Southeast, Patterson Budgets Pass
Southeast homeowners will see a steep hike in town taxes after the town board approved of a 9.98 percent tax increase in a split vote decision last week. The town hall was standing-room-only November 18 as residents came to dispute the budget, which in its third draft was called “bare bones” by Councilwoman Elizabeth Hudak.
The board approved the budget in a 3-2 vote.
The adopted budget totals $14,186,766 and according to Ron Hunt, town accountant, it will cost the average homeowner roughly $52 more. Supervisor Michael Rights and Councilman Dwight Yee were dead-set against the budget which was adjusted by Hudak and fellow councilmen Roger Gross and Robert Cullen.
The original budget draft was created by Supervisor Michael Rights, in his capacity as the town’s chief budget officer. It showed a zero percent budget increase but a 2.26 percent tax increase. Referred to as “irresponsible” by his fellow councilmen, it eliminated all funding for the Brewster Public Library and Southeast Museum; it also cut all tax services to the town.
The final version of the budget was created by Gross, Hudak, and Cullen, claiming that Rights and Yee washed their hands of the budget, while the minority members say they were excluded from the process. Many changes have been made to the budget since Rights submitted it September 30 as chief budget officer.
At times, during the first two and half hours of the meeting last Thursday, it seemed that members of the community were provoked by both sides of the divided town board to speak on their behalf. Whether public comment came from residents supportive of Rights and Yee or Gross, Hudak, and Cullen, it seemed no one was in support of accepting such a steep tax rate increase. An outsider to Southeast board meetings would have been very confused at the budget vote; many locals appeared thrown off and lost by all the trading of accusations.
Residents groaned at nearly every mention of “gravy train,” something that rolls off Rights’s tongue during every meeting, but groaning was common that night anyway. Much like the board, the audience seemed divided as well. Still, no one appeared enthusiastic about the tax increase. “Let’s talk about the gravy train, if there is such a thing. If there is such a thing, you’re the chief engineer and the head conductor,” Gross said to Rights, met with laughter and applause.
The board’s efforts to try to keep the budget tax increase in the single digits led to the laying off of five employees, including Raymond Knox, director of the recreation department. Gross and Cullen delivered the news to a highway department employee before the meeting. “It was not a very nice day,” said Gross. “It’s not pleasant, if you think I like this, you’re crazy.”
Most residents expressed disappointment with their elected officials. Several criticized the councilmen’s dysfunctional meetings and constant bickering, in addition to what they said was a bloated budget. One resident, whom the Courier has been unable to identify, spoke of his frustrations and fear with the town government. Although this was his first town board meeting, he became a crowd favorite and was applauded numerous times throughout his time at the microphone. “I can’t comprehend the bickering and the arguing of my elected officials,” he said.
Having served as a military officer and having returned to his roots as a farmer he said he couldn’t believe the state of his town’s government. “The rich skip this town, so there’s no wealthy people in this town … you can’t compare Westchester to Putnam, it’s a different entity,” he said, referring to Gross’s comments that compared Southeast to Rye and Eastchester. “I can’t afford to live here. You push the working class out—you’re going to get crap coming in here,” he added.
He criticized the fact that only the town board is authorized by New York State to vote on the town budget—unlike the school budget, which is open to public vote. Many others joined in his criticism.
Before the meeting began, Rights passed out copies of the New York State audit conducted by the office of the comptroller, which he had requested in the summer. He referred to the document often, citing its harsh critique of town financial activities—something he claims has nothing to do with him or Yee.
Hudak said that had residents voiced their concerns prior to the budget voting meeting, the board might have adjusted certain budget lines differently. “You need to see the fact that there were people who are very interested—young, old, and otherwise— in having a public library and in having a museum,” she said. “And the tax assessor’s office could not be replaced this year, period. And the tax receiver’s office could not be replaced.”
Due to pleading from Southeast residents, Yee made two motions to postpone the vote until Saturday or Sunday to give more time to adjust the budget. Rights voted in favor of this idea but the majority voted against.
“Nothing more can be done, there is no more revenue, right at this point in time, that can be produced,” Hudak said. “Right now, this is as bare bones as you can get considering the fact that the library and the museum are included.” Resident Rosemary Kelly, who had previously spoken on behalf of struggling senior citizens, asked what the difference would be if the library, museum, and humane society were all removed from the budget.
Finally Hudak made the motion to pass the third draft of the budget, against several pleadings from audience members. The budget was passed 3-2, with Rights and Yee opposing. After the budget was officially passed, most of the crowd cleared out in dismay. One resident told the Courier, “The worst part is [Yee and Rights] look like heroes and they’re not.”
“The 10 percent tax hike passed by the majority is as unnecessary as it is egregious,” Rights told the Courier Tuesday. “Councilman Yee and I are shining a spotlight on the gravy train and have slowed it down but it is still chugging along with our money on board.”