On Monday, Hempstead Town Supervisor Laura Gillen, a Democrat, was expected to present her tentative 2019 budget to the Town Board. However, just before Monday’s special meeting began, the other six members of the Republican-controlled board held a news conference, announcing that they had their own spending plan, which they said would lower taxes by 4.2 percent.
The board’s amendments reduced Gillen’s planned budget, proposing $432 million in spending, versus Gillen’s proposed $443 million.
“As you can see, it’s a new day in the Town of Hempstead,” Councilwoman Erin King Sweeney said.
Gillen was taken aback, having shopped the budget to residents around Hempstead at six public meetings after the board requested more time to review it at its Oct. 3 meeting.
After King Sweeney moved that the budget be amended and adopted as the preliminary budget, Gillen called a 45-minute recess to look over the changes. When she returned, she called the Town Board’s move “wildly irresponsible,” and said that 45 minutes was not enough time to parse the 76 changes made to her budget.
The board’s amendments were approved by a vote of 6-1, with Gillen voting against them. The board comprises five Republicans and two Democrats, including Gillen.
Gillen said after the meeting that the Town Board had proposed “a fiscally irresponsible budget, crafted in secret,” which would either “force taxes to go up next year, or force cuts to essential services for seniors, children and everyday residents.”
In an interview later on Monday, Gillen said that she knew nothing of the board’s amendments before the meeting, or of the news conference.
“I never saw them until they handed them to me on the dais,” she said. “I’ve been trying to operate since I got here in a collegial, bipartisan way. I ask them to meet with me every week, and they just ignore me. I asked them again when I submitted the tentative budget ... Nobody wanted to come. Nobody was available.”
The Town Board’s proposal added funding for a compliance officer and for EMS services. Councilman Anthony D’Esposito said at the news conference that cuts to EMS funding in Gillen’s budget would have “crippled” the department.
However, Gillen moved at the beginning of the meeting to add $250,000 for the compliance officer position, and additional funding for the EMS department.
“There was no issue with the EMTs,” said Jim LaCarrubba, Gillen’s chief of staff. “What happened there was, there was a shift. The EMTs were moving from the parks budget to conservation and waterways. Laura always had the intention that EMTs be fully funded because of the critical stuff they do.”
The board also boosted what Gillen had proposed for promotional programs at the town animal shelter from $500 to $10,000. In a news release, board members said that Gillen’s budget would “surely result in overcrowding at the facility and the euthanasia of homeless dogs and cats.”
D’Esposito took his criticism a step further at the news conference, saying that it was “sad to see such blatant disregard from someone who campaigned on animals,” with Gillen having used the shelter animals “as campaign props.”
Gillen said, however, that in 2017, the actual promotional expenses at the shelter came to $251, and that this year, $260 was spent in the first six months. “That’s why we put $500 for that line,” she said. “There was no reduction from any adopted amount.”
Also, the Town Board’s budget cut $500,000 from the mailing budget by relying on the town’s website and a single publication — the Ronkonkoma-based Long Island Business News — to post legal notices and bids.
“Long gone are the days of propping up local newspapers with the hooks of positive and fair press coverage on the backs of taxpayers,” King Sweeney said.
Gillen said that she had already cut more than $400,000 in mailing costs, and that posting legal notices and bids in multiple publications was important.
“You never want to dissuade local businesses from being able to see when bids are being put out there,” LaCarrubba said. “The notion that the Long Island Business News should be the catch-all for the Town of Hempstead — the largest township in the country — is wrong. We planned to do nothing but open the doors of Town Hall for more competition.”
According to postal records, LIBN has 1,215 subscribers outside of Suffolk County, including in Nassau County and New York City. Hempstead is home to 780,000 residents.
Tax Receiver Don Clavin, a Republican, helped members of the Town Board prepare their budget, and joined them at the news conference. Later on Monday, he also took to Twitter to criticize Gillen.
I “joined with the Hempstead Town Council members in saying ‘no’ to the supervisor’s proposed tax hike,” Clavin said. “Her response? To call for yet another tax increase next year! Needless to say, very disappointing.”
Clavin and the six board members said that their budget would reduce spending by $11.6 million, while also providing for new services for residents (see sidebar).
Gillen pointed out that roughly $8.15 million of the board’s savings were to come from “less savings” — that is, not budgeting to fill vacancies when expected retirements come around next year.
“It’s a made-up number,” Gillen said. “They’re anchoring a decrease on a fake number that nobody can honestly say will happen. The true measure for that is if you look at the 2017 budget versus the audited financials. They projected less savings of $13 million, and ended up having to borrow $8.5 million to cover that.”
In a statement, King Sweeney said, “I am proud the have presented a budget … that slashes taxes and reduces spending that were contained in the Supervisor’s proposal. I hope that the supervisor will reconsider her ‘no’ vote on our tax cuts and spending reductions at the Oct. 30 hearings.”