I was elected Town of Hempstead supervisor in 2017 to make our local government more accessible and accountable to residents. Since the first day of my administration, I have made strides to open Town Hall’s shutters and at last let the light shine on its operations.
Through increased transparency, residents can now monitor how tax dollars are spent, contracts awarded and services delivered. Transparency and reform measures we undertake now will restore faith in town government and ensure that it serves all residents — not just a favored few.
With these goals in mind, I took the unprecedented step of bringing my proposed 2019 budget to the people, holding presentations in all six town districts to show taxpayers where their tax dollars go. I also posted the tentative budget, and the most recent audited financials, online, which had never been done before. This was important, because audited financials are the true measure of how a municipality is performing under a proposed budget.
As Hempstead’s chief executive officer, I’m responsible for the preparation of annual budgets, in conjunction with the comptroller. To develop the 2019 budget, I reached across the aisle and consulted the comptroller, commissioners and various department heads to craft a responsible, cost-saving plan. Also, I was mindful of the financial pain that most residents will experience next year, inflicted by the federal tax law capping the state and local taxes deduction for hardworking families in our region. My goal was to make every effort not to add to this burden.
The result of months of bipartisan cooperation between my office and town staff was a tentative budget proposal that lowered taxes by almost 2 percent for more than 80 percent of homeowners. It was formulated to ensure that important services and quality-of-life activities were not sacrificed, while keeping costs in mind. My team’s approach was careful, deliberate and professional. Each budget line was evaluated for reduction opportunities, and arrived at without compromising services for residents.
Cutting taxes was no small feat, particularly in the face of a series of irresponsible 11th-hour expenditures made at the final board meeting of 2017, after the 2018 budget was adopted. These questionable moves by my predecessor — approved by a majority of the Town Board — forced my administration and taxpayers to absorb $2 million in costs for unbudgeted staff.
Despite this setback, we reduced taxes this year through a number of cost-saving measures. Residents have probably noticed that they have received fewer town mailings. In prior years, the town sent out relentless mailers throughout the year, with the cost passed on to residents. Since I took office, we have eliminated $400,000 worth of town mail.
My administration has also revised departments’ purchasing authority. All expenditures over $5,000, and any overtime requests, now must be approved by the supervisor’s office. Personnel expenditures are also re-viewed. By rebidding for the vendor that overhauled the town’s accounting, payroll and human resources functions, we were able to shave roughly $2 million off the cost of that contract. By refinancing town debt, we have saved about $2 million. We are also evaluating new energy savings, and will continue to improve efficiency.
The 2019 tentative budget also looked to the future and focused on infrastructure improvements throughout the town. Projects included upgrading and introducing new information-technology infrastructure, reopening the water-testing laboratory in Point Lookout and opening a 311/emergency operations center.
I also devoted new funding to expanding Camp Anchor, to make this invaluable program for families with special needs available to more residents.
Since taking office, I have remained committed to working with the Town Board to best serve residents. In July, I invited board members to take part in the budget process. I reached out again in September once the tentative budget was complete, and was available to discuss any questions or concerns before the board meeting at which the tentative spending plan has traditionally been adopted. Bipartisanship is paramount to the budget process, and I will continue to reach across the aisle to best serve residents.
The budget presented to the Town Board was the spending plan that I shared directly with the people. It offered lower taxes for the vast majority of residents, preserved all of the essential services they expect and deserve, and made key investments in the town’s future safety and residents’ security and health.
This budget is working for the people — all the people.
Laura Gillen is the Town of Hempstead supervisor.
Editors’ note: At a special meeting of the Hempstead Town Board on Monday, six council members held a news conference and submitted their own budget proposal, voting to amend Gillen’s tentative spending plan. Gillen voted against the amendment, calling it “irresponsible.” The budget that will be up for discussion at a public hearing on Oct. 30 will differ significantly from the one Gillen presented.