Long Island towns and cities that broke their snow removal budgets last winter are proposing to spend $12 million less in 2016 than they spent last year, according to a Newsday review.
Despite the lessons from last year, when 12 municipalities overspent by $15.2 million — causing deficits, borrowing and snow taxes — officials across the Island say they are under pressure to stick to the state’s lowest-ever property tax cap — 0.73 percent — and could not draft bigger snow removal budgets. Those towns are proposing to add a combined $3.1 million to their budgets for this winter, according to a review of proposed and adopted budgets. The property tax cap has not fallen below 1 percent since it was imposed in 2012. It was 1.56 percent in 2015.
Some municipal officials describe the past two winters as anomalies. With these budgets, they are, in effect, rolling the dice that this winter will be different.
Those winters dumped roughly triple the average snowfall, with 63.3 inches falling at Islip MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma last winter, and 55.3 inches from January through April of 2014, according to the National Weather Service’s Upton bureau. The average for the first four months of the year on Long Island is 19 inches of snowfall. The 21.6 degree average for February was the lowest ever recorded at the airport since the weather service began tracking temperatures there in 1985.
Brookhaven overspent its $3.67 million snow removal budget last winter by $7.7 million for a total of $11.4 million. This year the town board has proposed a $5.68 million snow removal budget — up significantly from $2.6 million in 2013, when the town was criticized for slow snow removal. The past two winters cost Brookhaven a total of roughly $21 million.
LI towns’ snow removal spending in 2015 and proposed budget for 2016
“You’re not going to tax for a $10 million snow removal because it’s such an anomaly,” Brookhaven Highway Superintendent Daniel Losquadro said.
Two towns that exceeded their budgets by several million dollars have reduced their snow removal budgets for 2016 to below the amount set last year. Islip Town, which last winter spent about $1.6 million more than its $2.4 million budget for snow removal, has proposed a budget that is $400,000 below last year’s budget line. East Hampton, which spent more than double the $432,000 allocated for snow removal this year, approved a $30,000 reduction below last year’s baseline amount.
By not keeping the 2016 budgets in line with actual costs, officials could be setting towns and cities up for future deficits, experts say. To cover actual snow removal costs in the past, budget officials turned to borrowing, amended their original budgets, or dipped into contingency and reserve funds. This year Brookhaven residents will again be taxed a “snow note” — between $50 and $60 expected this year — to cover any overages.
Other towns are budgeting for increases from last year’s amounts, but still short of what they actually spent. In Babylon, for example, the snow removal budget is $900,000, up by $300,000. The town spent roughly $1.1 million last winter.
Stephen Lynch, superintendent of highways for East Hampton, said he worked to keep the budget within the town’s cap.
“My budget is tight,” Lynch said. He said he did not think it would be fair to ask for more money from the taxpayers and end up not needing it.
Not all municipalities exceeded their snow removal lines in 2015, including Riverhead and the City of Long Beach, which was under by $115,000 and dropped its budget by $15,000.
Only two towns on Long Island that busted the budget in 2015 followed up with a 2016 budget bigger than 2015’s actual costs. North Hempstead exceeded its $726,000 budget by more than $280,000 last winter, and increased the line to $1.03 million for 2016, about $17,000 more than what was spent in 2015. Shelter Island, population 2,300 and where ferry fees drive a portion of the snow removal costs, exceeded the $90,000 snow removal line by $4,600, and has followed up with a $100,000 budget.
“We see that we need to allocate more funding for snow removal, to make sure we’re presenting a budget that will accurately reflect the needs we’re facing,” North Hempstead Supervisor Judi Bosworth said.
LI towns’ snow removal spending in 2015
The bar indicates by how much towns went over or under their planned budgets. Hover over each bar for details.
North Hempstead officials had originally proposed a smaller increase to the snow removal budget — by $201,000 — in the first draft of the budget that was due by Sept. 30. However, officials reconsidered the figure and added another $98,000 for the town’s second budget draft.
Bosworth said the approach is not to “make a wish on a star to say we won’t have the same kind of snow; we may have the same kind of winter.”
Jeffrey Griswold, president of the New York State Association of Town Superintendents of Highways, said “the old days of just putting a 2 or 3 percent increase,” on snow removal budgets “are gone” in the era of property tax caps.
“It’s a point that brings everybody to the table,” Griswold said. “At that point, you got to go back to the taxpayers: What can they afford?”
East Hampton’s Lynch said officials used a $2 million surplus this year — but those surplus accounts statewide may shrink steadily along with the tax cap over the next few years. However, Lynch said officials are keeping an eye on weather patterns to see if the trend holds.
“If we get the same thing all over again, then we’ll take a different approach to it,” Lynch said.
LI towns snow removal budget details
|Towns||2015 budget||2015 actual cost||2016 budget (proposed or adopted)|
Data visualizations by Ann Choi