Santino: Town Headed In Right Direction

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From left, Town Clerk Nassin Ahmad, Councilman Anthony D’Esposito, Supervisor Anthony Santino and Senior Councilwoman Dorothy Goosby pose with one of several charts touting the town budget’s success under Santino’s tenure at an April 18 press conference. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)

But opponents take issue with his vision, figures

Chief executives have discretion when it comes to giving their state of the town addresses. Town of Hempstead Supervisor Anthony Santino delivered his on Sept. 14, with the election season looming. It was designed to give voters a summary of his accomplishments as he makes a case for re-election.

All About The Money

Near the beginning of his address, Santino quoted a childhood hero, Muhammad Ali: “Don’t count the days, make the days count,” and said the life lesson “has been an inspiration as I work to….bolster our municipality’s financial standing while maintaining the top-notch services our residents have come to expect. At the same time, my management team has dramatically cut the cost of government by slashing payroll costs, reducing overtime expenses, as well as consolidating operations and streamlining procedures.”

Repeating the claim made at an April press conference, shortly after the town “closed the books” on its 2016 budget, Santino said that by strict economizing and fiscal discipline, he took his predecessor Kate Murray’s 2016 spending plan (Santino took office Jan. 1, 2016) and managed to transform what had been a $23.2 million deficit into a $5 million operational budget surplus. In this financial turnaround, he affirmed, the town did not need to use more than $23 million of the fund balance—as the 2016 budget envisioned—to fund operations.

“Some of the factors which contributed to the turnaround included slashing labor costs by $7 million and cutting discretionary spending by $10.9 million,” he noted.

Santino said his 2017 budget—the first he crafted as supervisor—was the town’s first “structurally balanced” one in 25 years, in which revenues were matched by expenditures. In addition, it added to the fund balance. Spending, compared to 2016, was cut from $436.4 million to $422.3 million. He plans to cut spending further in his upcoming 2018 budget.

He stated, “an important test for governmental managers is how well they control costs while still delivering high-quality and life-enhancing services,” and touted the vast range of cultural, recreational and educational opportunities the town government offered for its residents.

In conclusion, Santino summed up, “as I move forward with my ‘taxpayer-first’ agenda, I promise that I will not count the days of my administration. Rather, I will labor tirelessly to make every day count for you, your families and the next generation of town residents.”

Accounting For The Budget

Felix Procacci of Floral Park questioned Santino’s budget claims at the Sept. 19 meeting. He noted that at a May meeting he had asked Santino to back the numbers and had been told that an audit exited and was asked to file a FOIL request. Procacci said he had not yet received any documentation and accused the supervisor of outright lying.

Town of Hempstead Comptroller Kevin Conroy shares the speakers’ table with Laura Gillen, foreground, who grilled him about some of the budget figures at the September 19 Town of Hempstead Board meeting. Gillen, a Democrat, is challenging Supervisor Anthony Santino, who is seeking re-election. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)

Procacci was shortly followed by Santino’s challenger, Democratic candidate Laura Gillen. They quizzed Santino not just on the budget figures, but the process itself. This came about after Councilwoman Erin King Sweeney complained that the town board had not met on the budget since October 2016. In addition, she quoted a document from New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli that councilmembers ought to get a monthly summary of the budget and other financial matters.

“I hope going forward that we do embrace transparency and actually inform town board members about the state of the budget,” said King Sweeney. “If we have a surplus and the financials are so great, I’m not sure why I would not receive this information on a monthly basis.”

Town Attorney Joseph Ra spoke up to say that the comptroller’s guidelines were “directional and informational only, and did not have the force of law.”

Santino asked Ra and Comptroller Kevin Conroy if the town was fully complying with the law in terms of budget submissions. The answer from both was affirmative.

Conroy, to a previous question from Procacci, said that the preliminary and tentative budgets were shared with councilmembers—and he would make himself available to answer any questions from trustees.

Where Is The Money?

Procacci and Gillen, citing figures from Open Book New York, a state comptroller website that details municipal budgets and other financial information, claimed that the numbers (which are submitted by the town) showed a 2016 budget deficit of about $52 million.

How to account for such a striking difference?

Santino called upon Conroy to explain, and he said the figures from the website do not tell the whole story. He mentioned some accounting adjustments introduced by virtue of the town winning a $25 million settlement from Nassau County. This, along with a tax write-off with town highway inventory, had a measurable effect on the final figures and resulted in the surplus.

Gillen, in a press conference before the meeting, had hit Santino over what she claimed was his lack of transparency regarding the budget and failure to back up his claims with audited figures. Both outside and inside, she repeated her criticism that Santino had been a councilman for more than two decades “and voted in favor of every budget resulting in years of deficits.”

“We need answers from Santino,” she said outside. “If the town is really in great shape, with all this extra money that magically materialized since one man entered office, then let’s see it in black and white. Show us the numbers. Show us the facts. Because we can no longer take the supervisor’s word at face value anymore.”

Conroy said the town’s external auditors would be preparing a final audit of the 2016 budget to present soon, and then the numbers would be available.

As Conroy sat beside her to answer any question during the public comment period, Gillen, a lawyer, subjected him to some grilling.

“So you deny that there is a $52 million budget deficit?” she asked.

“I absolutely deny it,” responded Conroy. “We closed the books with a $6 million deficit, as I explained (and with the adjustments) we had an operational surplus of $5 million and I stand behind it.”

Minutes later, Gillen seized on part of Conroy’s response, claiming that the $5 million surplus “was misleading.”

“Absolutely not,” responded Santino. “I totally take umbrage with that.”

Gillen in turn accused Santino of “using nomenclature to try to mislead the public about a deficit that exists in 2016.”

In addition, she took aim at Santino’s boast of the town’s third consecutive upgrade in outlook from credit rating agencies.

“To tout an upgraded outlook while omitting that the town’s bond rating has been downgraded three times by Moody’s is materially misleading and as you know if you read the Wall Street Journal, the [Securities and Exchange Commission] is becoming very interested in taking action against municipalities that are not using accurate disclosures about their financial status,” Gillen charged.

Though Santino did not directly answer Gillen, he had, in his state of the town, noted, “In granting the town its most recent upgrade, respected Wall Street credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s observed, ‘…the town has begun to restore fiscal stability and work toward stabilizing its financial position and improving and restoring reserve levels.’ The rating agency went on to note if the town continued to maintain structural budget balance, it could earn a credit rating upgrade. I should mention that our government holds a solid investment grade rating of A+.”

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Frank Rizzo is a journalist at Anton Media Group. With decades of experience in the industry, he is exceptionally equipped to cover local politics, business and other topics that matter to readers.

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