After discussing many alternatives in numerous meetings and workshops beforehand, two of the three Port Washington Police Commissioners finally voted at their Sept. 10 budget hearing to increase the 1999 budget to $8,689,617, which is $239,074 or 2.1 percent over last year's $8,450,543 budget. Assuming Town approval, taxpayers will therefore have to pay $11.34 for every $100 of real estate valuation, versus last year's $11.11. Commissioner Roy Smitheimer, who is expected to seek re-election in December, voted against the budget and recommended his own version for $260,000, which would have a tax rate of $10.99. The primary difference between the two budgets is that the commissioners' recommended budget would pay up the debt costs on a state loan with two large payments; whereas Smitheimer's would delay and spread out the payment. Smitheimer was accused of having political motives for waiting until the last minute to introduce a lower-tax budget. The bulk of the expenses in both budgets are for fixed personnel costs, including benefits and $5,664,712 for the 78 salaries of 58 uniformed officers and 20 civilians.
Most of the budget details had been discussed and agreed upon at previous police commissioner board meetings and budget workshops, including the one that morning from 10 a.m. to noon. The formal hearing therefore only took about 50 minutes. The people attending were about the same: there were four men in the audience instead of three, and one additional woman, a court reporter who sat at the commissioner's table.
Before opening final discussion on the 1999 budget, Commissioner Bob Persons recommended that the board send a letter to the Town of North Hempstead's comptroller, requesting that money, totaling almost $600,000, that was given to the police district but not used in 1998, be applied to outstanding police district debt. Some of the money was left over from a legal settlement, and some was left over from a bond note for radio equipment. Because state law requires that financial obligations only be paid with money budgeted for similar purposes, the board asked its attorney, Steven Ressa, to research the request and draft an appropriate letter for the board to vote on.
Although final discussion on the above matter was actually tabled until after the budget hearing, the topic, the reduction of debt costs, then became the primary topic of discussion for the remainder of the hearing on the 1999 budget.
Both Commissioner Chair Jim Duncan and Commissioner Bob Persons favored the budget proposal drafted that morning, which would eliminate a $260,000 loan from the New York State Fire and Police Retirement Fund and add $350,000 to the Port Washington Police District's Future Retirement Fund. When a police officer retires, state law requires that the officer or his or her heirs be paid a set amount on a regular basis from the state's retirement fund and district contract agreements require that they be paid a lump sum amount from the district's retirement fund. The Port Washington Police District currently pays 8 3/4 percent interest on the unpaid balance to the state retirement fund, which, according to Duncan, amounts to about $35,000 per year. None of the commissioners knew about this deficit or loan until earlier this year. Meanwhile, the district's retirement fund doesn't have enough money to pay more than a handful of officers; luckily, none of the officers have asked to retire next year, even though some are eligible.
Just as the board was about to vote on this most recent budget proposal, Commissioner Smitheimer announced that he had a proposal that would reduce the budget by $260,000 and thus reduce the tax bite on the consumer to $10.99 per $100 assessed property valuation, a 1.1% reduction from last year. The philosophy behind Smitheimer's recommendation was that it was foolish to hit the taxpayers with large payments to retirement funds when no police officers have indicated any desire to retire next year. If one or two do, Smitheimer said his budget would cover the cost of borrowing money for retirement payments. Smitheimer believes in keeping cash flow almost to the minimum required by circumstances.
Smitheimer's proposal would have reduced the budget that his fellow commissioners approved by $260,000 by budgeting $200,000 instead of $260,000 on line item #800 ( NYS Fire & Police Retirement Fund), $250,000 instead of $350,000 on line item #1992 (Provisions for Future District Retirements), and $0 instead of $100,000 on line item #1993 (Fund Balance Stabilization).
Duncan and Persons, on the other hand, plus three of the men in the audience argued that it was fiscally irresponsible to not pay off the district's debt and bring the budget into the black. They said the district could wind up paying $120,000 (actually, closer to $105,000) in interest payments alone over the next six years, thus also losing the interest-earning opportunity for that money. The loans in question weren't even discovered by the board or its counsel until last week, according to Ressa. Persons said you can't expect future generations to pay for the services enjoyed by past generations. Duncan compared the budget to a credit card and said that at some point you have to pay it off. From the audience, Sal Zimbardi urged the board to follow the recommendation of its professional accountant, Bill Abrams, who drafted the budget.
Commissioner Smitheimer said he had developed his plan with the advice and approval of several outside accountants. Commissioner Chair Jim Duncan, on the other hand, said in a brief interview after the meeting that the commission's own reputable accountant, Bill Abrams, had specifically recommended against Smitheimer's plan when he introduced it at the final workshop on the morning of the hearing.
Before the formal vote, Smitheimer said he had voted against the 6 percent budget increase last year and that he was voting against the 2.1percent increase this year. Smitheimer insisted his vote had nothing to do with the upcoming election but that his concern was for the overburdened taxpayer. Several days later Duncan said he didn't make his decisions according to politics but instead based his decisions on what he thought was best for the district.
In the budget approved by the commissioners, projected expenses total $8,689,617. $8,366,617 of that would need to be raised by taxation, based on a total district valuation of $73,768,056. The only income expected to be received by the police district is $218,000 paid by an industrial group in lieu of taxes and $105,000 in estimated revenue. This revenue includes $8,000 in police fees and reimbursements (including tickets!) , $32,000 in rental income from Bell Atlantic (Sprint hearing on additional rent proposal was scheduled for September 16) , $50,000 in interest earnings, and $15,000 for vehicle trade-ins. Probable income not itemized in the budget is a $80,000 reimbursement from the district's insurance company for past litigation fees.
Most of the district's expenses are personnel costs for salaries and benefits. The salaries for 78 employees, including 58 uniform officers, total $5,664,712. Ten of the uniform officers receive over $100,000. In addition to the retirement fund expenses, the district pays $373,000 for Social Security, $36,000 for workers' compensation, and $874,000 for health and other insurances.
Some of the other expenses include $48,000 for commissioners' fees ($80 per diem, the going rate in Port Washington), $125,000 for legal fees (only $25,000 is contractual to the district's counsel), $38,000 for accounting fees ($29,000 is contractual with district's accountant), $118,000 for equipment, $160,000 for insurance, $48,000 for telephone and communications, and $3,000 for ammunition.
Another budget discussion that took place after the hearing was between two regular members of the audience, Barry Loeb and Steven Kaplan. In addition to agreeing with the majority vote to pay off the police district's debt, they talked about the need to hire a civilian business manager to run the fiscal and other routine tasks of the district. They said this recommendation had been endorsed by Port's 13-member community charter revision committee (that included Loeb, Kaplan and Persons) and that it is included in the new charter awaiting approval in Albany now. Business matters of the district are now handled by two lieutenants who receive an annual salary of approximately $105,000 each. Loeb and Kaplan maintain that the present system wastes the valuable training of these police officers and that a civilian could probably be hired to perform the same duties for $60,000-85,000. When asked about this plan later, one commissioner said it probably couldn't be considered until both lieutenants retire.
Loeb and Kaplan said another provision in the new charter would prevent the police commission from seeking bond money for expenses without voter approval.
The final decision of whether or not to accept the police budget will be made by the Town of North Hempstead Town Board. Budget experts on staff will review the budget and then make their recommendation to the Town Board. Unlike the school and library budgets, residents do not vote directly for special district budgets, including the police budget. Residents can, however, vote for a police commissioner, who in turn will vote on budgets for the next three years. The next special district election will be Tuesday, Dec. 8. Although no one has formally submitted a petition to run, both present Commissioner Roy Smitheimer and his watchful critic Sal Zimbardi have informally expressed an interest in filling Smitheimer's seat on the board.