The Oyster Bay Town Board voted to approve Supervisor Joseph Saladino’s 2020 budget in a 6-1 vote on Tuesday. Councilman Anthony Macagnone, who is stepping down from his position at the end of the year, was the sole dissenting vote.
The $306.5 million spending plan keeps the tax levy — the total amount the town must collect in taxes to meet expenses — flat. It has not changed since the Town Board approved freezing property taxes in 2018. Saladino said he was committed to holding the line on the the tax levy, which is now just under $233 million.
“Five years ago, no one thought we’d be where we are now financially,” he said. “It also goes to show how good the budget is, since almost no one spoke about it during the budget hearings,” he added, referring to the public hearings the town held to discuss the budget on Oct. 22.
Aside from freezing taxes, Saladino and Finance Director Robert Darienzo added that the town has worked to reduce its $672 million debt, which they said should shrink by $160 million by the end of the year. The town hopes to reduce the debt by another $30 million in 2020.
To save money for debt payments, the budget excludes borrowing for capital projects, a trend that Saladino began in 2017, and includes savings that were realized through town-wide LED lighting projects and cuts in full-time salary expenses, the latter of which saved Oyster Bay $9 million. The town will receive additional revenue thanks to a 300 percent increase in commuter parking fees and the doubling of building application fees.
Saladino characterized his budgets as a financial success story for the town, but Macagnone was skeptical after reports from Moody’s Investors Services and the state comptroller’s office criticized the town’s budgeting in October. The Moody’s report found that the town ended 2018 with a $5.5 million deficit, and the audit by the state comptroller revealed that the deficit was actually $10.2 million. The comptroller’s report categorized Oyster Bay’s finances as “under stress,” which Saladino refutes. He added that Moody’s did not look at all the town’s funds, and that the comptroller’s report included data from 2016, before he took office in 2017. According to the report, the town would still be designated “under stress,” even if the analysis were confined to data from 2018.
While Standard & Poors upgraded Oyster Bay’s credit rating from its previous junk-bond status in the summer of 2019, the main reason it did so was an 11 percent tax levy increase the town implemented in 2017, which increased its revenue by about $20 million. Although Saladino refused to give weight to the reports, they were enough to sway Macagnone to vote against the 2020 budget.
“My problem is, Standard & Poors, Moody’s and the state comptroller can’t all be wrong,” Macagnone said.
He also pushed the Town Board to introduce his walk-on resolution, which would effectively bar elected officials, appointed commissioners and deputy commissioners, as well as annually appointed officers — including members of the zoning, planning, housing and ethics boards — from holding positions with political parties or clubs beginning Jan. 1. Although the board appeared once again to be startled by the resolution, which Macagnone originally proposed on Oct. 22, the town’s chief deputy attorney, Frank Scalera, said that such a motion could not pass as a resolution.
“The issue is not as simple as some people may think it is,” Scalera said. “It’s a First Amendment issue, and government workers are protected by the First Amendment, even more so than private- sector workers. This would need a public hearing and maybe a work session before that.”
Scalera said his office would work to help come up with a draft of the bill for the board to consider at its last meeting of the year, on Dec. 10.
This wasn’t the first time Macagnone introduced a walk-on resolution that surprised his fellow Republican board members. In 2018 he tried to introduce a motion to create a 12-year term limit for town elected offices. That resolution never officially made it to the board.
Ned Newhouse, a Democratic candidate for the board, asked Scalera to recuse himself from working on the bill because Scalera is a leader of the East Norwich Republican Club. But Macagnone said he had full confidence in Scalera to work on the bill and present it before the end of the year.
“I would really like the board to vote on this before I leave office,” Macagnone said.