentative budget didn't happen in time to be meaningful for voters. And it's coming too late for the weekly press to even inform the public of the content of the preliminary budget on which the board will hold a public hearing next week (assuming the board makes changes to the supervisor's tentative plan). Please remember to check our Web site (riverheadnewsreview.com) for a story on today's meeting.
Maybe the supervisor's budget is perfect and in need of no revision. Maybe Mr. Stark is all wet when he says if the Cardinale budget is corrected we're looking at a 30 percent tax hike. (I certainly hope so.) But the supervisor was slippery and the Town Board fell flat on its face. Board members should have insisted on public scrutiny of the tentative budget right from the beginning — and not waited until the 11th hour to ask that the budget be put on a work session agenda.
Surrounding towns have opened up their budget processes as the law requires. Riverhead — ironically, under the administration of a man who claims open government as his hallmark — has gone in the opposite direction.